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Spring into Summer

by Jeff Varvil

Emily Varvil with a PWS silver.

 Photo by Jeff Varvil   

As I sit and stare out my office window, looking over Anchorage, at the beautiful snow-covered Chugach Mountains I find it hard to believe fishing season is right around the corner. I’m speaking of the real Alaska fishing season.

Ice fishing has filled our dark winter days providing fly fisherman like me a temporary aphrodisiac, but I yearn for chaos of the liquid nature. I speak of the days when jigs fitted with frozen shrimp and single salmon eggs will be replaced with white White-Zonkers and exquisitely painted beads, when the rivers of Alaska begin to thaw and flow.

Not that I am ungrateful for the opportunity that ice fishing brings. I do however question the sanity and origin of the sport from time to time.

In Upper Michigan where I grew up, ice fishing was a tradition as old as deer hunting camp, a chuke, Sorrels and checkered red and black wool pants. As soon as the weather permitted, Ice shantytowns would spring up in the time-honored haunts across the state.

These were not the something mart pop tents we find on our lakes here in Alaska. These were condos on skis; and most included televisions, generators, sleeping cots, and propane heaters.

I even met an old Finland native with a small fridge in his; he must not have put much thought into that one. They did not have the customary wormhole to peer through at unsuspecting fish. They could have trolled through a giant fissure in the middle of the shack that has been cut using a chainsaw. Some of my fondest memories materialized in an ice shanty. None of them had to do with fishing however. All of them involved women. That’s for another magazine however.

 

They tell me the Vikings invented ice fishing. I believe that after seeing photos of what their women looked like. That may be true but I have my own theory on how the sport developed.

I think the reason good god-fearing men invented fishing shacks was that there is just no way for a real man to look regal, while holding a short ice fishing rod, sitting on a blue plastic bucket. It gives most men a complex if you know what I mean. Therefore we hide in the shack so no one can see us.

Have you ever searched for the longest ice fishing rod you could find? I know I cannot be the only one to do that. Then again I am a little different.

My four-year-old, Garrett, routinely has out fished me this year, as had his two older siblings every year before him. The technique is very simple and yet very effective. It starts by first saying goodbye to the little shrimp and then sending him into the deep abyss. Garrett places the rod on the ice at eye level and when the end of the rod “Goes Bumpy” as he calls it, he takes off running across the ice rod in hand. The fish comes flying out of the whole like a missile shot out of a silo. No need to deal with that pesky reel that falls off anyway. Who am I to tell him to do it differently? He’s winning. If you’re like me you have given up and are putting your money on the spring season when you can become a real man again. Here are some hot tips for spring time fun.

Situk River

It’s very hard to beat the Spring Steelhead fishing on the Situk River in Southeast Alaska. Located 5 miles east of Yakatat this is truly a fly fisherman’s dream river.

There are currently 350 streams in Southeast Alaska currently known to receive a Steelhead run. Most of these rivers receive less then 500 fish annually. The Situk receives over 5 thousand. On a recent year it received in excess of 9 thousand.

Steelhead are large anadromous rainbow trout that rear in freshwater streams. They spend three to four years in the fresh water streams before migrating to either an ocean or large body of fresh water to feed and grow. They return in three separate seasons being spring, summer and fall 2-3 years later as mature adults. The spring fishery is by far the most sought after for Alaska anglers. The fish begin returning in March but can be found right through July. They are basically rocket-fueled rainbow trout.

The average is around 8 pounds on the river, but a lucky young man named David White landed a 42-pound world record in 1970. That was an ocean fish but Dan Hardy landed one over 43” a few years back. Alaska Airlines has daily flights to Yakutat. There are forest service cabins available on Situk Lake and on the Situk River itself. There are also a few hotels that provide shuttles, food, and lodging.

Naknek River

No spring rainbow fishery invokes thoughts of grandeur like the famed Naknek River in the heart of Katmai. Located 300 miles southwest of Anchorage the spring smolt migration provides ample opportunity to stick, photograph and release behemoth fish.

The lake outlet section down to the rapids camp provides superb fly-fishing opportunity. This 10-mile section of water produces some of the largest rainbow trout ever recorded. The fishing heats up as early as March and can last until the closure and reopens in June after allowing for spawning.

Again, Alaska Airlines offers daily flights to King Salmon. I would highly recommend looking into a local guide, as the river is quite wide and in some places resembles a lake. You must be a good long-range caster and be able to deal with inclement unpredictable spring weather.

Don Picconere with a Kenai Fall Rainbow

Kenai River

How can you beat the Kenai River for spring Dolly/Rainbow fishing? Located only a 3 hour drive from Anchorage; the mouth of Skilak Lake provides one of the best Dolly/Rainbow fishing areas on the planet.

Many people feel that it is unfair to target the trout while they are on the spawning beds. Politics aside, fish well over 30” are landed every day. As the regulations were last year (2005) you may not take a rainbow out of the water during this time period, this includes taking a quick photo. [Be sure to check the Alaska Fishing Regulations for current information - webmaster]

Put in at the lower Skilak campground and float down to Bings Landing. The total float takes about 4-5 hours. For best success hire a local guide or rent a raft and do it yourself.

Matsu Valley Lakes

There are a plethora of lakes to take advantage of in the valley. My favorites are the concealed ones only whispered about in code at sports shows. I will give you my list of must visits for the spring thaw.

Buried deep in a mountain range in Sutton, is a tale of two lakes. One called Wishbone Lake and the other 17-Mile Lake. The story goes like this. Wishbone was accidentally stocked by air years ago when the pilot over-flew 17-Mile Lake and mistakenly dropped fish into the wrong lake. Lucky us! Wishbone will require about a 2-mile hike or a short ATV ride. Believe me it’s worth the hike. The lake is full of beautiful rainbow trout that are willing to hit just about anything sent in their direction. It is a catch and release fishery with many fish being caught over 25” each year. 17-Mile Lake has a public access and can be easily reached by a car.

Inflatable canoes or kayaks are the preferred means of transport but a float tube would also work. If you are headed north out of Palmer keep going about 20 minutes until you see the turn off on the left for the Palmer Correctional Center. Take the left and follow it onto 17-Mile Lake Drive. It is really pretty simple from there as the gravel road dead-ends at the lake.

Consult with Fish and Game about reaching Wishbone Lake as they have maps and I do not care to get anyone lost in the woods with mine.

Prince William Sound

I do not say this very often but who cares about fishing when you have God’s country available in your backyard. The new Whittier tunnel offers Alaskans the ability to see the most pristine place on earth for around $50 a day.

You have to pay to go through the tunnel, which is worth the price of admission itself, and then pay to launch your boat and park you car. Once you’re through those hurdles and enter the water you are transported back to the real Alaska. The Alaska you moved here to see! Sea otter’s, puffins, sea lions, humpback whales and orcas all call Prince William Sound home.

The nice thing about Whittier is the ability to turn around and come home in thirty minutes if the weather is bad. I now go online and check out the new Whittier web cam to check on the water and wind conditions.

I have a 20 foot Bayliner Capri and it takes me about 20 minutes to get out to Pigot Point and some of the best silver fishing on the planet. This past August my kids caught about twenty silvers in an hour. It can be that good!

Another hour past Pigot Point and up the through Port Wells brings you to the mouth of the Coghill River and Coghill Lake. The red fishing here can be unbelievable. The nice thing is there are many kinds of rockfish and halibut very close to shore.

Shrimping has also gained popularity over the past few years and nothing beats fresh shrimp. Many kayakers enjoy paddling among glaciers in Whittier’s many coves such as College Fiords. Shuttles like Honey Charters will haul you out to a special secluded cove and pick you up saving much energy and precious discovery time.

Blackstone Bay offers beautiful beaches and the wildlife is too abundant to mention. We routinely see black and brown bears cruising the beach looking for a free meal. This area truly is a must see with the family this spring. It’s a great early trip and even if you don’t fish it gets the winter monkey off your back!

I hope everyone gets out this summer and enjoys the 24 hours of daylight while it lasts. We live in a very special place and please remember to leave an area cleaner than when you found it.

Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is currently the Manager for West Marine in Anchorage. 


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