The Urban Salmon On Ship Creek
How Does Salmon Fishing On Your Lunch Break Sound?
by Kalb Stevenson
Hotels. Office buildings and business suits. The Alaska Railroad station. Feeling the urban vibe? Welcome to Anchorage – Alaska’s largest city and home to just under 300,000 residents. It’s also home to Ship Creek, a popular and well-known fishery right in the city’s back yard. Ship Creek boasts annual returns of hatchery-reared king salmon each summer from late May to July, and silver and pink salmon in July and August.
Alaskans are somewhat spoiled when it comes to fish. Many purists wouldn’t think of venturing down to the old mud hole to rub elbows with the dozens, if not hundreds, of people fishing each summer day. But its proximity to so many residents makes it an ideal place for anglers to spend an early morning or afternoon in the summer. It’s the first place cheechakos go to learn how to fish for salmon, and it’s a great way to put a fresh fillet on the grill.
When the fish are in, Ship Creek is actually pretty decent fishing. But timing is key. In the day and age of instant boasting of one’s catch on social media, it doesn’t take long for the word to spread that the fishing is hot.
An Old Pro
“Did you see that?” asked Glen, the seasoned angler who was fishing next to me. “See what?” I replied. “My bobber just dropped and came back up. I missed it!” he grumbled with a mixture of surprise and frustration. I was in disbelief since we hadn’t seen any action in the last hour. It was uncharacteristic for ol’ eagle-eye Glen to miss a takedown, but understandable given how slow it had been. I decided to reel in the soggy bait I was drifting and freshen up my treble hook with a new helping of cured salmon roe. I formed what looked like a meatball around the three prongs of the giant hook with only the sharpest tips protruding through the top – a sneaky surprise for any unsuspecting salmon that might find its presentation irresistible dangling four feet beneath my bobber. I gently launched the baited hook back into the slow-moving water ten feet off shore and kept my eyes fixed on the bobber. I firmed up my grip on my fishing rod. If old Glen was right, there was an aggressive king in the stream reach we were fishing.
Glen was smart and always seemed to have more success at Ship Creek than any other angler I had met. He’d made king and silver fishing look easy, and there were a million different tricks he would use to get at these fish. Glen had helped me land my first king at Ship Creek years earlier, just a few hundred yards from where we stood watching our bobbers in the creek at high tide. His instructions from years earlier played back through my mind: “Watch that bobber, now. As soon as it drops, you jerk the rod tip up as high and as hard as you can to set the hook. I’m serious; get tough with it – you’re not gonna break the rod.” I flashed back to the present when out of nowhere, the little red and white bobber attached to my line disappeared below the surface. I knew there was only a split second to react before this fish would spit the hook. I immediately let out a ferocious “Yaaargh!” and jerked up as hard as I could on the fishing rod. There’s nothing like breaking the silence over dozens of other bored fishermen standing around in the cold. “Fish on!” I yelled, to the excitement of old Glen, who dropped his pole to help. I could hear the squishy sounds of Ship Creek mud beneath his hip boots as he scampered for his net.
It felt good. I knew the hook was set well, but now had to focus on getting my drag right and not letting the fish break the line. It was a wonderful thing to watch that line dance back and forth across the water as the fish went running up stream and then back down. Turning its head back and regaining some of the line, I fought to keep the rod tip up while Glen laid the net near the edge of the water. Ten minutes later, the fight drew to a close, and the 25 pound buck dropped into the bottom of Glen’s net on his first attempt. Even though he was in his seventies, Glen hauled the dime bright king up the bank and into the grass like a teenager. The fish flopped around on the shore a few times before Glen did the honors of knocking it out with his trusty fish whacker that has probably seen just as many years as he has.
Timing the Tides
Ship Creek is an urban delight. Where else can you find a spot where businessmen can go salmon fishing on their lunch hour? And who doesn’t love the idea of driving only a few minutes to a stream that can yield a 50 pound king or a limit of three silvers in less than a couple of hours? Yes, the banks are muddy, the fish are a tad on the small side, and the crowds can be overwhelming at times. But this is salmon in the city, folks. What better place to enjoy an early morning cup of coffee before work or to take the family on the weekend when you just can’t afford to get out of town?
The fishery is situated near the downtown Saturday Market, the train depot, and many of Anchorage’s hotels. It’s a hotbed for summer tourists that love to come out and watch the action. With every turning tide in June, there can be kings flying into the air, creating fantastic action for fishermen up and down the river’s banks. In July, the pinks and “fightin’ silvers” start trickling in, providing hours of excitement for enthusiastic anglers. But it does take a little knowhow and planning to have success at Ship Creek.
Ship Creek drains into Cook Inlet, which experiences one of the strongest tides in the world. The water level in the lower, fishable portion of the creek rises 25 to 30 vertical feet in elevation twice per day, often filling the steep banks close to the brim. At high tide, the fishery actually resembles an elongated lake more than a river, having little or no flow. This provides a leisurely upstream swim for returning salmon, which like to stage in the Inlet at the mouth of the creek prior to entering it with the incoming water.
It takes just over six hours for incoming water to move from low tide at the mouth of Ship Creek to its highest level near the upper fishing boundary at high tide. A full Cook Inlet tidal cycle (water in and water out) is 12 hours and 25 minutes, so you can select your spot on the river to best accommodate your schedule and your fishing style.
There is no real consensus as to whether fish go on the bite more strongly at the incoming tide or on the outgoing tide. One year, I will sense that the outgoing tide is producing more hook-ups. The next year, the incoming tide will seem to generate more strikes. Fishing is slow right at slack tide, but fish can still be caught. A good strategy is to select a spot near the upper boundary and fish an hour or two before and after high tide so as to take advantage of both the incoming and outgoing tides in a shorter time window.
Timing crowds at Ship Creek can also be tricky. To avoid tangled lines and sour looks, many prefer to avoid the creek on weekend afternoons. One good thing about the Ship Creek king salmon fishing season (which usually runs until July 13th) is that the fishery is closed from 11pm until 6am to allow fish to come through without any pressure. With this no-fish time window in place, arriving in the morning at about 5:45am provides a good chance to strategically pick a spot where you think the fish might be holding after a night of no fishing pressure to spook them.
How to Catch ‘Em
There is no standard way to fish Ship Creek. Anglers use flies, lures (such as a Vibrax, pixies, or Spin ‘n’ Glows), and cured salmon roe for bait. On the incoming tide, a popular method is to drop a two-ounce weight down with a few feet of leader between it and a Spin ‘n’ Glow baited with salmon roe. Blue and green Vibrax tend to be the favorite lures of Ship Creek fishermen, and hook ups have come casting straight across the river. However, anglers such as my pal Glen, who I mentioned above, prefer floating roe under a bobber an hour before and after slack tide. I’ve caught most of my fish at Ship Creek this way, and it doesn’t make sense to change what works.
A common occurrence from June through August is a group of twenty or so fishermen congregating at the upper fishing boundary at each high tide, flogging deep holes in the water with green yarn flies and moving downriver as the tide goes out. These anglers are trying to be where the fish are, which isn’t a bad strategy when the fish are present but for whatever reason, just aren’t biting.
Entertainment is Free
The people I’ve met at Ship Creek are generally lighthearted and a real melting pot of city folk – young and old; male and female; white, black, Asian, Mexican, Filipino, and Samoan. Most are nice, soft spoken, relaxed, and willing to share a pointer or two. If at the end of the day you aren’t able to catch that monster king or a prized silver, you can always enjoy the Ship Creek sideshow. There are one or two folks each year that get surprised by the rising tide and end up filling their waders as they break for shore (it’s almost been me on a few occasions). Then there is the inexperienced netter that just cost his friend his dream fish – he flew 3,000 miles to come here to catch a king salmon, and his buddy just bumped it off the line with the net. There is the young boy who, while learning to cast, just threw his pole in the water and begins crying as his dad goes diving in after it. There is the woman fishing on the bank who is chastising the guy standing across from her on the gravel bar because he is thinking a little too long about keeping his foul-hooked fish. Finally, there is the expert angler that dazzles everyone with his consistency and repeated success, winning prizes in the salmon derby and posing for pictures with his catch at the request of passing tourists. Chances are, that guy’s name is Glen, and he may have a few pointers for you.
There’s no doubt that Ship Creek offers plenty of entertainment. It’s not quite Disneyland, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a man in a Daffy Duck costume and hip boots. Anchorage is a city – a small one, but still a city. Not many cities have a salmon stream in their back yards. And that is hard to beat.
Article by Kalb Stevenson
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