Fish are the bonus
I’VE FISHED ATLANTIC SALMON IN RUSSIA, bonefish and permit in the Bahamas and Belize, and I’ve chased tarpon—for up to 30 days straight—while bumming around the Florida Keys.
I’ve spent weeks in the Yukon Territory, casting for 18 hours a day to northern pike that were longer than an arm and sometimes as long as a leg. And I’ve shed 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 into 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.
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, April, and May. So, I did the natural thing—I quit school that following spring, moved back to Southeast, and worked the night shift at a cannery, processing herring and black cod so I could fish steelhead by day.
“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.”
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 cutthroats 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.
Unlike most rivers in the Lower 48, Southeast’s don’t have any hatchery raised steelhead—all are wild. That fits the environment where they are mostly found. Few roads lead to good steelhead fishing; most of the time anglers must access steelhead streams with a small boat and then walk the banks while fighting through thick brush 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 right after the steelhead arrive.
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 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.
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.
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.
Greg Thomas is the editor of American Angler magazine, owns the website Anglers Tonic, and writes for all the major outdoor publications. He lives in Missoula, Montana, and tries to fish Alaska at least a couple times a year.