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The fish were in, Savone said, had been since March. So we found them that April morning, a 45-minute upstream hike from the high tide mark. Steelhead. A threesome here, half dozen there, big, slab-sided, and salmon-sized, all holding in those tannic Alaskan riffles. We cast bright streamers at them well into the afternoon, flexing our forearm against their heavy, driving bodies. It felt good to be free from winter's stifling grip; every cast seemed a catharsis, each fish an epiphany.

Springtime in Alaska comes first to the panhandle. Even as my home waters up north remain frozen, the Pacific's salt-cod breath slips mildly through these coastal forests of Douglas fir and red cedar, a gentle promise of the bright season, the days of midnight sun to come. Streamside salmonberries bloom pink and sweet, orbited by hummingbirds; freshets swell with snowmelt from the timbered mountains above and the time of wading rivers and stalking big ocean-fresh trout begins.

Petersburg Creek
Image: Jack Popowich

Isolated and wild, Southeast Alaska (called the "Alaska Riviera" in the saccharin veneer of cruise-liner brochures) is among the planet's last, best steelhead strongholds. The great sea-run rainbows return here each spring to hundreds of streams. In recent Aprils, I've fished mostly out of Petersburg, a rustic seaport founded a century ago by Scandinavian fishermen. The town, accessible only by boat or plane, has become for me a springtime place, a community of retreat and repair. Set upon the edge of North America's last great temperate wilderness, Petersburg and its people—its silver-eyed young women and lanky, lantern-jawed men, all roaming the docks and alleys with a quiet pride intrinsic to the sons and daughters of Norway—generate a bucolic small town warmth that, along with the steelhead, have a way of calling you back.

Dan Savone is a Petersburg crabber, a one-time visitor from California who fell for this far-flung region of secluded beaches and isolated steelhead streams. His home—a weathered but tidy frame cabin—rests upon two enormous spruce logs hauled up at the head of a bay a few miles outside of town. He commutes back and forth to Petersburg in a decrepit Toyota Corolla, tweaked on the driver's side from collisions with a Sitka deer and a black bear encountered in the same stretch of road on separate evenings.

When he's not skippering his crab boat, baiting and lifting heavy steelframed pots, Savone can be found fly-fishing local streams. He ties his own flies and casts with a soft, flowing, self-taught precision for salmon, trout, and steelhead. All of which is unremarkable except that Savone has only one arm. A car accident on the Alcan Highway left a close friend dead and left-handed Dan lost his left arm. But in the years that followed, sometime beyond the malignant nightmares, the fire of parted bones and screaming flesh, Savone resolved to ignore his ''handicap." And now, with the grace and guts of all able-bodied seamen, Dan Savone—5-foot-8 in rubber boots, small-boned and wiry—lifts 70-horse outboards into bobbing skiffs, weighs anchors in misty fiords, and serenely tackles steelhead in a sport that frequently makes tangled fools of men with both hands.

I continued on for another quarter mile to that stretch that had kept me awake the night before.

We left town early, my friend Tony Route, Savone, and I. The morning was dull and damp with fog as we buzzed in Savone's skiff across the Wrangell Narrows to Petersburg Creek. The gray cotton horizon parted before us, split dead-center by a broad slice of silver saltwater. Petersburg is steelhead water in the classic sense: unpeopled, clean, with swift chutes pouring into deep, dark pools; plenty of boulders, whitewater and log jams for cover. By the time we entered the river and tied the boat to a great fir at the foot of a pool, the fog had degenerated into light drizzle. Along the banks, skunk cabbages bloomed in vivid yellow profusion, creating their own subdued sunlight and contributing to the air a musky fragrance reminiscent of strong, imported beer. Our upstream hike started here, so we gathered our gear—rods, vests, a lunch of tinned kippers and chocolate bars—and entered the shadows of the rainforest.

This was not our first day on the creek. We'd come the day before, again at high-tide, made the upstream hike, and fished steelhead with marginal success. The fish were there, you could see them holding in sparkling runs. We'd fished over dozens of steelhead that day, but they simply refused to take. So sometime before lunch, we put down our 8-weights, rigged up our 4s, and enjoyed catching cutthroat trout, resident rainbows and Dolly Varden. They weren't large, but each was a native jewel that pounced our smolt patterns.

I did manage to fair-hook one steelhead later that day. We were preparing to pack it in, hike back to the skiff, and return to Petersburg for pizza and pitchers of beer at The Harbor Lights restaurant. I picked up my 8-weight for a couple of final casts and midway through my third drift something struck and screamed desperately upstream. The struggle was everything I've come to expect from broad-shouldered, deep-bellied Alaska steelhead: That fiery strike; the upstream surge (my fly-line tearing the current in a hissing wake); a pair of bold, quivering leaps; then the downstream run to calmer water at the foot of the pool followed by the inevitable gill-pumping, side-slipping surrender.

Route had stepped into the shallows, forceps in hand, and as he'd freed the fly from its jaw, the steelhead turned briefly on its side, displaying in its anal fin the very pink Rajah fly I'd foul-hooked it with several hours before. We were all surprised, of course. And pleased to discover something about the stamina and resiliency of these fish. "Guess you pissed him off that first time," Savone said, as the drizzle rattled down upon us. Dusk was gathering in the crowns of the conifers overhead and the pizza and beer were waiting.

Sometimes you get a feeling about a particular stretch of water, a hunch that comes to you in the middle of the night while you lay there in bed thinking about it. At one point on that first day, I'd walked upstream from the Logjam Pool and found a long, boulder-studded run with deep, shaded eddies on its far side. I'd seen steelhead there, but was at the time more interested in scouting than fishing. That night, as I lay sleepless on Savone's living room floor, I'd thought of the place again and realized that it was good water and that I could not leave Petersburg without visiting the run again.

So now, on our second morning on Petersburg Creek, as Route and Savone rigged up at the Logjam Pool, I continued on for another quarter mile to that stretch that had kept me awake the night before. The hills around me pulsed with the voices of calling blue grouse—scores of them hooting and booming like drunken hillbillies blowing into empty moonshine jugs. The cedars, firs, and spruces huddled darkly in the damp morning light and the air smelled like gin.

At the head of the run I found a narrow channel separated from the main river by a gravel bar. It contained many pools that dropped suddenly into darkness and in those pools I hooked three steelhead in twenty minutes. The third was a strong, silver-bellied buck, a hot fish that flew down the channel and into the main river. I was into my backing within a minute and, worried that I might lose the works, I chased the fish downstream, splashing and stumbling as I went. Fifteen minutes seems a good long time when you're standing to your thighs in rushing ice water, hanging onto a wild steelhead fighting madly for its life. The planet stops spinning, your surroundings blur, and there is nothing in the world but the thrashing current, your pounding heart, and a furious fish. Not until you finally coax the fish into the shallows, slip your fly from its mouth and watch it dash away, does the rest of the world edge back into focus.

In the wake of the struggle, my forearm had turned to rubber. Completely worn out, I hiked downstream and met Savone and Route, still fishless at the Logjam Pool. I led them back to the run, where we caught steelhead that wrestled and ran and tail-danced for us all day long.

I remember watching Savone upstream, tying knots with his one hand. And later I saw him on several occasions lifting his rod high as a steelhead splashed and leapt out front. And in the heat of it all I was reminded that Hemingway was right when he wrote that "man can be destroyed but not defeated." People like Dan Savone and places like Southeast Alaska still do exist. We may, if we choose, confine ourselves with excuses, wrapped within the veils of jobs or tragedies. But life is a collage of seasons, a succession of challenges that must be answered. And following every winter, there comes a spring.

-Ken Marsh is a former editor of Alaska magazine.

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