Protect SE Alaska Steelhead
Trump threw it out. Biden brought it back. Now Southeast’s fragile steelhead fisheries have the protections they need.
By FFI Magazine

One of the most unique fishing locales on the face of the earth is the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.

This magical archipelago, made up of thousands of small islands and towering, snow-covered peaks, along with brilliant fjords and seemingly endless rainforest, is home to some of the best runs of steelhead, trout and salmon remaining in the Pacific Northwest. The Tongass is often called “the salmon forest” and also goes by the moniker, “the lungs of North America,” a reference to its giant Sitka spruce, hemlock and cedar trees that are hundreds of years old.

Small towns, like Petersburg, are becoming reliant on tourism dollars and sustainable fisheries. Protecting the Tongass means Southeast’s small towns can thrive.

Various wildlife, including brown bears, mountain goats, Sitka blacktail deer, moose, martin, and beaver—among many others—rely on an intact Tongass rainforest. That’s why the reinstatement of a Roadless Rule, which was repealed late in the Trump presidency, is such good news for anglers.

The rule was originally implemented in 2001 and protected about 17 million acres of old-growth forest in the Tongass. Trump’s repeal opened up about half of the forest—9 million acres—to potential wide scale logging and road building.

The Roadless Rule will support Southeast Alaska’s shift from an extractive economy to a more sustainable option that focuses on tourism and sustainable fisheries.

That’s good news for Southeast’s commercial fishermen and its sport fisheries. Strong runs of pink, chum and silver salmon, along with sea-run cutthroat trout, dolly varden and steelhead, fuel some of the best fishing options in North America.

Southeast’s steelhead streams are relatively small. With clear water conditions anglers often spot fish and can cast specifically to them. These wild steelhead average six to 12 pounds, but can stretch past 42 inches.

Southeast’s consistent steelhead runs are particularly intriguing as populations of that fish struggle nearly everywhere else. Currently, the Columbia/Snake River complex in Washington, Oregon and Idaho is seeing one of the worst steelhead seasons ever. Noted fisheries, such as the Deschutes, Klickitat, Grand Ronde, Clearwater and Salmon, are seeing very few wild returns and angling restrictions are being implemented. Last year, Washington state made a bold call and prohibited fishing from boats on many of its best coastal steelhead rivers, trying to limit interactions between anglers and steelhead on multiple failing fisheries. On other rivers managers simply shut down fishing entirely. In British Columbia the Thompson River is essentially dead with very little hope of its steelhead fishery ever coming back. Anglers on the Dean River in 2021 reported some of the worst steelhead returns in memory. The Skeena River and all of its alluring tributaries also failed to produce this year—at press time the Skeena was expected to close for recreational angling on October 12.

Creek Street in Ketchikan is just one local tourism landmark. Anglers can wander town by night and be on steelhead streams within minutes of town.

Southeast’s steelhead fishery is unique in its consistency, but also because the angling takes place on relatively small and intimate rivers. The fish are not as large, on average, as found elsewhere, and often range between six and 12 pounds. Fish reaching past the 40-inch mark are possible, but should not be expected.

Whereas the Skeena and Columbia river systems might see multiple thousands of fish in a season, Southeast’s streams may only see a few dozen fish each year. Some of its larger waters could draw a few hundred fish back, making each fish a real treasure.

When fishing from the Hawkeye II anglers cruise the inside passage and launch jet boats to reach remote wild steelhead fisheries.

On a very good day an angler could hook and land several steelhead; when a push of fish comes in on a tide and water conditions are perfect, a lucky angler could hook fish throughout a day.

Appealingly, Southeast’s steelhead are all truly wild—no hatchery madness here. When fishing these small streams you may not see another angler for days on end. But you’ll likely see bears and moose and deer, which adds to the raw wildness of the experience. In addition, cell service is severely limited in Southeast so you’ll likely be off-grid when fishing—no SnapChat this and Insta-like that. Here, you’ll take in the surroundings, cast to wild fish, and get a refreshing dose of solitude.

Steelhead are found in more than 200 streams across the Tongass National Forest. As steelhead runs continue to decline in the Pacific Northwest, Southeast Alaska’s steelhead fishery will become more desirable.

As steelhead runs diminish in the Lower 48 and Canada, Southeast will become even more treasured—maybe the last place to catch truly wild fish in equally spectacular surroundings. Because of that possible trend managers are keeping a close eye on outfitting and how increased angling pressure could eventually impact these fish. For the time being, there are good options in the Southeast, including a mothership operation called Thanks Alaska. Aboard the Hawkeye II guests cruise the inside passages and launch jet boats to inspect isolated fisheries up and down the coast. During the day anglers fish the tides and probe likely looking pools with single-handers and spey rods; in the evenings they dine on some of the best seafood on the planet, including halibut, spot prawns, wild salmon and other seasonal delicacies. This is a fully immersive experience that allows you to get a firm grip on how unique Southeast Alaska and the Tongass National Forest can be.

If you’re interested in fishing Southeast in 2022, book now—we have one more week available.