RABBIT LAKE -- Summer solstice marked the beginning of the warm season last week, but two Anchorage fly-fishermen discovered Monday morning that winter still lingers deep in the Chugach Mountains.
The anglers' hike to Rabbit Lake began with optimism, an arsenal of dry flies and collapsible six-weight fly rods. Four and a half miles up the trail sat a 75-acre lake stocked with rainbow trout and scenery that would rival an Ansel Adams photograph.
But signs along the way had winter written all over the U-shaped valley, making us wonder if the ice was out.
First came snow patches along the rocky uphill trail -- perhaps left over from a spring avalanche and well protected beneath the tall alders.
Then came long stretches of deep snowpack along the hillside. Not long ago, a backcountry skier had made tracks that snaked down the ridge.
The clearest indication was frozen Rabbit Creek. Overflow rushing downstream had a turquoise-blue tint.
So with our chilled fingers crossed in anticipation and the temperature dropping into the high 30s, we figured the odds were slim that the ice was out.
Matt Richard was the first to hike over the final ridge before a downhill stretch leading to the lake.
"Not even close," he confirmed. "I wonder if this counts as getting skunked?"
By now, Rabbit Lake is usually ice free, said Chuck Brazil, an Anchorage and North Gulf Coast assistant sportfish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But this hasn't been a normal spring. Anchorage's official temperature has yet to hit 70 degrees in 2008, and nighttime lows have dipped into the 30s at low elevation within the last couple of weeks.
Even so, Brazil was floored to hear that Rabbit Lake was still locked in winter's icy grip -- especially after Fish and Game recently heard that its ice was out.
"You call around and hear stuff," he said. "Whoever told me that was obviously wrong."
At this point, Brazil predicts it will take two weeks of warm weather before the lake opens. And when it does, fit anglers willing to make the 4 1/2-mile trek through bear country can expect to catch adult trout.
Fish and Game stocked the lake with about 2,000 trout averaging 7.6 inches long in 1999, followed by more than 900 in 2002 and 400 in 2005.
Considering the alpine lake is ice free only a few months of the year, growth rates are slow, but the trout's life expectancy is long. Years ago, a 9-year-old, 14-inch trout was caught there, Brazil said.
Keith Graham, co-owner of World Wide Angler Outfitters in Anchorage, was shocked to hear Rabbit was still iced over.
"Wow," he sighed. "That's just trippy."
Graham's favorite alpine fishing spot in Chugach State Park is Symphony Lake, located at the headwaters of the South Fork outside of Eagle River. It's a great place to catch and release arctic grayling on dry flies.
Grayling are the sailfin of the north with their dorsal banner colored purple, crimson and gold. Though fishing for grayling pales in comparison to the excitement of hooking a salmon, grayling often produce non-stop action as they greedily gorge on insects.
Folks at World Wide Angler in Anchorage suggest arming your fly box with Prince Nymphs, Adams Irresistible, Elkhair Cadis and Griffith's Gnat patterns.
"They'll bite just about anything," Graham said.
The 6-mile hike to Symphony, which has been ice free a few weeks, starts near the end of Hiland Road and takes roughly two hours for anglers hiking at a steady pace. The trail has patches of snow near Symphony and Eagle lakes and it's very wet, so bring an extra pair of socks.
Fish and Game has stocked the clearwater lake with more than 7,000 arctic grayling since 2003, and Brazil said the agency doesn't plan to restock anytime soon.
"It's been really productive," said Brazil who plans to fish Symphony next week. "The country is really nice too. You don't have to go that far out of Anchorage to get there."
RUSSIAN SANCTUARY OPEN
Finally, there is good news to what has been a dismal salmon season in Alaska.
The red salmon storming into the Russian River have prompted sport fish biologists to open the downstream sanctuary to fishing at 8 this morning.
More than 7,000 reds have passed the weir of the Kenai Peninsula clearwater stream since Monday, putting the yearly total over 13,000 fish.
Between 14,000-37,000 early-run reds are needed upstream for Fish and Game to achieve its escapement goals, and with an estimated 3,000 reds in the sanctuary, biologists were comfortable opening it.
"There's a ton of fish in there," said Colin Lowe of Kenai Cache Outfitters. "The river should be packed (today)."
Anglers have been coming home with their limits easily in the past few days, Lowe said.
Fishing near the Fish and Game markers, a few hundred yards downstream of the Russian River falls, has also been productive, Lowe said.
Be on the lookout for bears, though. Anglers report that brown bears are also looking for fish in the falls area.
"As of yesterday, the reds have been stacked up like cord wood," Lowe said.
The sanctuary, meanwhile, includes waters upstream from Fish and Game markers downstream of the Russian ferry crossing to markers 300 yards upstream of the public boat launch at Sportsman's Landing.
Fishing in this area closes at 11:59 p.m. on July 14.
SHIP CREEK CYCLIST
James Willacker, 23, is a die-hard angler who also loves to bike everywhere he goes.
The two hobbies posed a problem for the UAA graduate student recently. About two weeks ago, Willacker said he caught a 43-pound king on the final day of the Slam'n Salm'n King Derby, but didn't have a ticket.
But that wasn't his only problem. Somehow, Willacker had to transport the fish from downtown to his home near Lake Otis Parkway and Dowling Road. So he took the fish for a ride.
"Most of it was sticking out of my backpack," he laughed. "I got a few (funny looks). The tourists loved it."
On Tuesday morning, Willacker reeled in his fourth king of the season at Ship Creek. This time he brought his fillet knife and cleaned the king atop a flat rock along Ship Creek's muddy banks.
Each king he's caught has been hooked between 6 and 6:30 a.m.
"It's really that first little bit where the fish haven't been spooked all night," he said.
Willacker grew up fishing for kings in New York, and he's worked at a hatchery. Living on the East Coast, where water is often too polluted to keep fish, helped him appreciate Alaska's king runs.
"You don't eat fish there," he said. "We had to pay hazmat to take (spawning salmon) away. It's nice being in a place where you can enjoy what you catch."
Even if you have to bike the fish home.
Find Kevin Klott online at adn.com/contact/kklott or call 257-4335.