Fishing Cooper Lake
Easily accessible, but with a remote feel, Cooper Lake is a fisherman’s paradise.
by Kalb Stevenson
Fly fishing isn’t a hobby. It’s an art form. And as cliché as that sounds, it doesn’t make it any less true! It is an art in the way that crocheting, surfing, and surgery are forms of art. It’s a beautiful thing that requires dedication, skill, and no small amount of creativity and pizazz. And you never know who will turn out to be a fly fishing artist. In the months leading up to the birth of our second child, it became obvious that my wife’s doctor had a passion for fishing.
From the framed drawings of trout lining the walls of his office to a set of multicolored flies mounted neatly in a glass case in his clinic, I easily had the Doc pegged as a Picasso of the outdoors. However, we never really got a chance to talk fish until the day of the delivery.
Following a smooth delivery, my wife was carted away to a recovery room while the nurses shuffled my newborn son and me into the nursery. After checking his vital signs, the nurses asked me to sit tight in a big rocking chair and wait while they got him all wrapped up in a blanket. Soon, the Doc entered, decked out in full hospital scrubs announcing that both mom and baby were doing fine. Following this great news, the Doc and I finally got a few minutes to engage in small talk, which somehow quickly turned to the art of fishing. Go figure.
At my request, the good doctor regaled me with tales of his favorite fly fishing experiences in the Lower 48. But surprisingly, he informed me that since moving to Alaska, his fishing opportunities have been too few and far between. He explained that because of his line of work, he often only has time to get away for a short weekend excursion now and then.
Other times he can only afford a single day off, and he wishes he knew of more good fishing spots closer to town. I smiled and explained to him that there is a great fishing spot not too far south of Anchorage that I have really enjoyed in the early summer for rainbows. It’s called Cooper Lake, and while it’s back away from the crowds, it’s still road accessible and fun to fish the shallows for these fish. I didn’t mind sharing this jewel of a fishing spot with the Doc; after all, he had just delivered a precious jewel of a child into our family. It was the least I could do!
Few anglers know about Cooper Lake, a hidden body of water surrounded by mountains on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s at a higher elevation than many of the other nearby fishing locations, so it’s a bit cooler and a little more isolated. Not only is the fishing spectacular; but the surrounding area is also a good choice for camping, boating, and glassing for black bear. The very best part about Cooper Lake is the presence of some very lively rainbow trout.
The good doctor seemed interested in hitting up this fishing spot, and as an experienced artistic fisherman, I am sure he knew that a good approach to an unfamiliar fishery is to use the keen approach of careful observation. Careful observation. It reminds me of the classic 1980’s movie, “North Shore,” in which a young and inexperienced surfer named Rick Kane travels from the Arizona desert to the Hawaiian Islands to experience big wave surfing. Rick becomes all too anxious and immediately rushes out to ride the waves. But on his first attempt, he receives a painful reminder of his inexperience through a wipeout that causes him to be dragged from the ocean.
Rick soon realizes that before he can achieve the status of “big wave surfer,” he must first become a careful student of the ocean and his new environment. He finds a tutor and spends several days observing the ocean from dry land. Hour after hour, he studies the surf and learns the pattern of waves forming on the horizon, along with their tendency to break at certain points. He begins to understand the influences of the wind and tides. Soon, he is able to hang ten with the locals and ride the pipe like a pro.
When approaching Cooper Lake for the first time, you won’t find any killer waves, but you will want to channel your inner Rick Kane. That is, you should take some time to read the water and study the habitat of these fish. Sit on the rocks for a while—maybe ten or twenty minutes—and try to determine where the fish are and what they are eating or striking. Are they active? Are they five feet out or twenty-five feet out, shallow or deep? Do they seem to prefer the sun or the shade? Can you see them through the water column? Are anglers around you catching? If so, what are they using? These are great observations that will guide you in selecting your fly, your location and your overall approach to getting at the fish.
I first visited Cooper Lake in early summer one year, around the time of late May. I had the opportunity to practice this art of careful observation. After turning off of Snug Harbor Road towards the lake, I parked my truck and found an isolated stretch of beach on which to sit down and watch the water. It was generally sunny out, although there were intermittent bouts of shade from moving clouds. A moderate wind seemed to come in spurts, affecting the water surface, the angle at which I planned to cast, and my eventual choice of spots along the beach.
From my estimate, the lake had been ice-free for about a week, but the sun was warming the water now, and the trout were bound to be hungry. I then noticed something curious. Every thirty to sixty seconds, there appeared to be a ripple or a small strike on the surface of the water—and not just anywhere in the lake. Almost every strike I observed was within ten feet of shore. These fish were shallow and were targeting small insects carried to the edge of the lake by the wind.
I decided to check in on a few nearby fishermen. One remarked that he had hooked into a small trout on a silver spinner. A middle-aged couple shared that they had hooked a couple of rainbows by dropping salmon eggs into a deep pool of water near the dam—but that was hours ago, and they hadn’t gotten a bite since. A lone fly fisherman in hip boots was standing in the lake up to his shins right where I suspected the fish would be biting based on my prior observations. He seemed cold as he struggled against the wind to get his line out as far as possible. He wasn’t catching.
I headed back to my private stretch of beach and opted for a dry fly that most closely resembled a mosquito. I stood on shore in my tennis shoes just a few feet from the water line, waiting for a small break in the wind. It never came, so I began casting at an angle, using the wind to my advantage. I landed the fly about ten feet to my right and twelve feet out from shore. No bites. Another cast, this time eight feet from shore. Nothing. A third cast just five feet from shore, a two second pause… and POP! Fish on. A beautiful little rainbow was running with my fly. I hand-reeled it in, took a moment to admire its bright color, and released it.
These rainbows were indeed shallow. For the next hour I hooked fish after fish, and nothing further than 12 feet out from shore. Suddenly, the fishing died for about an hour. But after a break in the action, I was back at it; the fishing picked back up for another 45 minutes. When the fish along the shore were officially tired of being caught, I called it a day and headed for home.
Piecing Together the Story
I arrived home that evening, happy about the day’s adventure. I sat there wondering why the fish were striking so frequently and so close to shore. The answer, I deduced, was that mature rainbow trout in Alaska’s lakes and streams troll the shallows each spring to seek out good habitat for spawning. A female will locate a suitable gravel bed and use its tail to scoop out a shallow nest, or redd. She will then guard this redd until she’s ready to deposit her eggs. When a male trout successfully courts the female, she will violently shake her tail and deposit eggs into the redd. Then, she will allow this male to fertilize the eggs before covering them with a protective layer of gravel.
The seasonal increase in a fish’s reproductive activities requires additional energy input from food. It is counterproductive for breeders to leave their preferred spawning beds unguarded, or their prospective mates unmarked, in exchange for hours of benthic foraging in the depths of the lake. The fish instead choose to stay close to shore and opportunistically pick off airborne insects to help meet their energy demands.
The rainbows at Cooper Lake consistently attacked my dry flies because they represented a food source that was readily available to them during spawning. The mosquitoes were occasionally blowing right out of the trees and into the shallows of the lake within distance of the breeding trout. Why did the fishing die down? Maybe after a few strikes, breeders stopped biting and non-breeders were still feeding – but only intermittently and opportunistically as they circled the lake foraging. Maybe non-breeders were still circling the lake and only present intermittently. Some of the story was clear through observation, but not all of it. But what was made clear through intentional observation provided just enough paint to put something on the page.
Kalb Stevenson is an experienced biologist and fisherman and a long-time Alaskan. He is the owner of Axiom Environmental, a consulting company based in Anchorage, Alaska. Dr. Stevenson has authored numerous peer-reviewed articles, agency reports and popular press pieces in the areas of fish and wildlife ecology and environmental science. He enjoys spending time with family and friends and fishing around the state.
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.
If you enjoyed this article, check out “Alaska’s Aggressive Arctic Grayling,” “Situk River Fly Fishing For Spectacular Spring Steelhead,” “Urban Salmon Fishing on Ship Creek in Anchorage,” and “King Salmon Fishing on the Deshka River.”