January 11, 2023
Situk River steelhead—Aashát, in the indigenous Tlingit tongue—hatched from globules no bigger than a pea, survived perils ranging from mergansers to salmon sharks, and traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles under their own propulsion to reach their natal waters. All I had to do was board a flight to Yakutat, Alaska, when spring rolled around.
The Situk is hallowed ground both to Alaskans and to steelheaders the world over. A mere 19 miles long, this river beckons an average return of 7,000 steelhead. Of course there are the bonanza years of 15,000 fish, along with the dismal runs of less than 4,000, but the average is somewhere in the middle. That’s a lot of sea-run fish for such a compact river, and, as you’d expect, it garners substantial hype. Double-digit steelhead days. Fish to 40 inches and beyond. That sort of thing.
I call Alaska home, but had not yet seen the Situk when I finally decided to go and see just what the fuss was about. My good buddy Ryan Kelly and I planned a week-long pilgrimage in the spring of 2022, which meant a giddy winter of tying steelhead flies, researching like bloodhounds, and, beginning in April, checking water levels on a daily basis. By the time we finally touched down in Yakutat and wrestled our gorilla-sized bags out the door, we were ready to explode like two jiggled bottles of Champagne.
Our first stop was the homely yurt of Leo Tejeda. Leo is a swarthy steelheader who’s been in Yakutat since 1987 and runs the premier vehicle rental service in town. Naturally, if there’s a local fishing secret to know, Leo’s either heard of it or he originated it himself. The uncanny color that makes Situk Glo-Bug flies pop, for instance. You’ll have to ask him about that one.
We drove into Yakutat beneath a gauzy sky. The four or so vehicles we passed waved like they knew us and hadn’t seen us since high school. This is why I love small towns. They’re like good dogs, most of them. Unassuming. Passionately friendly.
Yakutat—Yaakwdáat in Tlingit, or “the place where canoes rest”—is one of these. First settled by the Eyak people of the Copper River Delta, and soon after by the Tlingits of the Alaskan southeast thousands of years ago, this area has remained a cornucopia—even by Alaska’s standards—ever since. You’ve got the steelhead here, bountiful saltwater fisheries, and a smattering of rivers that are home to all five Pacific salmon species. This local productivity has got something to do with groundwater and Yakutat’s location on a broad coastal plain, but we’ll just call it an anomaly and leave it at that. Regardless of the biological foundations that make it such an Eden, Yakutat is one of those places that was content to be ignored until all of the sudden it wasn’t. Today there’s daily commercial jet service via Alaska Air.
Watch the Weather
Since the ’90s or so, when outsiders really began to realize it was there, the essence of the Situk has been reduced to a flurry of steelhead photos and the broken-record mantras that detail 20 steelhead in a day, or fish of mammoth proportions—usually measured right down to the quarter inch and dutifully reported on social media.
Sprinkled among these tales are also endless gripings about local weather. Situk steelhead are especially susceptible to flows and water temperature, both of which can be impacted heavily by the severity of the preceding winter and/or the lack or abundance of spring rains. The peak of the run can happen as early as March or as late as May, depending on when things are “right.” Biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game even speculate that some fish enter the Situk estuary only to turn around because of unsuitable conditions. Do they skip spawning altogether, or go somewhere else? How much of an impact could this phenomenon have on the overall run size? Who knows?
Savvy Situk anglers watch weather reports and the USGS stream gauge like herons. According to our research, the Situk had been low and clear for the several weeks leading up to our arrival. That changed about as soon as we bumped the tarmac: three days’ worth of rain sidled in, and water levels almost doubled. It could’ve been a good time to sit and stare pensively out the lodge window. “If the water’s high, don’t even try,” they say, but luckily Ryan saved me from wimping out. We knew once the water dropped, even a little, we could be in for some epic fishing.
The first night we went out just to get a feel for the river and the rain. The Situk has two access points, Nine Mile Bridge and another called the Landing. Drift boats and rafts can launch from the bridge and take out at the Landing some 14 miles later, while wading anglers follow trails leading both up- and downriver. The upper trail wends approximately 2 miles to what’s known as the Sanctuary, an active steelhead spawning area that’s closed to fishing and wading. The Sanctuary goes for another 2 miles upstream, and shortly above that is the outflow from Situk Lake (one of the Situk’s two headwater lakes). The downriver trail ultimately gives you access to the entire lower river, and there are some Forest Service cabins you can rent that are practically right on the water.
The moment we arrived was a big one for me. With its legendary reputation, the Situk possesses a kind of celebrity air. I fully expected to be gobsmacked by the sight of it—the same way I’d be if I ran into Jeremy Wade at the airport or something—and sure enough, I was. It was a stage of clear water meandering through a forest of moss-wizened trees. Eagles were ratcheting from unseen lofts, and everywhere there was the throbbing potential for steelhead in one of the last great rivers on Earth.
You can imagine, then, the sputtering bout of incoherence when I hooked and landed my first fish not two hours later.
It was the best steelhead of my life up to that point—30 inches long and bright as a new nickel—and I was shaking as though I was hypothermic as I flipped the Egg-sucking Leech out of her maw and let her go.
I think one of the things about anadromous fish that so fascinates us is that they lead such big lives. Take a second to imagine a puny little steelhead fry wiggling around somewhere out there. They are no bigger than your little finger, but in a year or two they swim out into the open ocean the same way a college kid finally says goodbye to mom and dad. They head off into the world, and if they return it means they’ve made it, and that they’ve achieved everything and exactly what they were meant to. This is something humans rarely do, so naturally, we envy the hell out of them.
Ryan and I returned to the lodge drenched with rain but happy as mutts. Yakutat is full of lodges, but we’d decided to hang our waders at the quaint and stately Yakutat Bay B&B. Barb and Dave Rains took over ownership of this place in 2015, and, after a week of eating their cereal and treading mud all over their carpets, I’m convinced that it’s where good steelhead bums go when they die. The main living room looks out over Monti Bay (and is equipped with a shelf of good books for when the view is obscured by fog), the coffee pot was large and efficient, and there was even a heated room where you could dry off your waders and that new rain jacket that said it was waterproof but wasn’t. This amounted to a pretty cushy place from which to stage DIY operations, and if we wanted a drift boat and a guide, Barb and Dave could’ve hooked us up because they know just about everyone within a couple degrees of latitude.
One minute I’m a kid plunking earthworms and the next I’m 26 and contemplating steelhead; one second our heads are hitting the pillow that first night, and next thing we know the week’s already unspooled.
It’s human nature to wonder where all of this time goes, and why it can’t assume that speed when you’re stuck listening to a coworker talk about their children instead. Eventually Ryan and I gave up wondering and just fell into a kind of Neanderthalic autopilot that forgot that yesterday or tomorrow even existed. We rose at hours that are really appropriate only for owls. Our headlamps ripped holes in the darkness as we wandered the river like minks.
The challenge of the Situk that we’d preoccupied ourselves with the longest was in the fly department. This is an interesting river for fly selection because it’s essentially a clash of Eastern and Western methods. In the lower river, you can Spey cast to your heart’s content with most any swinging pattern, though pink and orange are the local standbys. Closer to the bridge, though, the methods shift to those you’d find in the Great Lakes region: nymphs, Glo-Bugs, and beads. I know, I know, these dead-drifted flies are enough to give steelhead purists a stroke, but the upper river was practically made for them. To spare you the rap sheet, I’ll just leave you with two pieces of advice: First, check out the Alaska Fly Fishing Goods website for a fairly comprehensive list of proven Situk patterns, and second, remember the John Gierach quote: “If you fish the wrong fly long and hard enough, it will sooner or later become the right fly.”
The next challenge of the Situk is finding and hooking fish. With a few thousand migrants in the river at one time, locating them isn’t hard, but it can be a bit of an enigma to find them in places where they’re willing to grab flies. Ryan and I had the benefit of seeing the river in both high and low flows, as well as how these flows impacted steelhead distribution. During high flows, the holes in front of and behind logjams became stacked with steelhead; basically anywhere the current was forced to slow down. Some of the fish located in such places were “in the mood,” you could say, while others ignored our flies like bad credit card offers.
Once water levels dropped, however, steelhead would blast right through the slow holes and instead frequent the faster, deeper runs tight to bankside cover. Here they could continue to ignore our flies with even more vehemence.
On the off chance that you do coax a steelhead into taking—probably because you’re using something sensible like an Egg-sucking Leech—get ready for the fight of your life. These fish are big and powerful, and they’ve got a wickerwork of sunken trees and branches and root wads on their side. Ryan and I were equipped with 8-weights and leaders tapering down to 15-pound fluorocarbon, but I’d say about half the fish we hooked just schooled us. Some people swear by 9- and 10-weights here, along with 30-pound-test tippet, but I bet they get schooled just as often. I think it’s just one of those things: All waders will eventually leak, and some Situk steelhead will always get away.
In a river as pressured as this one, where fish are hooked and fought multiple times, occasionally snagged, and steadily harassed, we really should be treating the few that we land like ancient glass vases. While most of the anglers we met on the river seemed to understand the magnitude of the fish they were after, too many of them still used nylon nets, wool tailing gloves, and entirely outsized and barbed hooks. It’s up to us to limit our effect on the steelhead’s Homeric journey.
Don’t fish on redds, use barbless hooks, land fish in a soft rubber net as quickly as possible, handle them minimally with bare, wet hands, and don’t heft them out of the water for longer than three seconds to get your grip ’n grin. There may be more of them here than elsewhere, but they’re still every bit as precious. They’re still steelhead.
Beyond that, I think a lot of the potential damage we can do to this fishery can be curbed by simply adjusting our expectations. You could shoot for the “ten steelhead in a day” badge, but why would you want to? Why take one of our greatest fish and reduce it to a quantity? As an old Canadian fishing regulation book once said, “Do more than what is expected, and less than what is allowed.” Cherish what the river lends.
At dawn on our last morning, I hooked what looked like a taimen on a pink stonefly. This steelhead queen had been worming around under a logjam for the better part of 20 minutes while I just stood watching her. Finally she dashed out into the main current, and I plopped a cast and she ate it, just like that. In another ten minutes, the sun would’ve been all wrong and I’d never have even seen her. In another five minutes I would have missed the curious river otter that sidled up beside me. Talk about timing.
When you think about it, to call something a “fish of a lifetime” is pretty significant. It’s sort of a forecast on your part that you’ve suddenly reached a peak, and while to others that may be cause for crisis (a “nowhere to go but down” sort of thing), to you it’s as warm and filling as a good sip of coffee. That’s how it was for me staring down at that fish once I brought her to the net, this dumb kid who used to plunk for bluegills now cradling a yard-long steelhead as bright as a monorail. I was enlightened, I was fulfilled, I was a little bit in love.
It was 7 A.M. and I stopped fishing seriously after that. It wasn’t a double-digit steelhead day, but frankly, I hope I never have one. It was a single fish that was infinitely better.
Looking back, I don’t know where that day went or where all that time swam off to. The same place steelhead go in the ocean, for all I know. What I do know is that it was a day I’ll remember forever, because it was time spent in a place where the world soldiers on, and where Alaska exists in a million precious pieces.
Aashát. Steelhead. A fish, not a number.
Kóoshdaa. River otters watching it all.
Xáats’. Skies so blue it hurts.
All of these things are here on the Situk, not touted or hyped or printed on glossy pamphlets; just linchpins of a river that can smack your jaw wide open if you’re smart enough to stand there and let it. This is your pilgrimage. Around you is the Tongass, a rainforest unlike any other. The trees creak and whisper in the lightest of winds, varied thrushes ping like sonar high in the canopy, and you imagine just how many millions of acres of this you’ll never hear about, where in nameless backwaters those little steelhead hatch and embark upon pilgrimages of their own. Their lives go on without you, but you know your own could never go on without them.
Joseph Jackson is the author of It’s Only Fishing (Epicenter Press, 2023), a fly-fishing memoir of young adulthood and fly fishing through the Covid-19 pandemic. He lives in Anchorage, Alaska.