Alaska Steelhead Fishing: A Complete Guide

Alaska steelhead fishing can produce bright colored steelhead like this one.

My first experience with Steelhead in Alaska was one I will never forget. I am amazed at the size and strength of these fish and combined with amazing rivers and breathtaking scenery. Alaska Steelhead fishing is absolutely addictive.

Alaska has many great steelhead rivers, and anglers can choose from extra-large rivers to almost trout-sized streams with big steelhead.

Alaska Steelhead

The Steelhead species found in Alaska is a migratory rainbow trout that often achieves trophy sizes, particularly along the coast of Alaska, and is often described by experienced steelhead fishermen as “rainbow trout on steroids.”

Steelhead fishing is outstanding most often from the southeastern panhandle to the southwestern corner of the state. But this is far from the only part of Alaska where steelhead fishing is good.

These steelhead run in the fall and in the spring.

Best Time For Alaska Steelhead Fishing

Alaska Steelhead Seasons

  • Winter: The winter months in Alaska are probably not a great time to fish for steelhead. But if you can make it to the lakes around Anchorage you might try Campbell, Jewel, DeLong, or Sand Lakes.
  • Spring: Once the ice has begun to vanish, the steelhead will start to become more accessible. March to early June are going to be the best time in the spring to fish for steelhead as they begin to work their way upstream and then drop back to the ocean.
  • Summer: Summer is generally not considered a good time for steelhead since it is between their two running seasons, Spring and Fall. During this period, you’re likely to have more luck with Rainbow Trout or salmon on rivers like the Kenai.
  • Fall: The fall runs for steelhead usually start in September and will peak in October before rivers start to freeze over in November.

Regulations For Fishing For Alaska Steelhead

Regardless of what type of fish you’re aiming to catch, fishing in Alaska falls into four categories: Sport, Subsistence, Commercial, and Personal Use. Each of the four categories is subject to specific sets of regulations depending on which of the four zones you will be fishing in. Each region is then further divided into sub-regions, and the rules are different in all of them.

1. First, select the fishing category you will be fishing under; Here.

2. Then select the region where you will be fishing.

3. Then select a subregion.

All residents of Alaska aged 18 and older, and non-residents 16 and older are required to obtain a fishing license to fish in Alaska. Licenses will be valid from the date of purchase through the 31st of December of that same year.

Licenses are available for residents, non-residents, military, disabled veterans, and seniors aged 60 and up. Most licenses can be obtained by filling out an online application.

Keep in mind that the rules and regulations covering all locations and fishing types can change at any time, and the state government monitors Alaskan fisheries closely. So, don’t buy your license weeks early and go assuming the laws are the same as when you first checked them. Check the regulations when you begin your fishing trip.

Obeying the rules is the best way to help ensure the Alaskan fisheries stay healthy, and it can save you fines and fees. The rules are complex and many. However, if you use a professional charter, they will make sure the rules are adhered to. If you’re new to fishing in Alaska, this is probably the best route.

Best Steelhead Rivers In Alaska

Once you’ve decided whether you want to chase steelhead in the Spring or Fall and obtained the requisite licensing, it’s time to choose your destination. Some rivers get both spring and fall runs of steelhead while other river are best at one time or another.

While there are a practically unlimited number of rivers to choose from, there are six that are known to be the best for steelhead fishing in Alaska.

They are the Kenai Peninsula, the Kenai River, Kodiak Island, the Karluk River, Kachemak Bay, and Cook Inlet.

Kenai Peninsula

Possibly the world’s finest location for steelhead fishing, the Kenai Peninsula is a few hours’ drive from Anchorage.

There are plenty of lodging opportunities catering to a range of budgets and party sizes. The Kenai Peninsula is the most famous steelhead fishery, for good reason. It is wise to book your lodgings well in advance to get ahead of the crowds and obtain optimal pricing.

Kenai River

Favored by many anglers, the Kenai River is a great spot for steelhead, king, and sockeye. There are abundant rainbow trout runs in addition to steelhead. It is not uncommon for fishers to catch steelhead over 20 lbs on the Kenai River.

Karluk River

A more remote location with stunning landscapes as well as fantastic steelhead runs. This clearwater river is also a great spot for rainbow trout, Pacific salmon, and Dolly Varden. This is a good spot for getting away from the crowds you can expect at the more well-known locations like the Kenai River and Peninsula.

Kodiak Island

This location is known for its enormous game, trophy-sized moose, giant brown bear, and huge steelhead fish. Just about any cove you can find here is great for fly, float, and spin fishing. This location is also known for a range of salmon as well as steelhead.

Cook Inlet

Named after Captain Cook, this is yet another excellent location to fish from a boat or the shore. Here the steelhead will be returning from their favorite feeding spots out at sea. So they will be especially energetic and well-fed. This is a good opportunity to try your hand at trolling. Either way, it’s a stunning environment that’s sure to bring you some healthy catches.

Kachemak Bay

You’ll have to take a short plane ride out of Anchorage to get to Kachemak Bay. It’s an excellent location for steelhead fishing from a boat. The steelhead are known to put up a good fight at this location. They are also known to show bright chrome colors during the spring and fall months. If you’re looking for a real adventure, this is the location for you.

Fishing Methods For Alaska Steelhead

Steelhead fishing can be done in many ways but the most effective methods are:

  • Float fishing: a river fishing method using a long rod with spinning, Centerpin, or baitcasting reels
  • Fly fishing: river fishing with a lightweight lure known as an artificial fly
  • Bottom bouncing: a technique in which the line is cast a short distance and allows the weight and bait to sink and drift
  • Lure fishing: using artificial bait or a lure

River guides might use different methods in different rivers and different conditions, and at different times of the year. Other good techniques to try include:

  • Nymphing: a method using flies to mimic sub-aquatic insects
  • Spey fishing: a fishing style using longer casts with a two-handed rod
  • Streamer fishing: a form of fly fishing using a sub-surface streamer
  • Dry fly fishing: a technique done in the morning and evening, where you allow the lure to rest on the surface of the water
  • Spin fishing: a method where you cast behind a boat and allow a spinner to settle on the bottom of the river

Tips & FAQs

Best Baits For Alaska Steelhead

  • Spawn / Roe: This is the most commonly used steelhead bait
  • Worms: Plastic and real worms can work better than roe under certain conditions
  • Beads: A small bead that mimics a steelhead egg may sometimes be the best steelhead bait
  • Flies: Some flies work great and can be the best steelhead bait at certain times
  • Alternative Baits: Alternative baits include variations of the above or minnows, leeches, and grubs

Check out all my best steelhead baits.

There are bears in the area, so it is recommended that you know how to protect yourself near bears. See Fishing Near Bears.

Dip net fishing for salmon is common among Alaska residents, so you may see this while there but do not do this for steelhead.

Best Flies For Alaska Steelhead

Gear For Alaskan Steelhead

  • Clothing
  • Light to heavy layers (No Cotton)
  • A good rain jacket
  • Waders and Boots (no felt soles)
  • Boots for lodge/cabins
  • Billed Hat for sun protection
  • A stocking cap and gloves
  • Comfortable pants under your waders
  • Medium or thick socks
  • Polarized Sunglasses

Self Care, Etc.

Medications, Toiletries, Camera, battery charger, computer and SD card, Cell phone, Headlamp or flashlight, Sunscreen, Cash

Other Gear

  • Small Backpack
  • Water Bottle
  • Basic Fishing Tools
  • Fluorocarbon line
  • 9ft 0x, 1x and 2x Salmon/Steelhead leaders
  • Large and XL indicator like Thingamabobbers
  • Standard Spey flies
  • Size 10, 12, and 14 mil Trout Beads
  • Owner hooks in sizes 4 and 6
  • An assortment of sinking tips

Do It Yourself Alaska Steelhead Trips

Only recommended for Alaska residents and experienced fishers, however, it can be done provided you follow the rule, understand safety and the potential hazards of the rivers, wildlife, and the remoteness fo the area.

Can You Catch Steelhead At Night In Alaska?

Alaska is the Land of the Midnight Sun, so yes, you can. Can you catch steelhead after dark is the question though?

Again, the answer to this is that it is only recommended for experienced fishers and those using professional guides.

4 Best Steelhead Fishing Lodges

There are many great lodging options in Alaska, especially near the Kenai River and Peninsula locations. But these are our favorites:

  • Soldotna Fishing Lodges with Dock on Kenai River!
  • Kenai Riverfront Fishing Lodges
  • Kodiak Island Resort
  • No See Um Lodge

Tight Line


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *