A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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I've just released my biggest rainbow trout of the afternoon -- a 26-inch-long tough with broad, rosy stripes and leopard-spotted flanks -- and am marveling at how the fish nearly spooled me. It struck in an inky pool broken by the backs of spawning salmon and leaped immediately once, then again, near the far bank before turning and ripping crazily downstream. I'd chased it the best I could, stumbling over wet rocks and working hard to keep tension on the line.
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Brent Fenty of Anchorage hangs on as a frisky rainbow trout he's hooked leaps from a Susitna Valley lake.
Finally, barred by shoreline brush and deep water, I'd been forced to make a stand. My fly line was nearing its backing when the trout broke the surface in a series of spectacular leaps, scattering salmon and sending up geysers of water. Soon the fish began to tire and I eased it in slowly, gingerly. It turned on its side, its colors brilliant against the stream-bottom gravel and framed by the reflections of my face, the treetops and broken skies overhead. Such moments capture the essence of an angler's Susitna Valley, a world of streams and lakes a short drive north of Anchorage that straddles a line between the happily accessible and the wonderfully remote.
Bordered on the south by Cook Inlet, cradled by the Alaska Range to the west and north, and by the Talkeetna Mountains to the east, the Susitna Valley is a West Virginia-sized chunk of forests, muskegs and hills coursed by scores of streams and dotted by hundreds of lakes. Those streams and lakes are home to five species of Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, arctic grayling, northern pike and more.
Like most of Alaska, much of the Susitna Valley is accessible in summer only by bush plane or riverboat. The Parks Highway, however, which runs generally north-south, bisects the eastern portion of the region, lending a unique measure of accessibility into some of the area's prime fishing waters.
To the southeast, the Susitna Valley merges with the Matanuska Valley. The Matanuska Valley is traversed by the Glenn Highway and offers some fine fishing opportunities of its own. Carved over the eons by massive glaciers, the two converging basins are collectively called by locals "the Valley."
For many anglers, spring fishing here starts up in May, after the lakes begin to sparkle ice free after six months of winter. That first morning of the season often begins with a tug and splash on a Matanuska Valley lake, a feisty rainbow trout leaping out front among the reflections of budding birches and the peaks of the Chugach Range. Scores of accessible Matanuska and Susitna valley lakes are stocked by the state with rainbows, landlocked salmon, arctic char and grayling.
Light spinning or fly rods are perfect for these lake fish, which rarely grow larger than three or four pounds. Popular spinners include Mepps, Roostertail, and Panther Martin in sizes 0-2. Favorite baits are single salmon eggs (red colors seem especially effective), power baits and earthworms. Flies and streamers are also effective, with marabou Lake Leech patterns, chironomid patterns and various dry flies all being good choices.
For maps and information providing public access points and fish species available in lakes from Palmer to Talkeetna and beyond, see the Alaska Division of Sport Fish lake maps Web pages at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/statewide/lakedata/
King salmon begin entering Valley streams in late May and early June, with runs peaking in late June to mid-July. These fish locally average 25-30 pounds, but sometimes reach weights of 70 pounds or more. Prized for their size, rambunctious nature on the end of a line, and for their succulent fillets, the Valley's king salmon draw anglers from around the world. Local fishing guides located in communities like Palmer, Wasilla, Willow and Talkeetna can increase visitors' chances of success. Guides provide the boats, tackle and experience visiting anglers need to net their king.
Those who prefer to do it themselves will discover plenty of opportunities in the Valley's roadside fisheries. The Matanuska Valley's Eklutna Tailrace, located roughly 45 minutes north of Anchorage is popular and easily reached. Farther north, the streams crossing the Parks Highway -- the Little Susitna River, Willow Creek, Little Willow Creek, Sheep Creek and Montana Creek -- all provide good, accessible fishing for king salmon.
Stout spinning or bait-casting outfits are the usual medicine for Valley kings. Braided Power Pro lines in 25- or 30-pound test are a good choice. King salmon will take a variety of baits and lures. Plugs produce plenty of kings (something along the lines of a Kwikfish K15) as do Spin-N-Glos, and Corkies. Chartreuse, orange, red and blue are all effective colors.
Drift fishermen use cured salmon roe and sharp 2/0 hooks (Gamakatsu is a local favorite) topped with hanks of red, orange or green yarn. On occasions when regulations restrict bait use, even bare hooks topped with red or green yarn can work well enough. Enough weight should be attached 18 inches or so above the hook to allow the rig to gently bounce with the current along the stream bottom.
Besides kings, Valley streams host runs of red (sockeye), pink, chum and silver (coho) salmon. Most prevalent and popular of these species are the pinks that run in July, and the silvers that arrive in early August. These middle-weight fish (pink salmon average 4-6 pounds, while silvers range from 8-12 pounds) are easily caught on lures, such as Vibrax spinners in sizes 2-4, Pixee spoons; on baits like home-cured salmon roe; and on streamer flies in sizes 2-4 including purple Egg-sucking Leeches, and Wooly Buggers or Bunny Flies in pink, orange, purple or black.
Of these salmon, silvers are considered the most desirable because they are bigger, fight harder, and are better eating. Nonetheless, both pinks and silvers provide sport and plenty of fishing opportunities for locals and visitors alike.
By mid-August, trout fishing in Susitna Valley streams can be insanely good. The trick is to find a stretch of creek or river all to yourself where salmon -- chums or silvers this time of year -- have schooled up to spawn. The rainbows will be there too, snapping up stray eggs, and are frequently caught on beads, Glo-bugs, Babine Specials -- anything resembling a salmon egg. Fishing for trout, as well as grayling and Dolly Varden, peaks in Valley streams and lakes sometime in early to mid-September, though fishing can be good until freeze-up in October.
Freelance writer Ken Marsh lives in Anchorage. He is the information officer for the Division of Sport Fish for Region II, which includes Southcentral, Kodiak and Bristol Bay.