Sport Fishing Information
This section was written by Ken Hodges. Ken, a retired Fish Biologist who worked at the Cordova Ranger District for 30 years, is an angler and a gourmand with a wealth of knowledge about the natural history of the Cordova area. Enjoy!
Types of Fish
Coho (Silver) Salmon
Coho salmon are the most popular sport fish in the Prince William Sound Zone because they’re big, there’s a lot of them, and they’re not very shy about chomping on your hook. When the coho are in thick at Alaganik Slough (near Cordova), you can see their wakes for a dozen yards as they streak through the shallow water chasing your lure.
Coho average 10 lbs, but there are a few hogs that will run 15 to 17 lbs or more. Cheechakos from the lower 48 mistake our coho for king salmon because they’re so big, but you can identify a coho by the white gums around their teeth and the black spots on only the upper half of their tails. The coho also run later than the kings. They start entering Eyak River in August, and you can still catch some bright ones (silvery and fresh from the ocean, nothing to do with their intelligence) in the upper Alaganik in mid-October.
Gear: Most people use 10-12 lb. test line and poles that match – you don’t need anything heavier as long as you check your line for nicks from time to time. Fly fishers generally use 8 weight rods. Coho aren’t too picky about what they bite, but spinners (size 4-5) and spoons are their favorite last meals. Red, orange, and yellow/green seem to work the best, but some days they’ll be hitting one of those colors and nothing else. Egg sucking leeches, flash flies, and olive zonkers on a size 1 hook are the favored flies. Crusty Old Salt Secret: any cheap red and white spoon with chrome on the other side will kill ‘em.
Pink Salmon (Humpies)
Pink salmon may not have the size of the other salmon species, but these scrappy 3-6 lb. pygmies are more than a match for any angler brought up catching 8-inch brookies in Pennsylvania. Pound for pound they’re a pretty tough fish on light tackle, and when a school of a 1,000 or more come into Hartney Bay, you can get a lot of good fishing. Pinks start nosing around their spawning streams in late June or early July and are spawning into late August.
Pink salmon have small scales and large black spots on their tails. Males grow a large hump on their backs as they get closer to spawning time. It’s best to fish for them early on while they’re still bright, because they’re livelier and better eating then. Their flesh is pink and lighter flavored than other salmon, but bright pinks are just fine on the grill with a little teriyaki sauce. They’re good for smoking, and they make a pretty tasty canned fish if you give them a light smoke and add a couple of garlic cloves to the jar.
Gear: Are pinks named pinks because of the color of their flesh or did some early angler figure out that they’ll nail anything colored pink? Pink bodied spinners, spoons with a pink plastic insert, pink sparkle shrimp or polar shrimp flies … you get the idea. I was fly fishing with a purple egg-sucking leech and catching a few, but there was this guy next to me, outfishing me about eight fish to one. He wouldn’t tell me what he was using, but he wanted to score some points with this woman and gave her a fly to use. She ratted him out – a purple egg sucking leech with a pink marabou tail. Flies with crystal flash or other sparkly material seem to work well too. If you’re using spinning gear, 6-8 lb. test is strong enough, but if you’re fishing in salt water where there are a lot of rocks with sharp barnacles, you may wish to use heavier line or check your lines for nicks more often.
Sockeye (Red) Salmon
In my humble opinion, there’s no prettier fish than a fresh sockeye – a silvery, blue-backed 4-8 lb torpedo that’s equally as lovely as a crimson fillet on the grill topped with just a bit of garlic. As they get closer to spawning time, they turn a bright red with a light green head, but alas, are no longer good for eating. They’re an excellent fighting fish, but they aren’t very aggressive when it comes to chasing a lure or a fly. A subtle nip is all you might feel, so you have to be ready and have a taut line.
Gear: Fly fishing is the preferred method for catching sockeye, although I have caught one with a small spinner while fishing for Dolly Varden, and a guy I know swears he catches them with a flatfish type lure. Most fly fishers use an 8-weight rod with a sinking tip line to get down to where the fish are holding. The most popular flies are gold comets, brassies, sparsely tied bucktails such as the Mickey Finn, Alaska Mary Anne, and sockeye John, and then other oddities like Clouser minnows, and the sockeye orange. These are tied on number 6 or 8 hooks. The large coho flies used in the Russian River are better suited for places where snagging is legal, which is not the case in the Cordova area.
Chinook (King) Salmon
Unfortunately, the largest species of salmon (average of 15-20 lbs and larger around here), needs large rivers to spawn, so there are no natural populations in the streams around Cordova. There is a “terminal harvest” at Fleming Spit (Hippie Cove) where chinook salmon juveniles from a hatchery are released and where the adults return for a recreational fishery in June and July. The purplish back, black spots on the upper and lower tail, and a black gum line around the teeth are the distinguishing features of a king.
Gear: You may wish to beef up a little bit with some 12-20 lb. test and a stouter pole. Green or chartreuse spinners and spoons seem to be the hot ones, but don’t leave the red and orange lures at home. Drifting a herring near the bottom under a bobber is a tried and true method if the area isn’t too crowded and you can let your line drift around without getting tangled with everyone else. Fly fishers usually fish in the lagoon area where there’s more room for a backcast, sight casting to the kings swimming in the shallow waters. Egg sucking leeches, once again, are the fly of choice, along with flash flies, and zonkers tied with fluorescent colors on a size 1 to 4/0 hook. The kings at the cove aren’t the size of the Kenai River giants so an 8 or 10 weight rod will do.
Chum (Dog) Salmon
The chum salmon is derisively called the dog salmon, but a bright chum in the ocean on the end of your fly line is more like a freight train than a snoozin’ hound dog. Chums average 8 lbs, but a chum that stays an extra year in the saltwater can top 15 lbs. and can spool you in a matter of seconds as he heads for the high seas. A bright chum looks a lot like a sockeye except their backs are more gray. However, when chums get ready to spawn, they change to an olive green with purple stripes on their sides. Even when a chum is fairly bright, you can usually see the beginnings of the stripes. Chums are like pinks and spawn in intertidal areas or in fresh water close to the ocean, so the best place to catch them is near the mouths of streams in late June and early July.
Gear: Chums can be rather closed mouth in clear shallow waters but are more aggressive elsewhere when large schools are present. For spinning gear, 8-12 lb. test line will do nicely along with any orange or pink lures. An 8-weight fly rod with lots of backing on the reel will do for the fly fishers. Pink sparkle shrimps, bucktails or streamers with orange or red – like a Mickey Finn, pink-tailed egg sucking leeches, and comets are the recommended flies.
Dolly Varden are a char, a close cousin of trout, but you can tell them apart because Dolly Varden have white or pink spots instead of black spots. Dollies can be caught in most streams from May through October, occasionally in the ocean in the early summer, and in large lakes if you’re ice fishing in the winter. In May and June Dollies can be found in the larger streams feeding on juvenile salmon as they head to sea. In the summer and fall Dollies can be found near spawning salmon eating the eggs that don’t get buried. Most Dollies that you catch are 10-16 inches but fish up to 22 inches are not uncommon. The biggest one I’ve seen was caught in saltwater near the Cordova Harbor – 26 inches and about 5 lbs. Although the meat isn’t as rich as salmon, a 15-inch Dolly will make you a nice dinner, especially a pink-fleshed fish that’s been in the ocean. (Sourdough Secret: They’re an excellent smoked fish too.)
Gear: Light tackle with 6-8 lb test is a good match for a Dolly, but they do put up a good fight with a lot of runs and thrashing as you get them close to shore. Small silver spinners (size 2-4) work well in clear streams as they may look like salmon smolts. Generally, however, Dollies aren’t too picky about your lures. For fly fishers, 5 or 6 weight rods are more in order. Smolt or alevin patterns are best early in the early season, while egg imitations work in the fall. Nymph patterns can work well when salmon are spawning since the salmon often dislodge aquatic insects with their digging. The Alaska Mary Anne and red and yellow Mickey Finn are faithful standbys, as is, you guessed it, the purple egg sucking leech.
The coastal cutthroat trout are covered with small black spots and have a bright red slash along their jaw. If the sockeye isn’t the prettiest fish around, then the cutthroat is. The ocean-going types of cutthroat can get up to 19 inches, but most of the ones you’ll encounter are 10-14 inches. In the small isolated lakes, they’re usually 6-10 inches. Fishing for cutthroat is closed from April 15 to June 14, which is their spawning time. Some cutthroat migrate to the ocean for a month or so after spawning, but others stay in lakes and streams for the summer and spend the winter in lakes. Most of the streams around here have relatively small populations, so you may wish to consider releasing cutthroat if you catch them.
Gear: Cutthoat trout can be pretty feisty, but 4-6 lb test is all you really need. Small spinners and red/white spoons will get you some action – cutthroat aren’t known to be too picky. Fly fishers will want a 5-weight rod or smaller if you’re casting dry flies in a small lake. Matching the hatch with dry flies isn’t too hard – for most of the summer use a mosquito, but there can be clouds of midges in the early summer and large hatches of caddis flies later on. Small Mickey Finns, red and white bucktails, flash flies, muddler minnows, and smolt patterns are the usual choices for subsurface flies. If you want some fun, try a small shrew pattern along a streambank. In one stomach sample (non-lethal) we found a three-inch water shrew in an 11-inch cutthroat.