Beginning in late March, spring runs of wild steelhead are entering these
tea colored streams after their instinctive sojourn at sea. White bellies,
black backs, and parasitic sea lice represent their life in the ocean. As
they push forward against the relentless current of their natal rivers, many
fall victim to awaiting predators, the most efficient of which are
hungry sea lions that guard the river mouths where fresh and saltwater meet.
Telltale scars, missing fins, and torn flesh reveal that many returning
steelhead came very close to never again seeing the gravel they emerged
These fish have escaped near death for their entire existence.
This will to survive, when coupled with their overall wild beauty, is why
steelhead trout top the list of sport fish worldwide. These rainbow trout
that somewhere in evolution transitioned from freshwater to sea are truly
one of nature’s most mysterious and awesome creatures. Like salmon,
juvenile steelhead undergo a remarkable transition by which they acclimate
to saltwater and eventually migrate to the ocean. There they achieve
remarkable weight gains in the rich marine environment and return to their
home rivers—big, bright, and full of life.
Although many Alaska rivers
see fall runs of steelhead, spring fish seem especially unique. They come at
a time when most rivers are still waking from winter hibernation and most
importantly, have no salmon to catch. The steelhead that fill the rivers of
Southeast are an Alaskan angler’s dream and offer a timely fix for deprived,
winter weary souls.
As their silver bright tails dance atop cold,
snow fed waters, so do the hearts of pursuant fishers. Feeling the
arm numbing tug of a wild steelier as it races for the safety of submerged
cover will leave even the most experienced anglers trembling in their
This is not just your everyday trip to the river or a routine
hookup with an ordinary salmon. For many, this is the pinnacle of river
fishing, a once in a lifetime connection that only a privileged few will
ever experience. Perhaps the only feeling that can rival the take of this
magnificent fish is the heartfelt thrill of seeing it wiggle from your hand
and swim away.
For unlike salmon, steelhead trout do not always perish
after returning to the river to reproduce. Like those that dream of their
silver sides and rose-colored gill plates, these gray ghosts will again
return the following season and small southeast Alaska rivers will teem with
the unmistakable sparkle of spring steel. Nowhere is this more evident than
when surrounded by the magnificence of the Situk River near Yakutat. Like a
red carpet rolled out in front of a majestic castle, the Situk River carves
its way through mist filled forests in the shadow of magnificent Mt. St.
Elias. With headwaters deep in the snow-covered peaks, the clear waters of
the Situk begin above Mountain Lake and flow into Situk Lake. From there,
the main stem of the river travels 22 miles to the Pacific Ocean. In route,
the Situk combines with two major tributaries, the West Fork, originating
from Redfield Lake, and Old Situk, which comes from a small spring fed lake
near Russell Fiord.
Despite its size (an average of 70 feet wide and
three feet deep), the Situk is easily one of the most productive rivers in
all of southeast Alaska. It supports all five species of Pacific salmon,
both fall and spring runs of steelhead, plus resident rainbow trout and
Dolly Varden populations. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and
Game, the remarkable productivity of the Situk is a combined result of
consistent, clean flows, miles of perfect spawning gravel, and high levels
of dissolved nutrients. This prolific productivity has given the Situk a
worldwide reputation, and from the early 1980s until recently, visitors to
this small, fish filled stream multiplied on a yearly basis.
many long discovered, more accessible Alaska rivers, the Situk has enjoyed
an unassuming brilliance, largely the result of its isolated location and
less than inviting climate. It is actually more of a stream than a river,
and it winds through an old growth forest that receives an average of 150
inches of rain and 200 inches of snow annually. Green moss paints every
tree, and log jams the size of small buildings serve as a reminder of
seasonal high water.
Glacier bears, typical black bears, and coastal
brownies are always nearby. Bald eagles constantly patrol the skies and cry
from the tops of black spruce, shrouded in mist. This is time standing
still, a place pictured as perfectly as Mother Nature intended . . . almost.
Situk Tips and Techniques
Walk Softly and Catch Big Fish! Steelhead
fishing techniques on the Situk River are not much different than those
employed throughout the Pacific Northwest, except that unbaited artificial
lures are required. The method you use to connect with one of these searun
torpedoes is really a matter of how you like to fish. Some like to do it all
on the fly, and some prefer drift fishing with a baitcaster. Still others
like to suspend their favorite jig from a float or bobber, and of course
everyone enjoys seeing a rod nearly exit the boat from a typical plug bite.
Indeed, there is more than one way to fool these fish, but even with all the
above techniques in your arsenal, hooking these giant searun trout with
consistency is much easier said than done.
on the Situk can have you saying, “What a beautiful day, and what am I
doing here . . .” all in the same breath. Moisture from the nearby Pacific
is a constant threat, and if it is not raining, it will be soon. Most
regular steelhead anglers know rain is a vital part of the equation and
that rain and steelhead are forever connected. The Situk River drains a
coastal rainforest that receives an average of 150 inches of rain every
year. Rain in southeast Alaska is deliberate and heavy; it will soak through
even the most advanced rain gear. It can be combined with winds that will
literally blow your drift boat upriver, even in heavy current. The rain can
freeze and turn to snow, regardless of the season. Make no mistake, this is
rough country and everything is soaking wet.
precipitation, the Situk shows a remarkable ability to stay in shape, even
after several days of hard rain. It has a clean gravel base and large
carrying capacity, and although its level will elevate, it rarely gets too
dirty to fish. Water levels will drop quickly with even the slightest break
in the clouds. Thus, a wide variety of gear is a must. You will need to be
prepared for low, clear conditions one day and a raging torrent the next.
Bringing too much fishing tackle is impossible! The other factor to
prepare for is the overwhelming amount of trees, logjams, and vegetation
that line the river like concertina wire around a prison. The best holes are
always below a tangle of logs or against an undercut bank of overgrown
alders. Dozens of offerings that missed their mark decorate the trees
around productive water. If bringing a wide variety of gear is critical,
making sure you have plenty of backup is equally, if not more important.
Wal-Mart is not around the corner, just more snags and hundreds of
ocean bright steelhead!
Timing is everything! You can visit the river on
the exact same dates three years in a row and never have even close to the
same trip. Weather, water conditions, run strength, and many other variables
will all chart the course of your trip. In an angling arena with so much
flux, it is useful to note and benefit from the constants.