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 Kenai River transects the National Wildlife Refuge that bears its name and a variety of federal, state, tribal and private lands before it meets the sea. Photo by Michael Buntjer

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.

Fishing for Rainbows (pictured) and Dollies spans the Kenai’s seasons. Photo by Michael Buntjer

The Experience:

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.

Les Anderson caught this world record Kenai King in 1985.

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.

Left: A Chinook Salmon. Photo by Katrina Liebich. Right: Kenai River Sockeye Salmon (also called reds) make their way upstream to spawn. Photo by Kentaro Yasui
Pink Salmon are a particularly good first fish for new, young anglers. Photos: USFWS/Taylor Urlich
“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.

Travel Tips:

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.

Based on when they migrate (“run”) upstream and where they spawn, Kenai River Chinook fall into two groups: an early-run that spawns in the tributaries within the Refuge and tends to migrate upstream between late April and early July and a late-run that returns between mid-June and early September to spawn in the mainstem. To track the health of the early-runners, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologists have monitored fish as they pass through several strategically-located weirs on their way upstream. Video: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

For more info on access and activities, contact our friendly, local staff at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, check out this handy guide to visitor activities, or follow on facebook!

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.

A fishing group parks their rafts on a gravel bar for a few casts into the Uganik River. Photo: Courtesy of Carl Royall, 2017.

The Experience:

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.
Top photos: A group stops to fish on their float down to the ocean. Encountering bears is part of the floating experience! Stay calm, share the river, and enjoy the experience! Courtesy of Carl Royall. Bottom photos: Packrafts are a hoot on this river! Get to the bottom, roll up your raft, and hike back up to the top again… This river arcs through cottonwoods that bring beautiful color during September silver season. And: marvel at the fishing abilities of Kodiak bears! Photos: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Travel Tips:

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

For more info, contact our friendly, local staff at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, check out this “plan your visit” page, or follow on facebook!

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.

A colorful Togiak Dolly Varden char. Photo: USFWS

The Experience:

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.
Camping on a multi-day wilderness float trip with local high school students — what a way to learn outdoor skills! One student displays a fresh-caught Dolly Varden. Photos: USFWS
Rainbows of Togiak. Photos: USFWS

Travel Tips:

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 Selawik River meanders across the southern border of the Arctic Circle in northwest Alaska. USFWS/Steve Hillebrand

The River: Selawik

The largest of Alaska’s whitefish, adult male Selawik sheefish typically reach 2–3 feet in length and weigh 6–17lbs. Females are larger, reaching lengths of nearly 4 feet. Sheefish don’t typically mature until they’re 8–12 years old and are capable of living well over 30+ years. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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.

The Experience:

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.

Photos from left to right: Taking in the view from camp. Like the deserts of the southwest US or the northern plains, Selawik is “big sky country;” A lone canoeist paddles across the calm Selawik River at dusk. Photos: USFWS/Steve Hillebrand. The Selawik River in September. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich.

Travel Tips:

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.

Left: The community of Selawik. Right: local fish like sheefish and northern pike are important to local residents. Here, fillets dry in the sun. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich and Dan Prince)
In the spring of 2004, a large area of thawed permafrost slid and carried tundra and sediment into the normally clear Selawik upstream of the sheefish spawning grounds. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists are partnering with the Native Village of Selawik on a long-term study to understand if silt input from the slump is impacting the sheefish population. Photo: USFWS/Katrina Liebich

For more info, contact our friendly, local staff at the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge, check out this “plan your visit” page, or follow on facebook!

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.

The Canning River cuts through the Brooks Range before fanning out along the coastal plain. Photos: USFWS/Katrina Liebich
The Canning River in August. USFWS/Katrina Liebich

The Experience:

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.

Canning River Dolly Varden char (right: all dressed up for spawning). Read how these incredibly tough fish survive the North Slope’s harsh winters. Photos: USFWS/John Wenburg and Randy Brown
Canning River Arctic Grayling up close. USFWS/Katrina Liebich

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!

From left: muskox, ground squirrel, caribou along the Canning. Below: fossils! USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Travel Tips:

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.

Tent camping along the Canning River. USFWS/Katrina Liebich

For more info, contact our friendly staff from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, check out this “plan your visit” page, or follow on facebook!


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.

Leave No Trace

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.

Practice Self-Sufficiency

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.

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