Check out this rad footage of salmon and char chasing and biting my spinners. I recently trolled No. 7 spinners downstream with an Okuma Waterwolf camera rigged in-line and there’s definitely some cool stuff to be learned by seeing what’s going on down there!
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.
Much has been written about pulling plugs for salmon and steelhead, but what about taking this extremely effective method any applying it to stream trout? Well, the bottom line is “mini steelheading” as I call it, is a super deadly way to hook lots of river trout – and, oh yea, it’s a total gas!
What’s really cool about pulling plugs for trout is you can do it on all sorts of streams. It’s highly productive on larger rivers out of a driftboat or even a sled, but you can also access smaller creeks with a pontoon boat, pram or Tote-N-Float type of vessel. And, there’s a pretty good bet that wherever you do it, the trout haven’t seen the lures you’re presenting to them!
On anadramous waterways, trout plugging gets even more interesting when the occasional spring Chinook, summer steelie, dolly or sea-run cutt latches onto your offering.
Pulling wigglers for trout is a lot like fishing for steelies, with a few subtle tweaks. As with backtrolling for larger species, you want to run the lures the same distance behind the boat – generally 30 to 60 feet, depending on the size of the stream and water clarity. You can keep tabs on how much line you have out by counting passes of the levelwind eye as it travels back and forth across the spool of your reel or by placing fluorescent bobber stops on your line at a pre-measured spot.
Once the lures are in the drink and swimming properly, work them slowly downstream at about half the speed of the current. What’s really nice about this technique is that it allows you to back your bugs into those hard to reach places under cutbanks and overhanging wood and into the heart of boulder gardens – areas that don’t get touched by other anglers.
Again, we’re talking basic backtrolling here – but there is one variation on the theme that seems to work wonders for trout. When you’ve fished your lures to the downstream edges of a particular spot, don’t immediately reel up and move on. Instead, pull on the oars a little harder to get the plugs to start working back upstream. There are days when this subtle tactical adjustment will blow your mind!
Since pulling plugs for trout isn’t super popular, nobody really makes a technique-specific lure for it. So, you’re going to have to troll the aisles of your local tackle shop for inspiration. And, honestly, this may be the part of pulling plugs for trout that I like best. I’m always on the lookout for some tiny crappie crankbait or sexy finesse bass plug that looks like it might make a good trout lure. To that end, I’ve got boxes full of a thousands different “impulse buys” from my travels – some of them work great, others, of course, were duds. To get you started, you can’t go too wrong with Size 50 Hot Shots, old school Pee Wee Warts (if you can find ‘em), Norman Deep Tiny N’s, Yakima Bait MapgLip 3.0, Wally Marshall Crappie Cranks, Matrix Flea Bittys from Shasta Tackle and Strike King’s Mini 3.
As far as colors go, you’ll often find that the plugs designed for warm water species don’t have all the cool metallic finishes that we in the cold water arena are so fond of, such as Dr. Death and the various Pirates, etc. But, if you look around, you’ll find some trouty-looking colors. I’m always a believer in silver, gold and copper, but trout also seem to really like craw and frog finishes as well. As with plug fishing for salmon and steelhead, always attach your line to the lure via a plug snap.
There are some days that the fish will crush your lures with reckless abandon and others when they seem a bit more tentative. On the tougher days, a little scent oftentimes will help motivate the trout into biting. A small dab of Atlas-Mike’s Shrimp Lunker Lotion under the bill will often do the trick.
Trout Plugging Tackle
Back in the day, it used to be hard to find a rod that was really well suited to backtrolling for trout. But then the whole kokanee craze hit…problem solved! Kokanee rods are light, with soft tips and make pretty good plugging sticks. There’s a hundred different koke models out there from every manufacturer under the sun, but the one that I really like is the 7’GLoomis MF65436 – the tip is plenty soft enough to allow the plugs to work properly and let fish pull it down without feeling a lot of resistance, but the rod’s also got a surprising amount of power in the lower end. I’ve caught wild rainbows and browns to 5 plus pounds on that stick and it handles them fine. If you’re looking for something a little less expensive, check out the Okuma SST-C-702L.
In the reel department, you don’t have to get too fancy…after all, we’re not talking 20 pound steelhead, here. Still, you’re going to want something with a smooth drag because you’ll be using light line and occasionally dealing with big fish. I’ve always used a 100 series Shimano Calcutta or Curado, but any small baitacster of reasonable quality will suffice.
You’ll notice that all the gear listed so far has been conventional style. I just like fishing with –and fighting fish on – baitcasters more than spinning tackle. However, if you’re going to be doing a little solo plugging out of a pontoon boat or pram, you may want to switch to spinning. Light plugs don’t cast well on levelwinds and it can be a pain to get them back behind the boat when you’ve got both hands on the oars. With a spinning rod, you can cast the lure straight downstream, close the bail and be fishing in about 3 seconds flat.
When it comes to line, there are a couple trains of thought: braid and mono. I’ve used both and kinda go back and forth. Generally speaking, mono is the better choice for plug fishing because it has some stretch that acts like a shock absorber when a fish mollyhocks your lure. The give in the line helps keep fish buttoned much better than no-stretch braid, but there are some downfalls as well.
Tiny plugs are pretty temperamental little buggers and you really need to run a light line to get them to dive down in fast water. Four-pound test is about ideal. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of room for error with line that light if you happen to hook a wayward springer or summer steelie. Additionally, little plugs will kick to the surface when they pick up even a slight bit of moss or weeds. If a plug spins, unnoticed, on the surface for more than a few seconds, you’re going to have some seriously twisted mono.
Braid solves those problems – it is very resistant to twisting and enables you to use a heavier-rated line in a thin diameter. I’ve had great success with Pline braid in 10-pound (it has a the diameter of 2-pound mono). It’s expensive and breaks down fairly quickly, but it’s also durable and very supple. With any braid, just remember to run a 5- to 10-foot section of mono or fluorocarbon between the lure and the end of the braided stuff. As I mentioned earlier, however, you’re going miss more grabs due to braid’s lack of “bungeeness.” A soft rod really helps combat this issue and the other thing you can do is run a super light drag until you’ve got a positive hookup.
Well, there you have it – the basic concepts of trout plugging. All that’s left now is to get out there and give it a whirl. But before I turn you loose on the trout in your neighborhood, here’s one last thing to consider: It’s not a bad idea to swap out the stock trebles on your plugs with barbless siwashes. Trebles can really tear up a trout’s small mouth and there’s no sense leaving a trail of carnage in your wake.
Have you ever wondered how those annoying bait stealers in a river can pick you clean and seemingly never get hooked? Well, here are some underwater shots I took in Alaska this year that may shed some light on the situation. Check out as this 15-inch Dolly Varden runs off with my bait while eating around the hook! Clever little bugger!
I know there are plenty of cool-looking fish out there, but this big Alaskan Dolly Varden we caught a couple weeks back has some pretty spectacular coloration! The fiery belly, the white-tipped fins, the banana lips, the pink dots with the blue halos and that sweet lower jaw kype…awesome!!