A photograph of a hefty lake trout pulled from Long Lake along the Glenn Highway has sparked an investigation into whether the state has a new, resident population of the far north char.
Matanuska-Susitna area resident Cindy Larson caught the 34-inch-long, 22-pound fat-bellied laker Sept. 27 on her second fishing trip to the long, thin lake that fills an old Talkeetna Mountain canyon.
Larson admitted to being "hugely surprised. We go there thinking we're going to be skunked; half an hour later ..."
But that was only the beginning of the surprises. Why?
Long Lake isn't supposed to have lake trout anymore. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game hasn't stocked the so-called "put-and-take fishery" with lakers since 2002. Biologists figured those fish were all now long dead.
"It has to be at least 15 years old," said area sportfisheries biologist Dave Rutz with Fish and Game in Palmer.
Rutz was so surprised by Larson's catch that when he first saw a picture of the fish, he thought the couple might have caught the trout at Lake Louise, which is known for big lakers, and simply stopped to photograph it at Long Lake, a convenient and scenic roadside stop along the highway used by motorists headed west toward Palmer and Anchorage.
Rick Larson said he and his wife have indeed caught lake trout in Lake Louise in the past. Two years ago, he said, his wife caught a 32-inch lake trout there. It was her biggest fish until the couple decided to wet a line in Long Lake in September because the place looks inviting.
"We'd keep coming down from up north," Rick said, "and we'd drive by and think, `Boy that lake looks peaceful.'''
"It's a beautiful lake," Cindy said.
Looking more for escape than excitement, the Larsons slipped their small boat into the lake, fired up the 10-horsepower outboard and started puttering off toward the north end, Rick said. Cindy trolled a silver Rapala with a blue back because "she thought that was pretty," he said.
It proved to be pretty deadly.
Shortly after the couple started trolling, a big fish grabbed the lure.
"That was our first and only fish," Rick added.
It took Cindy about 15 minutes to get it to the boat. Rick said that when he saw it he immediately recognized it as a big lake trout and worried they might lose it. They didn't, but they did have a discussion about what to do with the fish.
Rick lobbied to let it go.
"I've been reading up on how long they live," he said. "If it had been up to me, I probably would have let it go."
Cindy wanted to keep it.
"She said, `I prayed for that fish. God gave me that fish,' " Rick said.
"I prayed, `God, why don't you give me a big fish today,' " Cindy said. "Then I thought, holy cow, Lord; this is a huge one."
Rick took the huge one off the hook and put it on a stringer.
"It swam off to the side of the boat for three hours," he said. Rick suggested again they might let it go. Cindy argued to keep it. The big male - "there were no eggs," Rick said - ended up in their freezer.
Rutz thinks it could have been the last lake trout in Long Lake.
Rick Larson isn't so sure.
"I have a high-tech fish locator," he said. "It shows the size of fish. There were just huge fish on the bottom in there."
He and Cindy were fishing in the area where the locator showed large fish when they caught her large fish. The fish were 45 to 65 feet deep in the lake, he said. The lake was about 75 feet deep where they fished.
It is possible those are survivors from Fish and Game stocking efforts from late 1988 through 1992. After that, the agency began stocking arctic char, which were phased out for a time in favor of rainbow trout.
What fish go into the lake these days largely depends on what fish are available, according to Fish and Game. Since it was thought that nearly all the fish put in the lake would be caught by anglers or starve during the winter, officials never worried much about maintaining any sort of stocking consistency.
They still don't. But, Rutz said, there is now curiosity about whether the lake trout transplanted in the lake more than a decade ago might have created a naturally reproducing population.
"Wouldn't that be cool?" Cindy Larson said.
As evidence for this possibility, there is not only Cindy's spawning-size male but also a couple of 8-inch lake trout that popped up when the agency sampled the lake a few years back, Rutz said. Rutz is curious where those fish came from if they weren't spawned in the lake. The little fish coupled with the photograph of the big fish fueled a decision to put some minnow traps and a deep gillnet into the lake to see what gets caught.
Still, Rutz doesn't expect there to be many lakers in Long Lake, particularly big, plus-20-pounders.
"That lake is so sterile," the biologist said. "It's all rock outcrops."
Rick Larson thinks the lake's productivity might have been somewhat underestimated.
"We were hitting weeds on the bottom at 65 feet," he said.
Still, biologists have a hard time believing many lake trout could be surviving in the lake. If the Larsons didn't catch the last fish, Rutz said, "I'll bet you there are damn few.
"Probably the only reason that lake trout got so big is because we've been feeding him all those char we put in there."
Naturally, he said, there just isn't much food, which is what has traditionally made the fishing quite good for the hatchery fish dumped into the easily accessible roadside lake.
"The catch rates are very good," Rutz said. "They bite really well. They're hungry."