All The Fish

Kings of Kachemak Bay

3 king salmon tails on a blue boat deck
Three kings on deck. 📷 Courtesy Holly Dickson

When you think about Chinook Salmon (Kings) you may picture the runs that happen in the summer when fish are returning to spawn. But you can also target these fish when they’re at sea during the ocean phase of their life cycle.

Where are these kings originating from and what are they doing in Kachemak Bay this time of year?

They’re from all over the place. It’s really a mix-stocked fishery. They come from all over the west coast and Gulf of Alaska. California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia. From 2014–2018 we conducted a genetics study…99.8% are fish from outside Cook Inlet.

I’ve heard these fish called “feeder kings”

Yeah. They’re in their ocean phase. They’re out there looking for as much food as they can. They’re not the spawners yet. These feeder kings in the winter tend to be about two years old — they’re in their second winter in the ocean. It’s the most common age that we see here. These are just fish that are out rearing in the ocean, growing bigger prior to returning to their natal streams to spawn.

Two kings next to flashers. 📷 Courtesy Holly Dickson

How big is a 2-year winter fish and what do they look like?

A fish that’s a two ocean fish — it’s in its second winter in the ocean — is about 10 lbs. It could be a little bigger. They’re really gorgeous in this stage. This is before they start to turn their spawning colors. You can’t tell if they’re male or female really. They don’t have any of the hook jaw going on. They’re really full and bright and silvery. They lose their scales easily when you get them in the net. They’re just gorgeous at this point.

How can you tell it’s a Chinook verses another salmon species?

There’s a few defining characteristics for kings. I think the two best things to look at are the color of the gums. Their mouth is completely black. One of their synonymous names is black mouth. And they have black spots on both the upper and lower lobes of their tail. The other thing is that we really don’t catch any other species of salmon here in the winter. There aren’t Coho or Sockeye feeding in Cook Inlet or Kachemak Bay in the winter. It’s just kings. If someone catches a Coho or a Chum, it’s big fishing news around town.

close up of a chinook salmon tail
Close-up of a King Salmon tail (note the spots). 📷 Courtesy Holly Dickson

Fishing

What are they eating and how does that inform what kinds of baits and lures to use?

So yeah, match the hatch. Kind of the same thing as fly fishing in a stream. You’re still doing that in saltwater fishing. King salmon overall feed primarily on forage fishes and small invertebrates in the Gulf of Alaska or here in Kachemak Bay. Some of the primary forage fish that we have are Herring and Sand Lance. They’ll also feed on Capelin, Eulachon, and crustaceans. They’ll feed on worms, and also on squid.

Working back from squid, there are plastic lures called hoochies that mimic those. There just a plastic skirt that work pretty darn well. Herring — being kind of the primary food source for these guys — is also the primary bait used to fish for king salmon in saltwater.

a downrigger and rod with snowy mountains in the background
A downrigger and rod set for king salmon fishing. 📷 Courtesy Holly Dickson

You need to get them [bait/lures] down to the depth that these kings are at. Almost everybody uses downriggers with a lead cannon ball on them. For the most part these fish are down deep, so the longer you can keep your bait at the depth you think they are the more likely you will be that you get a bite. So I think that’s the benefit of trolling.

Almost everyone fishes with a flasher. These are attractants. They rotate and spin in the water to catch the king’s attention. There are lots of different colors and styles that have different action. They’ll kick around back there and move your bait or lure. One of the most common set-ups I’d say is a white flasher with herring and a head clip back there. But there are all kinds of variation.

a king salmon being reeled into a boat
Netting a king in Kachemak Bay. Note the flasher above. 📷 Courtesy Holly Dickson

Is it common practice for people in a fishing party to set the downriggers at different depths and see where they start getting strikes?

Yeah for sure. The more people you can have on your boat without making a huge mess of lines (which does happen), the more likely you are to figure out where the bite is or where the fish are.

two women land a Chinook Salmon
Landing a King Salmon in Kachemak Bay. 📷 Courtesy Holly Dickson

Do you have any general safety or preparation tips?

There is endless amount of logistics or planning or preparation for participation in winter king salmon fishing here in Homer. I really like to take an ice scraper with me when I go out on days when it’s cold to remove ice or freezing spray from the windshield of the boat. I think it’s really important to pay attention to your deck and how slippery it gets. Just an extra layer of caution for the conditions that you’re going in.

And you know the other thing — not that there’s not strong currents and tides in other places as too but — Cook Inlet has a reputation for its tidal exchange.

And to put that tide in perspective, what are the tides? I mean they’re huge! How big are we talking?

The standard or average is 17 feet of tidal exchange. It will go all the way up to close to 25 feet of exchange from low to high tide.

Homer webcams helps you check the weather and tides (see below under Resources for Anglers).

Yep. It’s something you’ve think about when you’re launching the boat as well: getting that timing right.

We see people fishing in sea kayaks or small inflatable boats close to the homer spit. Those are very brave people.

Safety Tip

One thing we always want you to keep in mind regardless of what it is or where it is that you’re fishing is safety.

The situation that you might not think about while you’re fishing is skin care. Snow and ice have high albedos, meaning they reflect sunlight very well. In fact, fresh snow can reflect up to 90% of the light that hits it. What does this mean for us anglers then? On a sunny day we have intense sunlight coming from us from the sky and the ground. You want to make sure you’re wearing a hat, sunglasses, and photo protective clothing as well as sunscreen, preferably with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as active ingredients on exposed areas of the skin. Remember that the ultraviolet radiation responsible for causing sunburns and even skin cancer penetrates clouds so don’t let an overcast sky lull you into complacency.

Don’t forget your sunglasses. 📷 Courtesy Holly Dickson

Eating/Cooking

Do you have a favorite recipe for winter kings or kings in general?

They’re the best salmon that you can eat. And then on top of that, coming out of the ocean these feeder kings are the most rich. They’re very high in oil content. The big ones are very oily. I don’t think you can do anything wrong. I tend to think fresh is the best and tend to put a lot of salt on to get a good crust on top.

One of my favorite ways and you want to make sure you freeze it first is to make poke with raw king salmon.

So I’ve heard from some friends of mine who have gone fishing for kings near Homer that when you open them up they don’t have that distinctive orangey-red flesh that we associate with salmon. It’s more of a pale kind of white meat. Is this a different subspecies of king? A unique variant?

a white and red salmon fillet
A “white” king (bottom) vs a more typical salmon fillet. 📷 Courtesy Holly Dickson

So these white kings — we catch them occasionally around Homer. They’re not a different species or sub-species. They’re just missing the ability to express that color in their flesh. So it’s sort of like an albino fish but just of the flesh. They’re more common in a couple of river systems in British Columbia. Chinook or kings from most of Alaska and Cook Inlet are not white king salmon. So they are like genetically identifiable in that sense. But otherwise they’re exactly the same as the perfectly orange king salmon. White king salmon are always great and oily but they’re just as good as the orange ones and vice versa. There’s not really any flavor difference. They are kind of more prized though. Anglers tend to get very excited when they get a white king and yeah there’s some prestige around them I would say.

a woman holds a king salmon in Kachemak Bay
Holly and Mike 📷 Courtesy Holly Dickson

Resources for Anglers

Wind speed at the end of Homer Spit

Wave height at the mouth of Kachemak Bay

Homer Webcams to look at weather on Kachemak Bay

Compiled by Katrina Liebich, Digital Media Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s External Affairs in Alaska. Listen to more Fish of the Week! episodes wherever you get podcasts.

As the Service reflects on 150 years of fisheries conservation, we honor, thank, and celebrate the whole community — individuals, Tribes, the State of Alaska, sister agencies, fish enthusiasts, scientists, and others — who have elevated our understanding and love, as people and professionals, of all the fish.

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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