Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Tuesday, July 27, 2021
I once spent a summer in Southeast Alaska when the sun came out two times. I only saw the bright glow while peering out from a dank cannery room where I lined wooden boxes with plastic so the college girls could pack them with salmon eggs. The rest of the time it rained. And then it rained harder.
That can be the case anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, but the Alaskan panhandle is notorious for overcast. Annual rainfall can reach 150 inches or more. It would be easy to see that as a negative and write the panhandle off your fly-fishing hit-list, but that moisture fuels the Tongass National Forest, which absorbs massive amounts of carbon and serves, unofficially, as the “lungs of North America.” The air here is cleaner and crisper than anywhere else and that temperate rainforest—the largest in the world—is flat out rugged and beautiful.
You can’t see much of it most days. But in April a high pressure system kept the clouds at bay and Southeast Alaska’s ice and snow-covered peaks shined in a crystal blue sky. Not a cloud to be seen. And the waterways, including Frederick Sound and Chatham Straight—which during stormy weather can eat small and large craft alike—was flat as glass. Water-skiers would have been welcome. Those favorable days stacked one on top of the other until all realized that a two-week weather window had created one of the finest Aprils anyone could remember.
This came on the heels of a wickedly cold and wet winter and spring. If you had checked the Petersburg weather forecast often in March and early April you would have seen day after day of highs and lows in the 30s, and snow and rain icons lighting up your iPhone. Then all of a sudden a few sun emojis showed up and they synched with my arrival to Ketchikan and then Petersburg, and they didn’t go away until long after I’d left the state for colder weather in Montana. Who would have thought.
I was a fortunate guest on the Hawkeye II, a 68-foot yacht that cruises Southeast through spring, summer and fall, with a focus on spring steelheading in April and May. The operation is called Thanks Alaska and is run by Paul Donaldson and his father-in-law, a sourdough named Tom Greer. Greer has spent his adult life in Petersburg, commercial fishing most days, steelheading others, and he knows the potentially dangerous waterways like the back of his hand. I joined four other dudes, all fishy Montanan’s who can handle a stick, with hopes that all of us would catch a bunch of sea-run cutthroat trout and dolly varden, along with a few steelhead.
We spent five days circumnavigating two large islands, sleeping in remote and totally isolated bays with massive peaks overhead and glaciers winding to tidewater. In all of those bays small and medium-size streams flowed out of the low country, tempting steelhead into fresh water. Many of Southeast’s steelhead streams are unstudied, meaning even the fish biologists don’t know if some hold steelhead. Other streams are well documented and host small runs of up to a few hundred fish. Fortunately, these streams are somewhat narrow and short, meaning 200 steelhead in a four mile section, deposited in a few prime runs, is an incredible amount of fish. Think of the Dean and the Skeena paired down to a quarter or less of their current size with 50 or more steelhead a mile and you might see the potential of these rainforest streams on any given day.
It didn’t take long to figure out that we were early and spring had arrived late—the bulk of the steelhead were still in saltwater waiting for some sort of change before they would push into freshwater. But they weren’t non-existent—we managed to find a few fish on every river and at times there were several steelhead in prime pools that were more than happy to eat.
Unfortunately, the sea-run cutthroat and dolly varden had not moved into the lower portions of these streams, where they would normally be by mid-to late April, snapping up emerging chum and pink salmon smolt. When the steelheading is difficult, sea-run cutthroats can save the day and make any angler forget that they aren’t having the best steelhead fishing of their life. Sea-run cutts are aggressive, eat swung and stripped flies, and they fight very well. They average between 13 and 18 inches, but 20-inchers are possible. Dolly varden don’t fight as well as SRC but they are typically larger and range between 16 and 25 inches. On a good day, a fly-fisher focussing on SRC and dollies might catch 20 fish on a tide.
Working hard for our steelhead and not finding sea-run cutts and dollies wasn’t the end of the world, by any stretch. If we hadn’t thrown a cast on this trip we would have regarded it as one of the best five-day windows of our lives. We jigged for cod and anything else that would bite, watched eagles, Sitka blacktail deer, moose, marten, sea lions, sea otters and Dall’s porpoise; we boated and walked among massive icebergs outside LeConte Bay, and we spent a night in Thomas Bay and Scenery Cove with towering walls rising from the water, funneling our line of sight to a star-studded sky awash with northern lights. And let me tell you, we ate like kings. Baked halibut; hali beer bits; miso glazed black cod; spot prawns; crab; wild silver salmon burgers; gray cod and halibut cheeks jambalaya; cold-smoked salmon on bagels with cream cheese, wonderful green salads . . . . You could eat as much as you wanted and every bite was natural and good for your body. After dinners, we cruised the Inside Passage and watched the magnificent forest and those snow-capped peaks roll by.
On the day of departure I chose to fish a river while the others gawked at icebergs and humpback whales. When it was time to start downstream to the jet-sled I pumped a succession of casts off a six-weight switch rod right next to a half submerged tree. The hole was deep and certainly could have held steelhead. But there was no way, I told myself, the trip could end this way. A couple casts later, after the sink-tip took the fly deep and it started to swing away, the line tightened and just for a second I thought, Got one of those damned limbs. But I set anyway and felt solid pulls, telling me that a near perfect trip had given me a final gift. The fish was fresh in on the tide, chrome bright and weighed about 15 pounds. A perfect wild hen steelhead having eaten the only fly she’d seen in her life. I held her gently, waited until I was sure she was back to full strength and watched her swim away into tannin stained waters. I hiked back to the jet-sled thinking, Life is short. Thanks Alaska, every year, with my dad, with my daughters, with my good friends . . . every spring, come rain or shine, this is the place to be in April or May.
If you want to discuss this trip and open dates for 2022 and beyond, please call Gil’s Fly Fishing International’s U.S. bookings office at 1-406-317-1062