Story last updated at 4/23/2014 - 2:55 pm
The pursuit of anadromous fish with a fly, like no other chapter in fly-fishing, is deeply entwined in history and folklore.
Following the arduous footpaths of the our country's westward expansion, the first band of adventuresome East Coast fly-fishers settled along the banks of the Eel River Valley in Northern California. These early transplants were awe struck by the magnitude of what they found in this new frontier. They encountered trees that were living giants, redwoods with trunks larger than a horse and buggy, and rivers of intimidating size and flows that flourished with an abundance of salmon after the first fall rain.
The salmon they encountered in these west coast rivers eclipsed any brook trout they had ever seen or caught in the East. But nothing in these wild rivers struck their attention or left them breathless like the acrobatic displays and blistering runs of a silvery-bright, sea-run trout that they referred to as a steelhead.
Even today, anglers from around the world journey to select destinations to challenge their tackle and angling skills in pursuit of this turbocharged, river-run rainbow.
Here in Southeast Alaska, we are fortunate to have more than 100 documented watersheds with annual steelhead runs. No other region in Alaska offers the recreational sport fisherman more opportunities to intercept steelhead. Even though they may be present in most watersheds during April and May, steelhead can be reluctant to accept a fly.
It can be downright frustrating, even for experts. Because of this, conversations on what makes steelhead tick usually are the center of discussions at campfires and social dinners each spring.
The spring steelhead run in Southeast is short and explosive, and like steelhead fishing elsewhere, timing is the key. The entire spring run usually lasts from four to six weeks: Fish enter their home waters, pair up quickly to spawn, then drop out.
Spring steelhead usually begin showing in select systems around mid-to late March, depending on snowmelt, geographic location and prior winter conditions. Each factor can alter the arrival of fish by as much as two weeks in either direction. In normal years, fresh pods of steelhead move daily into tidewater lagoons and coastal streams, with their numbers gradually building through April and into the first weeks of May.
By late April, there are enough fresh steelhead in Southeast waters to satisfy any steelhead addict. As May unfolds, downstream "spent" steelhead slowly begin to outnumber fresh fish. However, even in the latter weeks of May it is not surprising to note good numbers of fresh, chrome-bright steelies in most Southeast drainages where steelhead are known to reside.
Because most Southeast steelhead have never seen a fly before, choosing the right fly almost becomes personal preference. Any standard steelhead fly will work as long as it is properly presented in front of a willing fish.
I have a personal affinity for casting prawn patterns, large leeches and bright spey flies when fishing estuaries or low-gradient tidewater reaches. Steelies in tidewater are gluttons for these particular patterns.
I believe large, lively silhouettes not only entice steelhead, but also at times may elicit an all-out feeding binge when steelhead are fresh from the salt. On numerous occasions, I've had mint fish abandon their resting school only to passively follow my swinging fly, casually nudging at it before suddenly accelerating and ultimately committing to my fly.
As my pursuits move away from estuaries, my fly selection changes slightly. I am still a firm believer in flies that move and undulate, but now my choice of fly size begins to decrease.
Here among the snarled clumps of devil's club and spruce-lined pockets and pools, I begin to fish soft hackles, naturals, comets, bosses and in some cases fry patterns in sizes from 4 to 10.
The fly rods I use for steelhead complement the specific water types and conditions that I fish, but generally speaking, they are the same rods I use when chasing silvers whether single-hand or two-hand style. My rod of choice when fishing single-hand rods is the 9 1/2-or 10-foot for an 8-weight.
When fishing in tight, congested watersheds where surrounding foliage restricts casting, I prefer the shorter 9 1/2-foot fly rod. However, when fishing pools and long runs where prodigious drifts and precise mending and line control are required, I quickly shift over and prefer a 10-foot rod.
In the estuary reaches, if drainages are large enough and conditions permit, I enjoy the advantages that come with the application of spey rods. The two-handed rods I use are Scandinavian-style fast-action spey rods in lengths of 12 to 13 feet for both 7 and 8 weights.
Reels for Southeast steelhead are the same as those I use for silvers. They should be stout, with smooth, adjustable drag systems, or have exposed rims for added palming control. The reels should also be factory anodized to avoid rapid corrosion caused by continual exposure to our maritime environment. The reels also should be large enough to hold at least 100 yards of 30-pound Dacron backing.
The upcoming weeks should be exciting times. As daylight hours stretch and robins again greet us with their morning chorus, spring runoff will be revitalizing our coastal rivers and streams with fresh flows.
Boat harbors and tackle shops will again become the central gathering and social hubs of our communities as restless sport fishermen launch their boats and begin seeking spring kings.
Not all of Southeast's heralded spring fishery will be centered in the salt. For these anglers, the months of April and May chime steelhead the most noble of all freshwater game fish.
Here's to a successful and safe spring - good luck fishing, and let's not forget to always respect our resources.