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FISHERMAN’S GUIDE TO THE 49TH STATE

SHARE FISHERMAN’S GUIDE TO THE 49TH STATE

Catching fish in Alaska is relatively easy. Deciding which fish to pursue, and when, is the tricky part.

Ocean waters off the state's west coast are among the world's richest grounds for salmon and halibut fishing. And the state's myriad rivers are home to more game fish of greater size than perhaps any single place on earth.Fishing opportunities in Alaska run the full gamut, from camping out and fishing on a remote riverbank in the Brooks Range to taking charter-boat trips from a plush resort in southeastern Alaska.

Indeed, sorting out the wealth of great opportunities is the greatest challenge of fishing the Last Frontier. It also is the greatest pleasure. With proper planning and reasonable expectations, an Alaskan fishing trip can be an unforgettable experience.

Experienced anglers, guides and travel agents offer these tips:

Set priorities. Before deciding on a time and place, you'll need to determine your bottom line. Is it price? A particular fish? A particular region? A particular time? If you're like most people, it's a combination of those things. But one generally takes precedence, and will make choosing a trip easier.

Timing is key. Because salmon constantly migrate, fishing in Alaska can be wonderful one day and below par the next.

"The fishing here isn't tough," said Kevin Delaney, regional sportfish biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "It's the logistics that are tough - getting to the right place at the right time."

If you're set on a world-record king salmon, you'll probably want to visit the Kenai River in late May, early June, or mid July. But missing a run by as little as a week can mean all the difference. The Kenai River's largest king run starts around July 20th - but can be virtually non-existent as soon as July 25th.

Lodge owners, guides and Alaska Fish & Game officials can provide the best timing estimates. With that knowledge in hand, consult a local travel service that specializes in Alaska fishing and ask for a range of options. Or, if you know exactly where you want to fish and when, contact the Chamber of Commerce in that area and book accommodations and guide services directly.

Ocean fishing is more predictable than river angling.

Anglers heading to lodges in southeast Alaska, for example, generally can count on catching chinook from late May to mid-August.

For that reason, most fishermen consult or hire a guide for river fishing. Those who have their own small boats can go it on their own in saltwater, where it's easy to follow other boats to the bite.

If you're not set on a particular time or place, choose a region offering the best fishing bang for the buck. This sounds obvious, but visiting a multi-fishery area such as the Kenai Peninsula as opposed to, say, a lodge in southeast Alaska, can lead to many more hours of fishing - and pounds of fish - per travel dollar.

Here are some short sketches of Alaska's most popular regions:

The Kenai Peninsula, a scenic, three-hour drive southwest from Anchorage, is bisected by the mighty Kenai River, home of the world's largest chinook, or king salmon, as well as large runs of coho and sockeye. At Soldotna, the area's sportfishing hub, an angler can fish the Kenai from the banks of a city park or make a short drive to a half-dozen other rivers with trophy-class angling.

The peninsula is bordered on the west by the saltwater of Cook Inlet, which contains a thriving salmon fishery of its own, as well as a healthy crop of halibut up to 400 pounds. Anglers can arrange special fly-in trips to remote lakes or the high waters of the Kenai, which has a world-class catch-and-release rainbow trout fishery.

This area has an additional advantage: a relatively inexpensive, three-day river-fishing package with a local salmon resort usually provides all the knowledge anglers need to know to venture out on a riverbank on their own afterward, or even on afternoons and evenings between guided trips.

The peninsula also offers dozens of public campgrounds, and has more motel and bed-and-breakfast choices than more remote fishing areas.

Southeast Alaska is dotted by many of the world's most picturesque waterfront fishing lodges. For those who don't like to sweat the details, these sportfishing factories are hard to beat. Most are comfortable, fully equipped and a short seaplane commute from Ketchikan, Juneau or Sitka.

Packages range from a two-day, $600 trip to a week-long, $3,900 extravaganza. An average trip is five days and costs between $1,500 and $2,000, which includes everything from floatplane transfers to meals to fish-cleaning and shipping.

These trips should be booked as soon as possible. Some prime fishing times, such as June and July, when huge king salmon lurk in the waters, already are being filled at some lodges. Hot spots include Clover Pass near Ketchikan, North and South Shelter Island near Juneau, Salisbury Sound in Sitka and Garbage Point in Haines.

The Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley northeast of Anchorage is another rich river fishery for numerous species of salmon, trout, steelhead, dolly varden and other gamefish.

Facilities and guide services in the valley, a two-hour drive from Anchorage, are available in the cities of Wasilla, Palmer, Willow and Talkeetna. The Matanuska and Susitna rivers form a huge drainage basin laced with small creeks and lowland lakes, all of which offer prime angling.

First-time visitors should hire a guide. Or follow the crowds: when King salmon run through streams here, lunkers can be snagged within walking distance of the car.

In spite of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound continues to offer a thriving saltwater salmon fishery centered in Seward, Valdez, Cordova and Whittier.

The Bristol Bay - Kodiak Island area on the Alaska Peninsula, which juts deep into the North Pacific, offers another diverse mix of ocean and river fisheries. Prime debarkation points are Dillingham, where a number of ocean lodges are located, Naknek, King Salmon and Kodiak.

Catch and possession limits vary widely throughout Alaska. Get a copy of the state's Sportfishing Regulations Summary from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, P.O. Box 25526, Juneau, AK, 99802-5526.

General bag limits: Southeast Alaska anglers can keep two king salmon a day and six of other species. Kenai river anglers can keep one king per day, three salmon of other species.

Special notice to Kenai king pursuers: the river's early run, which starts about May 20 and continues through the end of June, is likely to become a catch-and-release "trophy fishery" after June 15.