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Sportfishing begins, whether Alaska's spring is ready or not

Sean Doogan
Two rainbow trout caught at DeLong Lake in Anchorage. May 21, 2013 Sean Doogan photo

Summer is making a comeback in Alaska this week. Weekend temperatures are expected to crest 60 in Southcentral, with highs in the 70’s forecast for parts of the Interior. But the effects of a longer-than-usual winter are still lingering across the state. Alaskans who had to shovel snow on May 17th could tell you, there is still a lot of frozen water left in the Last Frontier. And that isn’t good news for anyone who has spent the last eight months longingly gazing at a dusty fishing pole across the room. Many campgrounds inside Denali National Park and northward are seeing delayed openings, with snow still blocking the roads to parking areas and campsites. In Delta, people are still ice-fishing on Quartz Lake.

Most anglers start itching to get a line wet in early May, and Memorial Day weekend is normally the start of the summer fishing season. But this year, with many parts of the state still emerging from one of the coldest springs on record, the usual places don’t look good. But take heart -- there are still some great opportunities to hook up, they just may be a little farther from home than usual.

First, the bad news

Chinook, or kings, are among the earliest of five Alaska salmon species to hit the streams and rivers of the 49th state. But their numbers have been dropping across much of Alaska, and no one is quite sure why. The Kenai River, once home to a popular and sustained run of the biggest kings in the world, is in chinook fishing free-fall. The poor returns have forced the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to issue emergency fishing restrictions or outright closures for each of the last three years. This year, to keep a Kenai king, you have to catch a whopper, more than 55 inches long. Bad news has been the only news for kings on other popular Peninsula fisheries, like the Anchor and Ninilchik Rivers, and Deep Creek. On the Kasilof River, fishermen can only keep hatchery fish and have limited fishing days.

Things aren’t much better in the Mat-Su Valley, where popular king rivers like the Little Susitna and Deshka are also under fishing restrictions for kings. At the Eklutna Tailrace, a pull-off along the Old Glenn highway, hatchery kings have yet to begin their annual return. High, muddy water and ice chunks still floating down many Valley rivers will make conditions difficult for any angler who decides to try the area for Alaska salmon royalty.

In Anchorage, Ship Creek and Eagle River are both open to fishing this weekend, but don’t expect much success at either location. Fish and Game forecasts conditions as "poor.”

The good news -- Kenai Peninsula and Seward

There are still some kings to be found in Southcentral, if you are willing to fish the saltwater. Charter captains and boat owners are having some success trolling off Deep Creek, as well as in Resurrection Bay, near Seward. Halibut are also beginning to migrate north as water temperatures warm. And, of course, fishing for king salmon will be allowed in some streams and creeks over the Memorial Day weekend. Check with Fish and Game for the latest list of regulations and emergency orders. Lakes are just beginning to open up, so try fishing the near-shore areas with flies, and bait (where allowed.) But check ahead as with areas to the north -- some Southcentral and Peninsula campgrounds are still closed, or open with only limited services, because of the long winter.

And don't forget, some "fish" live inside shells. There are good tides for clamming on the Kenai Peninsula this weekend. Most northern Kenai beaches should produce well, but a problem at one southern beach, Ninilchik, has forced the state to reduce the bag limit for Pacific razor clams from 60 to 25.

The really good news -- Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley

Despite the lack of king salmon, there are still plenty of ways you can tangle with a fish this Memorial Day weekend. Think small. Hooligan are beginning to push up the Twentymile River, near Portage. Dippers are reporting spotty success, varying from tide to tide.

Any lake with open water is a good place to try your luck for other fish species. The Department of Fish and Game has begun sending its hatchery truck to lakes in Anchorage and the Mat-Su. Jewel Lake was stocked on May 22nd. The state maintains a fish stocking report, so you can check if your local lake has gotten new fish this year. Rainbow trout have been caught in decent numbers at almost every Anchorage area lake that has ice-free areas near shore.

At Jewel Lake on Tuesday, anglers who would normally be targeting king salmon were just happy to have a chance to do some “soft-water fishing.”

“What else are you going to do, with the way the winter has hung on, and the lack of kings, the lakes are your best bet for fish,” said Greg Kenny, a 26-year-old house painter casting for the newly stocked rainbows.

In the Mat-Su, large brood-stock rainbow trout and Arctic char were put into Kepler-Bradley and Lowberg lakes this week. Northern pike can also be found cruising ice-free areas of some lakes in the Mat-Su. And, you can still attempt to catch a king salmon in the Valley, but there are a bevy of restrictions and closures criss-crossing the area. Check with Fish and Game for the latest list of fishing regulations.

The long winter may have dampened Memorial Day fishing outlooks, but there are still decent fishing opportunities. While the fish available across Southcentral and the Kenai Peninsula may not be as big as people are used to this time of year, and the odds of catching may not be quite as good, the Memorial Day weekend will still provide anxious anglers a chance to wet a line.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com