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Gonzo for grayling

Matt Tunseth
Matt Tunseth / Alaska Dispatch News

EAGLE RIVER -- The hike in had been a mini disaster. Between the wrong turn, the lost fishing rod and the sudden downpour, your reporter was becoming skeptical of the mountain lake's mythical beauty and world-class fishing as he trudged up the final few feet of a rocky moraine that for the past 20 minutes had been a minefield of shifting, slippery boulders and increasingly creative cussing. The promised payoff at the end of the hike to Symphony Lake was starting to seem like a fish story.

Who's up for a happy ending?

Despite a clumsy trek that seemed destined to become grist for the next Jon Krakauer book, the next hour provided one of the best fishing days in recent memory, with a scene set in an alpine wonderland and a plot featuring more fish flying out of the water than “Sharknado.”

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Side by side beauties

Symphony and its twin Eagle Lake are up a 5-mile trail that begins off Hiland Road near Eagle River and climbs the South Fork Eagle River Valley as it crosses into Chugach State Park. The lakes are separated by a large ridge of glacial boulders remaining from the last ice age, and provide hikers with a unique panorama of side-by-side beauties.

The lakes are fraternal twins, rather than identical. Eagle Lake's long, curvy basin is filled with turquoise glacial runoff, while Symphony's small, round body is filled with water clear as a bathtub full of gin.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game stocked Eagle Lake with grayling twice in the early 2000s, and the lake now supports a robust population of the small fish whose distinctive feature is a dorsal fin that rivals that of a sailfish. Alaska Department of Fish and Game area sportfish biologist Dan Bosch said fishing at the small lake is typically excellent.

"It's just a great little fishery," he said.

The lake's crystal-clear water and the species' notorious appetite for flies and spinners makes for nonstop excitement. Bosch recalled one time he was fly fishing in the lake and saw a grayling come shooting up from the depths like a cruise missile fired from a submarine.

"It came up out of nowhere," he recalled. "It was like a heat-seeking missile."

I'd heard similar reports of ravenous fish and mind-blowing scenery, but until Tuesday hadn't checked out the mythic fishing Xanadu. When I arrived at the trail head mid-morning, about a dozen cars were already parked there. The small lot can get extremely full on weekends, as the scenic trail offers a backcountry experience just a 20-minute drive from downtown Anchorage.

The first two miles of trail are a gentle uphill walk along a wide, smooth gravel path above the South Fork Eagle River. Along the way I spotted several berry pickers higher up on the slopes, and blueberries were abundant even trailside.

Expect the trail to get prettier with each passing day as the leaves turn rapidly from green to yellow.

After making the traverse along the side of the valley, the trail plunges down and across the river and heads up along the opposite side. About a half mile from the bridge across South Fork there's a Y in the trail where hikers can either continue straight ahead or veer right and continue up the South Fork Valley.

This is where the going got tough Tuesday.

Blissfully grabbing handfuls of blueberries and enjoying the August sunshine, I somehow missed the cutoff and continued walking straight ahead toward Hanging Valley. Also popular with hikers, the valley provides glacier views and excellent camping, according to State Parks. However, it's not really where I wanted to go.

After hiking for a mile with my head firmly planted somewhere other than on the task at hand, it began to dawn on me that I was no longer following a small river valley but climbing a trail that led deeper into the mountains. A quick check of the map revealed my stupidity, and I began trotting back down the trail. In my haste I clipped several overhanging trees with my backpack (and fishing rod), but nothing that seemed too violent.

After finally reaching the junction, I took off the pack to make sure I was still traveling with a full load. Nope. Instead of my two-piece lightweight spinning rod, there was only the butt end and reel. I backtracked  another 100 yards searching in vain before acknowledging that the damn thing could be just about anywhere. With patience running thin -- but at least one workable eye left on my now halibut-stout spinning rig -- I returned to the hike.

The trail from that point up to the lakes is narrow but good, although footing can get slippery when wet. About a quarter mile from trail's end it crosses the outlet of Eagle Lake and passes into a massive moraine of boulders marked only by occasional rock cairns (piles) along a crude path. This stretch was the least enjoyable for me, especially since a rain shower had begun to soak the rocks, making hiking more treacherous.

Middle Earth feel

Despite the difficulty of the final stretch, the scenic payoff is a jackpot. Encircled by towering peaks, the area around the two lakes has a definite Middle Earth feel -- an illusion made even more powerful by a curious half-built cabin that sits perched atop the ridge separating the lakes.

By the time I reached the final ridge the shower had become a downpour. However, despite only having half a fishing rod, I wasn't going to leave without at least trying to catch a damn fish.

My first awkward cast off the rocks landed my spinner a paltry 10 feet from shore, and I meekly reeled in as the rain began to pound down harder. Things weren't looking good. A second cast produced a 20-foot effort, which gave me at least some hope I might actually get my lure out far enough to catch something.

On my third cast, I hooked a fish.

Despite the stout rod, I felt a ferocious jolt as the fish slammed the spinner. I could also see a flash of gold in the water as I reeled in the tiny, feisty fish. Bright and sporting the species' odd and beautiful dorsal fin, the 10-inch grayling filled me with a sense of accomplishment far out of proportion with its size.

In the next hour I caught and released more fish than were worth counting. Each time the action slowed, I simply moved a dozen yards along the shore and things started back up again. The fish rose almost gleefully out of the depths toward everything I threw their way. It was almost as if the lake's solitude made them starved, not only for fishing attention but for company.

Finally, tired of the rain and my makeshift fishing rig, I turned happily back for home. As I did, the rain tapered off and sunshine again flowed into the valley. Behind me, the only sound I could hear were grayling breaking the surface of the water as if calling me back for one more cast.

I'll be back.

Fishing still slow at Bird

Bosch said coho (silver) salmon fishing remains a bit slow at Bird Creek south of Anchorage despite strong returns to Campbell and Ship Creek -- which like Bird are stocked by Fish and Game.

"Bird Creek is kind of perplexing," Bosch said.

He did note that anglers had reportedly had some success fishing "hardware" (spinning lures) further down on the river, which might indicate more fish are on the way.

As for Campbell and Ship, Bosch said there's still plenty of coho but that the fish aren't likely to be in a biting mood unless there's some rain to make them move.

"That's the trick with silvers," he said.

Mat-Su

Silver fishing in the Mat-Su remains a huge bright spot for Southcentral anglers. Fish and Game recently upped the bag limit for silvers from two to three on the Little Susitna River. Fish Creek, which has exceeded its escapement goal, was opened to sport fishing seven days a week, while Cottonwood and Wasilla Creek remain open Saturday-Sunday-Monday only. Fish and Game expects fishing to be good to excellent this weekend. Fishing has reportedly slowed some on the Parks Highway streams according to the department, but fishing remains good on the Little Su, Deshka River and Talkeetna River drainages.

For anglers not trying to fill a freezer with salmon, trout fishing on area streams is now reportedly excellent, with low, clear water making fish easy to locate and hook. Northern pike fishing is also reported to be good in the Nancy Lakes area.

Kenai Peninsula

High water on the Kenai and Kasilof River has made fishing for both salmon and trout tricky lately, according to Fish and Game. Pink salmon continue to flood the Kenai River, making silver fishing difficult. Area sportfish management biologist Robert Begich said coho fishing on the Kenai River has picked up over the last week as smaller tides and fewer pinks in the river have produced more favorable conditions. "It's getting better," Begich said.

According to the department, trout fishing on the upper Kenai has been fair recently, although it's likely to improve as water levels drop. The Kenai-Russian confluence area as well as the Russian River closed to salmon fishing for the season Wednesday night.

Seward

Silver fishing in Resurrection Bay has been hit-and-miss, according to Fish and Game, with fish scattered because of big storms. It's still somewhat early for beach fishing, although the department expects silvers to start hitting the beach in good numbers any day.

Contact fishing report columnist Matt Tunseth at mtunseth@alaskadispatch.com