The author along the Swanson River and Swan Lake canoe system on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The canoe system is accessed via Swanson River Road in Sterling. (Photo courtesy Dave Atcheson)

Tight Lines: The quiet alternative

It’s not unusual in Alaska (at least anywhere on the road system) to round the corner and be struck by a scene that looks more like rush-hour Manhattan than a fishing paradise. But there are ways to beat the crowds, even in places as popular as the Kenai Peninsula. At least that’s what I told my buddy, Jim, in order to coax him to saddle up for a recent mountain bike ride.

We started early in Cooper Landing, peddling up the switchback-laden Quartz Creek Trail, on our way to its terminus at Crescent Lake. With his last bike being a Schwinn Stingray it took more than a little prodding, but I was glad he had agreed to accompany me.

“Look,” I’d said to him, “it will cut down on travel time, turn an overnighter into a day trip, get us into some serious fishing, and, most importantly, get us away from the crowds.”

I should have known better than to pick such a long, mostly uphill, trip. It also didn’t help our confidence when we were passed by a parade of spandex-clad mountain bikers rolling along at a rather ridiculous clip, or when they lapped us, on their way out before we’d even emerged from the trees and into the high-country. I assured Jim it was OK, perhaps even attempting to console myself when I theorized that we’d be just as fast, just as graceful, if we weren’t burdened with waders or stuck with rod tubes bungeed to our bikes. I don’t think he bought it though.

Despite emerging lame and saddle sore, the openness of the alpine country and the sheer magnitude of the staggering view immediately invigorated us — a scene so mesmerizing, so grand, it actually conjured up visions of Julie Andrews prancing through the Bavarian Alps. It’s here we were also exposed to one of Alaska’s most pleasant fishing surprises — grayling, that small, abundant, and exotic salmonid with a propensity for sipping dry flies off the surface. Known for their large, kite-like dorsal fin, these fish not only allowed us an adventure far from the madding crowd, but, armed with our 3-weight fly rods, this was also a welcome change of pace from bouncing heavily weighted egg-patterns along the bottom of fast-moving glacial streams.

Canoes and fishing have always shared a storied relationship, and with Jim and me partnering on many past excursions it’s much less difficult to convince him to commit to a paddling trip into the Swan Lake/Swanson River Canoe System. While the swarming mosquitoes and black flies can be a deterrent mid-summer, early season and autumn fishing is relatively pleasant. Most portages are short, campsites abundant, and fishing tends to improve the further one ventures into these systems — and, with the possible exception of Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, solitude is almost guaranteed.

Here you can up your fly rod to a 4- or 5-weight, or fish with an ultra-light spinning rod, for trout and Dolly Varden, fish that typically range between 12- and 16-inches, with the occasional lunker breaking the 20-inch mark.

Like the bike and hiking trails, the canoe trails are corridors to special places far beyond the bustle of everyday human activity.

Yet whether by boat, bicycle, or on foot, they all deliver us to places where the quiet is absolute, having the power to envelop the very recesses of our beings, creating a melody out of flowing water and making the unexpected bellow of a wolf or the beguiling call of a loon all the more potent.

Finding the quiet alternative

Often beating the crowds and finding a quiet fishing alternative requires — along with a little physical effort — simply an adjustment in attitude and a redefining of plan.

In many cases that means a downsizing in equipment and a willingness to seek out a variety of species. Enjoying a breath of that sweet Alaska solitude can be as simple as breaking out the light tackle and heading to one of the area’s smaller streams.

Targeting trout and dollies on streams closed to salmon fishing for instance, like Ptarmigan Creek, near Seward, can be a great alternative. Even the likes of the Russian River turns peaceful between and after salmon runs.

The trout aficionado usually has a brief two-week window in July and about a month at the end of the season when this beautiful stretch of water reverts to its more primitive state and gives the solitude-seeking angler a reprieve from the crowds.

For those with their hearts set on salmon, targeting silvers late in the season offers the best chance at solitude. A silver’s willingness to chase a lure or fly, along with its strength and acrobatics after being hooked, make it a favorite of fishers everywhere. And on good years — which by all accounts this is — the Kenai River remains productive throughout October. Finding good fishing and solitude simply takes an open mind and timing, scheduling a trip, for instance, other than during the peak of the season, and a willingness to fish for a variety of species. For most of us, wetting a line in peace, with just a few close friends, far from the madding crowd, is an integral part of the ultimate fishing fantasy, and fortunately, something we don’t have to travel very far to find in Alaska. The quiet alternative is out there, just waiting to be discovered.


Dave Atcheson is the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” and National Geographic’s “Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond.” His latest book, “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas” is now available in hardcover, online, and as an audiobook.

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Tight Lines runs monthly from September through April and will return as a weekly feature in May.

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