Alaska Surf Fishing
From the Alaska Panhandle to the Alaska Peninsula, shore-based surf fishing is one of the most exciting and productive ways to catch a variety of saltwater and anadromous fish in Alaska. It's also inexpensive and available to just about anyone.
Several types of fish are available to shore-based anglers, depending on the area being fished. Here's an overview, listed by region:
Black rockfish, greenling and surf perch are available, as well as all five species of Pacific salmon, limited steelhead opportunities and Dolly Varden. Halibut are also available in some areas. Common methods include surf fishing, casting, and snagging (for Alaska residents only). The North Gulf Coast beaches in the Cordova and Yakutat area are relatively flat, with waves breaking too far from shore for productive surf fishing. However, some good salmon fishing can be had near river mouths during the runs.
Shore-based fishing opportunities exist for black rockfish, salmon, and halibut. The beaches near Seward are popular snagging areas for silvers, humpies and chum salmon and there are limited halibut opportunities there. A better bet for halibut are the beaches near the Anchor Point- Deep Creek area, which also offers opportunities for king salmon fishing in April-May, as Cook Inlet kings make their way along the shoreline to spawning waters in Deep Creek, and the Anchor, Kenai and Kasilof rivers. Sometimes the Homer Spit produces halibut for shore-based anglers. Kodiak Island offers chances for halibut and some rockfish, together with several salmon species and Dolly Varden. Popular methods include snagging (Alaska residents only), lure fishing, and surf casting. Surf fishing is mostly limited to the Anchor Point - Deep Creek area and other isolated beaches. The Homer Spit is a popular area for Dolly Varden fishing.
Region 3 has no saltwater access.
This area offers some surf fishing opportunites on isolated fly-in or boat-in beaches along the Alaska Peninsula or on the beaches of many islands in the Aleutians. Productive shore-based salmon fishing wanes in quality the farther out on the Peninsula you go, but halibut opportunities remain consistent, as do rockfishing and greenling opportunities.
The northern portion of Region 5 offers some excellent tidewater fishing for sea-run Arctic char. The Wulik River is a popular destination for outstanding char fishing.
Gearing up for Surf Fishing
If the waves are flat, as they often are in the protected coves and bays in Alaska, most any type of rod and reel combination will work for shore-based angling. Spinning rods to 6 1/2 feet topped with a reliable spinning reel with 12-lb. test monofilament line will do for rockfish, greenling, perch and most species of salmon. Halibut fishermen should go with a longer, heavier rod and line in the 20-25 lb. class.
When the waves get rough or on beach areas where there are breaking waves, it's important to be able to cast beyond the breakers. For this you need a long rod capable of both hurling your offering out past breaking waves, and keeping your line above the surf. If you cast short the wave action will carry your bait ashore. Rods in the 12-foot or even 14-foot class are ideal for this type of fishing.
A sand spike is useful for holding your rod during the sometimes long intervals between bites. Surf fishing can be hard work, so anything you can do to reduce the stress on your body results in longer fishing days, and ultimately, more fish. Drive the spike deep into the sand well above the washout area of the highest waves, set your rod in it and either stand or sit in a folding chair while you wait for a fish. You can make your own sand spike with a short section of PVC pipe and a metal fence post. Purchase a 4' metal fence post at your local building supply store, along with a 2' length of 2" diameter PVC pipe. Secure the pipe to the fence post with a couple of hose clamps (use stainless steel to slow down saltwater corrosion). The fence post has a flange at the bottom which facilitates driving it into the sand with your boot. The flange also keeps the post from falling over or rotating. Drive the post into the sand or gravel beach with the heel of your boot at about a 15º angle toward the water.
An alternative to the steel post (which will eventually rust) is to use 2" PVC pipe. Bevel one end of the pipe at an angle and push it into the sand. If you want to get fancy (and a bit more functional) you could glue a cross-over fitting to the top of the pipe, one-foot extenders to each arm of the cross-over, and tee fittings to the ends of each of the extenders. Use the tees to support a rod at each end of the stand. Glue a small bait-cutting platform to the top of the cross-over fitting and you're all set. The biggest challenge of using PVC rod holders is the limited situations in which they can be used. In the Cook Inlet area, most of the beaches are gravel or sand with gravel and rocks mixed in. There aren't very many places that are soft enough to allow for a PVC rod holder to be driven in without breaking. If the area you're fishing allows for the PVC holders, go for it.
The Basic Tools
In addition to an appropriate rod and reel, you'll find a need for some basic tools for surf fishing. Here's a list to get you started.
- Bait knife. A small paring knife will do for this purpose. Secure your bait knife to your rod holder for easy access.
- Needle-nosed pliers. Use these for crimping split shot, removing hooks from fish, crimping barbs on hooks and so on. Get a stainless pair. You could opt instead for a Leatherman Tool. It serves as both a bait knife and pliers.
- Fillet knife. Go with a stainless knife that's easy to sharpen. Dexter Russell makes a nine-inch fillet knife that's ideal for filleting rockfish, salmon, or the largest halibut.
Lures for Surf Fishing
Your choice of lures has a lot to do with the species you are angling for. Here's a quick rundown of the major stuff.
Crippled Herring. Though it's technically a jig, the Crippled Herring is also an effective lure for shore-based anglers. Available in a variety of sizes and color patterns, the Crippled Herring is good for kings, chums and silvers. Lingcod and rockfish will also take it, but because it fishes so deep, anglers targeting these species in the rocks will likely lose a lot of tackle in the attempt. It casts like a bullet and fishes deep along the bottom, where the kings generally run in the spring.
Tee Spoon. Actually a spinner with a large Colorado blade, the Tee Spoon is an excellent choice for moderately turbid water where it sets up a vibration that makes it easy for fish to locate. It's a favorite among spring king salmon fishermen. Rig a few splitshot or a rubber-core sinker a few feet up your line from the Tee Spoon to overcome the light weight and shallow running characteristics of the lure.
Pixee. An Alaska staple for many species, the Pixee is a spoon that runs at mid-depth and is available with a variety of different-colored plastic inserts in the center portion of the spoon. Orange and Green are popular colors you should not be without.
This is a must-have spinner that can be deadly on kings and silvers. Lings and rockfish will also strike this lure. Get an assortment of sizes and colors.
Soft Baits. Berkley Gulp! lures are an excellent choice for rockfish and lingcod, and they will be taken by silvers as well. Secure it to a lead-head jig and use a twitch-and-retrieve or simply hook it as you would a baitfish, put several splitshot or a rubber-core sinker a few feet ahead of it and crawl it across the bottom.
Jigs. Heavy lead-headed jigs are very popular lures for deepwater boat-based halibut fishing in Alaska, but smaller versions of these can work from shore as well. Go with lighter weights and swim the jig across the bottom, bumping it allong on occasion to attract fish. An excellent lure for lings, halibut and rockfish. Go with orange, yellow, black and white.
Plugs. Pick up a few medium-depth and sinking Rapala lures, along with three or four different colors of Wiggle Warts. Flatfish-type lures can be effective, but their shape makes them hard to cast any appreciable distance. Go with Kwikfish for the best results. Some fishermen wrap the back of the lure with a herring fillet as the scent does attract fish. Round out your plug assortment with a few J-Plugs. They're light and hard to cast, so you'll need to put some rubber-core sinkers three or four feet from the lure in order to get it out past the breakers and closer to the bottom.
Bait Fishing Tackle
There are two basic styles of hooks to consider for Alaska surf fishing. Octopus-style hooks are an excellent choice for smaller baits used for salmon, rockfish and surfperch. Go with sizes from 2/0 - 5/0. Owner is an excellent brand as they are needle-sharp right out of the box. Gamakatsu hooks are also excellent. The second hook to consider are the circle hooks. These are ideal for larger fish like halibut, especially in situations where the fish is allowed to actually eat the bait. Anglers need to practice patience when using circle hooks, as the hooks are designed to wrap around the fish's lip. Essentially the fish hooks itself with little or no effort on the part of the angler to "set the hook". Simply let the fish take the bait and swim off.Gamakatsu's "Nautilus" line is a great choice that's available in sizes ranging from 12/0 to 16/0.
In most cases you want to use fluorocarbon leader materials. They blend in very well in the marine environment. Size your leaders to match the fish you are targeting. Lighter leaders in the 20# class are fine for surfperch or rockfish, but halibut require a serious upgrade. Go with 80# mono. or even braided stainless. This is particularly important if you expect to catch lingcod, which can shred regular monofilament. Berkley makes excellent monofilament leader materials, and P-line is the go-to for fluorocarbon leaders.
Swivels and Snaps
In most cases you'll rig up with the leader tied directly to the hook. The other end of the leader should have a swivel on it, because your bait can twist in the current or while reeling in. This can create huge tangles, especially if you're using braided line. A good quality barrel swivel is ideal for this. Go with Sampo brand ball-bearing swivels in 6/0 size. Use a crosslock snap at the end of your line, or a crosslock swivel. This attaches to the barrel swivel on your leader. Avoid regular snap swivels for halibut fishing; the power of these fish cannot be overstated. They'll straighten out a regular swivel and leave you wondering who beat you up.
Carry an assortment of split shot and pyramid sinkers for sandy areas. Water Gremlin offers reusable split shot in a variety of sizes. Rocky conditions may require a lighter break-away dropper off your main line in the event you are snagged on the bottom. Split shot should range in size from #2 to #6 or so. The pyramids should be from 5 oz. to 8 oz., depending on the strength of the current.
Tie up a leader that's about six to eight feet long, using a Palomar Knot to secure the hook to the leader. The Palomar Knot gives you two passes of your leader through the hook eye and is one of the stongest knots used for this purpose. Use the same knot to secure a barrel swivel to the other end of your leader. If you're using a sliding sinker rig, insert the slider onto your main line and use a Palomar Knot to secure the main line to the crosslock swivel. Clip your pyramid weight to the sinker slider. This rig allows a fish to pick up your bait and run with it across the bottom, without feeling the drag of the sinker. Note that some sinker sliders can become grooved with braided line and eventually fail. Try a variety of sinker sliders until you find one that holds up to the job. Sampo makes some excellent sliders.
To rig up for smaller fish, rig the leader and the main line the same way detailed above, with each line secured to opposite ends of a barrel swivel, using the Palomar Knot. Crimp on enough split shot to get your line to the bottom, and you're in business. An alternative for salmon is to use the regular pyramid sliding sinker rig, but to slide a couple of corkies onto your leader, all the way down to the hook eye. Pin them in place by jamming a toothpick into the hole in the topmost corkie to keep it from sliding on the line. The corkies will float your herring up off the bottom and the color of the corkies will attract salmon.
The most common baits for shore-based fishing are herring, squid, octopus and parts of sport-caught fish. In the latter case, we're talking salmon or cod heads, viscera, fins and the like. Review the Alaska fishing regulations carefully to ensure that 1) the waters you are fishing are open for bait fishing and 2) the fish parts you are using are legal in that area.
The most common bait used for salmon fishing is herring. It can be rigged either whole, in strips, or in chunks. The keys to shore-based salmon fishing with herring are 1) keeping your bait just off the bottom and 2) keeping your bait on the hook. Herring are soft and can easily come off in the act of casting. Fully embed the hook into the bait to help prevent this. Hooking the bait through the head helps considerably. Another method is to use a long-shanked bait hook, embedded into the body of the bait, with the hook protruding from the bait at the midpoint. Wrap thread around the bait in a spiral fashion to keep it from falling off the hook. Keep your herring frozen for as long as possible before using it. Take only what you need immediately, leaving the rest frozen in the cooler. Bait that has thawed out will continue to get softer until it finally falls off your hook.
Herring is also an excellent halibut bait, but the same precautions listed above should be used. A better alternative, especially in areas where wave action is present, is to use octpus for bait. It's really tough and you can fish the same chunk of octopus for several hours without losing it.
A Word on Chumming
Chumming is legal in Alaska, and it can be quite effective. Use frozen herring chunks for chum and launch them out to the area where you are fishing with a slingshot.
Keeping it All Organized
You don't need a lot of gear to dive into surf fishing in Alaska, but it helps if you can keep it organized. Surf fishermen on both coasts of the United States have discovered that a cart of some kind is a great thing to have for those sometimes long treks from the parking area to the fishing area. But in most cases in Alaska, a cart is not necessary because you're parking on or very close to the beach. Still, different situations require different tactics and you might find a surf fishing cart is the best thing for you.
A tackle satchel is a must-have. Choose one with few metal parts to rust and corrode. The Allen Company carries a variety of bags that will hold multiple plastic cases for your lures, hooks and other terminal gear, in addition to fillet knives, bait knives, pliers and other essential tools. These bags are carried by Sportsman's Warehouse, Cabela'sand other resellers.
Choose a bag that allows the placement of plastic boxes for your lures, hooks, and so forth. Plano makes a great assortment of plastic boxes with removable and customizable dividers. A separate pocket for needle-nosed pliers, a bait knife and a fish bonker is also helpful. Some bags are large enough to allow reel storage, along with an extra spool and other accessories.