The day had finally come. I boarded the plane with my Sea Run Norfork Expedition Fly Fishing Travel Case and headed north! All that mumbo jumbo you’ve heard about Alaska being The Last Frontier… well, I’m here to tell you – it’s the truth. The snowcapped mountains are literally jaw-dropping, and the glacial rivers exhibit a shade of blue I’ve yet to see elsewhere. On top of that, the salmon and trout runs are straight out of an angler’s dream and I’m not being overly romantic. Oh yeah, and there’s also the chance of running into a 500lb set of jaws around the next corner. Uncharted and unpredictable, the 49th State is a place deserving of the hype.
Through some connections here at Flylords, I was fortunate to travel north and officially check Alaska off my bucket list. I won’t bore you with stories of swinging for steelhead or sizzling coho fillets over the woodstove, but rest assured – we enjoyed ourselves. That isn’t to say we didn’t have to work, though. We grinded through tough and sometimes uncomfortable conditions, and eventually, we were rewarded. Look, Alaska is breathtaking, but she doesn’t give a damn about you or your well-being – that’s where having the right gear comes into play. Trust me, you’ll want it.
Good Gear = Good Times
There are a ton of ways to approach packing for a DIY Alaskan adventure. Most of it depends on the species you’re targeting and the time of year you’ll be in town. Keep in mind, my trip was in late October and we covered some ground. We fished from Fairbanks to Homer and targeted steelhead, rainbow trout, coho salmon, and arctic grayling. The following items were essential for my trip, and in my opinion, they’re great items to have any time in Alaska. Obviously, clothing requirements will vary depending on the season, but the importance of durable gear constructed of quality materials remains constant. To me, packing gear only builds the anticipation and excitement of an upcoming trip. So go ahead – put on some tunes, crack a beer, and enjoy the process.
Gear Guide for Fly Fishing Alaska:
While swinging for steelhead and ‘bows in strong current, I found a two-handed rod, say 11’-11’6” or so, to be ideal. Coho salmon, on the other hand, seemed to gravitate towards slower pockets of water where a 9’6” 6wt did the trick. Any number of lightweight setups can be used to target grayling, but I had success with a 9’ 5wt. Obviously, every angler has their own rod preferences, but if you have no clue what to bring, these recommendations should get you in the ballpark. The respective models are as follows:
- Douglas SKY 11’4” 7wt (Perfect for swinging flies to salmon and steelhead)
- Douglas DXF 9’6” 6wt (A great rod for targeting rainbows and nymphing)
- Douglas LRS 9’ 5wt (This was my grayling rod)
When it comes down to it, all a reel needs to do is hold line and have a strong, reliable drag system. And if it’s lightweight, all the better. These days, most big fish reels utilize a sealed disc drag system. Pair that with a large arbor, and you’re ready to battle with silvers and steelhead. On the other hand, grayling don’t require quite as much fish-stopping power, so you can get away with a smaller arbor reel. On this trip I ran the 425 (for salmon & steelhead) and the 325 (for grayling & trout) from Cheeky’s Limitless Series. I always keep a couple spare spools around too, which makes changing between lines a breeze.
Like rods and reels, everyone has their own opinion on line manufacturers too. Over the years, I have found that Airflo checks all of my boxes. The following recommendations are all Airflo lines, but these days, most reputable line manufacturers offer comparable products. Generally, I’d recommend a Skagit set-up for your two-handed rod, a power taper line, and a universal taper line. The respective lines are as follows:
- Skagit Scout 450 grain, Ridge Running Line, Flow Tips (Rigged for 11’4” 7wt)
- Superflo Power Taper (Rigged for 9’6” 6wt)
- Superflo Ridge 2.0 Universal Taper (Rigged for 9’ 5wt)
Leaders and Tippet:
When swinging flies, I ran a relatively short leader (about 3′) of straight 12-15lb fluorocarbon. Generally, when using a sink tip it’s best to minimize leader length, if possible. A short leader will allow your fly to follow closely behind the sinking line, thus shrinking the time-delay between line depth and fly depth. Alternatively, when targeting grayling with floating line I used a standard 9′ tapered leader with 4X tippet.
To each their own… or at least that’s how the saying goes. There’s probably no category where that sentiment rings more true than with Flies. At the end of the day, it’s about matching current conditions and throwing something you have confidence in. The following flies helped me land some bigguns, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones that’ll work. Don’t be afraid to throw something unorthodox – sometimes deviating from the norm can make all the difference.
Steelhead & Rainbow Trout:
- Black/Purple Articulated Leech
- Various Subsurface Nymphs
Rod Travel Case:
I ran the Sea Run Norfork Expedition Fly Fishing Travel Case on this trip. It made things easy on the plane and in the truck. Having everything secured in one place keeps you protected, organized, and efficient. We were constantly on the move and I didn’t lose or break a single item, which admittedly, is a rarity for me. The case has three combination locks and once opened a divider wall separates the top from the bottom. Six four-piece fly rods can be stored up top and miscellaneous gear like reels, spools, fly boxes, lines, and leader can be stored underneath. Sea Run makes an incredibly durable and masterfully designed product. We all know fly fishing gear ain’t cheap. Protect it.
As I mentioned earlier, having durable gear made from quality materials is crucial in Alaska. As every angler knows, the weather has a mind of its own. This is especially apparent up north. Exhibit A: when planning for my trip the extended forecast showed highs in the mid-50’s and lows in the mid-30’s. Low and behold, during the trip temperatures on both ends plummeted by 20⁰F. All of a sudden I was wishing for my 0⁰F bag and cursing my 20⁰F bag. The point being, pack a few more layers than you think you’ll need and make sure they’ll keep you warm even when wet. Merino wool is one of my favorites, but fleece, down, and synthetics all have their place in a layering system. Additionally, a waterproof fishing jacket, such as the Simms G3 Guide Gore-Tex Wading Jacket, will make life so much more enjoyable. Avoid cotton like the plague.
YETI has made an indisputable name for themselves in the cooler and drinkware space. Unsurprisingly, their Panga 28 Liter Waterproof Backpack and SideKick Dry Waterproof Gear Case are quality products that are just as equally – built for the wild. I used these two in tandem to keep my valuables high & dry. There was plenty of room for my camera, camera lenses, fly boxes, rain jacket, gloves, snacks, wallet, cell phone, and all the other junk I tend to lug around while on the water.
Waders, Wading Boots, Studs:
Moving water is no joke. The rivers we fished had strong currents and were bedded with loose, slippery rocks. If your trip plan involves wade fishing, I would highly recommend wearing high-end waders and wading boots. Dryft Primo GD Waders paired with Simms G4 Pro Wading Boots is a pretty bullet-proof combo. For extra traction, I’d advise stainless steel studs to boot! However, if you end up fishing from a raft or drift boat you’ll probably want to remove them as to not damage the vessel.
Other Accessories for Fly Fishing Alaska:
Try to resist packing everything but the kitchen sink. That being said, there are still a few more items that come in very handy while out in the bush. Consider the following: polarized sunglasses, stainless steel multi-tool with pliers, headlamp, nippers, gloves/mittens, neck gaiter/buff, wool beanie, and snacks. Once you land, pick up a can of bear spray too.
Fly Fishing Travel Tips:
Traveling long distances to fly fish can be intimidating to the unfamiliar. It seems after every trip I add another useful nugget of information to my arsenal. These days, I like to think, I run a fairly dialed program. Here are a few travel tips I wish someone had shared with me sooner.
1. Bring your Sea Run Case as a carry-on item.
Every time you board a plane, there is the possibility of the airline losing your baggage. To avoid a major headache, I encouraged you to carry-on the essentials like rods, reels, lines, and a few flies. Lucky for us, those items fit perfectly in the Sea Run Norfork Expedition Fly Fishing Travel Case. Most airlines allow fishing gear as a carry-on with the exception of items like pliers, wire leaders, and knives. However, it is ultimately left to the discretion of the TSA agents at the security checkpoint. While it has never happened to me, I’ve heard stories of TSA agents turning away rods and reels. As a safeguard, give yourself ample time at the airport, just in case you need to return to the baggage check due to a denied carry-on.
2. Pack an empty reusable water bottle and electrolyte packets in your personal item.
Travel can be exhausting. You’re often up extra early, not eating your usual diet, surrounded by strangers, and once you touch down – cue the jet lag. Needless to say, your immune system could use a little help. I always pack an empty Nalgene bottle and powdered electrolyte packets (Propel, Liquid IV, Gatorade, etc.). That way, I can get through TSA without any issues, fill my bottle on the other side, and keep my electrolyte levels up to snuff while en route. Staying hydrated will keep you kickin’ ass while Alaska tries to kick yours.
3. Pack alcohol wipes and microfiber lens cloths in multiple places.
There’s nothing worse than looking through dirty sunglasses or trying to snap a picture through a foggy lens. Well, maybe there is, but hey – if you can avoid it – might as well. Individually packaged alcohol wipes and lens cloths are inexpensive and they take up virtually no space. I stow them in my rod case, jacket pockets, waders pockets, and fishing pack. It may seem redundant, but that’s the point. If I catch the fish of a lifetime, I know I’m going to want a crisp, clear photo to show off back home.
A DIY trip to Alaska is the Holy Grail to many fly anglers. The fishing is phenomenal and the scenery is second to none, but having the proper gear can make or break a trip. Hopefully, these tips will help to make your northern adventure a successful one. Until next time, enjoy, and good luck out there!
Many thanks to Sea Run Cases for being a part of the adventure… check them out here!
Words and photos by Flylords Food Editor Kirk Marks, an angler, photographer, and culinary aficionado based in Kent Island, Maryland. Give him a follow at @kirkymarks.
For my DIY trip to AK this past August, I found packing one change of clothes and my reels and 1/4 of my flies in a waterproof backpack, along with a 9’ 8 weight as my carry on. Next trip, I’m taking a multi rod tube as my personal item. We did a lot of hiking into remote areas, making the backpack indispensable. A 10’ 7 weight (what I fished 90% of the time)was also ideal for the cohos, pinks, sockeyes, and dolly vardens.