Two sides of Southeast Alaska

IT'S AN EARLY MAY MORNING IN SOUTHEAST ALASKA AND I WAKE TO THE SOUND OF SOMETHING EATING CRACKERS.

Rolling over from my plywood perch on the top bunk, I peer down to see all three of my cabinmates asleep. So I rule them out. Slipping the headlamp from beneath my pillow and turning on the light reveals not one but two Alaska-sized mice sitting on top of a cooler, munching saltines. I stare at them. They stare back. I grab my socks, scrunch them into a ball, and throw it at the intruders. I immediately regret using both socks. Out of ammo, I lower myself to the floor and shoo-away the rodents. Stepping outside to pee, my bare foot comes down on an ax leaning against the door, causing me to lose my balance and fall off the deck into a dark, wet pool of Chichagof Island rainwater mixed with wood chips and discarded, half-squished beer cans.

One week later, I'm sitting down to breakfast on the Adventurous, a 56-foot liveaboard charter boat with a full shower, sick stereo, and two 14-foot skiffs strapped to the deck. Out the window in the distance I see the burly, unclimbed, 6,700-foot face of Devil's Thumb, the peak on the Stikine Icecap made famous by Krakauer's Into the Wild and Eiger Dreams. But Captain Travis Peterson, busy in the kitchen, draws my attention back inside: "You want a fresh crab omelette this morning or shrimp scrambled eggs?"

 

THIS IS THE PARALLEL UNIVERSE I entered last spring, when I spent one week slumming with three buddies in a remote Forest Service cabin, and spent the following week aboard the sweetest steelheadrecon rig imaginable. The goal was the same with both: catch some wild Alaskan steelhead in a beautiful, unspoiled setting. But the similarities pretty much ended there. The first week four of us were crammed into a 12' X 14' box with no running water and an outhouse, going unguided on a difficult stream, hiking eight or nine miles a day through a boggy, muddy minefield of downed trees covered with claw marks. The second week was spent floating along on a mini-yacht specifically designed for long range fish-chasing in Southeast Alaska, being boated to the mouth, guided to the fish, and sleeping peacefully in a warm bed each night after a five star meal.

The three friends who joined me in the cabin—Jim, Jamie, and Scott—all lived with me in Jackson Hole during our ski-bum years in the '90s, so none of us were strangers to dirtbagging it through a vacation. Our trip was less hardcore fishing expedition than guys' getaway, but it still involved a not-small investment of time, money, and effort, including commercial flights, private charters, and a few longdistance day-hikes. So we certainly hoped to catch some steelhead.

Our first day of fishing was mostly just a day of hiking. We covered 18 miles in waders and returned to the cabin that night without a single steelhead. But at least I'd spotted a couple fish late in the day, and even hooked one on a short swing above a downed spruce, before breaking it off with an over-zealous hookset. Feeling the pull of just that one steelhead was enough to re-energize me for hours, but I couldn't stay. I'd kept fishing after the others had gone back to the cabin, and the thought of meeting a grizzly on my solo hike out, in the dark, was enough to pull me away. But at least we knew there were fish.

 

Jim Kloote, angler on the Adventurous, packing heat and a mean switch rod.
Jim Kloote, angler on the Adventurous, packing heat and a mean switch rod.

ACCORDING TO STATE RECORDS, 309 streams in Southeast Alaska are known to hold steelhead, and most of them have runs of fewer than 200 fish. The biggest exception is the Situk, near Yakutat, which has seen runs of more than 15,000. But even the creeks averaging 400 to 500 fish are difficult to reach, with the exception of a few roadaccessed rivers on Prince of Wales Island, like the Thorne. The tradeoff is that many of the fish are big, bright, healthy, and full of energy, having just recently come from the sea.

The size of Southeast Alaskan steelhead can be attributed, like most West Coast steelhead, to how much time they've spent in the ocean. And, to a lesser degree, whether it's their first, second, or even third spawning trip. Southeast Alaska is primarily a spring-run steelhead fishery, as opposed to the summer and winter runs that dominate the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, or the fall runs found in Northwest Alaska, on the Kenai or Alaskan Peninsulas. Whether it's the timing of these runs or the location, the fish have an angler-pleasing tendency to come back more than once.

"We have more repeat spawners than most places do down south," says Roger Harding, the Southeast Trout Research Supervisor and a 25-year veteran of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "Probably 25 percent or so spawn more than once, and even most of the first-time spawners have spent at least two years, or even three, in the ocean. We have very few, if any, one-ocean fish."

Compare this to steelhead returns in Oregon, where maybe five to 10 percent—less for males, especially summer fish—make a second spawning run. Or northern California, where one-ocean "half pounders" can make up a good portion of the run. Even in steelhead- rich British Columbia, as noted in Bob Hooten's recent book, Skeena Steelhead, "The incidence of multiple spawning by steelhead is not high, especially among summer fish. Repeat spawning is always highest among females, but generally less than 10 percent of the number that spawned the first time."

Why so healthy in Alaska? "The size of the fish are due partly to the pristine setting of the freshwater, but also to the availability of feed in excellent ocean conditions," says Peterson, who owns as well as captains the Adventurous. "You're dealing with an ecosystem that is close to perfect, with almost no human impact on those fish."

What a fresh fish looks like.
What a fresh fish looks like.

PETERSON AND HIS MAIN GUIDE, Dan "Rooster" Leavens, met in the Coast Guard in 1988 while stationed together in Sitka. Both stuck to saltwater after getting out, Rooster as a deckhand on the original Adventurous in 1991, and Peterson as a guide doing day trips out of Sitka. By the winter of 1997 both were in Panama. Rooster moved there to work on the Canal, and Peterson—after taking Rooster's place on the Adventurous—brought the boat down to sportfish with then-owner Jay Gustin.

"We spent three great winters in the mid '90s going back and forth down to Panama, stopping to fish Baja's Mag Bay and mainland Mexico," Peterson says. "But each spring I'd come back to Alaska for steelhead."

Gustin eventually decided he wanted to stay in Panama through steelhead season, so in 2005 Peterson bought the Adventurous from him, and shortly thereafter began teaming with Rooster during steelhead season. After 14 years guiding steelhead on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, Rooster sees a few differences between the two fisheries. "The OP has more options on a daily basis, so you find yourself second-guessing things hourly," he says. "When you finally choose a river, then you get a mid-morning call from your buddy telling you that you made the wrong decision. Alaska is slower paced, because you're usually only fishing one drainage a day. And the ulcerproducing lack of fish in any particular drainage is so far out of our control that, after 20 years, I've finally come to terms with it."

Truth is, most of the creeks that Peterson and Leavens guide from the Adventurous have decent numbers of fish. There might be an investigative day or two that comes up empty, but they've found plenty of proven winners that they fish every year.

"My favorite thing is exploring," Peterson says. "I want to catch fish, but I have just as much fun going up a stream that we've never visited to see if we can find fish. So as long as the customer's anticipations will allow that, then we do as much of it as possible. The point is to utilize the boat to its maximum potential. I mean, we have this boat that will go almost anywhere, so we might as well use it."

Use it we did. After a proper Alaskan-style sendoff from Rayme's Bar in Wrangell—ending, as parties often do in the 49th state, at a private house eating home-smoked salmon—our group of eight departed on May 14, heading west down Sumner Strait. But where the cruise ships turn south toward Chatham Strait, we went north, past Devil's Elbow and Irish Creek and on through Rocky Pass, heading northwest toward Hamilton Bay and the tiny community of Kake.

It took only a couple days of fishing from the Adventurous to notice one huge advantage it had over our cut-rate cabin rental—and it had nothing to do with cost. Rooster and Peterson simply had far superior fish-spotting skills, reflective of their time on these waters.

On our third day, we were sitting having lunch on the banks of a Kuiu Island beauty, when Peterson suddenly got up, waded halfway across the river, and said, "Hey Tom, come here." As I waded out to meet him, he pointed to a spot in the water about 12 feet away.

"You see her?"

I didn't see her.

"There, beneath the root, up against the bank, near the bottom."

I waded a little farther out, cupped my hands around my shades, and stared deeply into the water. Only then, barely, did I see her: A small, six-pound hen, barely finning beneath a V-forked root system. Six of us had been sitting on that bank for 10 or 15 minutes, looking out at the water. But only Peterson had seen the fish.

Appetizers on the Adventurous.
Appetizers on the Adventurous.

Appetizers not on the Adventurous.
Appetizers not on the Adventurous.

SOUTHEAST ALASKA HAS 79 CABINS ON 65 DIFFERENT RIVER SYSTEMS, all of which can be rented during certain parts of the year. "Some of them date all the way back to the 'make-work' project coming out of The Depression," says Harding. "And a few were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps or local groups like the Territorial Sportsmen, out of Juneau. But the Forest Service built most of them."

I got lucky and scored four nights in one of the hard-to-get steelhead-accessible cabins. Though it was only my third trip to Alaska, my family has a bit of history in Southeast, where my dad spent a decade as a halibut long-liner out of Pelican, a tiny north- Chichagof Island town on Lisianski Inlet, about 100 miles west of Juneau. I finally made it to Pelican myself in 2006, a trip that just happened to coincide with the mid-April through May steelhead season. Now I was back, with three friends willing to split a charter flight, live with 40-square-feet per person, and call it a vacation. Our first discovery: The fish were way, way downstream. Apparently, we weren't the first ones to learn this the hard way.

Adventurous passenger Cory Reistad negotiates the gnarl.
Adventurous passenger Cory Reistad negotiates the gnarl.

"People fly in there every spring expecting to just stay at that cabin and catch steelhead," says Harding. "But it's a long, three- or four-mile hike down to the first fish. We used to see them hiking in their five-millimeter neoprenes and I'd be like, 'Man, I don't know if those guys are going to make it back out of there.'"

What also could prove unpleasant for a certain segment of the steelheading fraternity is the primary fishing methods used. If you're one of those "If I ain't swingin', I ain't fishin'" type of twohanded guys, then you might want to adjust your outlook for Southeast Alaska. These are small streams with a lot of wood, built for single-handers or switch rods (perfect place for switch rods, actually), and primarily fished with a nymph and bobber. You're spotting about 70 percent of the fish, so there's not a lot of blind searching with the spey rod going on. And even spotting a fish—due to the large amount of deadfall—doesn't guarantee you'll be able to get a cast in front of it.

On our second day of hiking down from the shack, Jamie spotted something out of the corner of his eye. The trail here veered far above the creek, so we stopped and fixed our gaze a couple hundred feet down, through stands of hemlock, cedar, and Sitka Spruce, to a lone, 15- or 16-pound fish holding in the middle of the stream. He looked massive, gently finning above a big root system. He also looked totally out of place. If that fish were in the Skeena or the Clearwater, sure. But we're talking about a creek with 40 or 50 cfs, tops. We started to carefully slide down the bank when the big buck sensed our presence and spooked, letting himself slip back down into the hole, disappearing beneath the roots of a big cedar.

Dan "Rooster" Leavens, searching the sweet spot.
Dan "Rooster" Leavens, searching the sweet spot.

Despite none of us getting a shot at the monster, just seeing a fish of that magnitude helped sharpen our focus. Needless to say, our casts became more meaningful and our drifts more diligent, eventually paying off with three good fish in a couple of days, two of which were solid 12-pounders landed above a river-wide log in fast water, adding an extra layer of intensity to an already potent moment. Even without the spotting power of Rooster or Peterson, we started seeing fish. Though the number of steelhead we landed was small, they each arrived with that extra level of satisfaction that comes from figuring a place out on your own—no guide, no map, no directions, no clue, really, what we were getting into.

We got lost, got drunk, got dirty, got wet, got worried about bears, and generally did what guys are supposed to do on a camping trip. We sat by the fire with a stack of wood and a pile of beer and let the evenings unfold in the forest. Not just any forest, but the Tongass National Forest, America's largest, by far. From where we sat, it runs northeast to Haines, where Jamie had worked as a rafting guide, and stretches south to Ketchikan, hosting 19 wilderness areas along the way. Indeed, the Tongass National Forest is almost too vast and too beautiful and too full of fish to comprehend. Which is why—for all the joys of going the resourceful route and low-browing it with your buddies—travelling from bay-to-bay, and creek-to-creek on a boat like the Adventurous is such an incredible journey: Because there is just so much to see.

Here is how writer Doug Chadwick described the Tongass, in a 2007 story for National Geographic magazine:

A strange, soft storm of white flakes is floating out of the summer sky, drifting past tall mountainside evergreens onto the nets of golden lichens hung from their boughs, onto the bushes colored by salmonberries and blueberries, onto the beartracked shores. This is not an unseasonal snow squall, not a flurry of wind-borne seeds. It's a fall of molted feathers from bald eagles converging on the waterways by the hundreds, bright heads and tails gleaming like beacons all along the dark woodland slopes. A high tide of flesh surges inland from the sea: Every river, every stream, quivers with salmon thrashing upcurrent to spawn like rapids running in reverse. If any more flowing juices and beating hearts crowded in here, the place might start moving around on its own.

Kloote, hooked up again.
Kloote, hooked up again.

Big trees, big birds, big fish, big bears, immense peaks wrapped in great glaciers that break off into bays where great whales spout: This is Southeast Alaska, the state's panhandle. It separates northern British Columbia from the open Pacific with a chain of misty, fjord-footed mountains and a jigsaw puzzle of more than a thousand islands. Known as the Alexander Archipelago, the islands help explain how a region less than 500 miles long can have 18,000 miles of shoreline, more than 10,000 estuaries, and 13,750 river miles that host oceangoing fish. About five percent of Southeast Alaska is owned by native tribes or the state. Another 12.5 percent makes up Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. All the rest— 16.8 million acres—is the Tongass National Forest.

Dinner on the Adventurous.
Dinner on the Adventurous.

Dinner not on the Adventurous.
Dinner not on the Adventurous.

Back on the Adventurous, we'd made our way down to Port Alexander and around to "the outside," where we began working our way north toward Sitka, hitting various bays along the way. Because I'd grown used to covering water on my own the previous week, I struggled at first with the group-outing format. I'd hang for a few minutes, then start wandering upstream on my own, farther and farther until I saw either a fish or a bear. Finally it was the latter. It was only a smallish black bear, but it was still enough to send me scurrying back to the group, and since I wasn't the one carrying a gun, I didn't wander far on my own after that. Until our last day.

Peterson had picked up on the fact that—fear of bears notwithstanding— I preferred to fish on my own. So he led me up one of the dozens of creeks flowing into Whale Bay in the South Baranof Wilderness, and then he left. It was a stunning moment—alone on a spectacular steelhead creek, surrounded by a slice of the purest, most immaculate American landscape we have left, with twin 10-pounders facing upstream and away, 40 feet from the end of my rod tip.

I got one of them. After releasing the fish, I sat and watched him ease back to his holding lie, casually finning himself into position with full view of his natal headwaters, seeming in no hurry to leave.

Details, Details:
For info on cabin rentals in the Tongass National Forest:
www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/cabins/cabinlist.shtml

For info on The Adventurous:
Alaska Charter Service; www.alaskacharter.com

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