Story last updated at 4/24/2013 - 2:43 pm
To the morning song of robins, daylight hours in Southeast Alaska are stretching to the cadence of spring and the pungent odor of budding skunk cabbage. In the weeks to come, bait and tackle shops along with boat harbors will once again become the local flavor and social gathering hubs of our Southeast Alaska communities as sport anglers - restless from a long winter at home - seek out to nearby and distant trolling areas to try their luck fishing. But not all of Southeast Alaska's much heralded early season fishing is centered in saltwater bays and open straits trolling for elusive king salmon. The misty islands of Southeast Alaska are a Mecca for one of the most noblest freshwater sport fish, steelhead. During the spring months of April and May, these prized freshwater game fish, referred to by sport anglers as grey ghosts, chromers, sea-run 'bows, or simply steelies, quietly slip into select rivers and streams from the glacial carved fjords of Ketchikan in the south to the wind-and-surf battered beaches of the remote outer coast north to Cape Yakataga. In my opinion, this wild and unblemished geographical local encompasses some of the best remaining wild steelhead waters in North America.
So what does it take to intercept and enjoy Southeast's spirited spring steelhead on fly gear? Besides a bit of luck, and being in the right place at the right time, I'm a firm believer in exercising two fundamental components of fly-fishing. First, one needs to understand the freshwater requirements of steelhead in order to quickly recognize and locate potential holding water (areas where steelhead prefer to rest) and secondly, one must be comfortable and proficient with the principles of fly presentation and drift and furthermore be able to consistently apply them. This latter element is crucial to getting the fly offering through the water column and down to the depth of resting steelhead. A solid understanding of these two components - locating resting lies and fly presentation - will have a tremendous impact on one's steelheading success and hooking fish always increases angling pleasure.
Once in freshwater, steelhead are a shy and highly secretive fish. Whenever possible, they will seek out current breaks caused by bottom structure or changes in substrate to hide, relax and rest. Occasionally, they will also seek the confines and security provided by deeper water and will often hold and rest in pools as long as there is significant current flowing through their resting lie. Ideally, steelhead are most comfortable in water types with moderate currents with riffled - but not broken - surfaces, combined with water depths of 3 to 5 feet and a liberal amount of substrate (rocks and/or stumps) for structure. When I search for steelhead, I specifically key in on these favorable water types which steelhead prefer to lie and rest in, and I concentrate most of my initial angling efforts to these water types, before sampling other adjacent areas.
In Southeast Alaska, I use a number of different techniques, casts and fly presentations when I'm targeting steelhead, yet regardless of my approach, my objective never changes. I want my fly offering to drop rapidly in the water column and then to drift "low and slow" through the suspected lie. I also want my fly to maintain a "horizontal" presentation for as long as possible during the drift. In my opinion, this is the key - a horizontal low and slow presentation. Steelhead in the wild continually observe suspended debris drifting in the current, but rarely do they note these objects dropping or rising in the water column or moving erratically from side to side in the current. What they do see, however, are countless objects that drift "naturally" or horizontally towards them and many of these items (food related or not) end up in their mouths.
Whenever possible, I prefer to swing fish for steelhead using traditional wet fly swing techniques. With this approach, I cast my fly down and across the stream, and I guide and direct my fly - as it swings in the current - with my rod tip. As effective as the wet fly swing technique is, however, it is best suited for water conditions that exhibit slow uniform currents or when steelhead are found lying in deeper, slow flowing pools. Under these conditions, sink tips or full sinking lines work extremely well. On other hand, when steelies are found resting in fast, riffled water or in pocket water with tricky seams and obscure currents, full sinking lines or tips are difficult to control and many times can be more of a hindrance than a benefit. When confronted with these conditions, I quickly change over to a full floating line and fish nymph style, usually employing the perpendicular hinged-nymph technique. By using a nymph technique, this not only allows me to get my fly down quickly, even in fast, tricky currents, but it also enables me to better control my drift, and as a result, maintain a much longer horizontal presentation and drift throughout the suspected lie.
I know it's hard to think spring or even fishing when scattered mounds of snow still decorate some of our yards. But here's a subtle tip, it's river flow and water temperature - both charged by our seasonal spring runoff - that will trigger the annual return of these noble sport fish to our local waters. When this occurs new shadows will lurk in quiet pools and I will be there too, casting my flies hoping for that elusive take and the loaded punch from a steelhead. Good luck, and tight lines!
Rich Culver is a fly-fishing freelance writer and photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.