Forgotten Fish

Nearly a century after introduction, Salmon Creek brook trout still around

Posted: Monday, August 03, 2009

Ninety-two years ago, Juneau's first hatchery manager stuck a bunch of Colorado brook trout in the newly created Salmon Creek Reservoir to see what would happen. Their descendants are still living on bugs and swimming around in Juneau's drinking water up there - a gold-tinged, pink-spotted, tasty little history lesson.

Courtesy Of Winter & Pond, Alaska State Library Historical Collections
Courtesy Of Winter & Pond, Alaska State Library Historical Collections

The brookies date back to Alaska's earliest shoot-from-the-hip style of fishery management. These days, geneticists and pathologists review stocking plans for potential problems between introduced and native species. And trout stocking is no longer common in Southeast Alaska.

In contrast, territorial fish-stocking efforts were pretty straightforward. As Juneau Flyfishing Goods owner Brad Elfers put it, "They thought that any lake that didn't have fish in it should have fish in it."

Their technique? "Put them everywhere and see what sticks," said Elfers.

And before the territorial Legislature got involved and started putting major dollars into salmon, the rage was trout. Snippets from old news stories, compiled 30 years ago for the Empire by historian Bob DeArmond, offer a glimpse of Juneau's trout-crazed hatchery program in the early 20th century.

In 1917, A. Joseph Sprague - the first hatchery manager here - got 150,000 brook trout eggs from a federal hatchery in Colorado shipped up on a steamer. He grew them into fry at a small hatchery in Thane and released them in May in the Salmon Creek reservoir, Lower Annex Lake, Dewey Lake and Long Lake near Skagway.

Aug. 9, 1917: "It is reported that the small trout planted in Salmon Creek dam and in the two lakes at Annex Creek are doing much better than was expected," noted the newspaper, which was named The Alaska Daily Empire at the time.

That could just as well be said of today's brook trout. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has sampled the Salmon Creek fish for diseases, but doesn't keep track of the population, said state pathologist Ted Meyers.

"It's forgotten, so to speak," he said.

They could be in other lakes or creeks as well. Through at least 1932, Sprague and the Alaska Fish and Game Club "liberated," as one news item put it, thousands of trout fry into Lawson and Kowee creeks on Douglas Island, the Treadwell Ditch, Nevada Creek, Gold Creek (before it was directed into a concrete channel), Auke Lake, "several smaller lakes in the Mendenhall Valley," and other spots.

Apparently, the attempts didn't always work out.

Jan 2, 1919: Sprague and company add 20,000 more brook trout in Gold Creek "to replace the trout previously planted but which were washed out by the Gold Creek flood last September," DeArmond's notes read.

Brook trout aren't really trout. They're char, in the same family of salmonids as Dolly Vardens. Their skin is tinged golden and pink. They have dull green spots like dollies, interspersed with the odd fuschia spot. They have rust-colored fins and orange flesh. And they like to bite.

"Brookies and cutthroats are considered kind of reckless feeders," said Elfers.

Especially these fish, which he guessed have little to eat save bugs, leeches and each other.

As a result, the fishing can be excellent, Elfers said, though unlikely to fill the freezer. In one afternoon of fishing, you could fill up a gallon-sized bag. The odd whopper may lurk, too; fly-fisherman Mike Cole, who works at Elfers' shop, said his father caught a 2-foot brookie about 15 years ago.

Despite the good fishing, the reservoir is no hot spot for locals, Elfers and Cole said. It's a pain to get there, about 3.5 miles with an extra-steep finish and no real path to the lake. Other fishing spots are a lot easier to reach.

"You can go to Sheep Creek and catch dollies until your arms fall off," Cole added.

Still, these expert fly-fishermen sometimes send up people who are itching to cast dry flies. Elfers suggested a leech pattern on a fly rod, or any shiny spinner on a casting reel. The best fishing, he's heard, is at the far end of the lake. The truly inspired and energetic would bring an inflatable raft.

• Contact reporter Kate Goldenat 523-2276 or e-mail

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