Float & Fish Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges
Find Your Way to an Amazing Experience!
In Alaska, rivers offer a great way to access the crown jewels of America’s National Wildlife Refuge System — 16 Refuges totaling nearly 77 million acres. It’s time to start thinking about getting your feet wet and your fishing rods ready…here are a few ideas!
KENAI National Wildlife Refuge
The River: Kenai
The turquoise waters of the Kenai River — Alaska’s premier fishing destination — originate from multiple glaciers and flow over 80 miles westward from Kenai Lake across the Kenai Peninsula to Cook Inlet. This river draws visitors from all over the world and boasts the largest sport fisheries for wild, self-sustaining Coho, Chinook, and Sockeye Salmon in the state.
Varies! Whether fishing from a drift or power boat or walking the banks fly fishing, there are a variety of guided and self-guided ways to experience the Kenai River. Resident Rainbow Trout and Dolly Varden char provide excellent year-round opportunities. Salmon attract anglers from May to October.
The largest of the Pacific salmon, Chinook (Kings) kick off the salmon season May. At just shy of 100 pounds, the biggest ever landed with rod and reel was a Kenai River King. Conserving this unique strain of Chinook is becoming precedent as many anglers now prefer to catch and release and tell the tale. To complement the spectacular opportunity to catch the next world record Chinook, hundreds of thousands to sometimes millions of Sockeye Salmon return to spawn during Alaska’s summer months. Anglers flock from all over the world to catch these feisty fish. Don’t be fooled into thinking the end of the salmon season coincides with the end of summer—not so! The shorter days and cooler temperatures mark the beginning of Coho Salmon season. Returning as early as late July, these aggressive fish will keep you fishing into late fall and early winter. Die-hard fishers seeking nonstop action should fish the Kenai during even years when millions of Pink Salmon return in late July and August.
“We camped, fished, watched wildlife, and built community in and throughout the rivers and streams and forests and meadows of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The places, these public lands are so invaluable to us, to this nation.”
-Chad Brown, Soul River, Inc.
Read more about Chad’s program to build community with veterans and youth as they experience Alaska for the first time through fly fishing: Alaska 2015 Expedition.
Access Level: Easy and on the road system!
There are numerous boat launches available for public use between Kenai Lake and the Kenai’s mouth. This webpage has some good boating safety tips. This map is a great place to start if you’re looking for amenities and access points. A list of permitted Kenai River guides is available through Alaska State Parks (contact Pamela.Russell@alaska.gov at the Kenai River Center). Fishing regulations may change annually or by emergency order, so be sure to check the state regulations before fishing: the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sportfish website is a great place to start.
KODIAK National Wildlife Refuge
The River: Uganik
Located at the northwest corner of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Uganik River draws from the glaciers and high country snow of Kodiak Island’s major mountain range. Fish and float the 6-mile section of the River that meanders through a cottonwood valley from the striking blue of Uganik Lake to the saltwater of Uganik Bay.
September silver salmon! Take a day trip or stay and camp among the fall cottonwood colors. Bring a raft and a rod and wind your way down to the sea. The float is fairly gentle: new vistas of the Refuge open up with each arc of the river and gravel bars offer places to stop and cast. You’ll share the river with Kodiak’s famous brown bears, as they feast on the summer and fall migration of Sockeye, Pink, and Coho Salmon, plus the year-round bounty of Dolly Varden and Rainbow Trout.
“Once we passed the first corner my excitement hit the roof. We had a small Kodiak Brown Bear fishing in the river! Fishing was fantastic the entire day. We were able to keep 22 silver salmon, and released many more. We also had some beautiful Dolly Varden along the way. Throughout the float we saw 15 different bears — they all were very calm and happy to share the river with us. On a scale of 1–10 as far as the enjoyment goes, this trip was definitely a 97. I would recommend this to anyone that would like a trip of a lifetime all rolled up into a single day.” Carl Royall, local Kodiak photographer and fisherman.
Access Level: Moderately remote, but well-established.
Access this remote river via 25-minute floatplane trip from the city of Kodiak. Rent or bring your own portable raft — this is also an excellent river for pack-rafting. For a day trip, land at the lake in the morning and get picked up in the bay in late afternoon. There are no established campgrounds or trails. Camping is best at the lake or along the upper sections of the river, and an electric fence is a must! A public use cabin at the opposite end of the lake also makes a fine home base — but book it early. No permits required, but bring your fishing license!
Safety: Fishing in Bear Country
TOGIAK National Wildlife Refuge
The River: Ongivinuk
Located on the eastern side of Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, and nearly 50 miles northwest of Dillingham, the Ongivinuk River begins its journey at Ongivinuk Lake and winds its way through a mountain valley before joining with the much larger Togiak River over 30 river miles later. The Ongivinuk is also located within Togiak’s 2.3 million acre designated wilderness area.
Perhaps no other Togiak Refuge destination offers the dramatic combination of stunning scenery, terrific camping locations and tremendous fishing, on a river that can accommodate both short and long rafting trips. The Ongivinuk is a fly-in float trip destination that offers bountiful opportunities for anglers, photographers, nature lovers or those just looking for a peaceful wilderness experience. For those who fish, the river can be an outstanding place to catch Dolly Varden, Arctic Grayling and Rainbow Trout, as well as (depending on the timing) all five species of Pacific salmon. The river is also home to a vast array of mammals and birds.
“This is our most scenic float (IMHO). Also, it has the best grayling fishing I’ve ever experienced! I often take our campers to this river, and its not uncommon for every kid to catch at least one 20” grayling.” Terry Fuller, Togiak National Wildlife Refuge Environmental Educator.
Read more about the Refuge’s multi-day Summer Outdoor Skills and River Ecology Float Camp.
Access Level: Moderately remote, but well-established.
This is one of the most accessible rivers on the Refuge — get to it by a 30 minute floatplane flight from Dillingham, with pick-up on the Togiak River. Multiple local air taxis provide service. The Ongivinuk is a rafting opportunity and can be safely rafted in just a few days, or you can slow it down and “stop to smell the roses.” There are no established campgrounds, but an abundance of large gravel bars lend themselves well to Leave-No-Trace camping. Bears can be fairly abundant, depending on the time of year, so bring a bear fence and minimize bear attractants. No permits required, but bring your fishing license. Learn more about wilderness areas on Refuges.
SELAWIK National Wildlife Refuge
The River: Selawik
In the Inupiaq language of Northwest Alaska, “Selawik” means “place of sheefish.” That’s just one species of fish you’ll find in this slow, sinuous river and its swifter, gravelly tributaries. Originating in the Purcell Mountains, the Selawik flows west through the Refuge before eventually emptying into Kotzebue Sound.
A wild, back-country fishing opportunity for intrepid explorers! While you’ll have plenty of wide-open spaces and see few other travelers, wildlife sightings are likely, including moose, caribou, bears, waterfowl and beavers. Depending on your location in the watershed and the season, angling opportunities abound for Sheefish (inconnu), Northern Pike, Arctic Grayling, Burbot, and other species of whitefish.
Access Level: Off the beaten path
Aside from air taxis, there is no developed tourist infrastructure in the area. Most access to the Refuge is by boat, float plane, or bush plane from the hub village of Kotzebue. Canoe or kayak is the best way to float this river; strong upstream winds can be difficult in a raft. Be sure to follow the wilderness preparedness and etiquette suggestions at the bottom of this article. More tips on floating the Selawik.
Note: Sheefish are an important local food source, especially for residents living in the community of Selawik. Avoid trespassing at private camps along the river.
ARCTIC National Wildlife Refuge
The River: Canning
This wild, remote river demarks the western boundary of America’s iconic northernmost Refuge. After leaving its birthplace in the craggy, slate-colored peaks of Alaska’s Brooks Range, the Canning flows north across the Arctic Coastal Plain past tiny wind-swept trees and ample wildlife.
Another wild, back-country experience awaits adventurous souls who perhaps want to find themselves as they get lost (figuratively) in awe-inspiring country.
While you won’t find salmon this far north (except for the occasional stray) you won’t be disappointed — salmon-sized Dolly Varden char and exquisitely-colored Arctic Grayling call the Canning and other Arctic Refuge rivers home.
In addition to the occasional hunter, angler, and outdoor adventurer, there are great wildlife viewing opportunities to be had. Get a glimpse into past life as well — there are cool fossils to be found along the riverbanks!
Access Level: Off the beaten path
With the exception of extreme remoteness, the Canning has minimal hazards even at high water levels. However, sparsely visited and remote fly-in rivers are not ideal places to build river navigation skills from scratch or without guidance. Access is by bush plane and weather delays are to be expected. Be prepared with extra food and dry clothing, especially if the timing of your fishing trip coincides with the hunting season. A place to dry your gear, like a ventilated tent that accommodates a sturdy gas-fired stove, can add an extra level of comfort. The trees are very small and the Refuge recommends minimizing fire impacts where only small “drift” wood can be found in the river’s flood plain.
File a Trip Plan
Just as Alaskan bush pilots do, file a trip plan with your air taxi service or the Refuge office before you start out. Close your plan when you return.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces (gravel, rock, sand, or snow), dispose of waste properly (take garbage out, bury human waste), leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, and be respectful towards the fish and wildlife, river, and other people.
Because of Alaska’s remoteness, be prepared to handle any situation on your own, including weather delays for your air taxi pick up. Bring emergency survival supplies. Carry and know how to use a map and compass or GPS. A satellite phone is a good investment (rental options are available).
Katrina Liebich and Lisa Hupp work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. Lisa is the Outreach Specialist for Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge and Katrina is the statewide Fisheries Outreach Coordinator. Terry Fuller, Environmental Educator at Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, also contributed.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.