Wild fresh run Pacific steelhead are considered by many to be the ultimate gamefish on a fly rod. These electric sea run brethren of the rainbow trout grow large in the prolific waters of the North Pacific before entering coastal rivers prior to spawning. One of the most remote and least explored regions to target steelhead is the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska. The sprawling 16.7 Million Acre forest spans both the mainland and a vast network of islands and is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of small clear waters where steelhead spend a few weeks each spring. These waters feel more like trout streams than steelhead rivers and their beautiful crystaline waters are surrounded by the towering temperate rainforest and snow capped peaks. The only road networks in this region are found within a few miles of a handful of small fishing towns on the coast in this region such as Wrangel, Petersburg and Sitka. The vast majority of this country is only accessible by boat and much is still to be explored in terms of its steelhead potential.
For the past several spring seasons we have been partnering with the Captain Trig Papenfuse who operates Viaggio Charters to offer an Alaska Steelhead Explorer Program to explore this vast region. This small operation is limited to just 4 guests per week during the prime April and May steelhead window. Long time Montana Angler guide Bill Buchbauer is one of the guides for the program along with Greg Slachter who owns Fly Guides, a guide service in Haines, AK.
We set out in mid April to spend a week exploring new waters before our first guests arrived. On most trips the guides visit 4-5 fisheries that they have had success in past seasons while exploring new waters on about 2 days of the trip. Exploring new waters is the ultimate adventure and can result in dead end leads or the ultimate rush in finding new steelhead waters that few (if anyone) knows about. On our scouting week we set out to bypass the rivers that we had good information on to focus on unexplored waters that looked interesting after scouring maps and Google Earth. Our exploratory crew consisted of Bill, Greg, myself as well as our significant others Ashley, Chris and Ann.
The fisheries that guests target during a week aboard the Viaggio tend to be smaller rivers and large streams. While there are a few larger river systems on the mainland, they often have a glacial color and locating steelhead is more challenging. The smaller systems are gin clear and easier to wade. Since the season is so short and the forest is so vast the option to visually spot fish is a huge advantage (and also adds to the “cool factor” when fishing). On these small waters two handed rods are not needed and can even negatively impact the fishing due to the added complexity of hiking through the forest with longer rods. The ideal weapon is a 9 foot single hand rod with 8 weight floating line and a reel with a good drag. Most of the fishing is either indicator nymphing or swinging smaller leach or classic steelhead patterns depending on the behavior of the fish and the size of the waters.
The standard program involves breaking up into groups of 2 anglers - each with one of the guides. The 72’ Viaggio mothership is also equipped with 2 jet boats. The jet boats are used to access the mouths of streams and small rivers. In some cases 2 different rivers can be targeted the same day while in other cases all 4 anglers visit the same fishery while one pair works the lower river and the other pair hikes further upstream. Both mainland and island fisheries can be targeted based on current weather conditions, where fish are found, etc.
This style of fishing is truly exploratory. Even on known steelhead waters, there is always the uncertainty as to how many fish are in the system at any one time. Over the years the guides have learned that there are a few predictably safe bets that seem to hold fish for several weeks at a time while others can be either spectacular or a bust depending on the timing of the run. Exploring new waters offers the ultimate adventure - sometimes all of the research pays off and a pristine fishery is identified with huge fresh run fish in small waters. Of course some explorations result in lots of hiking and bushwhacking with few or no steelhead encountered. Typically our guests land on average around 16-20 steelhead per week with the Viaggio team. Often one or two days of the week are a strike out while other days when the hot fishery is found produce lots of action.
Due to the delicate nature of these steelhead fisheries and the fact that so much work and effort has gone into finding waters that hold fish the actual names of the rivers and streams in this report have not been used.
Motoring, Glaciers and Crab Pots
We had a mid day departure from Petersburg on our first day aboard the Viaggio. Due to a lingering storm and large swells we opted to spend the first day motoring a few hours en route to the outer island fisheries that would be our target for much of the week and then stop to explore a large glacier and set out some crab and shrimp pots. Although the steelheading opportunities in Southeast Alaska are the marquee attraction on these trips, an adventure in this region would be remiss without taking in some of the other unique activities that this spectacular landscape has to offer.
Upon anchoring the Viaggio we set out via jet boat to explore the terminus of a large glacier as it enters the ocean. As we approached the glacier we entered a labyrinth of icebergs recently calved from the ice mass. The high density of the glacial ice produced by high pressures results in a spectacular blue color. After lots of photo opportunities and a stop to collect some glacial ice for cocktails, we headed back to our anchorage. Before heading in for the night we dropped several crab pots and shrimp pots along the way.
Exploring No-Tellum Creek
The next morning we got up early and headed back out in the larger jet boat to pull the crab and shrimp pots. Although only a few shrimp turned up, we did manage to collect enough Dungeness Crab to excite the chef, Kristin, with the prospects of fresh crab cakes which we would enjoy at dinner that evening. The seas had settled and we planned to motor to the outer islands by days end. Along the way Bill and Greg wanted to stop to revisit a river that had showed promise on past visits. They had found fish in the system at higher flows and with lower water at hand they were excited about the prospects of seeing this fishery again when it was easier to access. Since there weren’t any other viable rivers or streams nearby and we still had a long motor in the evening all 6 of us set out up the river. The mainland fisheries tend to be higher gradient than the island fisheries and this was river required some rugged hiking, bushwhacking and wading. The efforts paid off and we found fresh steelhead in droves. Even with a shorter day to explore we found plenty of fish in near perfect flows. One run held about a dozen huge steelhead with several over 30”. This day ended up being our most productive of the trip with 8 large fish to the net and at least another 8 fish hooked up that were not landed. The sight of such large fish holding in just 2-3 feet of water and watching them turn on our flies was truly one of the most amazing fly fishing experiences I have ever encountered. This day alone made the entire trip worthwhile. It is simply difficult to describe in words how special this type of experience is! Everyone in the group landed at least one steelhead and we all headed back to the Viaggio with permanent grins.
Once aboard we pulled anchor and made a long run to some of the outer islands where the rest of the rivers and streams we planned to explore were located. An incredible dinner was enjoyed that featured some of the fresh seafood we harvested earlier in the morning. Along the way porpoises followed the boat on numerous occasions. In the larger sounds we viewed humpback whales from a distance and even had a close encounter with a pod of orcas as they fed under the boat. Truly a day we will be talking about for years to come!
Dontask Rivers 1 and 2
After the long motor from the previous day we were now deep within the island systems found along Alaska’s inside passage. Although each island fishery is unique, they tend to be lower gradient than the mainland fisheries. Trying to find new steelhead rivers with scant information is not an easy task and Bill, Greg and Captain Trig had spent copious hours reviewing maps, charts and google earth to narrow down the prospects. On this day we set out to explore two smaller rivers that were within close proximity to one another. We split up with Bill leading Ashley and Chris up one river while Ann and I joined Greg up the other.
As we hiked up this small fishery it looked ideal. The gradient was low and there were plenty of pools, gravel bars and riffles. Our hopes started to fade after a few hours of attempting to spot steelhead in the clear waters as well as making some blind casts in deeper runs. Just as we began to lose focus Greg stopped to examine some grey shapes in a tailout. We debated whether they were steelhead or rocks so Greg stepped out to make a few casts. After the 3rd casts the shapes darted off - spooked steelhead. Although we were unsuccessful with this pair of big fish our hopes were renewed with the knowledge that steelhead were indeed in the system. We increased our efforts and carefully scanned every section of potential holding water. We quickly spotted some more fish in the next run and Ann and Greg set up to make some casts to them. While they were working these fish I continued up the river. Within 200 yards I came around the bend and stopped in my tracks as I spotted 3 huge fish at close range finning in just inches of water. After one cast the fish slide off into deeper water but didn’t appear overly alarmed. I set up just upstream and tried to drift some favorite steelhead nymphs with no interest. These fish didn’t seem very "grabby" so I switched out to a variation of an intruder pattern designed to be fished on the swing. With such tight quarters on this small stream getting the proper geometry on the cast to swing the fly was a daunting task. I had to carefully wade into the edge of the run on my knees to prevent spooking the fish in order to gain enough room for a roll cast quartering down and across the run. I could still see the fish laying in 3 feet of water and after the 5th cast I successfully swam the fly in front of two fish and the second fish lazily turned on the fly and took it. The water quickly erupted as the fish rocketed and cartwheeled around the pool. This hot steelhead got the better of me and just when I thought he was ready for the net he made one more dash and broke off.
We hiked a bit more up the stream and found one more fish in a tough position. After spooking it we needed to turn around and start making our way back to the meet point at the river mouth for our planned pickup from Trig. On the way back we made another attempt at the same run and managed one more hookup - again with the same results of the fish getting the better of us on a blistering, tackle busting run.
Upon returning to the Viaggio we learned that Bill’s foray into the other drainage was not as productive. Even though both drainages looked equal in size on the maps, in reality it was a much smaller volume fishery and very brushy with a lot of deadfall. They were unable to locate any fish and we determined it was not a usable option for future trips.
A large storm rolled in the previous night and heavy winds and rains were forecast for the remainder of the trip. Anticipating the storm we changed plans of venturing further into the island system and instead moved in between two large islands that were home to some high quality fisheries that the guides had used in past seasons successfully. Some of the smaller rivers and streams in this region had yet to be explored and we decided that this would be a useful way to spend the rest of the week while staying protected from the brunt of the weather.
On day 4 we ventured up a mid sized river that looked promising on the maps as it was the outlet for a mid sized lake. Often these lake fed fisheries offer more stability and similar drainages in the area that are lake fed had proved productive. With the poor weather we opted to stick together vs. making longer runs in the jet boat to cover 2 rivers in one day.
Our morning was spent on the lower runs of the river which proved to look extremely fishy but were also swift, deep and difficult to navigate. Shortly after leaving the coast we entered a beautiful, but rugged gorge. After working the lower runs the gorge eventually became impassable. We recognized that we could either call it a day and head back early to the Viaggio or attempt to bushwack up and around the gorge to see if the upper waters were easier to access. Upon studying the maps it looked like the gorge only lasted about 1 mile. After an hour of bushwhacking through dense forest and dead fall we had only made short progress. Just as we were about to lick our wounds and had back we stumbled onto a well worn bear trail. This region of the world has one of the highest populations of black bears on earth - while they are not a threat to people they sure do a nice job of clearing some paths in the forest! With the discovery of the trail we made much better progress and were able to make our way back to the river. While the upper waters were still rugged, they were manageable and we located a passage back to the water that looked to offer several great runs including a pool below a large waterfall that looked promising.
The waters were already on the rise with the steady rains and sight casting was not as productive as our earlier days so we switched to blind fishing by swinging flies and indicator nymphing. Ashley was the first to connect under Bill’s guidance as she hooked into a strong fish that tail-walked across the pool. The knowledge that steelhead were indeed in the system invigorated us all. Within 20 minutes I also hooked a huge fish that rocketed to the other side of the run before shaking the hook. Ann and I found ourselves in a productive run and had 4 more hookups in the next 30 minutes while managing to land 2 of the fish. After exhausting options on the 3 pools we had worked we hiked above the falls. We only had about another hour to explore before we headed back to the jet boat. On the upper waters the river flattened out a bit, we had excellent luck on either native rainbow trout or young steelhead - catching about 20 fish between 10-14 inches but no sea run fish. With time running out we headed back to the Viaggio with another successful outing under our belts. This was definitely a fishery worth revisiting in the future to explore in more depth now that we had located some trails around the gorge and verified that it did hold steelhead.
When your are exploring remote rivers in search of steelhead sooner or later the well runs dry and that was the case on our final day of fishing. We took a roll of the dice on a smaller drainage that looked like it might have potential. The stream was fed by a lake high in the mountains which was promising and the gradient looked similar to other waters we had experienced success on. The fishery was also in close proximity to some known “winners” so it would be a big win if we found fish on it in terms of logistics.
After running the jetboat to the river mouth we realized the actual volume of the stream was much smaller than we had expected based on the map drainage. Streams this small aren’t as likely to hold fish as they are more variable in conditions but we set off to hike up the fishery just in case. After a short hike up the stream it proved to be extremely rugged with a lot of deadfall. Since the river was already on the small side we decided to pull the plug and check it off the list and return to the Viaggio early to relax and unwind after a fantastic week. With a big storm and rough seas forecast we took advantage of the early fishing exit and started motoring back to Petersburg to avoid an early wakeup on our departure day the following morning.
Southeast Alaska is truly a special place in the world. The combination of wilderness, wildlife, scenery and truly unique wild steelhead fisheries one of our most unique destinations. Exploring the Tongass National Forest should be on the bucket list for any adventurous angler. While success doesn’t come every day when steelheading, the incredibly high quality of targeting these impressive fish in such small and clear waters is difficult to describe and is one of the coolest angling experiences I have personally had the opportunity to enjoy. Our scouting mission was a success and allowed us to write off some fisheries that are not worth a return visit while also discovering a few gems that will become a staple of the program. Alaska Fish and Game publishes maps of all known steelhead waters in Southeast Alaska and several of the fisheries that we had success on had not been previously listed as a known steelhead fishery - pretty cool stuff!
Please contact our office at 406-522-9854 to inquire about the Alaska Steelhead Explorer program. Spaces are limited due to the short season.