From a Southcentral Alaska angler’s perspective, no season matches the power, vibrancy and beauty of fall.
By Ken Marsh
The silvers were so fresh and bright on that mid-August evening that I almost missed seeing them. Their scales reflected the sunlight and made the fish appear translucent, almost invisible. Only their darker, distinctively squared tails against the sandy riverbed gave them away.
Bunched in a tight knot, the salmon held midstream, hugging the bottom. Imagine a shadow the size of a dining room table backed by a dozen or more gently waving tails.
Reaching them with a fly rod wasn’t easy. Thickets of back-cast-snagging willows and alders crowded the banks and the current where the fish held was swift, forcing me to cast far upstream so the weighted fly could sink to their depth.
Eventually, though, I hit the sweet spot.
The fly bounced into the center of the pack and instantly drew a violent, wrenching tug. I hauled back to set the hook then hung on as a thick-shouldered hen shot upstream with unbelievable speed.
On my hike into this spot off the Parks Highway through a mile or so of birch-and-spruce forest, news of a changing world had knocked gently. Restless songbirds gathered in flocks, whirling from the forest floor like leaves in the wind, while here and there high-bush cranberry shrubs blushed burgundy and pink. The sun lingered nearer the horizon than it had weeks earlier – its light now fell more softly – and the air rising from forest shadows carried a familiar permafrost-cool edge.
Keen on fishing, I’d brushed these signs aside. But now, as I gripped my fly rod tightly, breaking the salmon’s run and sending it leaping once, twice, three times, each splashdown an explosion of glittering water droplets, I sensed around me a tangible shift. The contrasts of warming light and cooling air seemed to merge with the fish, now tiring and easing closer to my spot on a sandbar, to mark the end of one season and the beginning of another.
From a Southcentral Alaska angler’s perspective, no season matches the power, vibrancy and overall beauty of fall. True, springtime here is fishing’s new day, a time of anticipation as the country greens and fish runs develop; and summer is a wonder season of sockeye hordes and halibut treasures, a warm, bright period when fishing is good, the living easy. But fall sets itself apart as a fiery flash of yellow, scarlet, purple and green; its shorter days and cooling waters invoke the year’s last salmon runs and goad our trout, char and grayling into feeding frenzies.
In this part of the world, mid-August marks the beginning of the end for rod-and-reel enthusiasts. When winter shuts down anglers here it does so for six or seven snowy, dark, long months. For we who live to cast and catch, these are desperate times indeed.
Thus, the silver salmon’s place in the procession of seasons makes these fish autumn fishing standards. Last of the year’s five Pacific salmon species to spawn, these 6- to 12-pound middleweights appear in local streams each August. Unlike sockeye salmon (locally called reds), silvers aren’t disinclined to pick a fight; they consistently lunge for baits, lures, streamers and occasionally even dry flies.
A silver salmon’s strike is punctuated by sizzling runs and by spectacular leaps, making these fall fighters well worth chasing up and down Southcentral Alaska streams. Choice fishing for them is found in the fern-bordered waters of the Susitna Valley north of Anchorage. The Parks Highway paves the way to local favorites like Willow, Little Willow, and Montana creeks, among others.
In Anchorage, Ship Creek is a productive urban fishery. We park our bicycles and walk the creek’s muddy, tidal banks in the mornings before work or during lunch breaks and are rewarded with limits of silvers – that’s three salmon per day in this city stream. Visitors from out of state shuffle to the creek from downtown hotel rooms, slip on their hip boots and try their luck, often with good results. To catch salmon here while the fishing is hot, drop by in early to mid-August.
South of the city, where the scenic Seward Highway winds along Turnagain Arm, August runs of silver salmon darken the pools of lower Bird Creek. Driving farther south, past the ski-resort community of Girdwood, the 20-Mile and Placer rivers offer late-running fish through September. After that, resolute fishers willing to wade into winter may travel south to the Kenai River where sea-bright silvers arrive far into November and beyond.
Some years ago, as weekly sport fishing columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, I spent five fishing seasons visiting the streams, lakes and salt waters of Southcentral Alaska from Anchor Point on the southern Kenai Peninsula north to Trapper Creek in the Susitna Valley. Along the way, I sought and caught the week’s trout, grayling, or salmon du jour and wrote up my observations and adventures for the paper’s Friday morning edition. For a longtime fisherman, the job seemed as close to a perfect marriage of work and pleasure as can be imagined.
Looking back through those columns today, nuances of the seasons appear and intermingle as welcome by-catch to news of the year’s best fishing. None, however, seem more telling than the dispatches of fall:
TALKEETNA – Late Tuesday, as the sun sank into the forest on the lake’s far side, Brent Fenty of Anchorage couldn’t say how many fish he’d caught.
He could say that the trout had seemed ravenous, that they’d traveled in packs, eager to jump on anything resembling an aquatic bug or leech.
He could add that the fish were healthy and strong, often busting the lake’s glassy surface to leap repeatedly, tumbling in the air before splashing down.
And he could tell you, without meaning to brag, that the small lake he had fished off the Talkeetna Spur Road had given up some exceptional rainbows, the biggest 23 inches long. (‘That’s as big as some steelhead I’ve caught,” Fenty would remark as the fish, too large for a standard trout net, was released by hand to fight another day.)
But even if he’d been willing to try, Fenty couldn’t have guessed how many fish he’d caught and let go that evening.
There had simply been too many.
Anyway … this was fly-fishing, a sport where numbers are beside the point, where winning days are recorded in the heart and the best fish live on forever, framed in Tuesday’s case by the first yellows and reds of fall.”
– September 10, 2004
So went the fishing news – “framed by the first yellows and reds of fall” – from a Southcentral Alaska rainbow trout lake on a typical early-September evening. I’m delighted to report that, in the nine years since that dispatch was written, nothing has changed about September here or the season’s superb still-water fishing. Similar lakes where a guy or a gal can take a canoe or float tube and fish in solitude or, better, with a friend for big, hungry, abundant rainbow trout, grayling, Arctic char and landlocked salmon can be counted by the dozen.
Here’s what you do: Pick a quiet September day and choose from any of the scores of lakes that sparkle from the southernmost reaches of the Kenai Peninsula, north to the outskirts of Anchorage and beyond to the Matanuska and Susitna valleys (referred to collectively as “the Valley” by locals). The Seward and Sterling highways will take you south to the Kenai’s Swanson River lakes and many others; the Glenn and Parks highways lead to more trout-filled Valley jewels than an angler could reasonably work in an entire fishing season.
Go and you’ll find dancing among the rise forms of feeding trout reflections of fireweed stalks festooned with slender, scarlet leaves; cottonwoods glowing yellow and bright as the low-hanging autumn sun; and mountain peaks, cold and distant, strikingly white beneath the season’s first snows.
Along the way, remember that September marks the heart of autumn and that autumn is a moving target, a snapshot season that brightens and fades too quickly. For this reason, anglers here must live in the moment ready to devour each frost-edged morning, every golden reflection. There will be no leftovers.
I’m reminded of another newspaper dispatch, this one a season finale, featuring an unexpected battle with a late-September rainbow found holding in a small Kenai Peninsula creek. Strangely, the trout and I ended up in an unlikely face-off, the fish writhing high and dry – beached – among the stones on the far bank, its cold-blooded eye momentarily catching mine as I stood helpless in a chute of thundering rapids unable to cross over. It was the best fish of the day, maybe 26 inches long, and I knew that even though we were connected by hook and line, I would never actually touch it.
But what a day it had been.
Under icy blue skies the small, swift stream had reflected the colors of high autumn. The riffles and pools were scarlet with scores of spawning red salmon, and among them a sharp-eyed angler could spot Dolly Varden and rainbow trout hunting stray eggs.
The fishing was sensational.
For the first half-hour or so I cast in a run within sight of a deserted parking area off the Seward Highway, catching Dollys and rainbows 12 to 16 inches long on nearly every cast. The fish struck anything that resembled a salmon egg and there wasn’t another fisherman in sight.
Fall, particularly during its peak days of September and October, can be a season of solitude for Southcentral Alaska anglers. Summer’s salmon crowds and fair-weather fishers have departed – to home waters in other states or faraway countries, or perhaps to their homes in Anchorage, Wasilla, or Soldotna to relax and follow the season’s football games – leaving stream banks vacant and many long, dark rivers unfished.
The fishing news this time of year centers around lonely waters and the year’s biggest rainbow trout; fish topping six or eight pounds appear with sudden regularity in the Susitna River drainage along the Parks Highway, though they seem small alongside the 15- to 20-pound pigs hooked simultaneously in the Kenai River to the south. Steelhead trout, sea-run cousins of the region’s resident rainbows, turn up now in southern Kenai Peninsula streams. Word of their annual fall arrival in the Anchor, Ninilchik and Kenai rivers is a topic of quiet discussions around workplace coffee pots in Anchorage, or over pints of locally brewed beer in the small, dimly lit bars of Kenai and Homer.
Back on that Kenai Peninsula creek, I spotted the big rainbow, long and thick as the several salmon surrounding it, holding in a seam between a set of rapids and a pool too deep and slow for a proper drift. From the sand bar where I’d stood, casting to it had been impossible. Instead I’d worked the seam’s shallow upper end, settling for a flurry of pink-spotted Dolly Varden and smaller rainbows 13 to 15 inches long.
Things changed when I stepped into the head of the run and waded as far as I dared midstream. Bracing against the racing, thigh-deep current, I managed to extend my drift. Even then I didn’t expect to hook the big trout, which I figured had spooked when I waded away from the brushy bank and into the open.
So the abrupt strike surprised me. My rod twisted in my hand as the fish shot downstream, tearing off line until it hit the rapids. It jumped twice in the whitewater, threatening to pop my 6-pound-test tippet. I was shocked by its size.
Then, in a flash, the trout was speeding up the stream’s far side, leaping crazily and racing toward the far bank until, finally, it somersaulted out of the shallows and landed squirming on the stony beach.
Barred by the rapids from crossing over, I took a long look at what I knew would be my last, best fish of another extraordinary Southcentral Alaska fishing season. For a heartbeat the world fell silent; the season’s yellows, reds, oranges and greens seemed to blur in a sea of color and the cold air became keener, its sweet-and-sour berry smells – a hallmark of fall here – suddenly more apparent. In the center of it all, that lidless eye gazed back at me, framed by the colors, smells and coolness of the day.
Then the trout twisted and rolled and the world snapped back into focus, the hissing sound of the current returned. At the same time, my line fell slack and the fish splashed into the creek. Mercifully, it had thrown the hook and our connection, for another year, was broken.