Alaska is big. It has lots of mountains. The mountains are big, too. So are the lakes and rivers. Enormous. Loads of them. Everywhere. As for the vast quantity of small and medium-size creeks, streams, lakes and ponds, it is hard to fathom until you come and take a look.
There are lots of place to fish, too. Within an hour’s drive of Anchorage, where I spent the past week visiting my adventure-prone brother Ted, the number and variety of opportunities are stunning. You could spend three years and not come close to discovering them all. Expand your radius to two hours and add a non-motorized watercraft (canoe, kayak, raft) and you could spend a lifetime.
On my first day, Ted took me to Bird Creek, about 30 miles southeast of Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. The last 300 yards of the river, as it flows into the inlet, do not yet feel like wilderness. From June through August when the salmon are running, it is “combat fishing”; the shores are lined with anglers. The river is also loaded with fish. We were there during the thick of the pink (humpy) salmon run, near the start of the silvers (coho salmon). There were three-to-six-pound pinks everywhere. I caught several, and kept two to bring home and smoke.
The river also still had chum salmon, which are big and can fight, but are also ugly and bad tasting. The bears and eagles won’t even eat them, except to strip out their eggs. I had to release numerous foul-hooked pinks and chums. There are so many it is difficult not to accidentally hook one in the fin. It takes a long time to land a 5-pound fish hooked in the fin.
The run of king (chinook) salmon was well past, but a small number of these were still present. We saw three, each 40 to 50 inches long and weighing 40 to 60 pounds. They are illegal to catch at this time of year. Still, they are impressive to see, and gave me pause. I did not want to foul hook one. There would be no way I could ever turn it if I hooked it in the back.
When the tide came up the creek, the silvers finally moved in. They get up to 16 pounds or so and are good fighters and leapers. They will take a fly aggressively. They also freeze and smoke well, and for flavor are second only to red (sockeye) salmon — the only species not present in the river. I hooked three silvers, but without a net was only able to land one.
When the tide went out, we drove a mile down the road to the entrance of Chugach State Park and hiked upriver to get out of the combat fishing and into the wild. The Chugach Mountains and their 495,000-acre state park bound the east side of Anchorage, which is bounded on the north, south and west by Cook Inlet. The park is full of grizzlies, black bear, moose, Dall sheep, glaciers and rugged mountains. It finally felt like we were in wilderness. We worked our way up into the wood, climbed down a steep slope into a 100-foot-deep gorge, and had the fishing all to ourselves. We caught a few more salmon, but didn’t feel like hauling them out of the woods.
The next day — for an even more remote wilderness experience, and to switch our angling from salmon to trout and grayling — we drove 30 minutes northeast from Anchorage to another entrance to Chugach. We began an overnight backpacking trip with a six-mile hike along the south arm of Eagle River. The hike brought us above the timberline along into two glacial lakes surrounded by bare jagged peaks between 5,000 and 6,000 feet. Eagle and Symphony lakes, at elevations of 2,589 feet and 2,687 feet, respectively, are separated only by a narrow ridge 75 feet high on the Symphony side, and 175 feet high on the Eagle side. But despite their proximity, the lakes are rather different in character. Eagle, the longer of the two, is fed by Flute Glacier and has an opaque green tint. It is populated by Dolly Varden trout, which thrive in the silty water. Symphony, by contrast, is fed by a handful of small higher ponds (Mirror Lake and the Symphony Tarns), which filter down through beaver dams, and provide much clearer water. It is loaded with grayling.
We arrived mid-afternoon, set up our tent on the Symphony side of the ridge, gathered scrap wood for a fire, rested and ate some wild blueberries. The whole valley is covered with blueberries, from one end to another. I could barely take five steps without stepping on more. There were also a small number of wild cranberries plus abundant edible berries of a darker blue growing on low-bush, spruce-like plants. I ate some of all of them, but consumed the blueberries by the handful. Ptarmigan, which remind me of grouse though they are more colorful, were abundant and shared the berries with us, occasionally exploding into flight from the bushes nearby in a very good imitation of a grizzly bear attack.
At the upper end of Symphony, we caught (and released) several grayling — a beautiful golden-hued fish with brown spots and a prehistoric dorsal fin reminiscent of a sailfish. We then crossed the ridge over to Eagle, and fished there, stopping en route to eat more wild blueberries. We fished Eagle for 30 minutes or so, but saw no sign of fish. It started to storm. Though it was still quite light at 9 p.m., we retired to the tent for cards and sleep.
In the morning, nephew Michael hiked in and met us around 11 a.m. just as we passed the southern end of Eagle Lake on our way out. About the same time, a cow and calf moose wandered down to the pool where we were fishing and joined us for lunch. The three of us (Ted, Michael and I, but not the moose) then spent the rest of the day fishing our way down the alpine stream back to the car, catching dozens (literally) of Dolly Vardens — a member of the char family closely related to brook trout, bright red on the underside but with less pronounced spots. We stopped frequently to consume handfuls of berries.
The next three days in Anchorage would bring me to more trout, more salmon, more rivers and more wilderness: pinks, silvers, and dollies on Willow Creek, the Susitna River, the Little Susitna, Placer River, and the mouth of Resurrection Creek in the old gold mining town of Hope, plus scenic drives over Hatcher Pass, Kennai Pass and along the Cook Inlet.
My trip is almost over. I am wondering when I will be able to return to Alaska. There is so much more to see. Plus, I still need to catch a big Alaskan rainbow trout.