Labor Day weekend harkens the beginning of the end for Southcentral anglers.
Salmon runs are waning or finished. The best halibut fishing is over, with fall storms arriving to make some outings more of a survival contest. Hunting has begun. The distraction of college and NFL football is here.
But for serious Alaska anglers, autumn can be the best time of year.
Fish know they must eat now, and eat heartily, if they are to survive a wicked winter.
Take advantage of their gluttony. And while you're at it, enjoy the fall colors, the peaceful fishing spots and the scent of autumn. Dozens of spots are ideal for catching fish, bathing in autumn's splendor or -- ideally -- both. Here are a few favorites.
Is there any better way to spend a sunny autumn day than drifting the upper Kenai River? Leaves are tinted amber and hard-fighting rainbow trout or silver salmon lurk.
"I love silver fishing," said Soldotna-based Fish and Game assistant area biologist Jason Pawluk. "I love fishing into mid-October in the middle Kenai River, pitching lures."
One of the Kenai River's many assets is the fact that fresh silvers continue entering the river as late as December.
"But right now would be your best time," Pawluk noted, suggesting a drift from Sportsman's Landing to Jim's Landing, probing deep pools of dead water that may have silvers stacked thick.
Anglers are restricted to single-hook artificial lures, but a No. 5 Vibrax spinner may be just the ticket.
But there's no rush. Increasingly, rainbow anglers have worked the river well into winter whenever the weather moderates a bit. But there's no doubt September is more comfortable than even the mildest December day.
Turn a stout 11-mile hike into a fish-and-hike combo by visiting Symphony Lake above Eagle River. Cast into crystal clear waters with snow-capped Cantata (6,391 feet) and Eagle (6,909 feet) peaks in the background.
The 35-acre lake, at an elevation of 2,687 feet, was stocked with grayling in 2001 and 2003.
"It's a beautiful setting, the fishing is really good and it's a very productive lake," former Fish and Game biologist Chuck Brazil said earlier this year. "But angling pressure has increased vastly."
As a result, fishing was closed from April to July and the bag limits reduced from five to two fish -- only one of 12 inches or more -- in an effort to preserve populations of both older and younger fish.
"We don't want a population that becomes stunted with a bunch of small fish," Brazil said.
PARKS HIGHWAY STREAMS
Clear-running streams near the Parks Highway from Willow Creek to Byers Creek offer great fall prospects for trout or grayling.
Among those to consider: Little Willow, Goose, Sheep, Montana and Troublesome creeks.
"Add to this the fall colors, cool air and ripe-berry smells of the season, all under the backdrop of the Talkeetna Mountains to the east and Denali and the Alaska Range to the north, and you have a recipe for both eye candy and some hard-fighting rainbow trout," said Ken Marsh, a public information specialist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a devoted fly fisherman.
Consider a 6-to-8 weight fly rod rigged with floating line and 12-foot leader. Attach a single hook under a bead (to imitate freshly spawned salmon eggs). Thread the bead onto the line and attach with a clipped-off toothpick point two inches above the hook.
Attach a split-shot or two -- enough to keep things bouncing along the stream bottom -- to the line 18 inches above the bead. For variety, bring a reasonable selection of bead colors and sizes.
The farther you walk up or downstream from the highway, the more likely you are to find seldom-fished water.
Not ready to relinquish the rod?
Silver salmon fishing in Whittier shouldn't peak until the second or third week of September, with fresh fish trickling in during October.
Silvers tend to mill around such popular spots as Shakespeare Creek, Smitty's Cove, Salmon Run and the Whittier small boat harbor, ranging from 8 to 20 pounds. A medium-action rod loaded with plenty of 12-to-15 pound test line works well. The bite varies daily -- and this week it's been dismal. Some days the hot ticket can be spinners or bait, while herring or salmon roe suspended from a bobber are effective 24 hours later.
Situated below the Chugach Mountains and hovering glaciers, Whittier anglers can fish from shore or sign up with the handful of charters based there.
The 30-mile-long Anchor River north of Homer is a clear-water stream narrow enough that most fly fishermen can cast across it. Decades ago, 4,000 steelhead returned each year; now the estimate is much lower and steelhead fishing is catch and release only.
Despite catch-and-release protections in effect since 1989 on the Anchor River, Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River, state biologists have no official steelhead counts to gauge the strength of those Kenai Peninsula runs. But all indications are that it's small -- with angling pressure growing. Hence, the strict conservation rules that prohibit anglers from removing fish they are releasing from the water.
In addition, the Anchor boasts a decent silver salmon run. More than 4,400 have been counted upstream so far, significantly ahead of last year's pace.
Bait is banned and anglers must use single hooks only.
Winter's chill arrives a little later on the southern tip of the Kenai, making the Anchor a beautiful fall stream well into October.
Guide Jim McCormick will take clients out on Lake Louise this fall for hefty lake trout -- pretty much until they cry uncle.
"Right now is pretty good, but it peaks around the first of October," McCormick said. "I keep going until it gets so cold that it's pretty unbearable to fish. Just depends on how hard-core the clients are."
Right now, temperatures are comfortable, dipping into the high 30s at night and well into the 50s during the day, said Yvette Delaquito, co-owner of Lake Louise Lodge, which offers boat and motor rentals.
"You know, I'm still seeing fish pushing the 30-pound class at Lake Louise," said McCormick, who plans to take "North To Alaska" cable television fishing show host Larry Csonka on a Lake Louise trip. "But most are in the 18 to 30 pound range.
"But that's not bad for a lake that's only three hours north of Anchorage."
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL