Here’s a little look behind the curtain at what goes on when I’m guiding salmon trips in Alaska…when we’re not fishing.
In these uncertain times, you occasionally need a nice shot of calm. So, how about this vid I shot one beautiful SW Alaskan evening, with chrome bright coho salmon jumping and rolling all around me?
If you have never fished Alaska, it should certainly be on your bucket list!
The state is rich in salmon fishing hot spots, and the incredible Togiak River has to considered as one of the best of the best. Here’s a little action from my most recent summer of guiding up 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.
Kevin and I having more fun getting to the fish than actually catching them!