The World’s Best Fishing Trips – Put Alaskan Salmon On Your Bucket List
Right now, some of the best fishing in the world is happening, but in a couple of weeks it is going to get even better. If you’ve ever dreamed about an Alaskan fishing trip, and feel a bit of pent-up pandemic induced restlessness, you can drop everything and jump on the opportunity. Or just kick back and plan for next summer. In either case, this is one awesome trip.
If you’ve ever enjoyed wild caught salmon in a restaurant or from the supermarket, chances are it came from Alaska. It’s one of the healthiest proteins on the planet and it’s delicious – but it is even more enjoyable when you catch it yourself.
The best place to do that is in Alaska, and it’s not limited to salmon, though it certainly is the main event, both for foodies and anglers. The same trip is likely to yield you a bounty of wild caught cod, halibut, sea bass and more, from one of the cleanest and best protected fisheries on earth – and you will take lots of fish home to eat. Of course, you could just buy high-quality wild caught Alaskan seafood (there is no other kind, as the state bans aquaculture) at home, but like most trips, in this case getting there, and being there, is more than half the fun.
People don’t spend thousands of dollars and many hours on planes to go fishing in Alaska because they want to stock their freezer, though that’s a great fringe benefit. They do it because Alaska is an incredibly beautiful “Bucket List” destination, the fishing is excellent and wildly fun – even if you’ve never been, or like me merely dabble in the sport – and along the way you will likely see dozens of whales (everywhere you look!), countless bald eagles, sea otters, sea lions and of course, bears, which the state is famous for. Take all the exotic wilderness allure of the Alaska you’ve dreamed about and roll in a wonderfully fun fishing adventure at well run, all-inclusive lodges and you have a once-in-a-lifetime type of trip, except there are many people who go back, some of them every single year. Every great trip comes to an end at some point, but when this one does you will dine on the memories for a year or more with all the seafood you bring home.
(Atlantic salmon is considered commercially extinct, meaning that any product you can buy, whether it’s from Maine, Nova Scotia, Ireland, Norway or Scotland, is farmed. Based on what I have learned about food production after writing on it for years, I try to eat mainly wild caught seafood, which for salmon means Pacific salmon, and that in turn means almost entirely Alaskan.)
I’ve fished elsewhere in the world, and I eat a lot of wild Alaskan salmon at home, so this trip has been on my to-do list for a couple of years, and as travel opened back up from COVID-19, I finally got the chance. After conferring with some other trustworthy food and travel writers I know whose opinions I value, I chose the Waterfall Resort, which happens to be near Ketchikan, the “Salmon Fishing Capital of the World,” a rather resounding endorsement.
There are a LOT of salmon fishing lodges and tour operators in Alaska, and especially around Ketchikan, it’s a big tourism thing, and my observations suggest that just as a plane landing in Jackson, WY in mid-winter is full of skiers, most of those on my Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Ketchikan (there are not a lot of options) were headed after salmon. In retrospect, it seems the fishing lodge industry is similar to the safari lodge model, something I am extremely familiar with – they all start with the same basic premise and appeal, but the better the place you choose (and usually more expensive), the better the experience in terms of everything from location and wildlife to the guides, vehicles, food, lodging and service. In this case, location can also dictate the size and quality of the expected catch, and the actual way in which you fish. As I discovered, there are lodges that only troll, similar to big game sportfishing (marlin, etc.) where you sit on a moving boat and wait for the reel to strike. It’s more fun and definitely more rewarding to actually control the process by dropping your line, reeling at different speeds and depths and pursuing the strike, working at it, rather than hoping for it. That’s the way they usually do it at Waterfall, widely considered one of the very best, and while you can spend less at other places, the quality here is worth the cost.
The location is fabulous, as some of the lodges are in or immediately around Ketchikan, which makes them less expensive to reach, while both Waterfall and its sister resort Steamboat Bay (more on this below), requires a seaplane fight, built into the prices. The advantage of the more remote locations (both are the only lodges on the islands they occupy) is to easily access less crowded fishing grounds, including those on the outside (open ocean) of the many channel islands, where guides say most of the bigger and record catches occur.
Based on my very recent experience, this model works extremely well, and the fishing at Waterfall lived up to all expectations, with our foursome hitting our legal limits almost every day, especially for the most desirable of all fish, the King (aka chinook) salmon. Our boat hooked examples from around 15 to over 40 pounds, which is really big. As an added bonus, a lot of cruise ships come to Ketchikan, and one of the biggest non-fishing tourism activities or shore excursions in the region is a scenic floatplane flightseeing ride, something every guest at Waterfall gets to enjoy – twice, coming and going.
Here’s how it works. Trips are sold as 2, 3 or 4 nights, on an all-inclusive basis. You get yourself to Ketchikan and you are met by an agent who directs you to a sea plane that takes you to Waterfall, about a 45-minute, extremely scenic flight. The resort sits on about 52-acres on the tip of huge but mostly unpopulated Prince of Wales island, and it occupies the site of a former historic fish cannery. The property is surrounded by 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest, the largest rainforest in the United States and second on earth only to the Amazon, so there are not a lot of neighbors.
You arrive around lunchtime and fish a half day the first day, shepherded straight from the plane to your boat (fishing licenses are arranged in advance, as Alaska is very strict). Then it is full 10-hour days, and a half day morning on the day of departure. In between, all meals are included, and while the food is not gourmet, it is hearty and plentiful with greatly varied choices at all meals, with dinners served buffet style. There are always a lot of appetizers and several main courses, with an emphasis on local specialties like King crab legs, shrimp, salmon, halibut, elk and so on. Breakfast is also a buffet, but they have made to order eggs and omelet stations, as well as an excellent grab and go breakfast sandwich or wrap option that changes daily but is very good, a nice choice for those who want to stretch sleep as late as possible since it is always an early morning. On the boat you enjoy substantial lunches you order in advance, plus an endless array of snacks. Pacific Northwest wines are included at resort meals, and you can stock the boat with beer (most people do), available for purchase at the general store, along with liquor.
There’s a lively saloon with pool table, poker room, ping pong and full bar, and most guests make a regular habit of stopping in before dinner. This year they also added live music after dinner, but the early wake ups and exhausting full days of stand-up fishing tend to result in early bedtimes and little night life. Besides booze, clothing and souvenirs from the general store, about the only thing you can spend money on once you arrive is massages.
They encourage traveling light because you will be sending your catch home as checked luggage, and most people just go carry on, since there is no dressing up for dinner, and every guest is provided with a full set of foul weather gear, high-end Helly Hansen overalls, jacket and rubber boots. This is a great benefit because that stuff would take up a lot of luggage room if you had to bring it. Pack a few layers and some causal shirts and you’ll be set (Waterfall excels at logistics, there are a lot of moving parts and they do it all with military precision, including detailed pre-arrival info and packing lists).
Waterfall has a greatly varied selection of lodging, from quaint and simple cabins for 1-2 to hotel style lodge rooms to suites that are more modern with extras such as larger bathrooms that feature separate tubs and showers, wrap around decks and wet bars. There are also townhomes, good for groups of four, with two stories, two bedrooms, laundry, full kitchens, balcony overlooking the Pacific and fireplaces. None have very good Wi-Fi, and cell reception is intermittent, so this is not a place for a remote work vacation or any intention of streaming, and with no gym and the main non-fishing diversion other than massages being a 2.5 mile roundtrip hike to the namesake waterfall, it’s not a great place for non-fishing partners to hang out, though they do offer the option of making the fishing trips more scenic and less fishing if you want, and there is stunning scenery all around. You do want to check out the hike though, especially since you will likely see bears, it’s mostly on boardwalks, and it stays light really late.
While the lodging is basic and the food merely pretty good, the management has put their money into the fishing, and in a big way. They claim to have the largest private fishing fleet in Alaska, with 28 excellent custom designed 26-foot boats, specifically chosen for the needs of local waters and fishing, all of which hold up to four anglers and have a fully closed heated cabin, bathroom, and very high-quality fishing gear and electronics. These have powerfully equipped dual motors, as Waterfall has access to thousands of square miles of water with dozens of specific fishing spots for all conditions, and some of the commutes can be an hour, so these boats get you there quickly and comfortably.
Ditto for the guides. Better guides want to work for better, more upscale and prestigious lodges, and Waterfall has their pick. In addition to helping you find and catch the most and biggest fish, the guides can advise you on the best cuts and cooking methods, because everything you catch that you keep gets cleaned and cut to your specification that day, then flash frozen. The Lodge has a shockingly large processing facility in one of the old cannery warehouses, and at the end of the trip, your catch is packed in a custom insulted box that gets sent on Alaska Airlines as checked luggage (and can be transferred automatically in Seattle to whoever you are flying the rest of the way). Alaska even operates its own freezer facility in case there are delays or long layovers, and runs an onsite office at Waterfall, so you can check in, get your boarding pass and check your luggage all before getting on the seaplane to the Ketchikan airport. Whatever size filets or steaks or blocks of meat for sushi you want are custom cut, individually vacuum packed and labelled, then sent home with you frozen, all included in rates. You can even have some of your early catch sent offsite for smoking if that’s how you like it. My box had 35 pounds of salmon, cod, halibut and bass in dozens of individual packages, and that’s already trimmed eating weight, so we will be eating a lot of delicious, nutritious, wild caught seafood for the foreseeable future.
I would have liked better internet and a gym, but hardly anyone is here more than 5 days, I had a fantastic time and would gladly do it again. Like golf, it’s a great trip for a group of buddies, four, eight or twelve, though you don’t have to do multiples of four and in most cases a threesome still get their own private boat and you can always pay extra of the privilege even as single (or possibly get grouped with strangers of no extra fee). They get lots of families, women and kids, and the whole place has a summer camp vibe, with less of a hardcore fishing crowd than I would have expected, though they get a lot of repeats. Part of this is because even if you are a very experienced angler, the fishing is deafferent from what you likely do at home, so in this sense, everyone who comes for the first time is on equal footing.
They also add a lot of fun competitions, fishes of the day, week, month and season, contests you can buy into, and take complimentary pictures of you and your catch getting off the boat. But perhaps the most impressive thing is all the moving parts and how smoothly everything runs. With a capacity of 90, the Lodge flips about a third oi fts rooms every day, with an armada of seaplanes coming and going, housekeeping working at warp speed, boats leaving on time, fish being processed, all according to an extremely detailed schedule. It’s easier to get to Alaska than many people think – Ketchikan is a 45-minute flight from Seattle – but it’s not simple, and they make it as smooth as you could imagine.
The season is short, mid-June to late August, and it starts with the run of King salmon, which continues all season, but my guide said the very best time to go is the third and fourth weeks of July, when the King fishing is still good but the main Coho (Silver salmon) run has started, and you can catch both daily. King salmon average 14-17 pounds though they can go quite a bit bigger, and the limit is usually one per day, but you are allowed six smaller Coho daily, averaging 8-12 pounds, so if you hit the limits – and many do – you’d go home with roughly three times as much salmon. Pink, the smallest of the local salmon, arrive in August, but the Alaska Department of Fish and game closely monitors catches and, in many years, lowers the limits on King salmon, sometimes by August 1, so the second half of July is tops all around. Halibut, Lingcod and rockfish such as black bass are here all summer.
Waterfall was the first fishing lodge in the state to earn Adventure Green Alaska certification for environmental sustainability, something travelers are increasingly seeking out when they choose where to go. It’s widely considered one of the best high-end fishing lodges in the country, but the same owners also operate an even more luxurious property nearby, Steamboat Bay Fishing Club. We motored by it while fishing, but I did not get to see it. Steamboat Bay operates the same way, fly in by seaplane from Ketchikan, all-inclusive, but has only accommodations for 28, all in luxury units with hot tubs and such, better food plus open premium bar, with similar but even larger high-quality boats and excellent guides. It is swankier, but the real advantage might be its location on Noyes Island, about half an hour by boat from Waterfall, and half an hour closer to the outside coast where the biggest salmon are typically caught, so you spend less time commuting and more fishing, though this can be negated for creature comforts, as its location gives guests the option of returning to the lodge for sit down lunch. Steamboat Bay is considered the crème de la crème of Alaskan fishing lodges.