Here’s why some Southcentral Alaska fishers are casting in high places.
By Ken Marsh
On a hot day in mid-July, at the end of a dusty mountain bike ascent high into the Kenai Mountains, Crescent Lake sparkles like an ice-blue promise. To get there I’d grinded my way over the sparsely traveled Crescent Creek Trail, up near-vertical inclines and around hairpin switchbacks broken by rocks and roots. The going had been challenging, though not overly so for an angler willing to break a sweat for solitude, adventure and — legend had it — tremendous fishing for some of the biggest, meanest grayling in the state.
Now the lake sprawled before me, windless and surrounded by 5,000-foot-tall mountains, its surface reflecting ridges, crags and cobalt skies. From my daypack I removed an assortment of fishing paraphernalia and assembled my four-piece fly rod and reel. Grayling fed and splashed in the lake out front; one, two, three … easily a dozen could be seen sipping bugs off the surface nearby. I pulled up my skin-thin Gore Tex waders, stumbling at the distraction of all those fish, then stepped into the shallows. A grayling swirled close by and, in a heartbeat, I was tearing line off my reel, calculating the distance of the day’s first big cast.
Welcome to one of Southcentral Alaska’s premier high-country fisheries. Set in the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula, in the center of the 5.9-million-acre Chugach National Forest, Crescent Lake is locally known for grayling that grow close to two feet long and weigh three pounds or more. That’s impressive for a naturally diminutive species whose official state sportfishing record stands at 5 pounds, 1 ounce. Yet these fish, like those found in other mountain lakes scattered throughout the Kenai and Chugach ranges, receive little angling pressure. In fact, the trout, char and grayling found in many of these upper elevation jewels are probably more likely to die of old age than end up in a camp skillet.
Of course, the reason for this is simple — in Southcentral more easily reached fishing options wait just a scenic drive down the road. State highways from Homer to Denali Park parallel salmon-rich rivers and creeks, and scores of lakes and smaller streams offer drive-up fishing for trout, grayling, char and other species. So the question is inevitable: Why knock yourself out to reach waters a mile (or six) off the road when fish can be caught a short cast from a parking lot?
Why indeed. That is, unless your notion of fishing extends beyond merely catching fish. For many anglers, the appeal of high-country water is in leaving the tamer, more peopled places behind. Reaching these out-of-the-way spots is a cherished part of the process. Whether you hike in, take horses, ride a mountain bike or fly, you will climb through an extraordinary natural progression. You’ll watch the land around you evolve, from big timber to wind-stunted shrubs to wide-open alpine tundra. You’ll sense the air thinning as you gain elevation, notice the wind feeling cooler on your face. Wildlife sightings are likely and may include moose feeding in muskeg ponds, black bears hunting blueberries on sunlit hillsides, spruce grouse clucking on the trail ahead. And of course, waiting at the far end of the trail are those mountain lakes, deep and cold, holding hungry trout, grayling and char eager to strike flies, spinners or spoons.
Perhaps the best news for anglers is that many high-country lakes can be reached via groomed trails within a morning’s hike of local highways. The Chugach Forest offers a great network of trails leading to fine fishing, including the Resurrection Trail system between Hope and Cooper Landing, the Johnson Pass Trail off the Seward Highway, and the Crescent Creek and Russian Lakes trails off the Sterling Highway.
Where exactly you decide to go is best planned well in advance. Start by being honest with yourself about your physical condition and wilderness skills. Know what kind of challenges you’re up to and plan your fishing trek accordingly. Using topographic maps and information provided on the Web, find out how far off the road you’ll need to travel and, while you’re at it, research the trail — is it suitable for mountain bikes, or would hiking be a better option? If you’re short on time or simply not up for the physical demands of a long, steep expedition, consider a floatplane charter into one of the larger lakes. Floatplane charter outfits can be found in Anchorage Seward and Cooper Landing. Most offer day drop-off packages; comparison shop to get the best deal.
If you’re in Alaska on a brief visit with minimal gear, it’s easy to broaden your high-country horizons by renting what you need. Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) in Anchorage rents camping gear such as backpacks, tents and sleeping bags. Mountain bikes can be rented for reasonable rates from any of several local vendors, and at least one Cooper Landing horseback outfitter specializes in Chugach Forest backcountry trips.
Beyond good fishing, Crescent Lake and tarns like Rabbit Lake in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, or Symphony Lake out of Eagle River, promise admission to primal worlds that time and most anglers have forgotten. The reward at the end of a brisk hike, mountain bike trek or horseback ride: solitude, pristine water and some of the planet’s most marvelous scenery. From the shorelines of these far-flung lakes — and others like Johnson, Bench, Carter and Juneau in the Kenai Mountains where grayling, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden rise among the reflections of sheer rock walls, upended peaks and treeless hills — it is easy to pretend that you are, as the late journalist Charles Kuralt once wrote, “alone in the universe.”
Back on Crescent Lake, grayling rose all around me, their snouts gently breaking the surface and leaving silver rings. My fly was a tiny speck on the water a good, long cast out front and I was watching when it suddenly vanished in a swirl. I yanked back on my rod, to set the hook, and was surprised by the heaviness telegraphed back to me. Instantly the fish surged deep, shaking its head like a pit bull. All I could do was hang on, try to keep the tension in my line, wear the fish out.
There was another short drive for the deep, dark water before the battle moved to the top. I watched as the grayling made run after thrashing run, its marlin-like dorsal fin cutting ragged wakes across the surface. Eventually, though, each run grew weaker until, finally, l was able to lead the fish in and hold it in my hands.
Twenty inches long (measured by tape) with purple and blue scales that sparkled like sequins, I guessed the grayling weighed close to three pounds. It was one of the big ones — one of those living legends Crescent Lake is known for. Over the next couple of hours I would catch one more that size, and many other good fish that would range from 12 to 15 inches long.
For the moment, though, the game was over. I eased my hook from the grayling’s jaw and lowered the fish into the lake, among the reflections of mountains. Then I found a gap in the crags, and watched the fish vanish into the sky.
Here are a few possibilities worth considering for this summer:
Johnson Lake: Rainbow trout in this Johnson Pass Trail jewel are rumored to grow extra large and hungry. Access options include the north trailhead located at Mile 64 of the Seward Highway east of Granite Creek Campground, or the south trailhead at Mile 32.5 of the Seward Highway west of Upper Trail Lake. The trail is roughly 20 miles long, with Johnson Lake marking the approximate halfway point. The lake can accommodate floatplanes. Nearby Bench Lake offers fishing for grayling. The trail is suitable for hiking, mountain bikes and horses; seasonal restrictions on bikes and horses may apply.
Rabbit Lake: The route to this beautiful Chugach State Park lake in the mountains overlooking Anchorage begins south of town at McHugh Creek State Wayside at Mile 15.2 of the Seward Highway. The trail is a steep seven miles one way, but rainbow trout to 18 inches prowl the lake. Along the way, keep an eye out for ptarmigan, marmots, Dall sheep and grizzly bears.
Symphony Lake: Grayling head the menu in this alpine opportunity a short drive from downtown Anchorage. State sport fish biologist Dan Bosch hiked into the lake recently with a small spinning rod and enjoyed great fishing for grayling 18 inches long. “They’re just gorgeous fat, fat fish,” he said. “I landed three and probably lost three or four in about 15 minutes.”
To reach Symphony Lake, drive south on Hiland Road seven miles to South Fork Eagle River Valley Trail Head in Chugach State Park. From there, the trail to the lake is five miles. The hike in took Bosch about two hours. And finding the fish required some walking around the lake’s 1.2 miles of shoreline (he found them on the lake’s far side).
Juneau Lake: Located on the Resurrection Trail system, this remote fishery is known for its rainbows, grayling and lake trout. The trailhead is located at Mile 52 of the Sterling Highway. The lake can be reached via a six-mile hike over a well-maintained trail, horseback or plane. A U.S.D.A. Forest Service cabin is available for overnight stays and must be reserved in advance.
Crescent Lake: This hot grayling lake can be reached from two trailheads. The Crescent Creek Trail located 98 miles south of Anchorage off the Sterling Highway is one option. The trail to the lake is 6 ½ miles with a gradual elevation gain of 1,000 feet. Anglers can reach the lake on foot, mountain bike or horseback. The other route involves a steep 5½-mile hike over the Carter Lake Trail off the Seward Highway out of Moose Pass. Crescent Lake opens for fishing on July 1; Forest Service cabins are available.
Russian Lakes: Trailheads to the Russian Lakes Trail start at the Russian River Campground near Mile 52.6 of the Sterling Highway, or via the trailhead at Cooper Lake off Snug Harbor Road. The 21-mile-long trail traverse excellent fishing for rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. Fish can be caught in Upper and Lower Russian lakes, though the best fishing is in the Upper Russian River, which connects the lakes. Forest Service cabins and skiffs are available at both lakes.
High Country Tackle
Float tubes, also called “bellyboats,” are usually truck inner tubes or large rubber air bladders lined with fabric and rigged with a seat. They allow you to propel yourself around a lake by kicking your feet, which you fit with diving fins. Float tubes can make all the difference by providing easy access to deeper areas that shore-bound anglers can’t reach. Just remember, all of this stuff has to go in on your back. Shop for light-weight tubes that are easily inflated by mouth (Caddis makes a very light and affordable U-shaped model) and ultra-light Gore-Tex waders, to keep the weight and bulk down on the hike or mountain bike trip in. Deflated float tubes are also easily stuffed into floatplanes.
Tackle: Ultralight spinning rods or 4- to 6-weight fly rods are good for fishing high-country lakes. Three pounds is big for fish at elevations of 2,600 to 3,000 feet, where growing seasons are short. Anglers using spinning gear will find 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament plenty strong. Spinners and spoons in Nos. 0-2 are good choices for trout, grayling and char.
Fly-fishers will generally have the best luck using floating lines and 10- to 12-foot-long leaders with something like a 4-pound-test tippet. Leech patterns, an assortment of dry flies and some No. 18 or 20 Griffith’s Gnats or some chironomids fished below the surface can be very effective.
Admission to solitude and pristine waters waits just beyond that first ridge. Start hiking — or mountain biking, or hire a horseback outfitter, or charter a floatplane (often surprisingly affordable should time or physical ability limit more strenuous options) — and you’ll discover firsthand that Alaska’s sprawling 365 million acres extend far beyond its meager highway system. Within a mile of the roads most traveled, you’ll enter the far-flung, truly wild places that time and most anglers have forgotten.