Beyond the Last Frontier
Chelatna Lake's glacial waters make a comeback in Alaska
Most fishermen who have never been to Alaska have a vision of what it will be like when they finally get there: stunning scenery in every direction, not another angler for miles and an inconceivable bounty of fish and wildlife.
Unfortunately, the real Alaska doesn’t always stack up to such expectations.
Anglers anticipating beautiful landscape may find themselves in the middle of a treeless moonscape, struggling to cast into a 30-knot wind. And, worst of all, fishermen who have traveled thousands of miles to catch Pacific salmon may find that the sportfishing season has been closed because the commercial fishing boats already have taken too big a bite out of the salmon runs.
The sportfishing industry of Alaska is approaching the day when all the viable resources have been “discovered,” and proper management of established fisheries will be the touchstone of the future of angling in the Great Land. Chelatna Lake, just an hour’s floatplane trip northwest of Anchorage, is an example of what may lie ahead.
In the early 1950s, a small cluster of cabins was built on the southern end of Chelatna, and the city folk flew out to fish the lake and the top of Lake Creek for salmon, rainbow trout and arctic grayling. In the original log building that still sits on the edge of Chelatna, there’s a 1950s-era photograph of a group of fishermen standing in a semicircle around 17 huge rainbow trout. Huge, dead rainbow trout, fish far bigger than any I had ever seen in two years of guiding for Lake Chelatna Lodge in the early ’90s, when a 20-inch rainbow was considered a monster.
Compounding the problems for fish populations in the entire Susitna River drainage-of which Chelatna is the headwater-was the increased commercial fishing in Cook Inlet. Because the inlet is so narrow, the salmon trying to return to their natal streams were particularly vulnerable to the gauntlet of nets. Every animal that depended on salmon went into decline as well, from the brown bears and black bears at the top of the food chain on down to the rainbows and grayling that eat salmon eggs and fry.
Enter the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA), a nonprofit organization funded by the commercial fishing industry and charged with the job of increasing the number of naturally reproducing salmon in the region. In 1983, CIAA began working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on a study of Chelatna Lake’s ability to produce sockeye salmon. The study showed that the lake was capable of producing about 389,000 adult salmon-a shocking figure, considering that ADF> had found only 570 salmon in the lake in that year. There was nothing wrong with the lake itself; there simply weren’t enough adult fish making it back to spawn.
In 1988, CIAA began taking steps to increase the lake’s “escapement”-the number of smolts that actually make it out of the lake and head for the ocean-on the simple assumption that the more fish that left the lake, the more that had a chance to return and reproduce naturally. For seven consecutive years, an average of just over a million fry were bred by the CIAA and released into the lake. The results of this effort are nothing short of startling. In 1997, CIAA workers counted 84,899 salmon returning to Chelatna Lake. But Gary Fandrei, executive director of the CIAA, is only guardedly optimistic. In addition to the vagaries of natural reproduction-which is wildly cyclical in sockeye salmon-one fishing fleet setting its nets at just the right place and time could set the project back years.
As I discovered when I returned to Chelatna Lake with my wife, Mary Beth, after being away for five years, much had changed. In addition to the CIAA’s vigorous efforts, catch-and-release has become the prevalent angling philosophy. Duke Bertke, owner of Chelatna Lake Lodge, said the sockeyes were back. On our first trip to the upper reaches of Chelatna’s Lake Creek,, Mary Beth landed a 211/2-inch grayling, the biggest I had ever seen caught in Lake Creek. As we fished on, I realized that all the grayling we caught were huge compared to what I had seen while I worked as a guide. It was the same with the 20 rainbows we caught-the fish were much bigger than they had been just five years earlier. And for the first time ever, I saw a fish-hungry bear in camp.
We also caught plenty of sockeyes and one accidental king salmon, but it is the resurgence of Lake Creek’s resident fish and the local fauna that stays with me. CIAA and ADF> have revitalized the entire area by helping to bring the sockeyes back. In the process, they may have given us a glimpse of Alaska’s future-and from here, it doesn’t look that bad.