Mar 28, 2017

Prince Of Wales Island - Steelhead Dreams

Wild Steel
Leaving Haines Alaska on the ferry brought on a strong sense of excitement for unknown waters ahead. On the ferry’s solarium heading south along the inside passage, we had a clear evening with some northern lights on the distant horizon. A few years back I was tipped off by a guide friend to check out SE Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island for remote steelhead fishing. Growing up fishing, I’ve always been drawn to cold trout water and now as a PNW transplant, steelhead have become my passion.

Part of what I enjoy about fly fishing is the ability to play “pretend” scientist- that is, attempting to learn and understand a bioform from an amateurs viewpoint. Researching maps and seasons, spending hours at home by the vise tying flies, countless hours on the road, and early mornings sipping coffee all to potentially shake hands with the one. It’s an appreciation and respect for the fish. Consequentially, as fly fisherman we are also stewards and advocates for sustainable fisheries. In fact, I often see my friends picking up others trash on the river such as plastic bottles, monofilament, etc. Unfortunately though it’s becoming harder and harder to find untouched lands still wild and pure. Coincidentally, my friends Ian and Niel Provo had also heard of the Island and planned a similar trip after the winter ski season in Haines, so it only made sense for us to link up and make some memories together.

Prince of Wales Island is not an unknown fishing destination. It’s the fourth largest U.S. Island and is still home to the worlds largest logging camp (so much for un-pillaged lands.) But, it’s still off the beaten path and therefore less trafficked. Due to the islands history, the logging roads carved across the island allow for relatively easy access to all corners of the island. It’s no longer logged as extensively as it was in the past and now much of the island is reserved for the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is the U.S.’s largest national forest at 17 million acres. The temperate rain forest spans islands, peaks, glaciers, fjords, and more. While at large the Tongass is fairly difficult to access, it’s host to a variety of species including a special strain of spring-run steelhead that migrate up the coastal creeks and rivers for a short 4 week period each spring. Many pieces of water hold the potential for fisherman to be the only one to walk it that season, or ever.

Right out of the gate we began walking up coastal watersheds and immediately began sighting steelhead making their migratory journey up stream after having spent their adult lives getting big and strong out in the ocean. They’re a mysterious fish and frustratingly difficult at times. Just holding one may be a fly fisherman’s fairytale equivalent of a unicorn, but I can’t speak for everyone on that. Large debate has sparked over their future in regards to dams, tainted hatchery programs, the logging industry, regulations, etc., but that’s another topic. To truly find a wild one nowadays means lots of effort must be put forth. Anyways, the small clear tannin waters of the Tongass meant we had to sneak through the woods and banks, crawling over logs and rocks as to avoid spooking them. Unlike much of the storied steelhead waters of Oregon, Washington and B.C. where long two-handed spey rods are the norm, here we used single-handed rods and had to change and adapt our tactics.

Neil softly tossed a purple leach-like fly across a pool and let it drop down into the water column where a dozen bright fish laid. As his fly began to swing through the juice a nice fish began to chase it before changing its mind. Steelhead don’t exactly eat while traveling upstream, but rather attack flies out of aggression or for reasons only guessed. Neil cast back across stream to the pod of fish and soon a large buck smashed the fly the fight was on! Rod bent to the cork with a hot steelie going berserk on the other end. After releasing the fish back into the cold water we all looked at each other with big smiles, knowing it was game on for the island!

Over the next week we stared at maps and explored potential water while meandering backcountry roads. Due to a low snow year on the island, water was fairly low and made conditions slightly more adverse. While on average years we would have been right on time for the peak of the run, we’d arrived on the back end of it. Therefore finding fresh and aggressive fish was a challenge. We were surprised how dry it was for springtime and while being in a temperate rainforest, we didn’t experience any rain whatsoever. Nevertheless, we found fish and all landed beautiful wild steelhead along with lots of gorgeous spotted cutthroat trout too. Having friends around was nice to share the laughter and joy with, especially when also trying to land big steelhead safely and quickly.

Overall, the island was everything I’d hoped for- remote, beautiful, plenty of road access and very fishy. In a perfect world we would have been slightly earlier for the quick spring-run and flows would have provided better swing water, but it’s not an adventure until you’re thrown a couple curveballs. Fly fishing has taught me lots over the years and taken me to inspiring places. Indeed I’d say the biggest gift it has given me is that of bonding, whether it’s with my old man, friends, or in nature. The connectivity it brings is powerful. Fortunately, I can probably slip comfortable into an old age knowing that the passion will still be bright and strong. Sharing it even brings more joy… Tight lines!


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