Between now and freeze-up, area anglers should find some of the best lake fishing of the year for rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and kokanee. Temperatures lately have dipped into the upper 20s, and fish are hungry and on the move, stocking up on limited fall forage before winter sets in.
Fall fishing normally offers a change of pace for most anglers -- a transitional time that allows the frenzied nature of summer angling to wind down. It's a time to switch gears -- and gear -- to seek the simple pleasures of drawing a rainbow out of shallow shoreline cover to chase a hand-tied fly.
The Kenai River closes to coho salmon fishing Sunday, and for many, that will signal a time to put away the waders and tackle. Some traded in their rods for guns when moose season opened in August and won't revisit the fishing gear until next spring.
Still, for others, fall is a glorious time to wrap up the season, a way to wax poetic in the fishing journal about crisp days, stunning colors and some of the most fun fishing of the year in both rivers and lakes.
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Last Sunday wasn't a chamber of commerce type of day on Paddle Lake, but the sweeping panorama offered from the float tube provided what I was looking for in the periodic rain squalls: solitude -- and a few rising fish.
I had taken a drive to end of Swan Lake Road in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to properly christen the latest addition to my fishing gear ensemble. Float tube fly-fishing has always seemed interesting -- the glossy magazine articles always show a float-tube angler tied into a bruiser trout in some Montana lake -- but finding time away from the Kenai, Kasilof or Anchor rivers to explore area lakes usually wasn't on the schedule. I had taken a few lake canoe trips with my father-in-law, but we always seemed to gravitate back to the rivers. There was a freezer to fill, you know.
Saturday was tube test-run day on Dolly Varden Lake off Swanson River Road. After getting all the gear to the water's edge, I struggled to put on my fins before going headlong into the alders. Bozo the Clown must have had days like this in the early years, I thought, and it took some high-stepping around the campground to get used to my size 22 feet. Once in the water, a strong north wind made it difficult to keep a proper distance from the shore while I cast a dark nymph near the deadfall and submerged alders. Just one out of three casts was close to the mark, and I soon opted to work on maneuvering the tube around in the lake's narrow inlet near the boat ramp.
It was a great feeling to be able to move and cast to different areas with little difficulty. I thought about my dad, who years ago fished the farm ponds of my childhood home in East Texas in little more than an inner tube with a canvas cover. He stays a little closer to the boat these days.
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Paddle Lake starts the Swanson Lakes Canoe Trail. Refuge Manager Robin West said the lake isn't stocked, but holds a population of both rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.
Other lakes accessible off Swan Lake Road, such as Nest, Campfire and Merganser, also offer good rainbow and Dolly fishing. I also had intended to fish Nest Lake Sunday, but a note tacked to a sign in the parking lot changed my mind. "Moose carcuss, 75 yards, watch for bears" the hand-scrawled note warned, with an arrow pointing up the trail. A dense layer of fog had rolled in at the time, providing enough of an excuse to keep on driving.
For the solo canoeist, portaging between lakes in the system can be a challenge, and I appreciated my 15-pound tube even more as I headed down the Paddle Lake trail to the canoe launch.
Having mastered the Bozo high-step, I settled into the tube and began working the shoreline. Between intermittent rain showers, the wind would die down, leaving the lake smooth and calm. I was alone, and would occasionally lean back in the tube to just float.
But there were fish to catch, and after trying several flies, I hooked my first victim on a pink scud. The 10-inch rainbow slammed the fly as soon as it hit the water. An hour later, I headed for shore with three more trout for the tally and a sense that my summer -- but not my fishing -- had officially come to an end.
Fall fishing is a bonus in Alaska, a time to reflect on and count the blessings of another glorious season.
Steven Merritt is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
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