Steelhead Sweetness On First Alaska Trip

Author Randall Bonner, flanked by his trusty travel partner Wrangler, enjoyed the beauty and steelhead-rich waters of Yakutat during his first Alaska trip. (RANDALL BONNER)

The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal: 

By Randall Bonner

Having never visited Alaska, the small town of Yakutat has left a lifelong impression on me. Traveling solo with my Australian cattle dog Wrangler, I booked the trip only a couple weeks in advance without a plan and flew by the seat of my pants. 

I’ve always thought steelhead anglers to often be a bit of a grumpy bunch, but with the plentiful numbers of fish in the Situk River, the atmosphere of the community and its visitors is a completely different story. Drivers of every passing vehicle wave at each other in this relaxed rural environment, yet there’s still several Alaska Airlines passenger and Ace Air cargo flights that come in and out of the small airport daily.

After getting a ride from the lodge’s shuttle, I had a couple drinks at the bar at Glacier Bear Lodge (866-425-6343; glacierbearlodge.com) where I ran into Jared Cady of GetM Dry Jigs (253-302-6828; getthemdry.com) and Lael Johnson of Bait Ballz (206-673-7100; baitballz.com), who were preparing to fish the tidally influenced lower end of the river and invited me to tag along with them. 

Photos by Randall Bonner

SPECKLEBELLY GEESE FLEW OVERHEAD, bald eagles towered over us in the trees and greater yellowlegs roamed the gravel shorelines, a welcoming scene of abundant wildlife that set the tone for our evening quest for chrome. 

Lael and Jared hooked a couple fish swinging flies, and I brought in my first Alaskan steelhead on a spinner. Having thought I was just going to have some beers at the lodge, I had only been in Alaska since lunch and at the river for an hour before smooching an Oncorhynchus mykiss hen and sending her on her way upstream to spawn. 

A brown bear ran across the road in front of us on the way out, as if it was chasing our report and heading to the river. A sign at the ramp warned visitors of an aggressive bruin in the area recently, so seeing my first grizzly from the safety of the vehicle was satisfying.

I was in awe of the beauty of this place and the diversity of wildlife species. Being my first day in Alaska, I felt as if Mother Nature had rolled out the red carpet for me.

The next day, I caught a ride with some friends to the boat launch and explored the river on foot. I hooked some of the biggest steelhead I’ve ever been witness to, but I lost them to snags at my feet as I struggled to keep the fish under control. 

I redeemed myself by shaking hands with a few fresh fish later on, as well as my first Dolly Varden and a rare resident rainbow. I continued catching fish until the sun began to fall and it got too cold for comfort. 

I stood at a popular river crossing attempting to hitch a ride back to the lodge. The first two anglers were camping near the river, and although they weren’t headed to the lodge, they invited me back to their camp for a beer. However, I was eager to return to the lodge (where there’s a roof, heat and a bar), and the next angler politely obliged me and my canine companion with a ride.

BACK AT THE LODGE I met Tony “Famous” Davis and Kristin Dunn from Kodiak Custom Tackle (907-486-1974; kodiakcustom.com). They were headed out for a float trip the next day, but were staying with a couple friends, Shannon and Kate, who wanted to stomp the banks and indicator fish with beads. 

They offered me a ride to the river the next morning, when Shannon started the day with a couple beautiful hens right out of the gate, including one that broke the handle on her net. We headed upriver and settled in at the spot where I had hooked most of my fish the day before. We landed several more. 

We were using just the basket of the net at that point, which was an awkward and exciting experience. The amount of wood snags is intimidating, but with every fish I seemed to get better at keeping them pinned and getting them close enough for pictures.

Tony, Kristin and Ty Wyatt, Glacier Bear Lodge’s halibut captain, took me along for a fun walking trip along the banks of the Situk. While wandering upstream in belly-button-deep water, I hooked a hen early in the morning that caught the attention of a large otter which swam across the river to try and steal it from me. 

I found a small perch tucked into some willows where I could get out of the water and try to quickly land the fish. As I was leaning down to grab it by the tail, the otter popped its head up only a couple feet away to my left. 

I tried to boot the otter in the head to send a message that I wasn’t giving up my fish so easy. It showed its teeth like an angry dog and leaped back into the water while swimming upstream. 

I managed to land the fish downstream and safely release it away from the otter, but it was definitely humbling to know I was meddling with the local wildlife’s territory.

 

IN THE EVENING, WE headed back to tidally influenced water. On my first cast I landed my first ever tidally influenced steelhead on a bead, a mission I’d wanted to complete purely out of curiosity about how soon the feeding instincts of steelhead kick in as they enter the river and begin viewing eggs as a food source. 

Shortly after, Ty and Tony, who happen to be lifelong friends from Philomath, Oregon, doubled up on a pair of bucks fresh from the salt. Tony’s fish was a redeeming note to end his visit, having been outfished by his partner Kristin most of their time in Yakutat. 

As we continued to push the limits of the rising tide and a hot bite, we eventually turned around to notice the ground we were standing on was underwater, and so was our gear, so it was time to head back to the lodge.

Dinners at the lodge every evening were incredible. Prime rib, shrimp Alfredo, halibut and more, but being able to put in an order for a sack lunch in the evening to pick up in the morning and take to the river the next day was truly a convenience worthy of appreciation. 

Complimentary breakfasts were nothing short of any quality diner as well. After a quick stop at the airport’s fly shop on the way out to pick up some souvenirs, I left Yakutat with my head in the clouds, and I have obsessed about returning someday to do it again. 

THE TARGET-RICH ENVIRONMENT of the Situk is the steelhead stream dreams are made of. It offers the experience for a novice to cut their teeth on the species and for the tinkering tackle-crafter to experiment with new methods. And it’s for the advanced angler to challenge him- or herself and mark the last few checks off their list. 

A mix of younger trout bums packing into rooms and vehicles like sardines, plus wealthy, retired businessmen sipping Scotch and smoking cigars in the lodge all convene on the river to live the same dream. They, like me, have the kind of experience that never leaves them. ASJ

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