By Kent Danjanovich
Many waters that I visit around the world have me muttering the words, “this has to be the prettiest piece of water I have ever seen,” and Alaska seems to have me saying that more often than any place that I have the privilege of visiting. Some of its waters are immense, while others seemingly appear out of nowhere and often times disappear just as quickly. Well, one of those pieces of water that definitely deserves my murmurings is the Situk (pronounced sea-tuck) River in the tiny town of Yakutat , Alaska, about 360 air miles southeast of Anchorage.
You know that a destination as remote and tiny as Yakutat has to be worth its salt when a major airline makes two stops a day in support of the fishing industry. And the remnants of WWII era buildings and aircraft throughout the town give it an even greater allure as well.
The winter can be harsh in this area, even for Alaskan standards and the winter of 2011-2012 was one for the record books. The stretch from Cordova to Yakutat received over 25 feet of snow, literally shutting down the area and making efforts to get the area ready for the first fishermen of the year, the hearty steelheaders, a daunting task to say the least. ADOT crews worked 24/7 for weeks, some days clearing only a few hundred yards of highway, to finally get the main roads open and the stretch of road to Nine Mile Bridge accessible for drift boaters and walk-in fishermen. The job was finally completed on April 18th, just twelve days before or planned arrival.
Some good and some bad things were to come of this late “real” opening of the Situk. Unfortunately for our host, Ken and Kip Fanning’s Yakutat Lodge and other area businesses, many fisherman had to cancel their trips or try and reschedule farther into the spring season. The reports on the river were coming in that winter fish were present on the upper stretch of the river, but because of cold water temperatures, the usual push of new fish on each tide was not happening, since the water temps in the river were five to eight degrees cooler than the ocean temperatures and the big steelies weren’t in any hurry to bolt into those cold waters of the Situk.
Now, this had the lodge owners scrambling and hoping for miracles, but it had our hopes mounting as well in another direction, knowing that the timing of our arrival just might be perfect and the fish would not have been hit quite as hard from the droves of fishermen in search of the prized, silver missiles lurking in the tea-stained waters of the most prolific steelhead waters in Alaska, if not the world!
We arrived late morning on May 1st with myself, Rick Rosenberg, Steve Kemp and Neal Marchant grabbing our bags and making the short jaunt to the office at the Yakutat Lodge. The thirty foot high pile of snow that was in view on a corner of the airport tarmac gave us a good idea of what the area had been fighting all winter long. Ken told us to grab a quick lunch and that Kip would be in to give us our schedule for the next five days as well as an update on the river conditions and fish activity.
It was determined that since we didn’t have enough time to float the whole river stretch, we would get settled into our cabin, get all of our equipment in order and take a drive down to the take-out area and see if we could see any fresh fish coming into the system. So we grabbed our rental van and headed to our lodging for the week at their new “Cabins on the Bay”, just a couple of miles drive from the main lodge.
Rick would be our steelhead guru and show us all the ropes, although Steve had made the trip a few years earlier with Rick and a group of guys from our area. We would all practice tying egg-loop knots with our 17 lb. leader and size 0/2 hooks. After the knot was tied, we each went to our display box of about every color of yarn you can imagine and each of us grabbed four or five colors, cut about an inch off of each, bunched them together and slid them under the loop before sliding the knot down to secure it to the hook. We then trimmed the yarn into a malt-ball sized sphere and we then each sheepishly displayed our creations to everyone else at the table, all the while knowing that it really didn’t matter what our final product looked like to each of us, what mattered was what it looked like to the fish!
Unfortunately, the tides were not right for our timing that afternoon, but we did manage to make a few casts into a couple of the better holes in the lower section and we also were able to get a little “B Role” for our footage needed for a future edition of our Sportsman’s News Television DVD line. We also found that the waters were as cold as they could get, with temps only in the low 40’s and of course, snow everywhere and either melting a little or falling off into the river, keeping the water temperatures more than chilly.
We met our guide, Tommy Stahley the next morning at 6am at the main lodge. He had breakfast sandwiches ready for each of us as well as a sack lunch and drinks for our all-day float. We jumped in our vans and quickly found ourselves pulling into the turnaround at Nine Mile Bridge. After loading our gear into the driftboats, we eased them into the water and prepared for the start of our day on the Situk in search of big steelhead.
There were quite a few die-hard bank fishermen trying their luck around and above the bridge area, with most of the fish leftovers from the fall run. Tommy was in the boat with Steve and Neal, while Rick was serving as my rower and guide for the day. After a drift of about a 1/2 mile, Tommy pointed ahead to a spot that he wanted to give a try. With the slow currents of the Situk cooperating and the flows of the river workable, we slipped our anchors into the water and grabbed our spinning gear. Lo and behold, my first cast for a steelie on the Situk River hit the water, fell to the bottom, took a few bumps along the rocky, shallow depths and went limp. Rick yelled, “Set the Hook”!
Now, my first thought was, “Is it really supposed to be this easy” as I fought my first fish of the trip on my first cast. The fish first ran upriver about 50 yards and then just as quickly, she headed back down in an effort to throw the hook or wrap me around a snag. After a stellar battle, I forcefully eased my silver bullet into Rick’s awaiting net and the hoots and hollers began. A beautiful 12 pound steelhead soon was the center of attraction as we snapped photo after photo before releasing her back into the waters of the Situk. We would eventually hook into four more fish in this stretch of water, with Steve loosing one and landing another and myself and Rick each starting a battle, but losing the war.
The rest of our day produced another dozen hookups, with five fish landed, not a bad first day on the water. We soon found ourselves at the take-out at about 5pm and we loaded up and headed back to the lodge for dinner.
Day two founds us at the dock loading into a halibut boat with Capt. Ken. The waters were a little rocky, but we soon found ourselves letting our lines out to the bottom and setting the hook on a few nice Yakutat Bay keepers. A persistent drizzle accompanied us throughout most of the day and after boating a few more fish, we decided to head back to the dock and stoke the fire at our cabin for a couple of hours before dinner. On the way back to our place, we stopped in to see Ken Fanning at his beautiful home. He gave us the grand tour of his gorgeous place overlooking the bay. By the way, Ken’s masterpiece is also available for stays if you desire a little upgrade during your stay and also includes your own private chef, catering to your every request!
Days three and four found us back on the Situk, bouncing our yarn balls and drifting jigs along the banks of the river, trying to lure a big one out of its shaded willow boundaries. That is one thing about steelhead fishing. Bright, sunny days are great for filming and staying dry, but if you want to catch fish, you need the overcast skies and in Alaska, that usually means rain, accompanied by some snow and then probably a little more rain. But you know what, the rain really doesn’t seem to bother you much when you are seeing nice pods of fish working their way up the river and as you make your cast in hopes of hooking into another silver bullet of pure muscle. Our last day on the water found each of us hooking multiple fish and landing a half a dozen, all over 30 inches and weighing from 10 to 15 pounds.
One thing I want to mention before my story ends. No matter how good of a fisherman you may be or think that you are, your success rate will drastically increase with the help of a guide. Tommy’s knowledge of the river and his techniques were priceless to us and our trip was truly a success because of his efforts. We each learned many more great techniques that are very effective for steelhead fishing not only on the Situk, but many other waters. The packages at the Yakutat Lodge can cater to your desires, but I would recommend that you use a guide always at least the first couple of days of each trip. The knowledge you will garner will not only improve your chances of having a great day on the water, but will improve your overall knowledge and techniques more than you will ever know.
The Situk is truly one of the best fishing waters in the world and whether you are after spring or fall steelhead or want to experience big runs of sockeye and coho salmon that make their annual runs each summer and fall, Yakutat is the place and the Yakutat Lodge is the only place to be. Give Ken or Kip a call today to talk about your next great Alaskan adventure and don’t forget to tell them that the guys at Sportsman’s News sent ya! Yakutat Lodge, 907-784-3232 and visit them on our website or at www.yakutatlodge.com.