If there were one word that could halt conversations and spin the heads of freshwater sport anglers, this word would certainly be steelhead.
Steelhead: prized gems of spring in Southeast Alaska 040809 OUTDOORS 2 Capital City Weekly If there were one word that could halt conversations and spin the heads of freshwater sport anglers, this word would certainly be steelhead.

Photo By Rich Culver

A beautiful Southeast Alaska fly-caught buck steelhead about to be released. Depending upon local weather conditions, steelhead begin entering select watersheds in Southeast during the months of April and May.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Story last updated at 4/8/2009 - 11:03 am

Steelhead: prized gems of spring in Southeast Alaska
On the Fly

If there were one word that could halt conversations and spin the heads of freshwater sport anglers, this word would certainly be steelhead.

Without debate, no other freshwater game fish in the U.S. has received more attention in the past seven decades than this magnificent, sea-run turbo-charged rainbow trout. Anatomically build for speed in swift water environments, steelhead are known for their relentless strength and heart-stopping top water acrobatics.

Here in Southeast Alaska during the months of April and May, as spring runoff fuels our coastal streams and creeks, these highly prized sport fish cryptically returns to crystalline riffles where they were born. Because of their noted acclaim and their presence in our local waters, I'll be committing my April columns solely to Steelhead.

Southeast Alaska steelhead are magnificent fish, ideally proportioned gems of both beauty and strength. Evolved for speed with a preference for swift moving water, Southeast steelhead range from 8 to 16 pounds, with 12-pound fish about the average. Fresh from the salt, females (or hens) glow like polished chrome with immaculately etched scales that mimic mother-of-pearl.

Males (or bucks, as they are commonly called) are much more robust than females. Their shoulders are thick and muscular and are often garnished with black spots carefully painted against shades of olive. Their flanks are often teased with a soft crimson stripe much like their river-run cousins, the rainbow trout.

Both sexes are splendid fighters, capable of dismantling both fly and conventional tackle with strength and speed that more often than not leaves anglers lamenting over broken tippets and lost fish.

Much like the salmon fry drop out, the arrival of spring steelhead to Southeast watersheds is largely dependent upon local runoff conditions.

Aside from adequate flows, many people believe that water temperature also plays an integral role in determining when steelhead will enter their birth systems.

Because of this, anglers wishing to intercept these magnificent game fish should monitor local weather conditions, particularly snow pack and its effect on runoff.

However, there are always exceptions and these exceptions have a tendency to be centered on our larger systems, which usually exhibit more consistent and stable flows.

Because of this, our larger systems tend to have runs that are more predictable in their timing as compared to smaller coastal creeks and streams that can fluctuate widely in their exact run timing from year to year based on local conditions.

Spring steelhead in Southeast Alaska are "ocean maturing" fish - they become sexually mature at sea and enter freshwater systems primed and ready to spawn.

Because they are already sexually mature, spring run steelhead in Southeast Alaska do not reside in freshwater for any extended period of time; they enter their natal waters, acclimate, pair up and spawn and then drop out.

In some cases, their total duration in freshwater might be less than a week, but generally speaking, most Southeast steelhead spend from two to four weeks in freshwater systems.

Consequently, timing is even more critical in Southeast Alaska than in most other areas where steelhead runs are present.

So what techniques offer fly anglers the best opportunity to intercept these magnificent game fish? Stay tuned, as I will address techniques for coastal steelhead in my next issue!

Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer and member of the Scott Fly Rod Company's Pro Staff. He can be reached at flywater@alaska.net.

Rich Culver's next column will appear in the April 22 issue of the Capital City Weekly.