I had the pleasure of guiding my kid and dad in Alaska in July…what an amazing 3-generation trip!!!
Alaska’s Togiak River has a rich reputation for being a world-class king salmon fishery, but there’s a lot more to this Southwestern gem than meets the eye.
Blessed with excellent runs all five Pacific salmon species, it also harbors some outstanding trout, dolly and pike fishing. Even more exciting is the fact that many of the Togiak’s species run on the large side. Throw in some beautiful scenery and you have yourself one heck of a fishing destination!
While there is good multi-species fishing throughout the river’s length, the lower 15 miles is where most of the salmon fishing takes place on the Togiak. Here’s a species by species look at what the river has to offer:
Kings are the stars of the show here. And why not? They grow ‘em, big on the Togiak and the fish often return in numbers that place it among the greatest Chinook fisheries on planet earth. The river has pumped out salmon over 70 pounds and every season there’s a handful in the 50-pound range taken.
“The Togiak is a great river for nice, big fish,” says Kevin Lund, whose family owns Togiak River Lodge. “It can be cyclical, but the normal size range is around 25 to 30 pounds.”
Kings typically show in the lower river in early summer, and by June 20 the are usually enough fish around to make targeting them worthwhile. Most seasons, the peak of the run occurs right round the Fourth of July. Lund notes, however, that the fish can be a week earlier than that on low water years – and a week later in high water. The Togiak closes to king fishing on Aug. 1 and the action can hold out right through the end – especially when the water is high and cold.
In the river’s lower reaches, most of the kings that are caught are beautifully chrome. Rare indeed is the bright red “fire engine” Chinook. That changes, of course, the further the salmon swim upstream.
Togiak kings are super snappy and, when they’re around in any kind of numbers, are pretty easy to hook. Back-trolled HawgNose Flatfish, MagLip 5.0, and K16 Kwikfish will all produce in chartreuse/chrome, pink/white and chartreuse/metallic blue/chrome. A fresh sardine fillet wrapped to the belly of the plug will increase the number of bites you get, but isn’t as essential here as it is on other rivers.
Backtrolling cured eggs behind size 40-50 Jet Divers is also extremely productive, as is back-bouncing with the same bait. Many kings also fall victim to large egg clusters fished under bobbers here.
In the lower few tidally influenced miles of river, downstream trolling with spinners is a popular and effective way to tempt fresh-from-the-salt kings.
The Togiak has few peers as a king fishey – and yet it may be an even better place to fish for silvers. Coho ascend the river is massive hordes in the late summer/early fall and can produce non-stop action for both fly and conventional anglers.
While a few silvers will poke their noses into the Togiak in early August, fishing is usually pretty inconsistent during the first ten days of August. According to Lund, the fishing is nearly always going strong by Aug. 15 and, depending on water and weather conditions, it can carry on into October — though weather becomes an issue the later you get into the season.
“The river doesn’t just have big kings in it, the silvers run large here too,” says Lund. “The biggest we’ve seen at the lodge have been right at 20 pounds, with lots of 15 to 17 pounders caught each year.”
The biggest bucks tend to show up late for the party — towards the end of August – and Lund says you have a legit shot at fish 15 pounds and up every day at that time of year.
Because of their numbers and willingness to bite, the Togiak is a phenomenal place to chuck some fluff. Anglers stripping pink streamers and leeches on intermediate sink tips can pile up ridiculous numbers here. Some of the bars just above the mouth of the river will also produce topwater action on Pink Wogs.
Twitching ½- or 3/8-ounce marabou or hootchie jigs in pink is deadly for anglers using spinning gear and No. 4 spinners with pink hootchie skirts are killers as well. There are also times when small bass poppers dyed pink will solicit some epic surface strikes.
The Togiak doesn’t get the press about trout fishing that some other rivers just over the hill in the Wood-Tikchik dragline receive, but don’t let that fool you. The river plays host some wonderfully large rainbows that can top the 30-inch mark. The largest any of Lund’s guests have taken is 16 pounds!
Rainbows are available year-round and seem to be more present in the lower end of the river early in the season. They are pretty snaky at that time, but fatten up quickly as they follow the salmon up into the tributaries. In June, dark leech patterns produce plenty of fish, but egg imitations become the weapons of choice for much of the summer soon thereafter. Flesh patterns also come into play at the end of August when kings, chums and pinks start dying off and rotting.
With a large lake at its headwaters, plus several lake-fed tributaries, the Togiak drainage is home to an excellent red salmon run.
“I think the sockeyes are the longest running strain of salmon in the river,” says Lund. “They are here from June 15 through the middle of September, with the peak migration happening sometime in July.”
Reds show up in prime condition, silver and full of fight. They can reach very impressive sizes here, with 12 pounders showing every season – pretty impressive when you consider the world record for the species is 15 pounds and change.
Red salmon get pretty aggressive once they get near the spawning grounds and will lash out at spinners, jigs and leeches pretty regularly, but when they are in traveling mode in the lower river, it’s pretty much a “flossing” or “lining” show (aka mouth snagging like on the Russian or Kenai).
While chums can be found well up the Togiak, the best fishing for them takes place in the bottom end of the system. They tend to spawn in the river’s lower reaches, so the closer you can get to saltwater, the better shot you’ll have at both quantity and quality. Find a gravel bar along the softer water margins of the lower 5 miles of river and you can almost guarantee there will be doggies there. Prime time to chase chums is the last two weeks of July, but first week of August can be very good too.
Togiak chums are eager biters and seem extremely receptive to the swung fly. In most cases, you can fish a dry line (some of the best chum runs are only a few feet deep) with just about any type of “leechy” pattern you like. Pink is your number one color, though there are times when they respond better to purple or black.
From a conventional standpoint, you can catch all the chums you want twitching pink 3/8-ounce marabou jigs or fishing 1/8-ounce jigs under floats. Dogs will also lash out at any plug that gets in their way and often serve as a great reminder to anglers backtrolling for kings that they have indeed wandered too far out of the meat of the run and into the soft water.
Okay, let’s call a spade a spade here. Humpies are more of a nuisance on the Togiak than anything else. For the record, I’m not a humpy hater. I’ve spent a lot of days chasing the little buggers around with fly gear throughout the state and had a ball doing it, but on a river like the Togiak, it’s a different deal. There’s so much potential here for the “glamour species,” that pinks just don’t come into play very often. But in their defense, it can be great fun for kids or beginners if you find a big pack of bright, fresh-from-the salt humpies to play with.
Luckily, pinks only show in the Togiak in large numbers on even-numbered years. This year, therefore, should be largely humpy-free.
Not that you’d visit the Togiak just for dolly varden, but it wouldn’t be a bad choice if you did. The river gets a big run of them and the char here can get quite big: up to 6 or even 8 pounds.
They show up fresh from the salt and chrome as can be, in the early summer and fishing is often outstanding in the lower river in June and July and then the fish migrate upstream into the tributaries to dine on salmon eggs. By late summer, the dollies will have made the transition from silver to Technicolor, prettying themselves up for a spawn of their own.
Down low or up in a shallow feeder creek, dollies are suckers for anything that loosely resembles an egg. They’ll also smash small streamers, spinners and spoons.
Many of the back sloughs and shallow lakes connected to the Togiak are refuges for scrappy northern pike. They don’t reach Yukon-like sizes here, but the pike can provide a fun afternoon diversion from salmon fishing.
Weedless topwater lures and buzzbaits thrown in and among the weeds and lily pads will solicit some heart-stopping attacks from pike, which will generally measure three feet or less.
While the above species are the main ones for Togiak River anglers, there are others. Some sizeable grayling call the river home, though most are found well upstream. The occasional laker is also rumored to be seen from time to time, presumably working its way down from Togiak Lake. And then there’s the huge population of starry flounder that carpet the bottom of the river’s lower end.
GUIDES AND LODGING
The lower Togiak River is reachable by boat from the village of Togiak. There’s limited lodging and guide services available there. A few lodges have boats stashed on the river and fly customers in for day trips when weather permits. The only lodging on the river itself is Togiak River Lodge, located in a prime location 7 miles upstream from the bay.
So often we talk and write about the destination…but frequently the journey to the fishing grounds is the true story. Don’t believe me? Well, then just think for a moment on all the stuff you’ve done in your life to get to the fish: Some of it was probably not exactly what you’d call safe. Some was physically grueling and some of it was straight up fun.
This is a tribute to the journey: To all the rapids run and river crossings that were just at the top of your waders. To the miles hiked and rough water poundings. To the brilliant sunsets, calm waters and the epic adventures that make this sport so awesome. This is a tribute to Getting There.
Is there anything better than blazing across glassy water at dawn? The anticipation of what the day holds is almost too much to stand, so you slam the throttle all the way open so you can get there just a bit faster. Unfortunately, these beautiful quiet moments are usually forgotten as soon as you get to where you are going and the lines are in…well, until the next morning anyway.
Perhaps more than any other method of transportation, small inflatables enhance “the journey is the adventure” concept. Man, some of the things we’ve done in these things would give the manufactures’ legal teams nightmares if they only knew. But what fun! And in some spots, personal rafts and pontoons are the only way to get there.
Alaskan backcountry jet boating in a little jonboat that could run on a wet lawn is one of my favorite things to do on this planet. Arm yourself with couple rods, a shotgun, a shovel and a chainsaw and go find the source of some creek. The “getting there” part is guaranteed to be more fun than the actual fishing!
Sometimes getting back is all you can think about. Maybe the dreaded north wind blew 35 freezing knots all day, the fish didn’t bite and now you have to beat your way right into the teeth of it to get home. It’s funny how it always seems that, after one of those long, cold, wet rides home you pull into the harbor and the wind lies
down and you think “well, that wasn’t so bad.” And that’s exactly how you end up back out on the water the very next day.
It’s something most sane people wouldn’t understand…but the allure of catching chrome far outweighs the risk of encountering something that’s higher up the food chain. Never mind that steaming pile of droppings in the middle of the path and the still flopping salmon missing its belly on the bank…there probably aren’t any grizzlies around here…right? Here, the journey involves some edgy nerves and, often, a heavily pounding heart.
We all have those “I’m lucky I made it through that” moments and several of mine had to do with crossing raging rivers in chest waders and praying my next step out in the middle of the channel actually hits tierra firma before I fill up and get sucked down the deadly rapids below. And then there were those brutal hikes through the snow with felt soles…if you’ve done it you know what I’m talking about! Hiking and waders isn’t a great combination…but it usually means I’m headed somewhere cool.
I’ve been on some float trips in which the portages outnumbered the fish. It’s funny how those trips seem so brutal when you’re there…but often become the most fondly remembered adventures after some time passes and the memory of the pain fades… “There we were, dragging the boat around anything Mother Nature threw at us…we couldn’t be stopped.”
The journey is truly a thrill when you find a secret honey hole that takes a little creative driving to get to.
On the 6 a.m. Southwest flight from Sacramento to Portland on a Monday morning, I am the odd man out. Surrounded mostly by folks in suits and briefcases – business commuters – I’m sporting fleece wading pants, a Gore-Tex parka and stained fishing cap. When we hit the tarmac at PDX, most of my spiffily dressed friends here will shuffle off to work somewhere downtown. I’m headed just a few miles southeast to do something quite the opposite – to go steelhead fishing on the Clackamas River.
This interesting contrast gets me thinking about how big cities and good fishing don’t always go hand-in-hand, but here on the West Coast, we have several major urban areas that play host to some surprisingly productive and diverse fisheries. Here now, in no particular order, are some of the best:
San Diego, CA
You could spend a lifetime sampling all the sportfishing opportunities that the greater San Diego area has to offer and never come close to doing it all. From giant tuna to record class largemouth bass and everything in between, there’s a little something for everyone here.
San Diego is perhaps best known as the homeport of the extremely popular long range fleet that fishes along the Mexican coastline – and points further south. Cow yellowfin, wahoo, dorado, albacore, yellowtail and marlin are the main draws, but there are plenty of calico and sand bass, barracuda, halibut, white seabass, rockfish and bonito in the local inshore waters to keep the small boat crowd happy, too.
Get seasick? No problem – just head into San Diego or Mission bays with some ultralight gear and have a ball with sand bass, spotted bay bass and halibut. Additionally, bay anglers also catch the occasional seabass, bonito, barracuda – and even bonefish. Or, you can always prowl the beaches for small ‘butts, corbina, perch and croaker.
Then there’s the whole freshwater scene. Giant Florida strain largemouth draw record hunters to places like Lake Dixon (formerly home of “Dottie,” the mammoth bass that made so much news a couple years back), Lake Miramar, Lake Hodges and others. As if that weren’t enough, you can also catch trout in lakes like Poway and Cuyamaca.
San Francisco, CA
Of all the West’s big cities, San Francisco may just offer the most diverse collection of angling opportunities. Right outside the Golden Gate there are lings, rockfish of every size and color, albacore and Chinook salmon to chase. And who could forget the Dungeness crabbing? Inside the bay, there’s terrific striped bass, sturgeon and California halibut fishing all within sight of the city’s high rises.
Shore-bound anglers can fish San Francisco’s ocean beaches for perch and striped bass or venture to one of the region’s many freshwater lakes that kick out a wide range of fishing that should suit just about everybody’s taste. Most feature put-and-take trout fisheries, along with bass, panfish and catfish. Check out Lake Chabot, Del Valle Reservoir, San Pablo Reservoir, Shadow Cliffs Lake and many others.
Just inland lies the vast Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that pumps out all sorts of mixed bag action. Stripers and sturgeon probably get the most attention here, but the Delta also has a solid reputation for harboring good numbers of jumbo largemouth bass, along with a modest population of smallies. The place is also teeming with catfish that can go from paniszed bullheads to blues and channels that have topped the 50-pound mark in recent years.
Location, location, location! Situated about an hour and a half from the coast and just minutes south of the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, Portland is an angler’s dream. Right downtown there’s some of the best sturgeon and spring-run Chinook salmon fishing to be found anywhere in the two big rivers. Smaller tribs like the Clackamas and Sandy rivers play host to seasonal runs of winter and summer steelies, springers, fall Chinook and coho salmon.
An hour east is the amazing Columbia River Gorge and more epic sturgeon, steelhead and salmon action – plus smallmouth bass and walleye, too. To the west lies the fabled Tillamook Bay area, which is the epicenter of some of the West Coast’s best salmon and steelhead fishing and there’s plenty more up north across the Washington border.
Los Angeles, CA
Much like San Diego, there’s a ton of saltwater fishing to be had off LA. Near shore, you’ve got calico and sand bass, barracuda, bonito, mackerel, halibut, sheepshead, sculpin, white seabass, cabezon, lings and rockfish. Get out into the blue water and you’ve got a shot at big game species like bluefin and yellowfin tuna, dorado, albacore and billfish.
Newport Harbor is an exciting fishery for the light tackle aficionado and fishes a lot like a bass lake. By tossing small plastics around pilings and under boat docks, you can expect to catch sand bass, halibut and croaker. For a really interesting experience, hit the beaches around the Santa Monica Pier in July when the sand crabs are out in force. If you look closely, you should be able to see plenty of corbina working the foam line right at the feet of the scads of waders, swimmers and boogie boarders.
If coldwater species are your thing, check out the trout fishing at places like Irvine Lake and Santa River Lakes, where chasing oversized planter rainbows on featherweight tackle is almost a religion. There are big bass here, too. Though not the glory hole it once was, Lake Castaic has produced a number of monster largemouth, including a 21-pound 12 ouncer that narrowly missed the world record for the species by ounces. Other waters to check out include Piru Lake, Lake Casitias and Ojai Lake. If you’re into stripers, try Pyramid Lake near the Grapevine.
It may be the smallest town on this list, but the Capitol City can hold its own. Flowing smack through the heart of downtown are both the American and Sacramento rivers and then you have the Feather River just north of the airport. All three play host to excellent runs of Chinook Salmon and several other species.
Anglers flock to the Sac and Feather every spring for world-class striped bass fishing, while the American is more of a size over numbers game. Good shad runs also enter these streams April through June and the Feather gets a run of small fall steelhead, too. Most of the action in the winter comes courtesy of the American, where winter steelhead to 15 plus pounds are taken – or the Sacramento which yields big sturgeon to bait anglers.
To the southwest is the vast Delta system and all it has to offer, while Folsom Lake is an excellent trout, king salmon and bass fishery. Lake Natoma doesn’t produce a lot of fish, but a handful of rainbow trout over 20 pounds have been landed there. Then you have a myriad of lakes within an hour’s drive in any direction, including popular Lake Berryessa, Camanche Reservoir, Sly Park, Union Valley Reservoir, Lake Pardee and Lake Amador.
Because it’s bordered by both fresh and saltwater, the Emerald City is another urban area that features great fishing diversity. Just yards off Seattle’s western edge, you can catch king, coho, pink and chum salmon, plus rockfish, lings, halibut and crab in Elliot Bay and Puget Sound.
To the east, the city is hemmed in by Lake Washington, which produces good cutthroat and rainbow trout fishing, along with yellow perch and smallmouth bass. Additionally, sockeye salmon migrate up through the Ballard Locks and into the lake in the summer months. On years when biologists determine there are enough salmon in the lake to reach escapement goals, they open it up to anglers and a zoo-like troll fishery materializes overnight.
Just over the hill from Lake Washington is Lake Sammamish, which gets seasonal runs of coho and king salmon to go along with a nice resident population of smallmouth bass.
For the river fishing enthusiast, there are several rivers that serve up nice salmon and steelhead action, including the Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Tolt, Snohomish, Wallace and Sultan to name a few.
So there you have it – there’s some pretty good fishing to be had in the concrete jungles of some of the West’s largest cities. On that next business trip, you just may want to pack a travel rod in with your laptop!
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