April 27th dawned gray and stayed that way. As we trudged our way through an expansive tidal flat, we tried not to think about how many thousands of mussels we were stepping on. More food for the crabs, I guess. After a mile-long hike through mudflat and grass, we arrived at our destination- a good-sized, gently flowing stream, tannic-colored and mysterious. We swung egg sucking leeches through the first few holes below tidewater, with 10’4” switch rods and 300 grain Commando Heads. The first tidal, enticing, juicy, perfect runs produced nothing, which seems to always be the case for small coastal streams such as this one, in my experience. In a stream of this size, we felt confident that any steelhead in a run or pool would see our flies. We hung up on seaweed a couple of times before moving on.
Hiking further upstream, through towering Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir, we started to hear the low calls of grouse. We pulled a couple trout from a few obvious pockets, 14-17 inch coastal rainbow trout, strikingly colored and heavily spotted, much like the famous leopard rainbows farther to the northwest. After snapping photos of these unique resident rainbows that live every so slightly above tidewater, my companion, Trevor Covich, hiked up to the next pool. Straining to see through the iced tea, his body language suddenly became velociraptor-esque, making it clear that he had spotted a steelhead. And sure enough, our first southeast Alaskan steelhead had chosen a spot with the following characteristics:
1. Deep. Easily 6 feet, with a fast upwelling right in front.
2. Right under a log, in a narrow trough, with wood upstream to stifle anything resembling a swing.
And there you have it. The first steelhead we saw in Southeast Alaska had chosen its holding lie almost as if to say “you can take your long rods and your swinging and go back to Washington”. We ended up catching this fish, but we did it short-line nymphing, with a split shot the size of a quail egg, and a bead. And that’s ok. You fish the way you have to.
So this is where I make my disclaimer: first off, I am not the world’s expert on the steelhead of southeast Alaska by any means. And I do not claim that swinging flies is the best way to catch these steelhead. If it’s life or death, I’m fishing a single hander and a bead, or something pink. Maybe an egg sucking leech. But I digress. My point is, with the proper short Skagit line, a single hand rod, and the willingness to fish a variety of techniques, you can be highly effective in southeast Alaska- where there are, to be sure, ample opportunities to swing a fly. On this day Trevor and I hooked 5 steelhead, with 3 of them hooked short line or upstream nymphing, and two hooked on a downstream swing. As is often the case on southeast Alaskan steelhead streams, sight fishing was the name of the game. We saw easily three dozen steelhead that day.
As northwesterners and lovers of big water, we came to Alaska hoping we could swing up steelhead on our switch rods. Sure, the streams would be small, but that is why we would scale down our rods to the 10’4” to 11 foot range. The first couple streams we fished would make it clear that even our switch rods were out of place up here. These were small, sometimes tiny streams, choked with numerous log jams and blocked by Spruces you could drive a car through. Most of the fish we spotted were either tight up to the wood or in dark holes where an accurate cast with a very heavy rig was required- in many such places, there is no “setting up” the swing- by the time the fly has sunk to the proper depth, it is out of the prime spot. And in these small streams, oftentimes the fish are in the deepest holes.
It soon became obvious that we needed to go to 9 to 10 foot, single hand rods, and we needed to have our nymphing gear at the ready. This was not a painful realization; we love casting single handers. That did not mean, however, that we had to ditch our Skagit heads. On the contrary, our Commando Heads are only 15 feet long at the 300 grain weight we used on our 8 weights, and are an absolute joy to cast on single hand rods. The main benefit of these lines is that they require practically no back cast room. If you’ve ever fished a stream that winds through a forest of devil’s club, you know that “backcast” is a dirty word. Secondly, the thickness of the OPST Commando Head turns over the “git er dun” split shot rigs we sometimes have to employ to yank flies into the mouths of our beloved steelhead. And third, when it comes to actually swinging, the lines are in their element, casting a variety of sink tips and floating relatively low in the water.
Swinging, it should be mentioned, is not always done in exactly the same way. First of all, we should remember that it does not require a two handed rod. It's not always a perfect cast quartering downstream to an obvious defined inside seam. In southeast Alaska, swinging often looks often something like this: you cast well upstream with a split shot for added weight, mend around the stump that you're hiding behind, tight-line nymph under a log, and when the fly is deep and downstream, swing it over a ledge of bedrock. You're not swinging, you're not competing for style points. You're fishing. A short Skagit line, with its ability to roll cast and turn over a variety of flies and rigs, gives you the flexibility to get creative and employ multiple different methods, from swinging to indicator nymphing, without switching lines. You can often find several perfect swinging runs in the lower end of a southeast Alaskan steelhead stream, but often, you have to deal with everything from deep tanks, pocket water, log jams, and dropoffs, to bedrock pools.
If you find yourself in a long dry spell, as we did our first year, you will likely find stubborn steelhead, which are usually stacked up in the most obvious pools. We fished pools with literally dozens of steelhead and cutthroat trout, most of which would not take a fly. But some did. One followed my black leech more than ten feet before sucking it in as it were a trout inhaling a scud. In such dry conditions, leave your gawdy flies in the box. Try a small black leech, or an egg pattern. When flows are low and clear and spotting fish is easy, short-line nymphing without an indicator is often the best approach. We use OPST Commando Heads with light and medium MOW tips, which are 10 foot tips that come in full floating, full sinking, and several different length combinations of sink/float. If I had to choose one tip for southeast Alaska, I would choose the 2.5 foot sink/7.5 foot floating MOW tip. This is a fantastic tip for short-line nymphing, as the sinking 2.5 feet enhance strike detection while the floating section allows for mending and precision.
Split shot and/or worm weights must be mentioned on the list of necessary gear. Whether you’re nymphing, swinging, or something in between, you will be fishing in pockets in southeast Alaska much of the time. There’s often no time for you to “set up” a swing; your fly needs to get down within a few seconds or else you’re really not in the game. Strike indicators, like the thingamabobber or sindicator, are useful in deep pools and dropoffs, but I often find their depth-specificity restricting. Not every spot that holds a steelhead is six foot deep with a cobble bottom. When it comes to tippet, there’s no need to skimp: it is likely that if you hit it right, you will be fighting steelhead in close proximity to wood. I would not go any lighter than 12 pound test for these fish, which often weigh in the teens, and can exceed 20 pounds. While we fished 9 foot 8 weights much of the time, I think a 10 foot 7 or 8 weight would be my ideal rod for this fishery.
Timing on these short drainages that can see tremendous rainfalls is critical, and unique from stream to stream. These creeks reinvent themselves after a day of rain or a few days of dry weather. Just like everywhere else, you don't want to go during a dry period, as fish, though visible, will be dour and flighty. Or they may not enter the stream at all. Motoring up the estuary of one stream, we suddenly burst into an uproar upon seeing a pair of steelhead leisurely finning just a couple of feet under the surface, with no apparent rush to enter the stream, which had seen not a drop of rain in over a week. But if you come during or after a day or more of hard drain, it may be extremely difficult to make your way upstream along steep undercut banks and tangles of Devils club and salmon berries. As is the case with most fisheries, you want to hit it as the water is either on the rise or on the drop. The rise is something that is overlooked, but this can produce some of the best fishing, particularly on the swing. Fish seem to feel relatively comfortable in these conditions, and are more often active in bars, high banks and and tailouts, where they can be swung.
I have experienced excellent fishing on the swing during heavy downpours, with the stream literally overflowing its banks, but not blown out- that is to say, not muddy. That’s something to remember about most of these rainforest streams, at least those that have not been altered by logging and other development: they can carry a hell of a lot of water and still remain clear enough to fish. If you can find enough places to stand and swing a fly, you might do very well, perhaps encountering the largest push of fish of the year. You might return the next day, however, and find sparking water and what seem like perfect flows, only to find that the steelhead had moved on, perhaps to their spawning grounds, perhaps in or above the lakes that are common in southeast Alaska steelhead systems. When flows are good and the fish are in, fishing can be great. It only takes a couple hundred steelhead in a small stream to make for very good fishing.
If this article is making it sound like swinging in southeast is really hit or miss, it is. It’s important to note that no two streams in southeast are exactly alike. These drainages may have unique microclimates depending on their orientation, gradient, and wind and sun exposure. One drainage may lag behind another by several weeks even if the drainages are relatively close together. In addition, yearly weather patterns vary dramatically. In one inlet we visited, for example, locals said they had had four feet of snow that year. Contrast that with the 32 feet of snowfall just a couple of years earlier and you can see how you could have a fishery that is pretty tough to nail down consistently. Local knowledge seems essential if you want to hit one of these streams when it is "on". Otherwise, luck is going to be a big factor.
We definitely scratched our heads multiple times as we walked up some of the most gorgeous, remote stream and lake systems imaginable without seeing a single steelhead. Maybe they had all come and gone? Maybe they just hadn’t shown up yet. Or maybe there just aren’t many steelhead there- we don’t know. In another stream, after a several mile-long approach from tidewater, we found steelhead in one pool and one pool only. There were four in the pool and Trevor caught two of them using a short-line, swinging bead presentation with a Commando Head. We didn’t see a single other steelhead in the stream, and we hiked a pretty good ways up. Even if steelhead aren't around, there might still be trout, and possibly flounder in the estuaries- as there were one year when our inflatable dinghy practically herded thousands upon thousands of starry flounder. The next year, in the same spot? You guessed it: no flounder in sight.
All this being said, there are plenty of streams in southeast that are proven producers, and fairly consistent. How do you go about finding them? I would start by looking for the big streams. Big is relative here, as most of the streams are fairly small, especially those on the islands. Lake systems are another good sign, as lakes provide extensive nursery habitat that supports the ecosystem in general. The internet will reveal information here and there, as will past Alaska state fisheries surveys. Past issues of Fish Alaska can also be very useful. Information on remote streams are out there if you have the patience to look. There is pretty good road access to some southeast steelhead streams, but the majority require access from the sea. If I were planning my first trip I would take a good look at some of the US Forest Service Cabins in the area; many are on streams, and many of those have steelhead or salmon. So, will you definitely catch steelhead every day in southeast? No. Should you go anyways? Yes. But don't tell anyone I said so.