| There are no steelhead around Juneau. None.
What's more, it's cold and it rains all the time.
Now, somewhere in the back of my frozen, rain-sotted mind, I
realize these might be hasty assumptions, but they feel plenty fair at
the moment. They feel, in all honesty, definitive.
I obviously have more gripes then: Namely, the seat of state
government is located here. I'm at a loss as to the relevancy of that
fact, but it just feels like something that should be detrimental to a
quality trip. My four-hundred-dollar waders are leaking, too, and they
haven't done that anywhere else. I've lost twenty-three flies in two
days. And finally, just after dinner the previous night, I dropped the
keys to my rental car through the wharf and into Gastineau Channel.
Of immediate concern, though these thoughts rise like billboards on
the little Trail of Tears I've got going, are the area's Dolly Varden.
I haven't seen any of them, either.
My friend Greg Thomas and I have made it maybe a quarter-mile from
the beach, past the indecisive flows of the tidal mix and around an
oxbow corner, up through the willows that flank the creek's swifter
flows and through at least one purgatorial patch of devils club. At
best I've cast a dozen times and already I'm done.
"This place sucks," I announce with the joy of a root-canal
patient. "There are no fish here."
Greg, evidently the pope of angling faith, decides to go for some
kind of record in fruitless effort. He forges back into the stream,
anchors himself against the current and starts shotgunning the far
bank with an Egg-sucking Leech. He ties his steelhead versions sparse
and slight, using peacock herl instead of chenille for the body, which
I find kind of cool. Not that it's going to matter now, of course. The
rain comes on at its accustomed clip - deluge - and the spirited drops
somehow manage to pelt me in the face no matter where I look. I'm not
looking at Greg, that's for sure, and for the same reasons I don't
slow down to gawk at car accidents: In the time we've been in town,
with nearly every daylight hour spent on the water, we've summoned
zero strikes, glimpsed zero fish, and thought of zero interesting
things to say to each other. We've soaked through a suitcase of
clothes and have enjoyed six or seven stops on the thrill ride into
hypothermia. Why he thinks today will be any different is anyone's
guess. I think he's a bit of a fool and to save myself the additional
heartache, I'm not watching.
Luckily, before Greg could build a real case for disappointment, a
party of three anglers rounded an upstream bend and shuffled toward
us. All too eagerly it seemed to me, they began detailing the drearier
parts of their day upstream - no fish sighted, no hits tallied, no
real reason to own a fly rod. However, in the excitement department,
they had wandered past a moose kill just one river-bend ahead, and the
carcass, a spread-about mess in the morning, had recently been tidied
up and covered by its presumably very large and very brown landlord.
Greg, inconceivably, still held some kind of Quixotic optimism about
the whole process of drawing another breath.
"I think we can probably skirt the area without causing any
trouble," he offered, though to his credit, I sensed at least a touch
"Well, those guys can't have fished all the water upstream," he
continued, obviously working it out in his head as he went along. "We
can check it out, see if they missed anything."
"And the bear?" I left alone the dubious idea that there was
anything to be missed in the first place.
"We can get past if we give it a wide enough berth."
Clearly I declined that little delight, returning to the boat with
a full compliment of limbs and the like. There I found our friend and
Juneau host, Kent Sullivan, a local attorney with the sense to not
even bother getting in the water at all. And he was right. Other than
a very McPhee-like and possibly naive notion that flowing water should
be of some use beyond disseminating mine waste and providing a nice
spot to build a dam, there was nothing here to suggest the possibility
of fish. On the ride back to town, I pondered the karmic tragedy of my
steelhead fishing career, and upon our return to the Capital City, we
went straight for the bar at the Alaskan Hotel, where at least it was
warm. Sweltering, actually, with the heat provided, I assume, by the
other sinners stoking the fires of hell. It wasn't until I'd truly
begun to enjoy Alaska's most affordable prices on High Life that
Juneau again seemed a spring-fishing destination of prodigious
potential. By the time we decided to return to our room, I was
convinced tomorrow was indeed another day - though not just any day,
as surely the morning would yield up the first steelhead of the new
With that in mind, I strolled outside and into the teeth of an
early May snowstorm.
Alaska's capital and third-largest city, Juneau is buffeted by
towering mountains on one side and the Gastineau Channel on the other.
It's situated in the heart of southeast Alaska's Tongass National
Forest and lush, varied terrain and wildflowers abound. The Mendenhall
Glacier lies just 13 miles from the city center and is a major
attraction - its face is 100 feet tall and one and a half miles wide;
it stretches six miles deep. Backing the glacier and the town is the
Juneau Icefield, a 1,500-square-mile chunk of ice that butts up
against northwestern Canada. Additionally, while there are only 45
miles of road in the Juneau area, residents and visitors are treated
to over 130 miles of groomed hiking trails. Hop on a boat and the
approximately 600 humpback whales that inhabit these northern Inside
Passage waters every summer are only minutes away.
Obviously, then, as a destination, Juneau isn't quite the horror
show my steelhead addiction had led me into.
The town began on the rumor of gold. In the late 1800s, a chief
named Kowee from the Auk Tlingit tribe provided rich ore samples to a
Sitka engineer named George Pilz, who in turn grubstaked a pair of
miners in August of 1880. The prospectors were Richard Harris and Joe
Juneau and by October of the same year they had carved out a 160-acre
townsite on the beach bordering Gastineau Channel, a spot where they
were soon joined by boatloads of fellow prospectors. In short order,
Juneau was born.
Today the city still holds some of that frontier character so common
to Alaska, and though federal, state and local government employs one
out of every two Juneau workers, and despite the fact that nearly a
million visitors descend on the area annually (the numbers heavily
buoyed by cruise-ship passengers), the town's funky vibe is never hard
to find. The aforementioned Alaskan Hotel, in fact, was originally a
hotel and bordello that catered to the early miners of the settlement,
and aided considerably by its rustic decor and a certain antipathy
towards interior lighting, the feel of the barroom remains cloaked in
the wayward feel of those humble beginnings. The hotel side is
apparently haunted by the ghost of a former lady of the night named
Alice. Good times all around, then.
Beyond Juneau, of course, lies the rest of Southeast, and being
situated near the northern terminus of the fabled Inside Passage, the
city is a highly convenient hub for travelers wanting to get out and
experience the fishing in some of the protected inlets, bays and
straits of the region or the freshwater action on a few of the 10,000
islands snuggled up against the thin strip of mainland that abuts the
Coastal Mountain range. From Juneau it's only 37 miles west to the
homestead community of Gustavus, gateway to the 3.3 million acres of
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. North of Juneau lie Haines and
Skagway, the former being home to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and
the latter the stepping off point for the world-renowned Chilkoot
Trail and Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.
Moving to the west again, across Stephens Passage, Admiralty Island
is just 10 minutes from town and along with epic angling
opportunities, the island features the Tlingit village of Angoon
(located on the other side of the island, Angoon is approximately 60
air miles from Juneau), a community rich with Native culture and
heritage. The Tlingits, by the way, know Admiralty by the name
Kootznoowoo, or "Fortress of the Bears," a nod to the fact that the
island is home to the world's largest concentration of brown bears,
2.34 per square-mile. Early Russian fur traders simply called it
Ostrov Kutsnoi, "Fear Island."
On nearby Chichagof Island, where there are no shortage of bears
either, visitors can find the village of Elfin Cove, which while home
to only 40 year-round residents is rather well-known for its fantastic
saltwater angling opportunities. A pair of other communities, Hoonah
and Pelican, are also located on Chichagof and offer their own unique
and varied experiences for the interested wanderer.
In all these places, including the immediate Juneau area, one can
bump into any of 114 species of birdlife, all five of North America's
Pacific salmon species, both brown and black bears, and several
different species of whales. Additionally, the marine angling
environment is flush with halibut, lingcod and rockfish and most area
streams host sea-run populations of Dolly Varden and Alaska's coastal
cutthroat trout. In late April and May, or so the story goes, there
are even some decent returns of wild steelhead sniffing around. Not
that I can vouch for that.
Unless a person takes uncommon glee in the misery and misadventures
of others, or perhaps owns some stock in the Miller Brewing Co., there
is no happy ending to my own Juneau fishing escapades. I have no
phenomenal catch rates to report, no tales of silver-sided missiles
launching from the water and coming to hand after a laudable
boulder-to-beach brawl, no advice to give on flies that will do the
trick in a pinch. I can only say that quality rain gear never comes at
too steep a price.
In our week in the area, Greg Thomas and I prowled every inch of
several road-system streams, spent the day on the Chilkat Peninsula
creek that provided the setting for the onset of this column, and flew
out to a nearby island to make sure we could spoil the fishing there
as well. Cast after hopeless cast we continued, and never did it get
bleaker than the afternoon we were reduced to desperately flinging
Clousers into the salt in hopes of blindly meeting the first returning
fish of the year. Though rare for an Alaska fishing expedition, I was
perfectly happy to stroll back into the airport and board the return
flight to Anchorage.
It wasn't until later in the summer when I realized the fishing was
off all over the state in 2006- with everything running a week or two
behind- that I began to view the Juneau spring in a different light.
Then I remembered the friendliness of the folks in town, most of them
looking with anticipation towards the start of the summer tourist
season, and the warmth, not overwhelming heat, of those evenings in
the Alaskan. Friday night drew a nice crowd and the open-mic nights
were a big hit, when both Greg and I enjoyed getting familiar with a
side of Juneau we knew would vanish the moment the first cruise ship
of the season docked in town. The local restaurants also brought up
fond memories; we had great Mexican food, sushi, pizza and more than
one lasting culinary-and-beverage experience at the Hangar on the
Even later, while getting back to thoughts of a less civilized
nature, I took another look at the map and again realized the sheer
enormity of the opportunities presented to anglers who travel to the
area, and I documented all the sights I still wanted to see. I fought
the urge to give up on steelhead altogether and, well-removed from
numb fingers and frozen toes, decided that Juneau would again be near
the top of my list. After all in the grand scheme of things- new
experiences, friendship and fun- it was a pretty darn good trip.
Still, maybe just one Dolly would have been nice.