Stillwater Paradise by George Krumm
The wind was steady out of the northeast at about seven miles per hour.
Mostly overcast skies were keeping the light level relatively low, and rarely, a fish would rise.
Air temperatures were in the upper 50s, and water temperature was 53 degrees.
No major hatch was evident, but ice out happened a few weeks prior, and the water temperature suggested the food chain should be approaching high gear, and trout should be active.
The lake I was fishing didn’t have an especially strong chironomid hatch, but it had some and I knew it was one of the first bugs to hatch in this lake.
As such, I had a rod rigged for fishing pupa under an indicator, another rigged with a short, slow-sinking sink tip for fishing medium-sized impressionistic nymphs, and another rigged with a hover line for fishing leeches. I kicked along a shoal that was between 4½ and seven feet. Shallow though it was, it was difficult to see the new weed growth I was looking for, however, my fish finder indicated it was there, showing as big clumps on the bottom.
The occasional swirl of fish hinted that I was in the right area. I positioned myself with the wind at my back and anchored up. I moved laterally every few minutes, casting into new areas and searching.
I stared up at the still snow-covered mountains and watched a loon in the distance searching for its own fish. It occurred to me that no one else was fishing this road-accessible, stocked lake about an hour from Anchorage. Having grown up in Washington and remembering the number of anglers fishing Lenice, Dry Falls, Lake Lenore, and the like, it always surprised me that so few Alaskans took advantage of the great stillwater fishing available to them. And this lake has massive rainbows in it.
The subtle sinking of the indicator startled me back into the right now. I raised the rod, carefully, as there are fish to 30 inches in this lake, and felt heavyweight. The fish headed for the horizon, the loose line on my stripping apron swirling upward as if caught in an upside down-tornado, flying through the rod guides. Fortunately, the fly line didn’t catch on anything.
The drag began to sing its urgent song . . .
When anglers think of Alaska, they usually think about huge kings, plentiful silvers and sockeyes, halibut and other bottomfish, and trout and char in rivers.
Stillwater isn’t even an afterthought for Outsiders (people from outside Alaska), and it’s largely overlooked by residents. In my opinion, it is the biggest angling secret of Alaska.
The Wasilla area is part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Wasilla is about 45 miles north of Anchorage, and Alaska’s stillwater capital lies west of the Glen Highway and extends west and north along the Parks Highway towards Talkeetna.
Wasilla itself is ground zero, and many of the roughly 80 stocked lakes and numerous wild fish lakes are within 45 minutes of downtown. In fact, many lakes (both stocked and wild) are just a few minutes from downtown, and many are just a few minutes apart.
All the lakes I’m referring to are on the road system, and it’s possible to fish several lakes in a day if you have the will and energy to do so. A hotel in Wasilla and a rental vehicle puts you in reach of all of them.
Species available in these lakes include rainbow trout, arctic char, landlocked salmon, grayling and northern pike, though the focus on this article is rainbow trout.
It is possible to catch all of these species in a single day, though you’ll have to fish a few different lakes to do so.
With roughly 80 stocked lakes and more than 40 lakes with wild fish populations, one of the most difficult aspects of fishing Mat-Su stillwater is deciding where to go. All of these lakes are listed in the Alaska Lakes Database on ADF&G’s website. On the website you can find information on stocking data, access and directions, and even rudimentary bathymetric maps. The ADF&G website also lists lakes by region. You can also call 3 Rivers Fly and Tackle for up to date information on where to go. They fish and are up to speed on what’s happening.
Likewise, Mossy’s Fly Shop in Anchorage can provide similar information. Both are great places to stock up on flies and tackle.
As previously mentioned, ‘bows to 30 inches live in some of these lakes.
Interestingly enough, the biggest fish most often come from stocked lakes, and of those, my experience shows that the lakes that produce the most big fish (let’s call big fish as being over 20 inches) are stocked with fingerlings.
As such, they are much like wild fish—wary, incredibly strong, and they fight like crazy! They are also a little wiser about putting things in their mouths that aren’t food—I usually out fish gear fisherman, when I see any. It’s not uncommon for a 20-inch rainbow to show you your backing and jump three feet out of the water—sometimes several times!
Unlike many lower 48 lakes, carryovers are common in Alaska and several age classes of fish are present in many of the lakes. I’ve caught fish to 20 inches in most of lakes in which I’ve exerted any significant effort.
Fish in the low-to-mid teens are typical in many lakes. It is common on many of the lakes to be the only angler fishing, though the few with campgrounds and improved boat launches receive more pressure. Access varies, but in most, it’s pretty spartan: A dirt road or trail leading to the lake, minimal parking, unimproved launch site, and no facilities. That said, there are a few campgrounds and improved boat launches at some lakes, such as Finger Lake and the Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area (formerly known as Kepler-Bradley State Park).
I took a week off this year in late May and fished lakes for eight straight days—something I do every year.
I fished five different lakes during the week. It was absolutely phenomenal—eastern Washington and Oregon have nothing on Mat-Su lakes. Granted, I’ve been fishing these lakes since 1994 so I have a lot of experience on them, but I saw more backing in this particular week than I have in a very long time.
I landed roughly 30 fish between 20 and 29 inches during this trip; one that may have been bigger—it’s hard to measure fish that big by yourself, in open water, in a float tube, alone. I landed numerous smaller fish, too. I would like to have fished more lakes, but these were producing so well, I couldn’t bring myself to explore. This year I focused on big fish, but there are lots of lakes in which they plant catchable rainbows, and in some of them, it’s possible to catch as many as 40 fish in a days fishing.
My fly line left the rod guides at warp speed. The uni-to-uni connection between my 25 yards of 20-pound Dacron and 50-pound super line zipped through the guides a few seconds later. It was time to chase, and I clumsily pulled anchor with one hand, spun around and began to chase the fish. 100 feet of fly line and 75 feet of backing and still going called for drastic measures.
Kicking furiously to close the distance, I felt the soggy weight of weeds on my fly line and wondered if this fish was going to come to hand. I feared the size 12 hook would come undone, the 3x tippet would break from the weight all that line, or the fish would burrow into a weed bed . . .
Fly fishing southcentral Alaska’s lakes, whether in the Mat-Su, the Anchorage Bowl, or the Kenai Peninsula, is similar to trout fishing in the lower 48 with some noteworthy exceptions. First, these lakes all freeze over in the winter. Some years, the lakes close to Cook Inlet will open up in April, but to be safe, I wouldn’t plan a trip to the Mat-Su lakes (or Anchorage Bowl or Kenai Peninsula) until May 7th or later. By then, most lakes in the Wasilla area will be ice free. Likewise, lakes will begin freezing sometime in October, so you should plan your trip between May 7th and the end of September.
Of this five-month period, fishing is best in May, June and September, though July and August are good, too.
Like the lower 48, trout are opportunistic and feed on a variety of organisms. Chironomid hatches peak between late May and early June, but a pupa imitations can work all summer. A variety of chironomid species hatch in Alaska. I tend to use large pupa imitations as Alaska’s fish don’t receive the amount of pressure popular lower 48 lakes receive, so the fish aren’t as “educated.”
Black and silver or black and red Snow Cones in sizes 10 through 14 will usually suffice. I tend to fish a size bigger than any naturals I’m seeing, and I never use pupa imitations smaller than 14 in Southcentral lakes. It just hasn’t been necessary.
I usually fish chironomid pupa under an indicator, usually nearer the bottom than the surface. Alaska’s fish seem to prefer to take their pupa in the depths rather than close to or on the surface. I also will fish a pupa vertically with a fast-sinking line in water deeper than 18 feet. Although not usually necessary, sometimes this technique works exceptionally well. That said, I catch most of my fish in Alaska’s lakes in water between four and 10 feet deep.
Scuds are common in Alaska, and in some lakes Gammarus scuds are common. Lakes with Gammarus scuds, as in the lower 48, often grow big fish fast. That said, I rarely fish a scud imitation. When I do, it’s usually in shallow water, late in the season (October).
I mentioned there are notable exceptions between southcentral Alaska’s lakes and the lower 48’s. One is the absence of significant mayfly hatches. Occasionally, I’ll see a mayfly pop up, but it’s always kind of a surprise. The Callibaetis mayfly hatches that cover the water and cloud the skies in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana simply aren’t in Alaska in fishable numbers. A Callibaetis nymph will still take fish, though. They probably just see it as an opportunistic snack.
Caddis species are relatively abundant in Alaska, but the explosive travelling sedge hatches of the lower 48, like the Callibaetis hatches, simply don’t happen in Alaska in fishable numbers. A caddis nymph imitation may produces, but no better than a number of generic, buggy nymphs.
Leeches are common in Alaska and any leech pattern you use elsewhere will work here, too.
In fact, a bugger in olive, brown, or black can catch rainbows, grayling, arctic char, and even pike. You should have a range of leech imitations in sizes 8 and 10. For a few years I went on a “big fly, big fish” kick and experimented with leech imitations as big as size 4. I’ve seen leeches in Alaska that were five or six inches long and thought the big fly would be the ticket. I caught some big fish, but experience has proven to me that a size 8 or 10 is more productive, even for the big fish. It can pay to have a few balanced leeches in the same sizes because on windy days, they often produce well fished under an indicator if you can locate the fish.
Damselfly and dragonfly nymphs are important food items in Alaska lakes. Damsels begin their migration in early June; Dragons a couple weeks later and the migrations overlap. Both can provide good action.
A selection of nymphs of both species should be in your box, especially for the months of June and July. In a few lakes, trout can be taken on damsel dries, but this is not common and it generally won’t produce big fish. The nymphs will produce big fish, though. Likewise, dragonfly nymphs produce some huge fish for me every year. Of the two migrations, I prefer the dragonfly migration. I usually fish with floating dragonfly nymph imitations (Kaufmann’s Floating Dragon or a variation) with a fast-sinking line and a 3- to 5-foot leader of 2x tippet. Takes can be ferocious, the fish large, and I’m usually fishing near potamogeton weed beds, hence the heavy tippet.
There are forage fish in Alaska’s lakes as well; most notably, sticklebacks, young trout, and juvenile salmon (in some of the wild lakes). Fishing steamers can produce, but to be successful, long casts, fast retrieves and covering lots of water will be necessary.
In August every year, rainbows in some lakes seem to begin targeting young-of-the-year sticklebacks, which sometimes school in large groups. The fish and sticklebacks are moving; they always seem to be just out of range and are gone by the time I get close enough to reach them. Because of the above, I don’t spend much time fishing baitfish imitations in Alaska’s lakes. You may have a different experience.
The above information should give you an idea of what the fish eat, and what you can use. It’s not uncommon to catch fish on suggestive patterns that aren’t a precise match to anything. For example, I use soft hackles regularly, in large sizes to mimic dragonfly nymphs, and in smaller patterns just because they look buggy. Trout in Alaska’s lakes aren’t as sophisticated as trout in heavily-fished lakes down south. Anything presented in a manner that suggests food can take trout, as long as there are undisturbed trout nearby. Examples include Rickard’s stillwater nymph, black diamond, prince nymph, micro leeches, and so on.
The gear you use while flyfishing lakes in the lower 48 will work in Alaska, too.
Very few lakes in southcentral Alaska have much shoreline that you can easily fish from. Many are surrounded by private property, and most are surrounded by boggy, swampy areas. You’ll need a float tube, boat, canoe or other watercraft to fish effectively. I use a float tube.
I always take a portable fish finder with me, not so much to mark fish as to mark depth, bottom composition, weeds, and water temperature. The fish finder will help you figure out a lake much faster than you would without one. I also always take an anchor system. The anchor will help you fish precisely once you’ve located a good area, without wandering into the fish’s dining room. The one I use only weighs a pound and a half. It is sufficient unless the wind exceeds about 12 mph.
I use 5- and 6-weight rods. I generally hit the lake with three and sometimes four rods on my tube. I recommend you take at least three rod/line combinations with you. For me, one will always be a 5-weight rigged with a floating line and indicator setup. Another will be a 6-weight with an intermediate line for casting buggers and assorted nymphs. The third will depend on the season; early in the season it will usually be a 5-weight with a short, slow sinking sink tip. Sometimes I use a Rio midge tip; other times a full floating line with a sinking polyleader (usually intermediate). Later in the season, the third rod will have a fast-sinking line, short 2x leader and a floating dragonfly nymph. If I take four rods, I’ll take all of the line recommendations above. This allows me to cover most situations I face in Alaska’s lakes.
These are just suggestions based on my experience. The point is, use 5- and/or 6-weight rods, and have a floating, an intermediate, a short slow-sinking sink tip, and a fast sinking line.
Since flies bigger than a 14 are not necessary, the tippet I use most is 3x fluorocarbon. Occasionally, I’ll use 4x, and for dragonfly nymphs, I’ll use 2x.
There was still nearly 40 yards of backing singing in the breeze, even though I’d been kicking backwards chasing the fish for a couple minutes. I was nearly 100 yards from where I’d hooked the fish. I was still worried the size 12, barbless pupa imitation would work its way out, or that the fish would break me off, but the fish was now in open water so the potamogeton weed beds were no longer a factor. It was just a matter of keeping the line tight.
Moments later, the end of my fly line was on my reel and I spun around. By this time, the fish had expended much of its energy; there was no danger of a long run, though short bursts were still possible.
My 5-weight was bent to the cork as I exerted heavy pressure to get the fish within netting range; I didn’t want to fight the fish to death. I coaxed the fish over the bow of the net and it slid in. Well, most of the way in, anyway. This fish was in the 28- to 30-inch range—steelhead sized. I backed the hook out, snapped a couple quick photos of “fish on legs” and revived and released it. A magnificent animal, I thought. I glanced around the lake. There were no other anglers on the water, though this particular lake has plenty of houses on it. I marveled at the fact that when I moved to Alaska in the early ‘90s, I thought I’d find my best fishing and solitude on streams.
The reality was I found it on Alaska’s lakes: fabulous fishing, no crowds, affordable, accessible and consistently great; not subject to floods, weak runs and allocation battles. Ralph Wahl wrote One Man’s Steelhead Shangri-La about his experience fly fishing on a secret run on the Skagit—a place he enjoyed for many years.
When I think of southcentral Alaska’s stillwater fishing, I know how he felt. It is on southcentral Alaska’s lakes that I found my own Shangri-La.
- written by George Krumm
George Krumm has been fishing Alaska’s lakes since 1994 and is the editor of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. He’s hosting a trip to Jurassic Lake in Argentina in April, 2020. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on fishing southcentral Alaska’s lakes or Jurassic Lake.
When: May 7th through the end of September
What: Over 100 lakes within day-trip distance of Wasilla; Rainbow trout are most plentiful, but arctic char, grayling, and northern pike are also available in this area.
Where: Wasilla, Alaska area, 45 minutes north of Anchorage.
Where to stay: Numerous hotels in the Wasilla area; few campgrounds. The author’s recommendation is Trout House in Wasilla. Also known as the Windbreak Café, it features an affordable hotel and restaurant serving Alaska-sized portions and a bar all in the same place. The numerous mounted fish and pictures of local trout caught in nearby lakes adds to the ambience.
Rental cars: Available at the airport in Anchorage or in Wasilla. Recommend you make reservations far in advance as rental cars are hard to come by on short notice from May through September.
What to bring: Float tube and fins or other watercraft; 5- and 6-weight fly rods; floating, intermediate, sink tip and full sinking fly lines; typical stillwater flies, 2x through 4x tippet, a big net and whatever tackle you use in lower 48 lakes.