|Giant Salmon of Goodnews River|
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Giant Salmon of Goodnews River
A visit to this Alaskan hideaway captures the essence of America’s Last Frontier. If you consider all five of Alaska’s salmon species, it’s arguable that the tidal reaches of one small river emptying into the Bering Sea 200 miles north of the Aleutian Islands offers the best in all-around availability.
Certainly better spots exist for any given single species elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, but nowhere that I’ve fished in over 30 years of going to our 49th state provides better all-around species abundance.
This river appears on the maps in southwest Alaska as the Goodnews. Since it’s over 400 miles from the nearest paved road, the only access is by air. And since the Goodnews River Lodge is the only camp on the entire 80-mile length of the main branch (North Fork) of the river (one other lodge has a small spike camp a long way up the Middle Fork), it offers exclusive access not only to all five species of salmon, but also rainbow trout, massive numbers of Dolly Vardens, and some trophy-size grayling as well. The third branch of the Goodnews is the short South Fork, too small for an established lodge but accessible via small jet boats. It too offers several species of salmon and also rainbow trout.
The lodge is on the North Fork, right at the upper end of tidewater and about five miles from the mouth. This puts it right in the middle of the best of the river’s fishing, with miles of tidewater downstream where most of the biggest kings, silvers, pinks and chum salmon are caught. The lodge also lies a short distance below an endless number of productive upstream spots where Dolly Varden, rainbow trout and grayling will be encountered. The lodge provides one guide per two anglers, and I can attest to the fact that these guides know when to fish the best spots for whatever you want to target.
The Salmon Runs
The Goodnews is noted for one of the best king salmon runs in Alaska. The fish average larger than most other rivers, typically 30 to 35 pounds. The camp record is 73, but over 40 is quite common and over 50 happens every year. Because the river features a shallow, low-gradient stream, it’s also ideal for fly fishing. My largest on that tackle to date is 58 ½ pounds, but I’ve had several much larger manage to get rid of the fly. One of them was as large and as aerial as a big tarpon. On a good day a fly-fishing angler will hook a dozen or more and land most of them. Plug trollers often average almost twice that number. The king season starts in mid-June and lasts through mid-July, with a few stragglers into early August.
All of the salmon runs overlap, so there’s always a chance you can catch more than one species on any given day. Massive numbers of 8- to 15-pound chrome-bright chum salmon begin to appear by the second week July, rapidly invading sloughs and backwater spots in tidewater where they hold for several weeks before starting their spawning run up river. Anglers familiar with the uninspired fight offered by dark spawning chums in other rivers are always pleasantly surprised by the energetic aerial brawl typical of these fish, who will often readily take surface flies as well as subsurface lures on light spinning tackle. The peak of the chum run lasts through the end of July.
If the year is even numbered (such as 2004, 2006, 2008), you can expect seemingly endless numbers of pink salmon; for reasons known only to these fish, just a few stragglers appear during odd-numbered years. They arrive in the lower river fired up and spoiling for a fight, averaging about four pounds but occasionally topping eight. Pinks will eagerly attack a wide range of small lures and flies, at times even on the surface. Fly rodders find these jumpers very exciting on 3- to 5-weight gear.
The Goodnews is not known as a major river for sockeye salmon, but over the last few years their numbers have been increasing dramatically. The best fishery for these uncommonly strong salmon is just a few miles upstream from the camp, where they can be caught with fly and light spinning tackle. They start showing in mid-July and continue through early August.
Very few rivers in Alaska come even close to matching the Goodnews in terms of the size of the silver salmon run. Silvers begin to straggle in during the last half of July, and the run typically goes into high gear by the end of the first week of August. It continues well past the closing of the camp in mid-September. Several other rivers produce larger silvers, but rarely the numbers. They typically average 8 to 12 pounds; 15 pounds or more isn’t uncommon, and the camp record stands at 22 ½ pounds.
Silver salmon are at their best when saltwater-strong in tidewater, and it’s not uncommon for an angler to catch 30 or more in a single day. These represent the most aggressive members of the salmon family, readily striking a wide range of flies and lures that include floating flies and poppers on the surface. Tidewater silvers are noted for a strong and often long run, usually punctuated with a lot of aerial activity.
I enjoy Alaska fishing the most when I can match my tackle to the size of the species I’m seeking, but often this leads to unexpected excitement. A few years ago I was drifting downriver casting for rainbow trout with a 5-weight rod and 10-pound-test tippet. As we passed through a deep hole, I spotted a large number of big king salmon holding there, and as a joke I tossed my black streamer right into their midst. I don’t know who was more surprised – me or the guide – when one of the larger kings ate it without hesitation. We immediately beached the boat on a gravel bar and I got out to deal with this considerable challenge. After 30 minutes of careful maneuvering through one long run after another, the light tippet managed to stay in one piece. I finally slid a 42-pound king into shallow water where my young guide held it long enough for a photograph before the release.