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Solitude, big rainbows are the reward for trekking to Kenai refuge’s wilderness lakes

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: January 9, 2018
  • Published January 9, 2018

No power equipment is allowed, including power ice augers, but solitude is one of the rewards when you make the effort to fish at a lake in the designated wilderness area of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

After drilling three holes in the ice, I scooped out the slush and went back to the first hole drilled. It was about 30 yards from the bank, the other two drilled at 10 and 20 yards. Once my collapsible chair was situated the correct distance for the rod tip to hang over the hole, I sat down and pressed the button on the reel and released the one-ounce, silver Syclops lure to seek the bottom.

As the line paid out, the level wind pawl traversed the face of the reel, once, twice, and stopped just shy of the third, about 30 feet down. Lifting the rod and dropping it three quick times to thump the bottom, I cranked the reel a couple of turns to get the lure off the bottom and started jigging.

With the promise of new water and new fish, I lifted the rod tip a couple of feet and then let it drop in rapid free-fall. Envisioning the lure darting back and forth in the manner of a wounded fish, my hopes were high. After the eighth drop, it appeared the fish were higher in the water column and my attention turned to my next move.

Two more, I thought, and I'll try at 20 feet. The lure went down on the ninth trip and slammed down hard, the rod tip going into the hole. And then the fish was gone. Had to be a rainbow — nothing hits these big spoons under the ice like a rainbow.

The trip had started with a search of the map encompassing an area designated as wilderness in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Bordered to the west by Swanson River Road and the north by Swan Lake Road, it's a vast chunk of ground dotted with freshwater lakes and small streams.

The wilderness designation precludes the use of any sort of power equipment, like power ice augers, chain saws, snowmachines or airplanes. To fish these lakes, you must get there under your own power. There are few trails to follow.

Some inventory was done on some of the lakes years ago and suggests most contain either rainbows or char. Some have both. There are enough lakes that you could spend a lifetime and not see them all.

The lake I chose was about 3 miles off the road and, most important, had a small outlet stream that flowed to the Moose River, which flows to the Kenai River and has a rather large salmon run. Some of these salmon, mostly silvers or reds, find their way to these backcountry lakes to spawn. Spawning salmon means salmon smolt, and there aren't a lot of things that rainbows and char like to eat more. And they get big doing it.

The map showed a point of land jutting out into the lake on the north shoreline. These points provide structure for cover and ambush, and fish congregate there as they cruise the shoreline. Fishing always seems a bit better where the low winter sun hits the lakeshore, and it's nice to enjoy the sun in your face while plying the depths below.

The morning I chose to make the trek to the lake came two days after a wind storm had blown through, taking a high-pressure system along with it. The barometric pressure had dropped and remained stable, a critical aspect of successful ice fishing, it seems.

Two hours before daylight I found a spot to pull off the road and strapped on my snowshoes, shouldering my hunting pack. Loaded with a hand auger, ice scoop, two ice-fishing rods (you don't want to have something go wrong that far back), a supply of 1-ounce silver Syclops, a chair, a thermos of coffee, a down jacket, a container of waterproof matches and a small saw (in case a fire was required), I stepped off into the deep snow.

Arriving at the lake three hours later, it was much as I had expected. The point I was looking for was prominent across the stark white surface of the lake, blemish free but for a lone coyote track that disappeared far to the eastern shore.

Reeling up fast, I let the big spoon fall to the bottom and cranked up twice and lifted and dropped three times quickly. No takers. He's moved on, let the hole rest, I said to myself as I moved to the near shore hole.

The water was 15 feet deep, a sign the point had a sharp dropoff. Jigging for 10 minutes produced no strikes. A move to the middle hole, where the water was only slightly deeper, was also dead.

I moved my chair back to the first hole. Time to get serious. I broke the built-up ice from the rod guides, settled in and dropped back down the hole. Thump, thump, thump, two cranks up, lift and drop. Every nerve tensed in anticipation for the hit that would come as the lure fell, the most difficult hit to react to because it must be quick. I was ready when the big fish hit, setting the hook hard. Tightening the drag a bit, I was able to abate his run and turn him.

Back and forth I watched him fight, but in time he began to tire, and the critical moment arrived — lifting his head through the hole without catching the treble hook on the edge, a sure way to lose the fish. A moment later, 24 inches of beautiful bronze, gold, green, pink and red lay in the soft powder.

That's been many years ago, but not much has changed. The quiet, the beauty and the great fishing remain, as they will into the future. I figure the efforts to continue exploring these wilderness lakes are an investment in holding old age at bay. We can all use a bit of that.

Steve Meyer of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at

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