Swan Lake Canoe Trail
by Kalb Stevenson
“Wanna get away?” That used to be the national ad slogan for a popular Lower 48 airline, but it also characterizes my state of mind when “city life” in Anchorage starts to wear on me. But rather than flying off to some tropical destination, I’d rather make the roughly three-and-a-half hour drive down to the Swan Lake Canoe Trail, which is situated just about 20 miles up a gravel road from Sterling, Alaska. The launch point is already well out of cell phone range, so I just leave my electronic devices in the car. The trip soon gets even more remote, meaning that the prize rainbow trout and char that call these lakes home will be less suspecting of a lure or fly than those inhabiting the more commonly fished lakes that are situated along highways and roads.
Do Your Homework
Some of the lakes along the Swan Lake Canoe Trail system are great for fishing, while others are suboptimal. The key is to do your homework, either by reading a book on the subject (Daniel Quick’s “The Kenai Canoe Trails” is recommended) – or by tapping into the knowledge of a longtime local expert. Max Finch, owner of Alaska Canoe and Campground, is that expert. His day job is renting canoes and cabins to Alaskan travelers, but in his spare time he stores up knowledge of the local fishing holes and secret backwoods wilderness destinations.
Max is often asked what route along the Swan Lake canoe trail is best for fishing – and, prior to floating it this past spring, that was my question as well. “The Swan Lakes lower (south) route is best,” he told me. “And even if you’re just out for an easy float it’s best to bring a fishing rod. You never know what will happen.” Max seldom goes into the canoe trails without Quick’s book, keeping his worn copy in a gallon sized zip lock bag. He pulls it out at almost every lake and portage, looking for the lake depths, camping spots, details of the trails between the lakes, and of course the fishing opportunities.
In 2011, Max had the chance to go out on the West Entrance to the canoe trail with a group of birders who wanted to photograph some trumpeter swans and loons on an easy day trip. He knew Canoe Lake #1 (the first lake on the West Entrance) had a nice pair of swans that were photogenic, so they started there. As the group slowly moved around the lake keeping their distance from the swans and getting photos, Max started casting a bright pink Mepps Syclops into the edges of the grassy weed beds with retrieves just fast enough to keep from snagging. “On my second cast, I had a nice little 12-inch rainbow strike the lure. He jumped and splashed a few times and was able to throw the hook.” The birder in his canoe was fascinated and put his camera away, opting to fish a little for the time being.
Soon, the visitors in the other canoe pulled in closer to Max, and he rigged another spinner up for them.
After a few minutes of instruction on how to retrieve without snagging the heavy stocks on the lily pads, and keeping the lure from dragging in weeds and grass, the little rainbow beauties were hopping into the boat one after another. In Max’s experience, the fishing can actually improve the birding experience and create more opportunities for photography. After several minutes of steady fishing, a common loon made a sudden whelp sound and approached their group to beg for fish and inspect their lures. The loon came within ten feet of their group, offering them some great close up shots.
I had a similar experience fishing this lake a few springs ago. The rainbows were plentiful, but never very big. The bite seemed to be on all day, much to the delight of my daughter, who was five at the time. She was able to catch some small fish on salmon eggs, as well as on a beaded nymph, with dad’s help, when trying out his fly rod for the first time.
For a successful fishing experience on the canoe trail, Max recommends Waterfowl Lake, Canoe Lake #2, as well as Contact, Martin, Spruce, Trout, Gavia, Konchanee, Cygnet and Swan Lakes. These range from fair to excellent fishing. His personal favorites are Spruce and Konchanee Lakes, which are great for camping and provide ample time to explore the fishing holes around them. One of his favorite methods is to slowly troll a lure behind him as he paddles through the lakes.
Max has also frequented the Northern canoe route in the area, known as the Swanson Lakes Trail System, which starts at Paddle Lake. One of his most memorable catches from Paddle Lake was a Dolly Varden over 20 inches long, which he caught on a cast master half ounce gold-colored lure pulled through the water to induce the strike. “The Northern route (Swanson Lakes) probably gets even less fishing pressure than the Swan Lake Trail,” he says, “and fishing is usually very good in most of the lakes, with my favorites being Pond, Lure, and Lonely Lakes. This is probably because it is a perfect place to set up a base camp and just move around the system on day trips to places like Kuviak, Lo, Hat and Rodent Lakes. Camping is great in these areas and often times you will never see another person. Some great fishing away from everyone is up at Gene Lake and Pepper Lake,” he explains. Fish in the 20-24 inch range inhabit these two lakes, and fishing is typically excellent. All the Swanson lakes are fishable except for Redpoll, Berry, Eider, Olsjold and Twig Lakes.
My last trip to the Swan Lake Canoe Trail was surprisingly hindered a bit by a strong spring wind. It really moved my canoe around the surface of the first couple lakes, sometimes pushing me away from where I wanted to fish. I was trying to position myself around what looked like good foraging habitat or high fish traffic areas, but the canoe kept getting blown to one side of the lake. It gets a little frustrating to position yourself right at the end of a land feature or a point off a cove, only to have your boat moved completely off of it after two casts. I made a mental note that the next time I fish from a canoe, I need to bring a small anchor or a length of rope that will be long enough to tie around a large rock and reach the depths of the deepest lake. The rock anchor setup is perfect for the Swan Lake system because the rock can be kept in the boat while paddling and left on the shore when portaging. Just select a new anchor when you get to the next lake.
I decided to tap into Max’s wealth of knowledge to get some other helpful hints for fishing or traveling on this canoe system. “First, it’s almost impossible to fish from the shore line on most of the lakes, as they have no trails around them,” he says. “It’s mostly brush and trees along the banks. Canoes and float tubes are great options. Canoes are not as easy to fish from as a tube, but hauling gear is an important consideration.” This is true, not just in hauling capacity over water, but also in terms of the total weight that must be carried when portaging between lakes. When walking your canoe down the trails, having two people carry it is definitely easier than trying to slide it along yourself. Having as much gear as possible in backpacks is also a good idea, as this will lighten the load on your arms. However, Max has portaged alone several times without issue. “I often walk the canoe a ways, set it down, and then walk back to my pack,” he says. “I bring the pack to the canoe, then move the canoe another 100 yards or so before going back for the pack again. Doing this a few times usually gets me through the portages with a lot less sweat and pain, and I lose little time doing it. I am out here to enjoy the whole event, not just the time on the water.”
An important gear consideration for this sort of fishing, paddling and hiking adventure is what type of rod to bring. It doesn’t make sense to bring anything larger than a 4/5 wt for the small-to-mid sized fish in these lakes, and the more collapsible the rod is, the better. So many fishermen accidentally snap their rods while portaging over the trails that connect these lakes. It’s not a fun way to end your fishing. A four piece fly rod that breaks down and stays well protected in a lightweight case is the best bet for ensuring that a snapped rod won’t derail your angling adventure on the lakes.
What sort of line, lures and flies are best on these lakes? For light-weight spinning tackle, line in the range of 4-6 pound test is recommended. The largest fish in the lake can probably be handled easily on 6 pound test. As far as lure size, the #2 size of Mepps are best to use. Using spoons to troll and matching color to the lighting is a good tactic. Max recommends using dark colors on cloudy days and bright colors on clear days to really turn on the bite.
Implementing an approach that includes a variety of lures and retrieval methods will deliver fish in the Swan Lake system. To find fish at the depth at which they are holding, cast a lure out as far as possible. When the lure hits the water, count in one-second intervals, until the line goes limp. This way one can know how many seconds it takes for the lure to reach the bottom of the lake in the area you are fishing. On the next cast, try to position yourself so that the count is one second less than the time before and retrieve. This helps to identify where the lake bottom is and stay off it. Try doing this a few times in a few different directions; then take another second off your drop time and make several casts. This will move you up through the water and can improve fishing. The position of the fish can vary and may be due to a number of factors, including temperature, dissolved oxygen levels, or the presence of food at different depths or locations. Once fish are found at a certain depth in the water column, success will typically increase.
While trolling or casting for trout and char on the Swan Lake Canoe Trail, Max recommends fishing below the surface with wooly buggers or leech patterns having hook sizes around eight. The lakes have leeches in them, so it is a common food that the trout love. Try green, purple or black leeches for best results. Additionally, small leech patterns seem to move better in the grass and weed beds, getting snagged less often than larger-sized hooks. Once the bugs are out and flying around in force, fishing mosquitos and black gnat dry flies in the smaller patterns is the ticket. Hook sizes for dry flies between 12 and 22 all work; the best colors to use are brown, green, purple and black. This is also a subtle reminder to bring the bug spray and a head-net. A neighbor of mine once returned from a week on the trail with his son, and both were covered in battle scars – hitting the trail early in the summer can leave you with hundreds of bumps and welts from mosquitoes.
One of the things Max enjoys most about the Swan Lake Canoe Trail is, in fact, the trails themselves. “For many years I used to push through the portages between lakes thinking that they were the curse of the event,” he says. “Then, about twelve years ago, I had a German fellow with me on a trip who was fascinated by the local flora and fauna. We stopped often, putting down our canoe and packs and taking time to observe and photograph the plants and flowers, eating berries, watching birds and critters, and eating snacks. The portages took on a whole new perspective to me after this,” Max explains. “Since then, I have been much more observant along the portages and now traverse them in a way that is much more pleasant.”
The Total Experience
The Swan Lake Canoe trail is great for a family with older children, or for adults without kids. It might be a little too rigorous to attempt the entire trail with small children. In my experience, the first couple of lakes were easily done with my five year old, but we returned to our original destination to camp near the car. To keep it even simpler, one may wish to book out a cabin and rent a canoe from Max right in Sterling, leaving all the gear at home. You can pick up the canoe from his shop and haul it 20 miles down to the lake, or if you have a small car (or no car at all) you can take advantage of his drop-off and pick-up service at the various trail entrances for a small fee. The Alaska Canoe and Campground also offers all kinds of affordable camping and fishing gear for rent, along with free car toppers to safely haul a rental canoe without damaging your paint.
The Swan Lake Canoe Trail is a remote yet accessible fishery for any angler looking for an isolated and adventurous fishing excursion. So, ditch the rat race for a few days and launch a canoe instead. Go at your own pace and camp out for anywhere from three to seven days, depending on which route you choose and how much you want to fish. It’s a very affordable do-it-yourself kind of trip that’s a real Alaskan adventure.
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 July 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.”