Alaska has hundreds of rivers that have king salmon runs. There are only a few that experience consistent runs with strong enough numbers that allow anglers a great chance to catch them on a daily basis throughout the season. When you mention king salmon fishing to most people, the Kenai River comes to the forefront of conversation. The Kenai River at its prime was no doubt the best king salmon river in the world. It had not only the largest run of king salmon in the modern era, but also yielded the largest kings on the planet every year. Those fortunate enough to fish this river in its hay-day had a legitimate chance at landing kings on a daily basis over 60 lbs and some over 80 lbs!
Unfortunately, this river has gone through a major down swing in its fishing cycle to the point that they even closed it to sport fishing in past seasons trying to get its numbers back up to support sport fishing again.
The Nushagak River is by far the top river in the state of Alaska for king salmon. There is even a small commercial fleet that has permits to target kings with large mesh size gill nets. The “Nush” as the locals refer to it, will boast over 100,000 kings on average annually up its river system. This is an incredible amount of kings and what makes it such a special river to target them. There are many lodges that line the banks of the river but there are still plenty of fish to go around. This river is located on the West side of Bristol Bay and is accessible only by plane from the port town of Dillingham. This remoteness is one factor that has kept this river system well managed and full of kings every year. It peaks in late June and is over by mid July. The kings average a bit smaller on this river than most, but with the sheer numbers that can enter the system on a tide, this makes 50 plus days of fishing a norm every year. Fishing in the tidewater is usually done by trolling, but there are a few areas that fly anglers can wet a fly in hopes of catching a king in this big river.
This is another strong king salmon river that lies even further West of Bristol Bay. It boasts a strong king run and is a smaller river than most premier king salmon rivers. With it’s smaller size, it is a good river to target kings on the fly, and there are only a handful of lodges on the river that fish them. This is one of the better rivers for sure to “swing for kings”. Overall it is a great river, but can be a little more sensitive to timing than others.
The Alagnak is still very close to my heart, not only because I have called it home for over 20 summers, but because it is one of the most consistent king salmon rivers in the state. The famous Kenai and the fabled Nushagak Rivers have actually closed in the past to even sport fishing due to poor returns. This has never happened on the Alagnak River and hopefully never will. We are extremely fortunate to have continued success both on fly and conventional gear on this river every July. Even in the slowest of weeks, it still is much better than the Kenai has been for many years for their average! We do our best to protect this system and only harvest male king salmon and try to keep them under 30lbs if at all possible. Yes, we release all female king salmon, and might rub some wrong, but we feel that it is our duty to protect this amazing fishery for generations to come. As stewards to the river, we want to keep this river special amongst the big name rivers in Alaska.
Whatever river one chooses to target king salmon, the best are those that are reached by plane, not by car. I hope that this short list of king salmon rivers helps one decide on where to go in the future.