By Kent Danjanovich
OK, let’s start this article out with a little daydreaming. Imagine you and your best fishing buddy loading your gear into your awaiting drift boat, with one of your favorite river guides at the oars, on one of your favorite salmon and steelhead rivers in the world. You hurriedly put your fly rod together and then tie on your favorite articulating leech pattern as your drift on one of the most picturesque rivers imaginable unfolds before your eyes. Your guide gives you the word to make a cast to the slow moving water along some over-hanging willows to your right and with two quick strips of your line, a beautiful silver salmon breaks the silence of the morning and explodes out of the water, awakening you from your trance as you realize you are ‘really’ onto your first fish of the day on the Situk River in Yakutat, Alaska.
This scenario has been played out to perfection every spring or fall for me since 2011 and I hope it does for many years to come. I love to fish for silver salmon, especially with a fly rod and I know of no better place to fulfill my dreams than with Ken Fanning and his staff at his Yakutat Lodge, down the coast from Anchorage in southeast Alaska.
The Yakutat area is unique in the fact that you have quite a few options to choose from during your visit. And, there are even more options to mull-over when it comes to what species you decide to go after. If you are a steelhead fanatic, late-March clear through the third week in May on the Situk River offers possibly some of the very best fishing you can find anywhere in the world. There aren’t very many destinations that I know of that you can venture after “The Silver Ghost” of fishing and have as good of a chance of landing double-digit numbers on most days during your stay.
Late June brings on the Sockeye run and good numbers can be found until the end of July. Both guided and unguided fishermen have great success along the scenic Situk as they work their way to the many great holding areas along its beautiful banks. Fly fishermen and spincasters never seem to have a problem filling their limits. Just make sure you have plenty of line on your spools and a lot of backing on your fly reels!
Now if you need a little break from the non-stop river action, Yakutat Bay offers some of the very best ocean fishing found anywhere in Alaska. Even though kings are not allowed to be fished for in the river system, they are available in the salt. And as the summer progresses, silver salmon fishing can be pretty good too. All the while, giant halibut, lingcod and rock fish are abundant throughout the area and the display rack at the dock as you unload your gear at the end of your day seems to always have a group of fishermen taking photo after photo of their catch.
And finally we come to my favorite time of the year, August and September and to be honest, the farther into September I can do it, the happier I am. The crowds are down a little, the fish are plentiful and BIG and I just really can’t think of a more fitting ending to my summer than spending time on some of my favorite waters in all of Alaska.
This past September 19th – 23rd found myself and three of my best fishing buddies (my brother Bruce Danjanovich, Steve Allen and Dr. Jeff Smith) in Yakutat to again partake of some of the best silver salmon fishing known to man. Longtime lodge guides, Aaron Shook and Tommy Stahley, met us at the baggage claim and loaded our luggage into our awaiting van as we made our way over to the office and restaurant to check-in.
Yakutat Jack himself, Ken Fanning, welcomed us at the door and after a few introductions, instructed us to head over to a table and order some dinner. A few minutes later, his longtime manager, Debbie, strolled up to our table, license forms in hand and again welcomed us all to the lodge. As each of us filled out our form, Deb filled us in on everything we needed to know about our stay and our fishing schedule for the next four days; Day 1 Italio River fly out, Day’s 2 and 3 Situk floats and Day 4 a return trip to the Italio. After a great meal, Aaron and Tommy stopped in to tell us to meet them at the office at 8am the next morning for the fly out and we then jumped in our van and headed to our cabins ‘On the Bay’, a short drive from the airport to unload our gear and relax for the evening before our first day of fishing.
There was no need to set an alarm as all of us were up and ready to go by 6:30am. Breakfast made to order was awaiting us and then our groups time finally arrived as we loaded our gear into the awaiting Cessna and in a blink of an eye, we were off to the Italio, a short 15 minutes away.
The weather was a little dicey this morning, not unusual for Yakutat, one of the wettest places in the U.S., with over 240 days of rain each year. But, Kip Fanning had no problems handling the situation and soon had us touching down on the beach next to the Italio River.
Bruce was literally ‘giddy’ with excitement as he filled Steve and Jeff in on exactly what they had in store during our next six hours. We all grabbed our gear and headed to the ‘spruce hole’ about a ¼ mile up river.
As we arrived, Aaron and Tommy were bringing a group out already with their limits. Since they were spincasters, they had decided to get in, catch their fish and get out since the rain was coming down pretty good. We didn’t mind a bit as that would leave us with one of the best stretches on the river all to ourselves – at least for a little while anyway!
Tommy told us that he would be back as soon as they loaded the other group and their fish on the plane, but in the meantime, black and white Dolly Lamas had been hot as far as a fly choice. He then looked over at me and said, “But I am sure, Kent, that you will just be throwing on your usual pink bunny leech”. And of course, he was right.
By the time he returned, we had each landed a half a dozen fish and three of us had another one on. A group of fishermen from Texas that were also staying at the lodge soon joined us and the excitement was literally non-stop with more hoots and hollers from grown men being heard throughout the rest of the day, that we never did have to worry too much about having a visit from any of the four-legged brown furry residents of the area.
Days two and three found us drifting down the Situk River, with Dr. Smith and I being guided by Tommy and Bruce and Steve with Aaron. We would be using our fly rods, while the other boat would be throwing jigs with spincasters. Now for those of you that haven’t fished the Situk, both of these methods can be deadly, with really the determining factors being your accuracy and confidence with whichever you choose. But, it is usually best if both fishermen in the boat us the same technique to avoid timing problems.
One thing that you will quickly find out about silver salmon is that they are what you would call a little lazy. They will almost always follow the path of least resistance as they work their way up the river system to their spawning grounds. Because of this, your guide will have you casting to some awkward spots at times, over fallen trees, under over-hanging willows and even drifting under submerged obstacles, so losing a few flies or jigs is pretty common. But, believe me, one thing you always need to remember is, “ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR GUIDE”!
Now some days you will run into a lot of boats on the river. The Situk is such that you can choose to use the services of a guide (which I highly recommend) or you can float it on your own. The package that you choose through the Yakutat Lodge can reflect whichever you are comfortable with or even a combination of both. Other days, unbelievably you will hardly see another boat on the river. Now some of this depends on how early you get started, so it is better to be on the river early, but even if you are not, you will find that different techniques used under the same conditions will result in different outcomes. Just because a boat didn’t catch many fish in a great hole with jigs, doesn’t necessarily mean that a fly fisherman, with the right presentation can’t do quite well in that same spot. And you will see this play out on every trip you make down the Situk, I promise.
One thing to remember when fishing the Situk, is to use a little bit heavier jigs and quite heavy flies as well. Dolly Lamas, especially ones with white in them as well as plenty of flash, seem to get the job done much better. The flows on the Situk can vary greatly from day to day with the amount of rain that can be received, so many times standard barbell weighted flies won’t be able to get you into the ‘zone’ in many areas. Most of your fishing will be done from the drift boat, but if flows are low, you will also be able to wade many of the sand and grass bars and cast to back eddy’s and pools.
Our last day again found us flying out to the Italio River, but this time we were greeted with blue-bird skies and very light winds. Kip landed us farther down the beach this time, about twice as far from the Spruce Hole as before. Our friends from Texas were fishing a stretch only a short distance from the plane, so we decided to walk over and see how they were doing.
As we walked up, three of their seven were hooked into fish, so our answer on how the fishing was didn’t even need to be addressed. They invited us to join them and we each slide into a place along a slow bend in the river. The tide was just cresting and big numbers of fish could be seen working their way up the current, through the silty colored water.
During the next hour, at times, nearly every one of us could be seen with a fish on. Most were using fly rods, but a few would change over to spincast from time to time just as a change of pace. As the tide started to head out, I noticed that the channel started to reveal itself a little bit more and soon I found myself working my way up river a hundred yards or so in search of another ‘honey hole’.
At the next major turn in the river, I found the spot. Hundreds of silvers were pooled and waves of hundreds more could be seen working their way up. I motioned to the group that I had found another great spot and three or four started to work in my direction.
My first three casts produced three big, bright silvers on a pink bunny leech (of course). I then noticed that fish were starting to ‘fin’ in a calm pool to my left. I quickly changed over from my sink-tip to my floating line and tied on a foam popper and made a cast to a cruising fish. BAM – one strip and the fight was on! Now as much as I like stripping a fly with sinking line for silvers, there is just something special when it comes to catching one on top-water. The next half hour produced a half a dozen top-water landings and as the bite slowed somewhat with the receding tide, I quickly found myself reverting to my sink-tip and then again joining the rest of the group in hooking into fish after fish until the hands on my watch reached 2pm and our plane could be seen in the distance.
Well, as you can see, you could say that we had another pretty good trip to the Yakutat Lodge. In all, I would say that I, myself, landed well over 200 silvers during our four day stay. In fact, I have to confess that by the end of the trip, my arms and wrists were just about worn out (I never thought that I would ever say that). I truly can’t say enough good things about the Yakutat area and Ken Fanning and his Yakutat Lodge. I plan on visiting again for steelhead in May and I am sure that we will have a group for silvers again in September as well.
When I walked in the door at the lodge at the start of our trip, Ken said to me, “Welcome Home” and believe me – that is just the way I feel every time I return. The Yakutat Lodge 800-907-784-3232, firstname.lastname@example.org.