Sunday, August 1, 2021

I’ve fished Atlantic salmon in Russia, bonefish and permit in the Bahamas and Belize, and I’ve chased tarpon—for up to 30 straight days—while bumming around the Florida Keys.
By Greg Thomas

            I’ve spent weeks in the Yukon Territory, casting 18 hours a day to northern pike that were longer than an arm and sometimes as long as a leg. And I’ve shredded the trout-rich waters in and around Yellowstone National Park for up to 200 days a year (before kids, of course).

            Yet, if my doctor said, “You have a month to live,” I’d pack my gear in a skiff, including the best rain jacket on the planet, and cruise southeast Alaska’s sheltered inland waters, searching for spring steelhead and sea-run cutthroat trout.

Fighting steelhead in tight places is a real challenge. Most southeast Alaska streams offer fewer that 200 returning metalheads a year. That means every one ought to get the shoulder treatment, so it can be fought, landed and released quickly.

            My fascination with Alaska steelhead began when I saw a picture of my father, dated 1967, in which he’s holding a 10-pound steelhead in front of a two-car garage in Petersburg, which served as our home during the first couple years of my life.

            By 17, I owned a fly rod and wanted to catch, more than anything else, a steelhead like the one my father held in that photo. At that time, I lived in Seattle, via Hollywood (don’t ask), but spent summers in southeast, working the canneries and boats, stealing any time I could to catch fish with that fly rod. I caught cutthroats during summer, but the steelhead were long gone, their outmigration from rivers and streams having taken place in May. They wouldn’t be back until March. So, I did the natural thing—I quit school that following spring, moved back to southeast Alaska, and worked the nightshift at a cannery, processing herring and black cod, so I could fish steelhead by day.

Few places on earth are prettier than southeast Alaska on a nice spring day. Steelhead are the goal; the southeast Alaska vibe and scenery are the reasons you go.

            I ran with a married friend at the time, someone who had an 18-foot skiff and a 30-horse outboard. We reached several great steelhead waters within an hour of town and did so as often as I could muster the energy.

            Spring in southeast is also a great time to catch sea-run cutthroat trout as they stack up near the mouths of streams, preying on out-migrating salmon fry that drift downstream. This was key to our efforts, as was the collection of spruce grouse (also called hooters or fool hens), which are fair game in Alaska during March and April. My friend and I considered it good fortune that his wife’s two favorite meals consisted of those sea-run cutthroat and spruce grouse; she wasn’t happy with our antics, or her husband’s time away from home, but we bought her off with that treasured wild game.

            Few roads lead to good steelhead fishing in southeast Alaska; most of the time anglers must access steelhead streams with a small boat and then walk the banks while fighting through thick brush, including the dreaded devils club, to reach the best runs. Once on a remote stream, anglers must carefully place each step, and they must keep an eye out for bears, which come out of hibernation about the time steelhead arrive.

You fish southeast Alaska during spring for the same reasons the region’s brown and black bears do—Alaska’s “panhandle” offers great rewards, whether in the form of food or a steelhead to put back into the river.

            Prince of Wales Island, in the far southern, southeast, is a little different. A significant road system allows anglers to fly from Seattle to Ketchikan in a couple hours, and then toss their gear into their rooms at Boardwalk Lodge. A couple hours after landing they could be swinging or drifting flies on the Thorne or Klawock rivers, with a real possibility of catching their first wild steelhead. That’s one thing that separates southeast Alaska and its fish from the Lower 48—Alaska shelved the idea of hatchery steelhead back in the 1960s and never wavered from that statement. These fish are born in freshwater streams, they cruise around the North Pacific for a few years, and they return to their birthplaces to spawn. Unlike salmon, steelhead may go back to sea, repeat the process, and spawn a couple more times . . . if they aren’t eaten by a sea lion, a salmon shark, a killer whale, or any other predator patrolling the high seas, including us.

            When the steelhead are in, anglers can catch good numbers. Good numbers to most “metalheads” means one a day. But one time my friend and I hit it just right; it was early April, the fish were in on the tide, and they were chrome-bright and eager to strike. By the end of the day, we’d hooked 32 and landed about half of them. One of those fish measured 42 inches long and may have weighed 25 pounds—a giant by southeast standards where eight-to 10-pounders are standard. But steelheading is fickle; that night it rained, and the deluge continued the following day. When we returned to the river, it was high and off-color and we didn’t hook a thing.

Metal. It’s why some of us live. Constant pursuit, hours at the vice, pouring over of maps, scheduling, kissing the spouse goodbye. Get one of these fish to the beach, adipose fin shining in the light . . . you’ve got something special.

              Periodically, I return to southeast to fish spring steelhead, and did so with my father a few years back. Steelhead and cutthroats weren’t the only draw; we fished in a king salmon derby, in which my father caught a 20-some-pound beauty; we climbed aboard a friend’s commercial boat and pulled pots full of spot prawns; we added those to a menu of fresh king salmon and Dungeness crab, which we’d pulled from the water with a friend’s pots, and enjoyed a classic southeast meal, all washed down with Alaskan Amber beer.

              The following day, my father and I steered the skiff to a nearby stream and hiked far up its banks, across open muskeg and through thick, nearly impenetrable alders and patches of devil’s club. When we parted the last brush, the world opened to reveal bright skies and a perfect 75-yard-long run, on a stream that sees only a handful of anglers each year. Almost immediately I saw a steelhead roll.

When you head away from the stream there are plenty of other rewards to be had on a southeast Alaska evening. Spot prawns, Dungeness crab (pictured here), king salmon, ling cod, black cod, fiddlehead ferns, steamer clams and octopus . . . . Seriously, it doesn’t get much better than this.

             I tied on a fly, checked my knots, and walked to the top of the run. I looked at the mountains overhead, then downstream to my dad waiting patiently with a camera. I took a breath of sharp morning air, nodded, and gave the thumbs up, knowing that, whether we hooked that fish or not, we were right where we needed to be.