Access great steelhead and salmon fishing
[by Mark Hieronymus]
Alaska is often touted as a bucket-list destination for anglers, and for good reasons. From the trophy rainbows of Bristol Bay to the giant king salmon of the Kenai River and many species and locations in between, much has been written about the bountiful angling opportunities of the northern part of our great country. Anglers from the world over flock to these destination fisheries year after year, and if they fly to Alaska from the Lower 48, many unknowingly fly over some of the best (and least-crowded) sportfishing opportunities Alaska has to offer.
Southeast Alaska is made up of a small slice of mainland, a dozen or so large islands and hundreds of smaller islands along the Inside Passage. With more than 18,000 miles of salmon-bearing streams, rivers and lakes, it is a veritable angler’s paradise.
The heart of Southeast is the Tongass National Forest, the largest in America’s national forest system. Spanning 17 million acres, it covers about 80 percent of the land in the Panhandle from Yakutat in the north to Ketchikan in the south, and is home to about 5,000 individual salmon streams.
The streams of the Tongass support all five species of Pacific salmon (king, coho, sockeye, chum and pink) as well as steelhead, resident rainbow trout, and both resident and sea-run populations of cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden char. The streams themselves are often short, many with less than 10 miles of fishable water, and most are small enough for even inexperienced anglers to cross with chest waders. This combination of short lengths and small sizes makes for intimate angling experiences that are often enhanced by days without seeing another angler.
Steelhead are found in more than 300 streams in the Tongass and are the first fish to return from the sea each year to spawn in Alaska’s streams. Steelhead are one of the most sought-after game fish on the West Coast, and in Southeast, begin their spawning run in April and are available until late May in most of their range. While there are a few larger river systems that have runs of a thousand fish or more, most Tongass streams have steelhead runs numbering 400 fish or less, although one of the rivers in Yakutat sees an average run that exceeds 6,000 every year.
Fishing for steelhead in the Tongass can often be more like hunting than fishing— the small size of the streams often means the fish sees you before you see it. Steelhead are eager biters if calm and undisturbed, so the ability to move along the streambank without spooking fish can greatly increase an angler’s success rate with these fish of a thousand casts.
The smallest of the Pacific salmon, the pink, is also the most abundant fish in the region. Every summer, as many as 40 million pinks return to the streams of the Tongass. The peak of the pink run is generally the first two weeks in August, when some streams can have the appearance of having more fish than water. Willing takers of lures and flies, pink salmon provide angling opportunities for novices and seasoned anglers alike, and are also one of the main food sources for the bears of the Tongass.
From June to October, brown and black bears frequent the salmon streams of the Tongass to take advantage of the excellent numbers of fish. While an angler may occasionally encounter an aggressive or overly curious bear, the vast majority of bears are indifferent to or wary of human presence. When fishing in bear country, a little common sense can go a long way. Remember that you are in their house playing with their food—give them the right of way and be respectful of their space.
For anglers seeking an overnight or multi-day experience, camping in bear country during salmon season can present its own set of unique challenges. Tent camping near a Tongass salmon stream is not for the faint-of-heart, and even the precaution of bear-proof containers and a clean camp isn’t enough to keep curious bears from occasionally rummaging around in your space.
For the traveling angler, a great alternative to tent camping is a forest service rental cabin. The Tongass has more than 150 cabins for rent, and many of them are located in prime salmon-fishing locations throughout the forest. The cabins have little in the way of amenities (bare bunks, oil stoves and outhouses) and are a far cry from an all-inclusive lodge experience, but their rustic nature fits the forest setting well and the solid walls are a comfort while sleeping in bear country.
If you are thinking of visiting Alaska on your next fishing trip, Southeast’s Tongass National Forest and its cabins offer a vast assortment of possibilities for the do-it-yourself angler.
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