Mat-Su: Peak Expectations
in the Valley
Story by Troy Letherman
The Matanuska-Susitna Valley—Mat-Su, for short, or just “the valley” if you’re a local—manages the feat of providing spectacular opportunity to the outdoor enthusiast while remaining rather under the radar, being somewhat overshadowed by its big-name, big-fishery neighbors.
For anglers, the Mat-Su Valley offers both roadside and remote access to all five of Alaska’s Pacific salmon species, plus resident rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, grayling, northern pike and more. There is good to excellent lake fishing throughout the valley, which boasts the most aggressive stocking program in the state, with more than 90 area lakes stocked with rainbow trout, grayling, Arctic char, landlocked coho and Chinook salmon. However, it’s the tributaries of the Susitna River—most of which intersect the Parks Highway between the town of Wasilla and Denali National Park—that garner the most interest. And despite the occasional crowds, anglers willing to get off the beaten path can still find fantastic angling mixed with a true wilderness setting on many of these clearwater streams.
Anglers familiar with the region can access much of this water in a variety of ways, while others may prefer to go the guided route, particularly for the access to remote waters that a quality guide service provides. Dave Fish, who owns the Mat-Su guiding service Dave Fish Alaska, is one such guide, offering customized, guided trips all across the valley and southcentral Alaska. “We primarily fish the clearwater tributaries of the Talkeetna and Susitna river drainages,” he explains, “whether by floatplane, helicopter or raft.”
FishHound Expeditions is another Mat-Su guide service that provides a range of angling experiences, from hike-in, wade-fishing day-trips to multi-day expeditions across the valley. Co-owner and guide Adam Cuthriellsays that staying mobile is key in the Mat-Su, as “having the ability to chase fish throughout the varying salmon spawns allows anglers to always find fish during different times of the year.” There is a lot of water available, and FishHound Expeditions, like Dave Fish Alaska, knows how and when to visit. “Our primary rivers for day-trips are the tributaries of the Susitna River: the Kashwitna River and Willow, Goose, Montana and Sheep creeks,” Cuthriell explains. “We also offer fly-in trips leaving from Anchorage to Lake Creek and the Talachulitna River.”
As always in Alaska, timing is a key, but in an area as large and varied as the Mat-Su Valley, you can be certain there is hot fishing somewhere, every week of the year. Favorite times and places then often come down to personal preference.
“Our favorite time of the year is the end of July, when we are fishing for trophy rainbow trout during the chum salmon spawn,” says Dave Fish. On the other hand, Adam with FishHound Expeditions, prefers a pair of alternatives.
“My favorite fishing in the Mat-Su Valley is a close tie between swinging big flies for big kings in the spring and early summer, or drifting flesh flies to monster ’bows in the early fall,” he explains. “Both times of the year provide amazing scenery, taken in from the best vantage point possible: standing in a river! And even though most of these fisheries are easily accessible from the road system, the water isn’t typically too crowded during these two times of year.”
It’s not just all about the flowing water, however. There are more than 120 named lakes in the Mat-Su Valley, both stocked and wild, offering anglers virtually unlimited opportunity. And again, there are guide-service options for those looking to take the questions out of planning and executing a day on the water. For instance, Alaska Lakes Guide Service provides the Matanuska-Susitna Valley with Alaska’s only year-round lake-specific fishing guide service, and anglers can customize trips to target either pan-size fish or trophy rainbow trout, Arctic char, northern pike, burbot or lake trout.
Before going fishing, there are a couple of places in the Wasilla that are must-stops for fishermen. First, drop into 3 Rivers Fly & Tackle. Manager Mike Hudson and the other guys in the shop will have all the latest information on the hottest valley fisheries, and while you’re grabbing the day’s flies, lures or even just a cup of coffee, you can zero-in on where the fish are and what they’re biting. Similarly, Sportsman’s Warehouse in Wasilla offers everything you could possibly need for a day on the water or in the woods, and like 3 Rivers, it’s right off the Parks Highway. The Mat-Su Valley is a veritable wonderland for the do-it-yourself angler, with an abundance of easily accessible, user-friendly streams, and either of these businesses will have all the odds and ends you need to get started, or to keep going.
Whether you already have a personal favorite or are looking to get out on the multitude of water available and discover anew one for yourself, you can be sure there is something for everyone in the Mat-Su.
Fishing Mat-Su: Flowing Waters
Beginning in the runoff from massive glaciers in the eastern Alaska Range and flowing some 200 miles south to Cook Inlet, the Susitna River is one of southcentral Alaska’s most significant and consistent fish-producers. Most of the angling opportunity is centered in clearwater tributary streams—the Deshka, Little Susitna and Talkeetna rivers, Montana, Willow and Lake creeks in particular—though there is still excellent fishing to be had in or just off the mainstem Susitna.
Although dense with anadromous fish, the Susitna is large and intimidating, laden with silt and virtually unfishable in much of its lower flows, meaning the best bet for anglers is to prospect tributaries, the mouths of feeder streams, pockets of holding water and depending on the time of year, accessible upriver seams. Though it’s seldom fished, the section of the mainstem Susitna between Devil’s Canyon and the confluence of the Talkeetna and Chulitna rivers can be accessed by jet boat and produces amazing results as well. If searching for king salmon, there are several clearwater tributaries that meet the river below Devil’s Canyon, and the confluences with Indian River and Portage and Fourth of July creeks are good places to start anytime near the July peak of the run. In this area the river is heavily braided, full of logjams and submerged rootwads, which makes it ideal big-trout habitat as well. The scenery is unparalleled and the fish rarely bothered. The best time is typically in the fall, after the big river has cleared some, providing good visibility.
The mainstem of the Talkeetna, a swift wilderness river, is fishable during periods of moderate, dry weather, but as with the Susitna, most anglers will have much better success fishing in or near the mouths of tributary streams. Clear, Larson and Prairie creeks, which can be accessed by boat from Talkeetna, are popular hotspots.
At mile 96.5, the Parks Highway intersects with lower Montana Creek, providing easy opportunity to fish the gravel-bottomed stream’s lower reaches, and there is good gravel road access to points along the upper river. There is plenty of parking, along with a campground, right off the highway within easy walking distance to the creek. There are also many places to wade across this stream, allowing lots of water to be covered.
A solid Chinook salmon river, the best king salmon fishing is from late June through early July and takes place anywhere from the mouth of the creek to several good holes located upstream. In addition to kings, the silver salmon action can be exceptional during the month of August. Pink and chum salmon make their way into this creek in late July and the run lasts through mid-August. Rainbow fishing can be good in spring and fall, and anglers fishing the upper stretches of the creek will encounter plenty of opportunity to cast to hungry grayling.
Sheep Creek, at mile 88.6 of the Parks Highway, is a popular king, silver and pink salmon fishery, but because of its limited bank access, it’s typically crowded. If you want to try your luck here, September is a good bet, when the crowds have thinned and rainbows and grayling are in.
Small, clear-flowing Caswell Creek is situated at mile 84 on the Parks Highway and offers king, silver and pink salmon, and a run of rainbow trout. The best action comes at the mouth, and there are limited boundaries marked by the ADF&G as to how far upstream you can fish. Due to its ease-of-access, Caswell Creek receives considerable pressure during the king and silver salmon runs. However, in September, it’s worth checking out for late arriving silvers and rainbows.
Just north of the town of Willow, Willow Creek flows beneath the Parks Highway at mile 71.5. The river’s hottest salmon action is near its mouth, however, which is accessed by turning west on Willow Creek Parkway at mile 70.8 and from there following the road 3.5 miles to the Willow Creek Campground, where over 125 campsites await. During the peak of the king run, this area is home to combat fishing at its finest. For other Willow fishing, if you have access to a boat, or wish to book a local guide, a nice float can be had from the Parks Highway down to the Willow Creek Campground. Anglers can also enjoy a nice day-float on the more remote upper river, which some of the best trout fishing in this part of Alaska. The end of June and early July are the best king times, while coho action peaks in mid-August. Pink and chum salmon are also in the river at this time, as are trophy rainbows, which fish well into September.
Little Willow Creek
At mile 74.7 of the highway anglers will find Little Willow Creek, which looks and fishes about exactly as it is named. The best angling on Little Willow is from the Parks Highway bridge downstream to the mouth. Simply park in the designated pullout on the southeast corner of the bridge and make your way down to the creek. Silver and pink salmon dominate the late-summer fishing here, followed by rainbows and grayling.
Though it too flows beneath the Parks Highway, the most popular access to the Little Susitna River is at Burma Landing, which is located on Point Mackenzie Road, off Goose Bay Road. Here there is a paved trail that leads from the parking area to the stream, offering bank access. Rainbows, Dolly Varden, grayling and all five of Alaska’s salmon species inhabit the river. The Little Su is a moody, meandering stream that is easy and safe to float. The best float is located off the Parks Highway, from Houston to Burma Landing. This is a nice two-day, 20-mile float that provides the perfect chance to enjoy camping along the river. The many holes, pools and runs of the lower river below Houston receive the most interest from salmon anglers, with bank anglers often preferring the middle and upper sections, where narrower confines concentrate the fishing.
The Deshka River, one of the few fishable tributaries that feeds the Susitna River from its west bank, offers a very productive king salmon fishery just a quick trip down the highway from Wasilla (or Anchorage). The vast majority of effort takes place near the slow-moving river’s confluence with the Susitna, which is accessed via the launch at Deshka Landing (turn left off the Parks Highway at the sign for the Willow State Recreation Site and then watch for a paved road to the left that will takeyou to the dead-end at Deshka Landing after a few more miles). The upper and middle stretches of the Deshka can offer decent potential as well, and as a bonus, the water upstream is wadable and usually clear enough for presenting the fly. Far upstream, anglers will find trout and grayling in a relaxed, wilderness setting that makes for a perfect multi-day fishing and camping excursion.
Offering the remote, wilderness Alaska experience as well as relatively simple access, Lake Creek flows moderately wide, with plenty of slow runs and deep holding water in its lower reaches. Here, in the beginning of the season, most of the king salmon angling takes place near the confluence with the turbid Yentna River, where fresh fish pull over to rest before continuing their upstream journeys (whether bound for Lake Creek or headed farther up the Yentna to other clearwater spawning streams). Away from the mouth, there is some opportunity for anglers to get in some work. Several lodges and sport-fishing operations exist near the mouth of the creek, such as Lake Creek Lodge, mentioned below, but an ever-popular alternative is to float the 54 miles from Chelatna Lake to the confluence with the Yentna. Due to the swift, rocky nature of the creek, however, this is not a trip recommended for the novice floater. Fish Alaska Contributing Editor George Krumm recently visited Lake Creek with Chinook on his mind, and to great success. “With thousands of kings heading up the Yentna system,” he explained, “Lake Creek Lodge, with numerous clear water tributaries and sloughs nearby, offers a great location for intercepting kings in the 15- to 35-pound range, with larger fish of 50 pounds a possibility.”
Another jet-boat destination (or short fly-out from Anchorage), Alexander Creek has been something of a mixed bag recently, though for the past couple of years the king salmon returns have begun to climb again, while the coho run remains fishable. For silver anglers, the creek’s mouth is typically the most productive spot, in some years providing silver action to rival almost any other locale in the state, with salmon heading upstream to spawn in the Susitna’s other clearwater tribs pulling into these docile, iron-tinted waters for brief recuperation. The area around Alexander Creek also offers some explosive fishing for northern pike, with several Mat-Su area guide operations, such as Regal Air, Rust’s Flying Service and Trail Ridge air, offering daily fly-outs specifically to target pike. Publisher Melissa Norris just went out for pike this spring and reports populations are healthy. “You have to put your time in to aim for the big fish,” she explained, “but it’s action-fishing all day long and a sweet getaway for a small family.”
The Talachulitna River, another long-popular southcentral Alaska destination and a classic fly-fishing stream, offers good water and plenty of fish ripe for the right presentation, including salmon and solid numbers of trout. During most years, Chinook will begin to show up at the river mouth in early June (though the return was down again this year), with the heart of the run peaking around July 4. As with most of the larger streams, the best king fishing locations are at the tributary mouths, especially Thursday and Friday creeks, and at the confluence with the Skwentna River. Rainbow trout remain the primary draw for anglers on the Tal and the fishing can be explosive.With deep pools and plenty of long runs, however, the Tal offers those inclined to float good potential throughout the trip.
More than 90 stocked lakes containing rainbows, grayling, landlocked salmon, Dolly Varden and even Arctic char lie within a short drive from the towns of Palmer or Wasilla, making the Mat-Su Valley Alaska’s stillwater fishing capital. For the most part these rich, relatively shallow lakes lie undiscovered, yet they offer almost unbelievable access, many within minutes of each other. To round out an angling excursion into the Mat-Su Valley, one would be wise not to forget the area’s plethora of lakes. For solitude, exceptional scenery and of course, excellent angling, they’re hard to beat.
Near the upper Susitna, several remote fly-in destinations—such as Clarence, Deadman and Watana lakes—provide a perfect opportunity to get away while casting to wild grayling and shore-cruising lake trout. A short flight from Palmer, Talkeetna, Glennallen or Willow will likewise land anglers among the pristine alpine lakes of the Wrangell or Talkeetna ranges. Then there are the 90 stocked lakes of the region, most of which are accessible via road and trail. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game compiles lake-fishing forecasts for the Mat-Su region on an annual basis. These fishing forecasts provide information regarding the management practices on these lakes, regulations and the diversity of fish they contain. The forecast also includes a map detailing the location of over 75 lakes, along with valuable information about each lake identified on the map. Interested anglers can find this forecast on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us.
Last, when talking about fishing Mat-Su lakes, one would be remiss not to mention the northern pike. As late as the 1950s, there were no pike present in the Susitna drainage, but they’re here now, and in strong numbers. It’s theorized that the species was able to gain a foothold in the Susitna River system through a series of illegal stockings, and now the harvest of pike from Mat-Su lakes has surpassed that from the state’s Interior, the region where the largest native pike populations can be found. Well known Mat-Su Valley pike fishing hotspots include Figure Eight Lake, Flathorn Lake, Alexander Lake and Trapper Lake. Alexander Lake (the most remote location of the group) boats a pike population estimated by ADF&G to number up to 16,000 fish.
As a whole, the Susitna drainage covers tens of thousands of square miles and contains innumerable shallow lakes, sloughs, and clearwater tributaries that are prime northern pike spawning and rearing habitat. For anglers willing to get out and target them, the fishing can frequently be spectacular.
Combine the fantastic fishing lakes of the valley with the natural facts of an Alaska winter, and anglers are looking at some of the state’s best ice-fishing potential. Rainbow trout are the species stocked most widely by the state and they inhabit the valley’s lakes in greater abundance than other species. Even in the more heavily fished lakes such as the Kepler-Bradley system near Palmer or Finger Lake located between Palmer and Wasilla, anglers will find quality rainbow action.
On the Mat-Su Valley’s stocked lakes the limit for rainbow trout is 5 per day,as these lakes are managed on a put-and-take basis by the department. For anglers interested in harvesting rainbow trout, ADF&G encourages harvesting from stocked lakes rather than harvesting rainbow trout from wild populations that may not be able to sustain high harvest rates. Ice-fishing opportunities for wild fish in the Mat-Su Valley have tighter fishing regulations like artificial lure requirements and lower bag limits. For more information on ice fishing in the valley, and specifically the stocked lakes, visit the ADF&G Sport Fish Division home page.
Other Things to Do & See
Just more than a half-hour’s drive from Anchorage and right along the way for visitors headed to Denali National Park, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley sprawls across 23,000 square miles of pure Alaska wilderness. About the same size as the state of West Virginia, there is ample opportunity for locals and visitors alike to step off the roadways and enjoy Alaska at its best. From hiking to glacier-trekking, wildlife viewing to flight-seeing magnificent Denali, the Mat-Su is what Alaska is all about.
We’ve detailed the area’s angling options throughout this article, but the reality is that’s just scratching the surface. Enterprising anglers can find much, much more in the Mat-Su, from dabbing flies on secluded alpine lakes to prospecting small tributaries and creeks that cross the 362-mile-long George Parks Highway between Anchorage and Denali National Park.
Of course, there’s also the park itself, anchored by the ever-looming face of North America’s tallest peak. For visitors preferring the guided touch, a call into Mahay’s Jet Boat Adventures can put you onto a variety of excursions, from a 130-mile round-trip riverboat tour through Denali National Park and Devil’s Canyon to the Three Rivers Tour through the Chulitna River Gorge. Flightseeing options abound in the Mat-Su as well, and visitors would be wise to start with a call to an operator such as Bear Mountain Air, who offers everything from a variety of glacier tours to flights following the Iditarod every winter.
For those with a few hours to kill in town, the non-profit Musk Ox Farm just outside Palmer welcomes visitors for a close-up experience of these magnificent Paleolithic ruminants with guided tours, engaging exhibits and a gift shop featuring some of the world’s only hand-combed qiviut fiber, yarn and garmets. There are also some really nice shops in downtown Palmer to stroll around and through. And make sure to stop by for a taste of authentic Alaska with a classic café feel at the Noisy Goose in Palmer, one of the valley’s favorite restaurants.
For something completely different after all that fun in the outdoors, take the family by the Extreme Fun Center in Wasilla and enjoy go-kart racing, laser tag, bumper cars, a full arcade and much more. And after that long day on the water or out exploring everything the Mat-Su has to offer, make sure to experience the fine-dining provided by The Grape Tap in Wasilla, offering fresh Alaska fare in a comfortable yet upscale setting. Get a good night’s sleep at a comfy bed-and-breakfast on a lakefront setting such as that offered by Alaskan Experience Lakefront B&B in Wasilla or park the RV in one of the many road system RV parks, and then head back out to do it all over again.
Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine.