What is a river? To some, it's a place to relax in the shade, cane pole in hand, hoping to catch a fish for dinner. Others see a river as a barrier to cross. Still others see it as something to be conquered, especially as spring flood waters rise. In Alaska, our rivers are our roads. Summer or winter, we use boats or snow machines to cruise hundreds of miles on our rivers in search of choice camping areas, fishing holes and hunting spots. By looking at a river as a road that traverses untamed wilderness, one can see that, in Alaska, rivers are the key to accessing remote areas.
But not all remote areas necessarily offer good hunting prospects, so a more refined view is essential for success. The river must be studied carefully in order to identify the best habitat likely to hold game, to identify migration corridors for caribou, areas where bears and salmon congregate, and expanses of preferred forage and cover for moose.
Choosing a river to hunt is one of the most important decisions in the process of planning a float hunt. Finding a river that meets your requirements is not difficult, but you must pay attention to a few critical details. Let's examine the research involved, potential sources of information, and how to organize the details. We'll finish by looking at an example, so you can see what it all should look like at the end.
Every float hunt is different. Have a talk with your group and decide what kind of float hunt you want. Is this all about the experience; enjoying the scenery, clear water, fishing, and hiking opportunities while having a chance to take game, or is this an aggressive meat or trophy hunt where the complete focus is on taking an animal? It's important to decide these things at the beginning to avoid wasting time researching the wrong area. Once you decide these issues, it's time to narrow the focus down to a particular region of the state. See our section on Hunting Locations for more details on this. There, we provide an overview of each region of the state, together with available species and a brief description of the area.
Float hunt planning begins with good research. The goals of your research are to locate a primary and possibly a secondary river. Why two rivers? Water levels in many Alaska rivers are at their lowest levels during the fall hunting season. Many rivers are fed by glacial runoff. As temperatures drop, glaciers freeze and melt-water slows to a trickle. In other cases, rivers fed by snowmelt or runoff are affected by low rainfall. Snow is mostly melted by hunting season, so the only feed to these river systems is runoff from rainfall. If there's not enough rain, the river level falls. This means that areas that were floatable just a few days or weeks prior, may be so shallow that floating is not possible. If your primary river is too shallow, you may need a backup plan. Note that in some cases it is not necessary to choose a secondary river.
Choosing a secondary river requires attention to some key details. Most important is the realization that if your primary choice is too shallow to float, most other rivers in the area may be too shallow as well. In such cases your only other option may be to be dropped off lower in the system, where tributaries give you enough depth to float. In other cases it might be best to locate another watershed that is accessible with the air service you've chosen, but that offers good floating opportunities.
The keys to good research are asking the right people the right questions the right time. We will look at your information sources later in this article, and the questions you should (and should not) ask each one.
There are two levels of research for your hunt; the search for "non-perishable" information and the study of "perishable" information. Each is equally important, yet they are different. Let's examine these in detail.
Non-perishable information is information that does not degrade in quality over time. In other words, this is information you usually only have to gather once. Depending on the river system, this information may be readily accessible, or it may require some digging. But once you have it, you can store it indefinitely or pass it off to others who can use it on their hunts. Here are some examples of non-perishable data:
Where can you find the non-perishable information for a river system in Alaska? Thankfully, there are many resources available. Let's list them here.
This website carries the largest online collection of books and DVD titles available that are focused on the Alaska outdoors. We have created a quick-reference chart that shows all river systems currently featured in print and DVD, and it can be found AT THIS LINK. To navigate the master list, simply scan the listings until you find your river. Next to that river's name is a list of two-letter codes that correspond to the appropriate resource. Simply click the code and you'll be taken to the appropriate listing in our store, where you can read more about that resource to determine if you need it. The minimum tools you need for planning an Alaska float hunt are as follows:
Several online resources provide information about river systems in Alaska. The largest is located here on Outdoors Directory, however there are others as well. Here's a current list:
Chances are, someone out there has floated "your" river already, and is willing to provide basic details. You can find many of them in our Alaska Boating Forums or in our Float Hunting Forum. Just don't expect them to give you everything!
Private property in Alaska is not usually fenced or posted. You are responsible for knowing and respecting the boundaries of private lands, some of which encompass thousands of square miles. Here is a list of land managers in Alaska:
Alaska Native Corporations. Though the state of Alaska currently lists 229 tribes of Alaska natives, there is only one officially recognized federal reservation; the Metlakatla Indian Community, located in the Annette Island Reserve in southeastern Alaska (Region 1 South). The rest of Alaska's native land holdings are organized under 200 or so native corporations. These corporations control both the surface and the subsurface rights to the lands within their boundaries, which means that you cannot hunt, fish or trespass on those lands unless otherwise specified, or unless you meet their terms of entry. Some corporations allow free access, others charge an access fee, and others prohibit trespass by non-shareholders. A list of native corporations may be found in our directory. Contact the corporation directly to see whether or not trespass is allowed, and what the conditions are. The following list consists of large "umbrella organizations" under which the individual village corporations are organized.
Alaska Bureau of Land Management. The BLM controls over 75 million acres of public land in the state of Alaska. Though the public can generally use this land for hunting and fishing, commercial operators (such as hunting guides) must participate in a permit process and pay the associated fees in order to conduct commercial activities on BLM lands. The BLM can also provide a list of smaller private landholders.
National Park Service, Alaska. The NPS, together with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, comprise the largest landholder in the state of Alaska, with 220 million acres under their control, or about 60% of Alaska's lands. Some federal lands are in national parks, which do not allow hunting. Contact the NPS for boundaries and details relevant to the river you plan to hunt. Note that some rivers originate in national parks, but flow out onto other lands where hunting is allowed.
US Fish and Wildlife Service. Responsible for managing the National Wildlife Refuge system in Alaska, the USFWS can provide details on issues and concerns on their lands, together with any regulatory requirements. The entire state of Alaska operates under the hunting regulations put in place by ADF&G, but the USFWS has its own regulations too. Frequently mirroring the state regulations, there are sometimes differences you need to know. CLICK HERE for a copy of their regulations.
Perishable information is the kind that needs to be gathered every time you float a particular river; things such as hunting pressure, game population trends, water levels and other details that may change from one year to another. Never assume that because you have information from three years ago that it is still accurate. You must do fresh research for every hunt in this area. Here's what you need, along with the sources where you can find this information:
Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center. Operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the APRFC offers current streamflow information which comes from gauges installed on several river systems around the state. Check to see if your river is listed, and review the information. They also provide snow depth information, forecasts and historical data of use to you in determining water depth. This resource has nothing on river hazards.
USGS Water Resources. This site provides current water depth information, gathered from gauges on select rivers around the state. This river has nothing on river hazards.
River Guidebooks and Resources. Our bookstore contains dozens of guidebooks and videos that will give you a general idea of what to expect in terms of whitewater, logjams, shallow areas and other areas of concern. Though dated, this is valuable information.
Alaska Boating Forums. Out boating forums contain forums on river rafting, kayaking and others. They contain current information on the status of different river systems our members have written about. If you can't find the river you are interested in, post a question in one of these forums and someone will probably have recent information on that river. If you have not registered in the forums, you can do so by calling our office at 1 (907) 895-4919. They can take care of that with you over the phone.
Alaska Float Hunting Forum. Our float hunting forum is a great place to see what's happening with specific rivers, however if you are trying to keep your plans confidential, avoid asking direct questions about specific rivers. Just do a search to see if the float hunting forum has anything current on your river.
Alaska Interagency Coordination Center tracks critical environmental events across Alaska, with a particular focus on wildfires. Fires occurr naturally in Alaska, burning hundreds of thousands of acres across the state every year. Though they can occur in many areas, the interior is of particular note, with the high incidence of lightening storms. The AICC site provides historical data on past fires. This information can be used to derive moose habitat-quality data, among other things. Willow, a pioneer plant species, is one of the first to repopulate burned areas. Depending on the location of the fire, it can take seven or more years for willow to grow tall enough to be of interest to moose re-entering a burned area. Old burns can be among the most productive moose habitat in the state. Of immediate interest to the float hunter, however, is the occurance of recent fires which may drive game out of the area. Check the AICC site for that information.
ADF&G Area Biologists. The area game biologists, employed by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, are assigned to specific regions of the state, and are responsible for managing the species in their area. They are the "go-to" people when it comes to questions about the overall health of specific game populations and related information. Contact the area biologist for these details. CLICK HERE for specific questions and details to help you get the most out of our encounter with the area biologists.
Nobody wants to hunt on top of someone else, so it's important to figure out if anyone else will be in the area you plan to hunt. Unfortunately, recreational hunters don't normally announce their plans to other hunters. So asking around or even checking our forums isn't really going to help you unless someone has loose lips. But since most float hunts involve flying out via air charter, there's a chance the other hunters may be using the same air service. Ask your air charter if they are dropping other groups in the area, and if so, how many days of separation will there be between groups (three days of separation is sufficient for most float hunts). You should also contact other air services in the area to ensure you aren't doubling up on a location. This can also work in identifying guides that are hunting the area, since many guides use commercial air charters to access the hunting grounds.
Registered guides must be licensed for the Game Management Unit (GMU) where they are hunting. The Big Game Commercial Services Board oversees guide activity in the state of Alaska, and maintains current records of which areas are hunted by each guide. Contact their office for a list of the guides working the area you are considering for your hunt. If you discover that a guide is registered for your area, contact them by phone to see what you can do to avoid running into them in the field, or compromising each other's hunts. Note that most guides don't do float hunts, because of financial considerations. Guided float hunts sell for about the same money as a guided drop camp hunt, yet the float hunt costs more to set up (you have to acquire the rafting gear, fly it to and from the field, maintain it, and hire a guide that also knows how to run the river). So in most cases, if the guide camp is on the river, all you have to do is avoid hunting for five miles or so upstream and downstream of their camp. Just float through. On the other hand, some guides keep an airplane in camp and may move hunters upriver or downriver during the season. Rivers like this are more problematic, making it more difficult to avoid stepping on someone else. Consider another river.
Air Charters / Transporters. Because your transporter is responsible for getting you in and out of your hunting area, it's common for hunters to ask them a variety of questions. They can be a good source of information pertaining to hunting pressure, guiding activity and general game distribution. CLICK HERE for a list, by region, of the air charters and transporters in Alaska. CLICK HERE for an overview of air charters and the questions you should and should not ask.
Raft Rental Companies. Many float hunters rent rafting gear for their hunts. Because the rental outfits cater to float hunters, they often know about water levels, hunting pressure and other issues of interest. VISIT OUR DIRECTORY for a list of raft rental companies in Alaska.
Other Float Hunters. Other hunters can be a great source of perishable information. At the same time, you must realize that the quality of information you receive is subject to the experience level of the person supplying the information. Listen with both ears and compare what you hear with information you have already gathered. The single best place to find other float hunters is in our Alaska Float Hunting Forum.
Perishable information must be researched fresh for every trip. Don't take a chance on missing critical details that could break your hunt. Do your homework!
Keeping your information organized is key to being able to re-use it on future trips. Some hunters keep a notebook with all the details, while others store it in their computers. Whatever you do, develop a system you can use over and over for trips on other rivers.
Put a chart together, with categories for all your non-perishable and perishable data, together with a list of your contacts, questions, and answers you gathered in the research process. Next time you go to this area, you will have saved yourself a lot of work.
Michael Strahan is the author of "Float Hunting Alaska's Wild Rivers", the definitive guide to float hunting in Alaska. The book is over 500 pages and is filled with float hunting lore, discussions of the gear needed, tools, tips and details on all aspects of Alaska float hunting. The book dives into the details of finding a river to hunt, and outlines 50 river systems across the state, of interest to float hunters. Use these rivers as a guideline for your hunt, or use them as a template for your own research! Michael is a Registered Guide with a specialty in float hunting, and an experienced public speaker on the topic of Alaska float hunting. He wrote this entire section on float hunting for the Alaska Outdoors Supersite. If you want to learn more about Alaska float hunting, this book needs to be close at hand, while you plan your hunt. ORDER YOUR COPY HERE.