Our drift boats were staged at the bridge, waiting for us.
We were hungry for steelhead. Trey, a 40-something from Wyoming; his dad, Vernon Scharp; my dad, Don; my brother-in-law Shannon Winters; and our friend Gary Davis shoved oars into oarlocks and threw our tackle bags into bow and stern.
Pete Eades at the Glacier Bear Lodge had told me months earlier there would be no guides available at the end of April.
“We do have drift boats for you,” he said. “And we can arrange the shuttles.”
Sixteen miles long, Alaska’s Situk River is unlike any other steelhead river I’ve fished. The lower 14 miles are floatable from the Nine Mile Bridge down almost to the ocean, and while that is not so unremarkable, the river is choked with wood.
Alders stacked like toothpicks, cedars, hemlocks and spruces, swept down on giant floods, bounded nearly every run.
Large logjams and root wads are both barriers and habitat. Huge trees lay on their sides with limbs bare and curled, like rib cages of long-dead dinosaurs.
My friend Josiah Darr, a steelheader and a scribe, greeted me in the bar to say he was fishing the river these last two weeks of April.
“The shape of this river is what gets me,” he said. “It’s not shaped like a steelhead river.”
At the top of the float, the runs were narrow and the water skinny, the aluminum skins of the drift boats scraped gravel as we slid from run to run, getting the feel of the boats.
Shannon and I traded places at the oars, pointing the bow at a new obstacle at every turn, pulling away from it.
“There.” A steelhead streaked from the tailout, up under a cutbank.
The Situk drains a gentle plain of muskeg and trackless forest, as well as a lake fed by melting snows. Salmon runs fill the river from June through October, and steelhead filter in beginning in the fall and in a larger spring run. In Yakutat, from March through April, the buzz is about chrome bullets fresh from the salt and rainbow-splashed, deep-bodied wild fish, some of the biggest in the world.
The fish we saw averaged 10 pounds, but now and then we surprised one that would go 16 pounds. We saw their shapes at the end of the runs where they staged over gravel spawning beds. We saw them also beneath the logjams.
Like any good steelhead river, there was a lot of gravel, but there were no large boulders. Trees were in every turn of the river; downed timber framed each run.
We stood at the oars and peered with polarized glasses along current seam lines and beneath cutbanks. The flick of a fin might reveal a holding lie, a blue-black back, the shine of chrome beneath a lateral line. Parts of steelhead resolve into whole fish.
After a mile of drift, we fished harder. I took the oars and Shannon cast a micro-jig and float. When the float streaked sideways, he set the hook.
Shannon fought the fish in close after a five-minute battle and then turned it loose in the soft water. As soon as it was gone, I fired a cast into the same run, hooked one and lost it. So many times in my life I have found snappy fish with other snappy fish. I don’t know if it is their competitive nature that kicks in or what, but if one steelhead bites, another may bite from the same pod of fish.
Where the river bent hard left, I had Shannon hold back while I fired a Wicked Lures spinner into deep water along a log. Sink. Sink. Sink.
I turned the handle of the reel, felt the slow thump of the blade in the soft rod tip, felt it load up. I set the hook into a chrome bright 10-pounder that thrashed 3 feet above the surface in a horizontal tantrum and crashed back in a spray of foam. Five minutes later, I cradled it in shallow water.
Each steelhead is like a miracle, a gift out of time, a prehistoric primal beast. And each one we valued more than the last.
Situk steelheaders depend on each other. The drift boaters depend on the jet boaters to cut paths through the logs. The guides depend on other fishermen if something goes wrong in 14 miles of river. There is no road that follows the water.
The lodges depend on happy customers. In that spirit of sportsmanship, anglers share techniques in the few restaurants, down at the hardware store, over a coffee at Fat Grandma’s or between beers at the bar.
When I should have been packing bags and stowing rods, I sat instead in the bar at the Glacier Bear and steeped in steelhead subculture. Jake, a tugboat captain, and Dave, a nurse from Soldotna, Alaska, had just come off the river after three chilly weeks in a wall tent. They were huddled with Ty Wyatt, a conservationist, guide and steelhead junkie who grew up in Lakeview. None of us would have met each other except for steelhead. Mostly I listened, to stories of big fish, biology and steelhead beads.
Shaped by steelhead. Touched by the water. Haunted by the next fish.
— Gary Lewis is the host of “Frontier Unlimited TV” and author of “Fishing Central Oregon,” “Fishing Mount Hood Country,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Gary at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.