Laid Over But Not Laid Up
By Troy Letherman
You see it every day as an Alaskan, maybe even too often. We are inured to a way of life all our own, inundated by the spectacular. We are surrounded by such beauty that it can be overwhelming; it can fade away as mere background to the hectic disarray that is our lives—the bills, the jobs, the kids…the bustle of it all. Sometimes it helps to step back and see it through another’s eyes. Specifically, someone from Outside arriving in Anchorage for the first time.
I had just such an opportunity of late, and it jolted my senses from their slumber. Once again I became aware of the sheer wonder of living here. And, for that matter, aware of just how many hours are in a day.
I talk about Alaska to my friends and out-of-state colleagues often, bragging really, rubbing it in their face that I’m up here while they’re shoved shoulder to shoulder in some commuter train. One of them actually took those tales to heart this past summer and headed this way, embarking on a weeklong fly-in fishing expedition I’d set up for him. I’d forgotten all about it and was busy with another of the same old days when I got his call.
“I missed my flight,” was the first thing I heard when I picked up the phone, and though I knew the voice, it took me a while to figure out what all the fuss was about. It seems he had bumped into an acquaintance while in Seattle, which prompted him to foolishly skip his connection to Anchorage. There was another one in fifty minutes, he had figured, and just how often does one meet a past buddy anyway?
The new flight would put him in Alaska’s most populated city about twenty minutes after his connection was due to depart for Dillingham, which obviously wouldn’t be a problem. Nothing is ever on time anyway, right?
Wrong. He was flabbergasted when I simply chuckled at the folly of his plan. “Yes, we are laid back,” I told him over the phone. “But we’re always on time.”
He now had twenty-four hours to spend in Anchorage, and the horrors of missing an entire day’s angling were too great for even me to rub in. I agreed to drop what I was doing, which took less convincing than you might imagine, and pick him up. On the way to the airport, I mulled over our options in my mind, going over and then over again what I could think of for opportunities. What could I do to make these 24 hours in Anchorage unforgettable? Where to go? What are the essential sights for the first-time traveler?
The question was answered the moment I saw him standing there with his luggage stacked neatly on the curbside next to him, his mouth agape at the sight of the Chugach range looming above the city. He was sick with a serious case of fishing fever, as bad as I had ever seen. The pale skin, the slight rosy tint to his cheeks, the carefully selected array of gear beside him, even his outfit, it all added up to a man that needed to fish—right now. I was overcome with the sneaking suspicion that if I hadn’t arrived when I did, I would have found him out in the middle of a parking lot, casting into a puddle.
Alaska will do that to a person, especially when you’ve spent a lifetime staring at photographs and reading the stories and articles, all while imaging yourself out there amongst the action. I took one look at him and knew the cure immediately. He might have a day to kill, but we could get in a week’s worth of fishing in that much time.
Casting for the elusive Urban Alaskan Trout. © Fish Alaska
Anchorage itself and the surrounding areas are chock full of angling opportunities, as anyone who lives there knows. But to a first-time visitor, it’s unbelievable. They come expecting a city like the ones they know and loathe, and instead we foist the outdoors on them right off the bat—the urban outdoors, my most favorite contradiction.
The fishing ranges from the phenomenal to the typically pleasant in a variety of locations around the city. All five species of Pacific salmon are represented in streams throughout the Anchorage area, which also boasts twenty-eight lakes that are stocked for sport fishing opportunity year-round. In what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of the area and its fisheries, my friend and I hit just about every major spot near the city. We even had to break out more than one set of gear, the opportunities were so diverse.
I dropped him off at the airport 24 hours later, right on time (of course) for his new flight out to Dillingham, sure that I had more than fulfilled my obligations as the gracious host. He’d hooked two kings early on in the day, landing neither, had his way with a number of rainbows in the area lakes, and even drug a beauty of a pike from Lower Fire Lake. All in all, this one day was probably the best fishing he’d seen in years.
I thought about it as I drove away, recalling his initial demeanor for comparison. I could practically see him in the terminal now, no longer the fidgeting greenhorn so eager to wet a line that he’d been practicing dry casts for well over an hour. I could see the confident swagger as he nodded at the other passengers waiting for their flight. He’d done it already; he’d fished the waters of Alaska.
I didn’t get very far, only a block or two, when a glimpse of Delong Lake caught my eye. I’d somehow missed it earlier. I pulled over and watched, just staring at the water. It was enough to bring a beaming smile to my face, and before I knew it, I was trudging my way over to the shore, rod in hand. With nowhere to be and nothing pressing to do, why not, I asked myself? I love fishing and I love Alaska, and every now and then, it’s nice to remember that.
If you find yourself in town with a few hours to kill, whether you’re from Alaska or not, checking out these city waters is a must.
Anchorage’s Major Sport Fisheries
Many of the rivers and creeks in and nearby Anchorage do yield a native run of one or all five species of salmon, though they are for the most part too small to sustain a sport fishery. Thus, much of the success in size of runs must be afforded to the hatchery stocking programs on these streams.
One of only two Anchorage streams open to any king salmon angling (see also Eagle River), Ship Creek sees more than its share of fishermen throughout the course of any given season. Coursing directly below downtown Anchorage, Ship Creek’s muddy waters often appear to have been the victim of some cruel joke, with more hip-waders along the banks than trees. A quick glance in driving past Ship Creek on the average summer day would make even the most die hard think of going elsewhere, but the numbers are high for a reason, and it isn’t all the fantastic camaraderie.
Approximately 200,000 to 300,000 one-year-old king salmon smolt are released each spring from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s Elmen-dorf Hatchery. These fish return from salt water after one to five years and provide Anchorage’s Ship Creek with what may be the only urban king salmon fishery in the world. According to the ADF&G, sport anglers harvest nearly 3,000 of these Chinook salmon every year, with a record number of over 5,000 taken in 1999. The kings usually arrive in decent numbers in early June and peak somewhere near the middle of the month, providing the fidgety Alaskan fishing crowd with it’s first chance of spring to hook and land a salmon on Ship Creek.
Netting a trout in Ship Creek. © Fish Alaska
As with the Chinook, silvers come pouring into Ship Creek with nearly equal fanfare. Also the result of hatchery smolt releases, cohos are harvested from the Ship Creek in significant numbers, including a record 14,000 in 1998. Ship Creek also supports mild runs of chum and pink salmon, though harvests are generally less than 150 fish per year for chum and around 200 pinks per season.
Both bait and treble hooks are allowed and the area open to fishing is the same for all species of salmon in Ship Creek: downstream of an ADF&G marker cable stretched across the creek, which is located 100 feet downstream of the Chugach dam. The open season for kings on Ship Creek is January 1 through July 13, while the entire year is fair game for silvers.
Eagle River Fishing
In the early nineties, about 100,000 king salmon smolt per year were released into Eagle River. Unfortunately, the attempts for a new sport fishery were derailed when fish did not return as expected, prompting the program to be terminated in 1995. King salmon harvests have been steadily going down since then, though the river is
still open for four consecutive three-day weekends (Saturday through Monday) be-ginning with the Memorial Day weekend. Chum salmon are also harvested in Eagle River, in equally low numbers.
Access to the area open to fishing for salmon 16-inches or longer is from Bailey Bridge on the Fort Richardson U.S. Army Base upstream to markers located in the Chugach State Park Eagle River Campground, Mile 12 of the Glenn Highway. Anglers wishing to fish on the army base are required to show a current sport fishing license and take a ten-minute orientation course, upon completion of which a free, season-long base fishing pass will be issued.
Campbell Creek Fishing
The Campbell Creek Greenbelt runs directly through a portion of Anchorage’s residential and business areas. There are three public access points for the stream, two of which are open to silver salmon fishing and one that is open only for rainbow trout (catch-and-release) and Dolly Varden angling. A sport fishery for hatchery cohos was opened in 1993 and yields about 2,000 fish to harvest each year. Silvers are the only species of salmon that sport anglers are allowed to fish for in Campbell Creek.
Bait and treble hooks may be used in both locations open to fishing for silvers. The first access point is a parking area on the north side of Dimond Boulevard, just west of Victor Road, where there is a boardwalk and also a foot trail from which anglers may ply their trade. Open season for coho is July 25 to October 1 in this area. The second point is the boardwalk at Folker Street, where the silver season is open from August 1 through October 1. Much of the trail in this area is paved and provides access for wheelchairs. The third site can be accessed by turning south onto the Campbell Airstrip Road from Tudor Road and is only open to fishing for rainbow trout (catch-and-release) and Dolly Varden. Both the North and South Forks are open year-round, though anglers may only use single-hook, unbaited, artificial lures in their quest.
Bird Creek Fishing
One of the more heavily trafficked streams in the Anchorage area, Bird Creek is located about twenty-five miles south of the city on the Seward Highway. Two paved parking areas accommodate fishermen, as well as a paved trail that leads down to the creek. With the exception of kings, the creek is open to salmon fishing downstream of an ADF&G marker located 500 yards upstream of the Seward Highway bridge.
Both the red and chum salmon return is small here, supporting less than 300 harvested fish per year but is more than compensated for by the huge numbers of coho that enter the stream. From a high of over 22,000 silvers taken in 1998, Bird Creek experiences an exceptional return of hatchery coho. Even with a reduction of the numbers of smolt stocked, the creek provides strong harvests well into the thousands and is a favored destination for day-tripping anglers. Sport fishermen also harvest around 2,200 pink salmon annually from these waters, making Bird Creek the premier pink salmon fishery in the immediate Anchorage area. Pinks spend a winter feeding in the ocean before returning to spawn, which creates an “every-other-year” cycle in the Anchorage area, with even years generally producing the strongest runs and peaking from mid-July through early August. Bait and treble hooks are allowed for use in the open areas of the creek.
Turnagain Arm Streams
There are good opportunities in the other streams that cross the Seward Highway, most notably Twentymile and Placer rivers, though a boat can be a must to access the best fishing. Twentymile River supports the largest stock coho harvest (about 2,000 fish annually) in the Anchorage area. Both the Placer River drainage and Portage Creek maintain native runs of silvers as well, though considerably smaller. Reds can be caught on both Twentymile and Placer rivers, with the former also supporting a small run of chum salmon.
This Elmendorf Air Force Base creek boasts the Anchorage area’s best opportunities for harvesting a sockeye, with anglers harvesting about 400 annually. Fishing is permitted in the saltwater off the mouth of Sixmile Creek, seaward of a steel cable stretched across the creek mouth.
The run of reds returns to the mouth of Sixmile Creek from mid-July through the middle of August, peaking early in the run. The spot can be tricky to find if you’re not familiar with the base layout. Directions and maps to keep the wayward from wandering into the wrong area are available from the Elmendorf Natural Resources Office. An office stop is a must anyway, as Elmendorf has sport fishing regulations on top of the state’s requirements, which must be fulfilled before access is granted.
Anchorage-Area Stocked Lakes
In a fine example of contradictory statements, most lakes in the Anchorage area do not support natural populations of fish, but the fishing is excellent. This is particularly due to the fine efforts of the ADF&G Sport Fish Division, which runs an extensive stocking program. All the area lakes except Campbell Lake, which is closed to sport fishing year-round, are open for the duration of the year, with one or more species of hatchery fish stocked by the Division of Sport Fish.
The gamut of sport fish are available, including rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic char, Northern pike, Arctic grayling, and landlocked salmon. Some lake trout also remain available, although the laker stocking program was suspended in 1999. Due to the success of the program, an increase in the number of Arctic char stocked was made in 2001, and although the number of rainbows introduced was cut back, there was no change in the overall size of the program.
Our traveler lands a trout at Delong Lake. © Fish Alaska
Most of the lakes in the area are extremely easy to access and fish all year long, providing a tempting outlet for those tired of battling the crowds along area streams. There is an ample number of lakes around, with just about every possible environment represented, which makes the Anchorage area a haven for both the lake fishing expert and those just looking to relax and wet a line.
When it comes to recreational sport fishing, there is a little bit of everything for everybody in Alaska’s biggest city. The fishing ranges from the shoulder-to-shoulder king salmon bonanza at Ship Creek to the heat of the coho return at Bird Creek and on to the serenity of an afternoon hauling in rainbows from the waters of Jewel Lake or the winter warmth of bringing that pike up through the ice on Cheney Lake.
Whatever it is and wherever you decide to go, one thing is for sure. In Alaska, you don’t even need to leave the city to find an angler’s paradise. And if you happen to miss a connecting flight to your dream trip in the Bush, don’t despair . . . that’s why you gate-checked your rod in the first place.
Troy Letherman was the Editor of Fish Alaska magazine between 2002-2018.
24 Hours in the City: Laid Over But Not Laid Up originally appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Fish Alaska.