[by Russ Lumpkin]
FISH SWIM IN OUR MEMORIES AND HOPES JUST AS LIVELY AS THEY DO THEIR NATAL WATERS, and no fish enters my streams of consciousness more often than the spring steelhead that migrate the rivers of Southeast Alaska. These streams tend to run small and intimate, similar to the creeks and brooks that crisscross the countryside, but instead of casting to quaint sunfish, small bass, or planted trout, imagine drifting flies to three feet of wild, silver-bright brute strength that has survived a run across the Pacific and back.
In late May 2017, tired of body from a long flight and full of hope for another anadromous rainbow, I walked into Sitka Alaska Outfitters, which sits downtown in the historic former capital of Russian Alaska, and met proprietor Ken Rear, and we soon boarded his boat destined for a narrow creek that runs from its origin in Salmon Lake only a mile or so to its terminus in Silver Bay. On the way over, he spoke of the creek’s offerings, which hold a great deal in a short run—Dolly Varden, cutthroat, rainbows, and, though late in the season, a spring run of steelhead.
The cool of the morning air plus the speed of the boat stirred my blood, as did the surrounding snowcapped peaks, the scattered wisps of fog that moved ghostlike across the placid water, and a smell that defied specific memory but seemed a combination of everything in sight—brackish water, an adjoining and endless wilderness, and a burgeoning spring.
Onshore we followed a well-worn path and avoided devil’s club before entering an open area where the creek splits into braids that form a small delta and fill the creek’s wide mouth before entering the bay. We forded the finger that ran river right and moved alongshore upstream until Ken spotted a steelhead resting on the other side of a narrow log beneath a heavy riffle. A tangle of branches upstream of the fish made a near drift nigh impossible, but even as we plotted a presentation, the fish moved to our side of the log into incredibly clear water and presented a small window of accessibility. The clarity of the water, the treeless delta behind us, and the tangle of currents worked against us, and after a couple of good drifts failed to elicit a strike, we moved on.
Farther upstream we crossed the same braid and reentered the creek where it exited the dark rainforest. With a methodical approach, we began working upcurrent—I cast a 7-weight to known steelhead lies but otherwise used a 5-weight and regularly brought to hand a few Dollies and trout, including a hefty 15-inch cutt. The few presentations I’d made for steelhead had drifted freely, reminding me that I had arrived at the back end of the run.
Near lunch, we waded a straightaway and ducked under a giant Sitka spruce that spanned the creek, cleared the water by five feet, and on its back bore a miniature forest of ferns, mosses, and seedlings. Three of me, perhaps four, could have reached around that spruce, but we moved 30 yards beyond it, and Ken motioned to a patch of dark water on river left that had been good steelhead holding water in the past. And the spot looked fishy: a root jutted into the water and broke the current, which poured fast over the left edge but remained almost calm directly behind it, and I needed to drift a fly as tight to the right edge of that current as I could without catching the root. Ken tied on a Steak and Eggs pattern and pointed to a small stick up stream as my landing point. Each false cast seemed to shock the rod tip, but with a proper length of line on the water, I resorted to roll casting only, and my second effort landed the fly close to that stick, and when the fly cleared the root, I felt a firm tug and set the hook, and within seconds I could see a dark form twisting and writhing in the current. Ken shouted “Steelhead on!” and I recalled the joy of my very first steelhead and began clearing line off the water, but the fish gave a mighty shake, and the fly came loose.
Ken encouraged me to make another pass, and the fish took the fly but was off and gone before I formed a thought. Dejected, I followed Ken upstream, and we broke for lunch and planned to fish back downstream for trout and Dollies, but when we got to the spot where I’d hooked the steelie, Ken changed flies on each rod, and as he worked on the 5-weight, he instructed me to walk downstream and to cast the 7-weight to holding water just downstream of the giant spruce on river right.
Upstream of the great tree, I rolled repeated casts into the shadow of that spruce and let the big, fuzzy, pink streamer drift through the dip in the creek. Twenty, 25 times I made that cast, and each time, it drifted benignly through to slack water, but then, the line stopped without my feeling a take. Something had changed, so I set the hook and set the hook again, and I looked downstream just as a great fish, a buck steelhead, raised its head and exposed a scarred face and a big eye—he apparently sized me up. I looked to see if Ken had noticed and began letting the fish run when it wanted and reeling in when it rested.
Ken had heard the commotion and waded down. “You hooked one?”
Ken whipped out his camera, and when the fish made an appearance near the surface, he reacted: “Wow. That is a good fish.”
So good, in fact, I began to think of all the great fish of my past that I had hooked and failed to land, and the reality hit me that nearly all the great fish that would have meant most had never left the water, never felt the touch of my hand, and all live together in a memory of anguished lament.
“Follow him,” Ken instructed. We moved downstream, ducked under the giant spruce, and moved toward a sandbar. “Let’s try to land him here.”
The fish remained within 30, 40 feet of me and on occasion pulled off line with violent ease, but inside, I considered this fish caught, and it would erase every angling disappointment in memory—including a couple of river stripers I followed downstream over slippery rocks abutting fast and deep currents only to never even see the fish at all. But this Alaskan steelhead, this fish of 1,000 casts, would trump every sigh and heave—and every half minute or so, I drew the fish closer.
Finally, when the fish thrashed about 10 feet out, Ken took a sweep of the net, and suddenly, the great steelhead imagined stakes that didn’t exist, and it swam straightway across the creek. Up to this point, it had not once turned downstream, and as I waited to see its next move, it hit fast current and moved quickly away. Before I made up any ground, I recalled the big eye that stared me down and realized, This fish has known all along that it’s gonna win.
And with that, the line wafted back to me, and for a couple of minutes, my senses died and my numb feet remained cemented to the creek bed.
We eventually moved past the awkward silence, moved back upstream beyond the great spruce, and I caught the fish I’d hooked twice earlier. A beautiful hen and an acrobat, she jumped clear of the water at least four times. We followed her downstream, back underneath the giant spruce, and landed her on that same sandbar of broken dreams. And though the hen and buck were of the same species, they weren’t of the same breed. The buck, still sporting chrome, might have been 34, 36 inches—an oaken yardstick hewn from 2 x 6. The hen measured 26 inches, a lean beauty that bore the colors of the stream, a true trophy, a beautiful fish, a genuine steelhead, but . . .
That great steelhead tugs my memory just as strongly as it did my line in Salmon Creek. Oh, I’ll recall with gladness the other steelhead I’ve caught, but the joy of those fish doesn’t equal the grief borne of the beast that got away. I will agonize over that buck steelhead for the rest of my life; its abode in my mind will extend its years, give it power and days beyond its own. It’s practically immortal already.