Trip Report: Alaska Steelhead Fly Fishing
Trip Report: Alaska Steelhead Fly Fishing
Part III: POW Island & Steelhead Dreams
Leaving Haines on the ferry brought on a strong sense of excitement for the unknown waters that lay ahead. Up on the ferry’s solarium and heading south we had a clear evening with the distant northern lights on the horizon. A few years back I was tipped off by a guide friend to check out an island in SE Alaska for remote steelhead fishing. Growing up fly fishing, I’ve always been drawn to cold trout water, and now as a recent PNW transplant, steelhead have become one of my favorite species to target. Part of what I enjoy about fly fishing is the ability to play scientist; that is, trying to learn and understand a bioform from an amateur point of view. Researching maps and seasons, spending hours at home at the vise tying flies, countless miles on the road and early mornings sipping coffee all to maybe shake hands with a beautiful fish and release it back into the wild. It’s an appreciation and respect for the fish. I also like that most fly fisherman are stewards and advocates for sustainable fisheries. In fact, I often see my friends picking up others trash on the river such fishing line and lures deserted by gear fisherman. Unfortunately, it becomes harder and harder to find untouched lands still wild and pure. Coincidentally, Ian and Neil Provo are also passionate about fly fishing and had heard of the Island. Wouldn’t luck have it that they planned the same fishing trip for after the ski season up in Haines.
Grab a lounge chair and a book and soak in the views.
Prince of Wales Island is not an unknown fishing destination. It is 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 island’s history, logging roads carved across the island allow for access to remote corners of the island. It’s no longer logged as extensively as it was in the past and 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. Mostly a temperate rain forest, it spans islands, peaks, glaciers, fjords, and more. Mostly difficult to access and host to a variety of species, a special strain of spring-run steelhead trout enter up the rivers and coastal creeks for a short 4 week period out of the year. 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 started walking coastal streams and immediately began sighting steelhead making the journey up stream after having just spent most their lives getting big and strong out in the ocean. Like salmon, steelhead are born in freshwater and migrate to salt water to mature before returning to freshwater to spawn. However, unlike salmon that die after spawning, steelhead are still trout and can spawn multiple times if lucky. They’re a mysterious strain of fish and frustratingly difficult sometimes. Just holding one may be a fly fisherman’s fairytale equivalent of a unicorn, but I’m not sure on that. Large debate has sparked over their future in regards to dams, tainted hatchery programs, regulations, etc. To find a truly wild one nowadays means lots of effort must be put forth. Anyways, the small, intimate, gin clear waters of the Tongass meant we had to sneak through the woods and banks, crawling over logs and rocks as to avoid spooking these big special fish. Unlike much of the storied steelhead waters of Oregon, Washington and B.C. where long two-handed spey rods are the norm, here we had smaller single-handed rods and had to change and adapt our tactics.
Neil had softly tossed his leach fly across a pool and let it drop down into the water column where a group of maybe a dozen steelhead lay. As his fly began to swing through he stripped it back and got a fish to chase it down before changing its mind. Steelhead aren’t eating while traveling upstream to spawn, but attack flies for reasons only guessed. I’ve also not heard of steelhead hitting a stripped fly, but as Neil cast back across stream to the pod of fish and slowly stripped his line back, a large male buck smashed the fly and a fight was on! Rod bent in half and a steelie going berserk on the other end, we all looked at each other and knew it was game on!
Over the next week we stared at maps and explored potential water while meandering backcountry roads. Due to the low snow year in the pacific northwest, water run-off was also low and while on average years we would have been right on time for the peak of the run, this year we were on the tail end of it. Finding fresh, aggressive fish was a challenge. We were surprised at how dry it was for spring time and being in a temperate rainforest. Nevertheless, we found fish and all landed beautiful wild steelhead along with a lot of native trout. Having friends around was nice because trying to land a large steelhead without a net is no easy task. Generally the ethics rule is to keep them wet by not removing them from water so we also needed to handle them safely to ensure their survival. We were thankful to have each other around to capture and share the moment.
170,000+ original miles and still takes me to the best places on earth to get lost in.
Tight lines in the Meat Hole. Photo: Ian Provo
My first Alaskan Steel, thanks to Neil for trailing her! Photo: Ian Provo
Alaskan Steelhead on the Swing.
Ian Provo with his first steelhead
Overall, the island was everything I’d hoped for- remote, beautiful, plenty of road access and very fishy. Fly fishing has taught me lots over the years and taken me to inspiring places, though I’d say the biggest gift it has given me was that of bonding, whether it be with my old man, friends, or in nature. The connectivity it brings is powerful. Fortunately, I can also slip into a comfortable old age and still be fishing by fair means with hand tied flies, trying to trick elusive fish into shaking hands ever so briefly before waving goodbye.
Backroad camp spots, sunsets, and a little Oregon-Canadian whiskey