CRESCENT LAKE — High in the Kenai Mountains and miles from the daily urban grind live Arctic grayling, a species of fish so beautiful that catching one can momentarily make time stand still.
On a bluebird day, dark shadows of these freshwater salmonid moved slowly just beneath the surface of the water. They swam against the current of a clear, unspoiled stream that feeds into this high alpine lake nestled deep in Chugach National Forest. And on his first cast into a lake he fished years ago as a kid, my father-in-law hooked into one of these shadows with a #2 Mepps.
"Woohoo!" he yelled. Other than my wife and me, nobody else was around to hear his excitement.
A feathery run on a light-action spinning rod ended with the 15-inch grayling resting along the rocky shore, its sleek dorsal fin tucked in tightly.
For a brief moment, we caught a glimpse of the black and turquoise spots that decorated its flanks and glistened in the sun. The fish was so big by grayling standards that we thought about grilling it for supper. But on second thought, its pure elegance — plus the long journey home — trumped our instincts, so we decided it would be a catch-and-release kind of day.
A few hours earlier, on our hike to the lake, we ran into a couple hiking the trail toward the parking lot. They were visiting Alaska from Florida and had been backpacking with their yellow lab puppy somewhere near the lake. The man didn't have much a fishing report to share, but the puppy sure was cute.
"What's an Arctic grayling?" he asked.
It was a great question, and one that I wasn't sure how to answer other than it's the kind of fish Alaskans often catch when the freezer has already been stocked with salmon, halibut, rockfish, etc. What I should have told him is that Arctic grayling are a lot like his dog — a sport fisher's best friend.
Also known as sailfin, grayling can be found in just about any mountain creek, roadside lake or large glacial lake in Alaska. They like water that's cold and clean. They also tend to be an angler favorite, with their propensity to strike a variety of flies, spoons, and spinners.
Light-action spinning rods should be equipped with four- to six-pound test monofilament line. Anglers with fly rods can get away with using two to six-weight rods rigged with a weight forward floating line that has an 8-to-10-foot leader. Grayling tend to stay close to the surface, so dry fly patterns that could be effective include: Mosquito, Hare's Ear Nymph, Elk Hair Caddis, Black Gnat, Royal Coachman or Adams.
"They're hitting anything that's brown," a California angler told me last weekend on the path to Grayling Lake, located a few miles off the Seward Highway near Seward.
Grayling are relatively small compared to Alaska's five salmon species. The average length is eight to 14 inches. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The state record, caught in 2008 on the Seward Peninsula in Northwest Alaska, tipped the scale at just over 5 pounds and measured 23 inches long.
A friend from Cooper Landing told me recently that grayling in Crescent Lake can grow to be much longer than 23 inches, but it's not always easy to reach them from shore. A primitive trail follows the south shore for about 9 miles, passing through alder thickets, grassy openings, stream crossings, and small spruce forests. Therefore, anglers who pack in float tubes usually have the best success at catching grayling and rainbow trout.
"They can take you for a ride," said my friend, pointing out that anglers using float tubes have little leverage.
The lake can be accessed by foot or mountain bike from the 6.5-mile Crescent Creek Trail on the Cooper Landing side, or just by foot from the 4-mile Carter Lake Trail on the Seward Highway side.
We entered via the Carter Lake Trail, which ascends almost 1,000 feet to Carter Lake in less than two and a half miles.
Once we reached the lake, I realized why a float tube could be useful; there are few places to cast a fly rod from shore without getting hooked to an alder.
And not until we started catching them did I also realize why the grayling here could turn a float-tubing angler into a fish-pulling inner-tuber.
On Tuesday, Fish and Game prohibited the use of bait and multiple hooks on the Kasilof River from its mouth to the Sterling Highway bridge. The restriction runs through 11:59 p.m., July 31.
Farther down the Sterling Highway at Whiskey Gulch, halibut fishing has been better than usual, said Rudy Tsukada, who fishes for halibut from a kayak.
"The halibut are in and bigger size than normal," he said. "The last few years have been smaller fish, but this year there has definitely been a bump in average size."
Across from Homer on Kachemak Bay, the China Poot Bay personal use dipnet fishery for red salmon is open until Aug. 7. Any other salmon species caught must be immediately returned.
The lingcod season is also open. The limit is two per day/two in possession, and they can't be any smaller than 35 inches.
Kenai River/Upper Kenai
The late-run king fishery officially opened on the Lower Kenai River Tuesday. The boundary starts 300 yards downstream from Slikok Creek and anglers are allowed to use just one unbaited single-hook artificial lure. Upstream of Slikok Creek remains closed to king fishing.
Meanwhile, the early run of more than 40,000 sockeyes to the Russian River appears to be tapering off. Only 1,500 reds passed through the weir last weekend (Saturday to Monday) — its lowest three-day total since the beginning of June. Anglers are still limiting out, though, especially near or in the lower sanctuary area the confluence with the Kenai River. The strong run allowed state biologists to double to daily bag limit to six reds.
The Kenai River personal use dipnet fishery opens July 10 and runs through July 31. Kasilof River dipnetters have been on the beach since June 25, and the red run there is so strong Fish and Game biologists are expanding the area open to dipnetting and doubling the sport fishing bag limit to six fish, 12 in possession. Dipnetters are not allowed to keep any king salmon, rainbows or Dolly Varden.
Lingcod fishing opened on Tuesday as well as salmon fishing in the Resurrection River drainage south of Nash Road and south of the Seward Highway. As far as halibut fishing goes, anglers are reporting successful catches east of the bay.
Going to Seward for Mount Marathon festivities? Take a side trip to Grayling and Meridian lakes, both of which are stocked by Fish and Game. The trail to each lake is beautiful, well maintained and worth the effort.
Prince William Sound
Lingcod season is open in the Sound and hatchery kings are returning to Whittier. They should be milling around the Cove Creek area on the east side of town. Get them while you can, though, because the run is quickly coming to a close.
A late surge of king salmon to the Little Susitna River has allowed state biologists to reopen the river to chinook anglers beginning Friday for the holiday weekend and seven days a week thereafter. Fewer than 100 kings had passed the Little Su weir when it was closed last month, but because that number is up to 2,367 now, anglers can now take up to two chinooks at least 20 inches long during the season that ends July 13. Only unbaited artificial lures are legal.
Heavy rains produced high water over the weekend on the Deshka River, submerging the weir. Nevertheless, the peak for king salmon is long gone, which has left anglers anxiously waiting for silvers to appear.
Some Parks Highway streams now allow a limited harvest of rainbow trout. Check Fish and Game regulations for details.
The Eklutna Tailrace is still producing blushed kings, but that won't last much longer.
Upper Copper/Upper Susitna
The Copper River Chitina Subdistrict personal use fishery is open until midnight Monday. Sockeye fishing in the Klutina and Gulkana rivers has been productive and is expected to remain steady the next few weeks.
Anglers are still catching kings returning to Ship Creek. Get them while you can: The fishery closes Monday morning July 7 to make sure Fish and Game biologists have enough broodstock. Try drifting with yarn two hours before the incoming tide. If you don't have any luck, stick around to soak some eggs on the high tide.
Aerobic anglers might consider hiking the 5 miles along the South Fork Valley Trail to Symphony Lake, which opened on Tuesday. The bag limit for Arctic grayling is five per day/five in possession.
Kevin Klott is an Anchorage freelance writer and avid angler.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that the king salmon escapement on the Little Susitna River had been exceeded. In fact, the count to determine escapement is done by air later in the season -- and the weir is only used for in-season management.