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Matthew Dickerson: Rainbows on the Last Frontier

I have always imagined Alaska as an incredibly vast beautiful territory full of spectacular mountains, untamed landscapes, remote rivers and large wild animals. This image has been fueled by romantic movies, idealized photographs and fishing magazines full of advertisements trying to sell me trips. A few years ago I started spending time visiting family in Alaska, and I discovered that my imagination in one regard was fairly accurate. Alaska really is a vast and beautiful territory full of spectacular, untamed and sparsely populated (or entirely unpopulated) landscapes. And you don’t have to go too far from the airport in Anchorage to reach it. 
 
The city of Anchorage — which is nearly half the population of Vermont — is bounded along its eastern side by Chugach State Park. At nearly half a million acres, this park alone is about one-twelfth the size of Vermont. And it is not the largest park in the state. Driving two dozen miles, and then hiking another half dozen, one can get from sea level in Anchorage to peaks of 8,000 feet. But you don’t need to get into the park to see bear and moose; they come right down into the city.
 
On the other hand, what my imagination told me about the fishing in Alaska was farther from reality. There are plenty of scenic and remote trout fishing opportunities. There are more than a person could fish in several lifetimes. These are places I could fish for days, surrounded by stunning mountains, with more likelihood of seeing moose and bear than other anglers. And much of it is reachable within an easy morning drive and hike from Anchorage. 
What you will typically find in these streams, however, are loads of six- to 12-inch Dolly Varden trout or arctic char (close cousins of Vermont’s brook trout). And what I was taught to imagine in Alaska’s rivers were monstrous rainbows, as well as vast numbers of the salmon whose eggs make those trout fat. Yes, those trout and salmon do populate Alaska. But the rivers where they are found are anything but remote and sparsely populated. The salmon and trophy trout fishing in the 49th state is combat fishing at its best — as crowded and competitive as any river I’ve fished in the lower 48.
 
This past week I had an extended research trip to Alaska. Over the weekend, my brother and I drove down to the Kenai Peninsula and spent one day fishing the middle portion of the Kenai River with a guide, and one day fishing for steelhead in the Anchor River. The day on the Kenai began at the Troutfitters fly shop in Cooper Landing, an entire town devoted to the recreational fishing business. We met our guide Eric at 8:30 a.m. (which in October in Alaska is still before sunrise). The temperature was just above 20 degrees. I bought my license, got my waders on (over two pairs of long underwear and fleece pants), and an hour later Eric was backing his drift boat down an icy ramp into the Skilak Lake near the outlet. A little slipping of the truck on the ice got our hearts pounding. Eric’s heart pounded more trying to start the motor on his boat, before he found where the gas line had iced over. 
 
Eventually, however, we had motored our way across the lake under the shadow of majestic peaks, past a large flock of trumpeter swans, and into the Kenai River. There we joined a sizable flotilla of other drift boats working the water for the famous trophy rainbows. Despite the wintry weather, and the recent floods, the river was crowded. At most times during the day — except when an intense snow squall blew in and hampered our vision — we could see at least five or six other boats within a few hundred yards of us, all working the same water. Eric said that this was nothing compared to the traffic in July when the salmon were running. Then the river was like a thoroughfare with more than 400 registered guides working the water, with four clients per guide. By October, the river was mostly being fished by Alaskans and the number of working guides had dwindled to several dozens rather than several hundreds.
 
Despite what for me were crowded conditions, Eric did get us into several good fish. He knew the river, and he knew the techniques for fishing it effectively. Our boat (myself, my brother, and two other clients from Anchorage) landed five rainbow trout over 20 inches long. One of those five was mine. I also landed a few more rainbows in the 16- to 20-inch range. And I hooked and lost three massive bows, any of which would have been my own personal record had I landed it. One of them just took my fly and headed for deep water like a torpedo, burning my drag until it snapped off my 10-pound test line. We also caught a number of beautiful Dolly Vardens. None were over 20 inches, but like the rainbows they were incredibly fat on eggs. 
 
A short afternoon break for some hot coffee (brewed by Eric on a gravel bar) steeled us for the afternoon snow squall that blew in and shut down the bite. We motored back up river and across Skilak Lake to the waiting warmth of the truck. And yes, I would take the same trip again in a heartbeat.
 
The next day we fished for steelhead fresh out of saltwater in the Anchor River, two hours drive further south down the Kenai. Armed with some tips from Eric, we spent the day wading in knee-deep water and casting against the bank. By late morning, the river was nearly as crowded as Salmon River in Pulaski, where the local steelheaders travel every November. I ended up in one long pool not far above tidewater where a steady revolving door of anglers kept the angler population around half a dozen. I landed Dolly Vardens by the dozen but didn’t get into my first steelhead until mid-afternoon when I hooked and landed a very fresh silvery behemoth over 30 inches. An hour later I picked up my second. 
 
It was a beautiful trip and the surrounding landscape really was stunning. And I did catch some big fish. But if I really wanted to escape the crowds, I’d need to leave Alaska and starting fishing Vermont.

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