Note: This edited excerpt is from A Miserable Paradise: Life in Southeast Alaska, by Jeff Lund.
The most effective way to catch steelhead during the winter is to suspend a jig under a bobber. On any given morning after a good rain from January through May, there are up to half a dozen people standing at the most accessible steelhead spot in Ketchikan.
There, a river meets a lake and creates a shelf onto which steelhead will nose up when the water is high, so after a good rain, the fish will be easier to reach. When the water drops, the fish push back out, and fishing can be so slow that most people don’t try. The flows were dropping on the first day of 2020, so it was the best option for a quiet afternoon of fly fishing with my girlfriend, Abby, who was up visiting Ketchikan from Wyoming.
There was no one there, so we started upriver from where the fish hold and slowly worked our way down to them utilizing the cast, swing, step, strip, routine that covers the water diligently. There is a danger in this since anglers get a little entitled at this spot and will drop in directly where your fly is swinging and trap you upriver, swinging flies to empty water. But with nobody around, we were able to fish it right—wade carefully and work down to the fish, rather than splash in next to them. Catching a steelhead under a bobber is fun. You stare until it stops, bobs, or gets pulled under. But it doesn’t have the same appeal as being connected to a fly as it starts to swing then stops abruptly. You feel the weight of the fish and therefore a greater charge. At least I do.
The water was at my knees when I hooked up. The fish was bright and beautiful, and as is often the case with my first steelhead of the year, I was clumsy in landing it. I was using my switch rod that is nearly 11-feet long, so I missed a few times before finally tailing it. I dropped to my knees in six inches of water to trap its escape, but kept it submerged. I lifted it for the picture, then let it go. It splashed cold water in my face, which I deserved. I have never been able to fully appreciate the experience of catching a steelhead because it happens so rarely in comparison to other fish. This is why it will never get old.
Abby had never caught a steelhead, so she set up in the zone. Abby made her first downstream cast and halfway through the swing, right where I had hooked up, a man emerged from behind the bushes below us, splashed his way to the end of Abby’s swing and proceeded to hit the water three consecutive times on the forward cast with a bobber and jig rig before finally letting it fish. It was over. The window was closed.
The truth is no spot is yours, it’s just your turn. One would think that a place like Ketchikan, Alaska, in January, would be the ideal location to have water to yourself, but that’s not true of anywhere. Assume there will be anglers, and if you can find a nice little spot to yourself, enjoy it as long as you can. After all, it’s much better to get corked than to not fish at all.