Fish Upper & Lower Lake Creek
Floating Lake Creek By Dave Doucet
Fishing Lower Lake Creek By Alan Powers
Draining some 60-plus miles from its headwaters at Chelatna Lake near the base of the Alaska Range to its confluence with the silty Yentna River, Lake Creek is one of southcentral Alaska’s most famous streams. Anglers target this prolific producer in any number of ways, either on their own, on a guided float trip, or from one of the many lodges that dot the creek’s lower stretches. In the following, two Fish Alaska writers, Dave Doucet and Alan Powers, bring Lake Creek to life. Doucet, an experienced wilderness fishing guide, covers the float-trip perspective, while Powers documents his experiences in fishing from Northwoods Lodge near the stream’s southern terminus.
An abundance of both fishing opportunity and natural beauty awaits anglers that travel to this secluded Southcentral stream. While it can be reached by boat from the Susitna River drainage, Lake Creek is most commonly a floatplane destination. Its close proximity to Anchorage makes it a reasonable day-trip for anglers, though the prime conditions might also justify a longer stay. Most Lake Creek anglers either camp for the duration of a float trip or settle into accommodations at one of several lodges in the area, preferring instead to attack the lower river in a jet boat.
Many Alaska-bound anglers must travel much farther or to more remote locations to find the numbers and variety of fish that can be had in Lake Creek. The stream supports annual returns of king salmon numbering approximately 10,000 fish, with the other salmon species combining for a total near 70,000 fish. Anglers can also target the very healthy populations of rainbow trout and Arctic grayling that crowd this swift, rocky stream, whether they’re drifting to the fishing or gliding across the water in a lodge’s powerboat.
Floating Lake Creek
Float Lake Creek and you’ll experience a little bit of everything. It’s an exhilarating whitewater ride, accompanied by both Alaska’s breathtaking scenery and its world-famous fishing. And it is a remote float, although it features both easy access and a price tag within reach. Just hop on a floatplane in Anchorage and you’ll be fishing within the hour.
But boating here does come with a note of caution, and that is the technical and challenging nature of the float. In fact, an inexperienced boater would be foolish to float it without a guide. Most of the river is at least a class II with many miles rated to class III. Add in a few rainy days, however, and the water can quickly swell to class IV rapids.
Lake Creek’s exposed rocks and boulder gardens keep even the most experienced boaters on their toes. Then there are the hazards that hide beneath the drift to watch out for as well. Large rocks known as “sleepers” lie just beneath the surface, plus frequent “pour-overs” are created when water falls over a rock and then re-circulates at the bottom, generating a suction effect. “Boulder sieves”—when boulder gardens drain the water flow to a point that there’s no longer enough room to maneuver the boat downstream—can also quickly turn your float trip into a foot trip. On top of everything else, there’s always a sweeper or strainer to create an additional obstacle.
There are two sections roughly halfway down Lake Creek that are classified as class IV all season. Neither section is particularly long (each runs for about 200-300 yards), and both can be lined. However, if you do decide to run these rapids, you should strongly consider scouting them first, no matter your prowess. If it’s possible, a good suggestion is to have your pilot fly over these two spots before launching the float. Otherwise, as you face downstream, head towards the left bank and scout. Both sets of rapids contain challenging aspects of running whitewater, such as pour-overs, holes and hydraulics, pillows, and chutes. The first set also contains a sweeper on the outside of the bend where the water is forced. The second section is a little more technical and allows less room for mistakes.
The thrills of floating Lake Creek aren’t over yet. After conquering that second stretch of class IV rapids, the stream’s rushing water quickly narrows as you enter a canyon. Impressive cliffs jet up as high as 300 feet while the river below shrinks from an average of 150 feet wide to a mere 50 feet of width.
As you near the end of the canyon, the Yenlo River enters on the left (west). This marks the end of the most difficult whitewater, and roughly 75% of the float is now behind you. The lower eight miles is a slow-moving class I, which fishermen can attack at high speed. Jet boats are permitted in this area and local lodges add a lot of pressure to the fishing, but if floating Lake Creek, you’ll definitely have had a head start on the catch.
Fishing along the entire length of river can be exceptional. Rainbows and grayling can be found throughout, and depending on your timing, Lake Creek’s returning salmon can provide an additional and inviting target. It’s actually one of the few rivers in southcentral Alaska that offers the prospect of hooking all five species in one trip. The chinook and coho runs are especially notable, with some Lake Creek kings known to exceed 60 pounds. For some of the best salmon fishing, look to the mouth. Confluences of the tributaries can also prove productive, and you’ll definitely want to spend some time drifting through the deeper holes, especially in the canyon where salmon will stack near the edge of the steep walls. If you’re primarily after rainbow trout or grayling, look behind spawning salmon. Cast to the slack water on the downriver side of large boulders and amid runs and riffles between sets of rapids. The average Lake Creek rainbow measures about 14 to 16 inches, but some as large as 27 to 30 inches have been caught.
There’s nothing secret about what lures and patterns to use when fishing Lake Creek, just the basics that Alaskan anglers commonly toss. Pixies, Vibrax, and Cast Masters are all great to cast for salmon and rainbows as you float down the river. Flyfishing from the boat is possible, but the continuous rapids make it a little difficult. On the sections of river that don’t have you clinging to the boat with both hands, try drifting an egg or flesh pattern for trout and grayling. Or tie on an Alaskan classic, the egg-sucking leech (ESL). The ESL is not only great for trout and grayling, but in larger sizes (2-4), it is a fantastic pattern for nearly all of the salmon species . . . especially kings. The traditional black and purple ESL works fine, but I suggest tying most with added weight in the form of a lead body or head. Bring a few with some flash tied-in as well.
Finding camping spots along the river is typically not a problem, as there are many small islands and gravel bars along the way. The best spots to camp are near the confluences of the tributaries. Because these spots are also the best fishing locations, don’t count on camping there. Other floaters ahead of you may have already set up camp, sometimes staying for several days. If your pilot does fly the river, this is a good time to try and see if there are any other floaters ahead of you. Also, remember to always practice minimum impact camping when possible, as Alaska’s ecosystem is fragile.
A float on Lake Creek can be physically demanding. If there are several experienced oarsmen, take turns rowing. Also, participate in setting up and breaking down camp, and help out with the camp chores. It will make for a better trip and better moods for everyone involved.
Try to prepare for the unexpected. You can almost count on some loss during a float trip.
It may be minor like a broken rod or a leaky waterproof duffle, or it can be something more serious like an overturned boat. By taking some basic precautions, you can increase your chances of completing a successful, and enjoyable, float. Make sure everyone has waterproof bags. If you’re traveling with multiple boats, make sure each boat is self-contained in case one flips over and its equipment is lost. The weather can be unpredictable as well, and rain gear is always a must in Alaska. During your trip, plan on living in your chest waders, and pack a good waterproof jacket for extra precaution. As for predators, Lake Creek isn’t known to have bear problems, but both black and brown bears use the corridor, as do porcupines. To be safe, hang your food in trees if it’s possible.
It doesn’t happen often, but the Lake Creek region can receive extended periods of rainfall. Sometimes, after a solid week or so of rain, it seems Lake Creek should have been named Mud Creek. What was once a beautiful, crystal-clear stream can easily turn into a raging torrent of muddy water, with the usual Class II whitewater swiftly transforming into class III rapids. Just like that a relaxing, pleasurable float trip can quickly turn into a life-threatening situation. This can happen to any river in Alaska under the right (or wrong) conditions, so once again, it pays to be prepared for the worst.
With the technical difficulty factored in, is the added fishing opportunity worth the extra effort of a float, especially when there are so many fine lodges on the river’s lower stretches? Absolutely. Here is a quote from C.K. Snow, an old-time Iditarod musher, which could easily be applied to floating Lake Creek. “If you love the grandeur of nature—its canyons, its mountains and its mightiness, and love to feel the thrill of their presence—then take the trip by all means; you will not be disappointed. But if you wish to travel on ‘flowery beds of ease’ and wish to snooze and dream that you are a special product of higher civilization too finely adjusted for this more strenuous life, then don’t. But may God pity you, for you will lose one thing worth living for if you have the opportunity to make this trip and fail to do so.”
Lower Lake Creek
Upon arriving for our first night at Northwoods Lodge, there was no chance that friend and Kenai River guide John Whitlatch, Wayne Norris of Fish Alaska magazine, and I would retreat to our beds early. An abundant migration of salmon combines with the brilliant skies of the Land of the Midnight Sun to temp even the sleepiest fisherman to remain on the water until well into the morning hours.
Earlier on that late June afternoon, we had departed from Lake Hood near Anchorage Internatioal Airport. After a 40-minute flight on an Alaska Air Taxi DeHavilland Beaver, we touched down on Fish Lakes Creek in front of Northwoods Lodge. The lodge is located 75 air miles northwest of Anchorage and only 10 minutes by boat from Lake Creek.
After dinner John, Wayne, myself, and our guide Ryan piled into one of the lodge’s 20-foot custom Lund boats and took the short ride to try our luck in the clear water of Lake Creek. Within the first hour Wayne had landed a beautiful 27-pound king salmon. That night one other fish was landed, and we missed several other opportunities.
This was my first adventure to this pristine creek, and I was not disappointed. In fact, I had my first strike a mere ten minutes into our initial full day on the water, after I had positioned a Wiggle Wart just off the bottom and some 40 feet behind the boat.
On day two, our guide Ryan, who has guided for Northwoods Lodge for the last three years, piloted us to the first hole by 6 a.m. Using 9-foot G. Loomis heavy-action baitcasting rods and Abu Garcia 6501 reels spooled with Power Pro Dacron line and 30-pound leader, we were ready for our assault on Lake Creek’s powerful kings. The best of equipment is recommended for fighting the mighty chinook on this narrow, twisting, and sometimes debris-littered water that can challenge even the best of anglers.
Moments after my first strike, John hooked the first fish of the day while back-trolling with a Spin-n-Glo. The excitement faded with the lack of production during the next several hours of back-trolling many different kinds of lures, including Kwikfish, Spin-N-Glos, and plugs. By early afternoon, with only one fish finding the net, we all had agreed a new technique was in order.
Moving upriver to the head of the drift and gearing up for back-bouncing was just the ticket. As we made our second pass through the hole, I felt the sharp jab of an angry king taking my lure. I set the hook and exploded out of my seat with a shout of “Fish On!” I then looked over at Ryan who was about to move the boat to a better position to net the fish. Suddenly John hollered, “Ryan, hold it here; I’m getting a bite.” With that, John’s pole lurched as he set the hook, and we had another fish on.
The infrequency of a double hookup while fishing for kings on a small freshwater stream can certainly attest to the strength of Lake Creek’s salmon migration. To maintain separation as we fought our fish, Ryan moved the bow of the boat to a nice clear section of gravel riverbank. As John battled his chinook, it quickly became clear that this fish had the size to be “one of the biggest caught this season,” as our guide had guessed.
Later that day, Wayne brought in a nice 20-pounder of his own, while John had the prize of our trip, landing a 40-plus-pound king. My biggest catch was a nice, bright 20-pound hen, which I released.
On our third day, as we began back-bouncing our Spin-n-Glos through the cool of early morning, we had high hopes that the success of the previous day would carry forward. Again, we met no disappointment. The action heated up early and often, with a hookup just 20 minutes after our day commenced. I claimed the first fish of the day. Wayne was next with his biggest, a 30-pound king he decided to keep, which left John and I to do battle for bragging rights of the day. I sheepishly admit that John was clearly the winner that day. My two fish couldn’t keep me in the running with the likes of two kings over 30 pounds.
With all three days combined, Lake Creek produced a total of 21 kings hooked and 15 netted. They ranged from 15 to 44 pounds. With Wayne landing the first fish, John the two biggest fish, and myself catching six kings, this turned out to be a great trip!
According to Shan Johnson from Northwoods Lodge, king fishing is best from the last week of May through mid-July. These tackle-busting monsters average 25 to 35 pounds in Lake Creek, with fish up to 65 pounds being caught annually. Sockeye salmon are available from mid-July to mid-August, with the peak of the run occurring in the last week of July. Large numbers of pinks and chums swarm into the creek in strength during the month of August, giving any fly fisherman or light-tackle loving angler enough fish to exhaust the most formidable of arms. The silvers venture into Lake Creek as early as the second week of July and continue until early September. This run can be quite notable and has its peak from the end of July to the third week of August.
Fly fisherman seeking to have highly productive days might prefer to fish for rainbow trout and Arctic grayling in Lake Creek’s waters during early June or in the autumn, from late August through mid-September. Although both species are available all season long, September produces rainbows and grayling that have gorged themselves on the delicacies of a summer migration of salmon. Catch-and-release is encouraged to maintain healthy populations for others to enjoy.