Targeting Situk River steelhead in Alaska

Ed Jones makes his annual steelhead pilgrimage to Alaska's Situk River count. 

YAKUTAT, Alaska — It was pitch black, freezing and a headlamp was required to follow the snow covered trail.

The pace was brisk in the areas of trail protected by a dense canopy of Sitka spruce and hemlock forest.

But intermittent meadows and alder thickets made life miserable with chest-high snow and a completely obscured path.

Still, I continued on, motivated by the fact I was on the world-famous Situk River near Yakutat, Alaska, in mid-April carrying my favorite fly rod and a trove of proven flies in search of steelhead.

Having fished steelhead in the Situk River for the past nine straight years, my mission was clear: I needed to hike a couple of miles upriver to a few reaches of the river that had always held ample numbers of these often-elusive fish.

Over the years I have fine-tuned my technique and maximized my efficiency at hooking steelhead in this river; now a dozen hookups per day is not uncommon. This was not always the case and my first few years were simply a challenge to find a fish, let alone hook one.

The health of the run is arguably a big factor in my recent success.

During the past 15 years, the run of metalheads in the Situk River has grown from an estimated low of 338 in 1993 to a high of 15,003 in 2006, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

However, part of my success is the result of trial and error and by paying close attention to other successful anglers.

Brent Kesey is one of those anglers and I've spent many hours with him casting flies in the clear, cold waters of southeast Alaska.

Kesey grew up fishing steelhead in Oregon and has caught more steelhead than anyone else I know. But like most successful anglers, he is slow to part with information and nearly as tight-lipped as the fish we seek.

A few years back Kesey and I were fishing the Situk River in late April when we stumbled on a pack of hundreds of fish that had just moved in on a tide.

That night I lost count after 40 hookups and that was only about halfway through our epic four-hour venture full of blistering runs and dramatic leaps.

The fish were really hot that evening and more than once a steelie would take our offering, make the wrong turn and end up several yards out of the water.

But most would simply take off downstream, and sometimes upstream, never to be seen again.

A highly prized game fish, steelhead spawn from California to Alaska and south along the Asiatic Coast.

In comparison to other anadromous species of Pacific salmon, they have a fairly complicated life history.

After rearing anywhere from one to four years in freshwater, these fish migrate to sea and grow at accelerated rates. Later, they return as adults to spawn in their natal streams

Unlike Pacific salmon, however, steelhead do not always die after spawning and can repeat the cycle several times over.

Situk steelhead are not considered large, robust fish by any means and fish are generally "cookie cutters" between 28 and 33 inches.

However, the runs are so immense that by sheer chance some fish are extremely big and occasionally I'll land one more than 40 inches in length.

The largest steelhead I've seen landed in the Situk was 46 inches, and I've heard rumors of a couple of larger specimens.

In comparison, the all-tackle world record stands at 42 pounds, 2 ounces for a metalhead landed about 300 miles to the south by a boy trolling for king salmon in 1970 near Ketchikan.

(That fish was first labeled a chinook salmon and, being the boy's first king, the party took it to town to get it weighed. Only then did someone point out that in fact the fish was a steelhead — and a record, at that.)

Some stocks of steelhead can travel hundreds of miles upriver to reach their spawning grounds. Then again, "Many of the steelhead trout in the southeast lay their eggs within just a few miles of the ocean," said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Jason Shull.

Most of the spawning in the Situk River takes place between the mouth of the stream and Situk Lake, a distance of about 19 river miles.

Two roads access the river, one at the mouth near the ocean and one about 12 miles upriver.

Anglers often float the stretch of river between the two access points. Although the float can be done in one, long day, typically anglers will take two or three days to do the trip, fishing as they float and camping near good concentrations of fish. Those not interested in floating the river hike from either road to find fish.

Steelhead runs are categorized as spring, summer, fall, or winter and in southeast Alaska only fall and spring runs occur. The Situk River boasts runs of both.

Fall fish enter the Situk from August through December, while spring fish come in as early as March and as late as mid-June (with the majority arriving in late April and early May).

Because fall steelhead are not preoccupied with spawning rituals and are coming into the river to overwinter and spawn the following spring, they are active feeders and can be very aggressive.

Once spring fish enter the river, however, they are preparing to spawn and often can be very difficult to hook as they appear seemingly uninterested in any terminal tackle. Then for no apparent reason at all, fish will hit anything and everything you drift their way.

Finally I reached my destination just as a few flakes of snow started to fall and light in the sky began to gather. I post-holed my way down the bank, washed the ice off my rod, and tied on a choice fly.

Heading downriver it wasn't long before I encountered some promising shadows along a deep cutbank. Were they fish?

My first cast answered that query by producing a nice, dime-bright steelie.

After releasing it I was quickly into another, and after an hour I tallied nine hookups, landing five.

As the day's first sunshine hit the water, I began wading downriver in search of fresh fish and indelible memories.