PAXSON — There's still snow in our yard beside the Maclaren River — not usable snow, but irritating enough. Nighttime temperatures freeze the snow, though not solid enough to walk on. I wear knee boots around the yard but snow still goes over the tops here and there. I can't quite back the truck up to the woodshed. There is enough ice on high-elevation lakes to stand on them — if you could get to the lake.
The winter ice of 2016 is mostly a memory north of Isabel Pass and in the Copper River Basin. There was never much ice anyway. Paxson Lake had less than three feet in mid-April. Summit and Paxson lakes still have ice, though I would hesitate walking on Paxson without a dry suit. In the 1970s, we played softball on the ice in front of the old Sportsman Lodge on Memorial Day. Not every Memorial Day, but often enough.
This year may be the earliest ice-out on Paxson Lake in memory. My personal records show May 21, 1973 as the existing record. That was the year I put an old Ford truck thru the ice while moving a load of dogs across. I jumped out, turned the dozen or so dogs loose and headed for shore!
I was able to come back, shove the cab full of foam and tie a bunch of buoys on that old half-ton before it sank all of the way through the ice. I made another trip to the truck and tied a half-dozen lengths of halibut ground line to the vehicle.
Still started up
The Ford ended up going down, but I had it tied off to a tree on shore. A few days later when a lead opened, I pulled the truck to shore with my riverboat and winched it up on the beach. Amazingly enough, the truck started right up as soon as I drained the carb and cleared the plugs. The darn thing still runs, though I'm not going to drive it on the ice this spring.
Many of the smaller water bodies along the Denali Highway are open along the edges. Lake trout and grayling will bite as soon as there is enough clear water to cast into. Whitefish will be moving around in the shallows too.
Breakup is the most active time for lake whitefish, which bite reliably on a gold or copper-colored spinner. Red and white can also be effective. Lake trout prefer fluorescent orange or chartreuse. Wet flies or silver spinners will coax grayling to dinner.
Memorial Day is typically the ideal time for grayling in the Tangle Lakes area. I expect grayling spawning, which is triggered by water temperature, to begin early this spring. Grayling should be moving through area creeks at least 10 days earlier than normal.
Benefit of no crowds
During the last couple weeks of May and early June, the Denali Highway is a quiet place. Most fishermen are drawn to open water in the Mat-Su or on the Kenai Peninsula. Leaves are green in Southcentral and much of the central Interior, making it tough to venture back into winter snow.
However, the benefits of no crowds and the likelihood of spotting migrating caribou — or seeing the first of the moose calves — outweighs the snow in one's boots. Lake trout will be biting soon.
Those intrepid souls willing to take a short hike will have a lake to themselves.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race