Casting for dollies in the Taiya from a gravel bar near the bridge. AC

Fish This!
‘There are no fish in Skagway’ and other legends

By ANDREW CREMATA

There is a thought amongst the unknowing that Skagway is a shopping mall of a town. Commercialism at its purist rides the high tide of visitors that pour from the cruise ships with a swell that drowns the town in a summer tsunami.
It is the Disneyland of the north. The lore of Soapy Smith’s well-placed bullet, nothing more than a marketable historic oddity, like the early films of “Steamboat Willy.” You can catch the matinee at the local graveyard, and buy a souvenir on your way back to reality.
Of course, these are simply rumors. Skagway is rich with history, blessed with a unique beauty, and home to flora and fauna that rival that of any Alaskan destination.
One of the more persistent rumors is that there are no fish in Skagway. If this is what you believe then you have been sorely misinformed.
How does such a rumor start if it isn’t based in truth? Is it possible that Skagway just hasn’t put the emphasis on marketing its angling opportunities? Skagway does not offer the complexity of fly-fishing for MatSu Valley rainbows, the brute force of digging for halibut off the coast of Sitka, and there is certainly none of the madness of combat fishing for Chinooks on the Kenai River.
Skagway’s fishing industry is almost an untapped market, and it could be for this reason that so few are aware of its gifts.
The locals know. Starting as early as mid-March they wipe the dust off their rods and reels and set out for the banks of the Taiya River to fish for Dolly Varden char. The fishing alternates between fast and furious when the action is constant, and mind-numbing frustration when the schools are visible but refuse to bite. Catching a fish on every cast is common with some of the prey reaching lengths pushing 30 inches.
Eagles and goshawks soar overhead and the occasional otter appears from the woods and plops into the river right next to the fisherman, all of which display talent at catching fish that far exceed the skills of land-based human anglers.
Fishing on the Taiya gets better every day until the water rises enough that the dollies decide to head out into open water, usually around the time the euchalon are schooling up to enter both the Taiya and Skagway rivers.
This is a sight that one does not soon forget. Seals, seagulls and sea lions all enjoy the rich bounty of the small oily fish. They dive, dip and devour until their bellies are full, leaving plenty of “candle fish” for an angler armed with a dip net.
This run happens while May is still young, and a good vantage point for nature’s food chain is Yakutania point, a short walk from the early hustle of summer. It is also an incredible place to wet a line.
Dollies migrating to sea pass the rocky jetty on both low and high tides, and as the summer progresses this seldom-fished spot offers opportunities for fighting a big king salmon from the confines of shore. It is a challenge as great as any to be found in the state. Even if your technique is sound there are always marauding pods of seals that may jump at the chance for an easy meal. This can make landing the fish a bit tricky, as can the fast moving tides and the slippery rocks at low tide.
On one summer past, a local angler fished for kings from this very spot and hooked up with a fish that methodically ran out to sea and spooled 220 yards of 20-pound test off of his rig, leaving him without line and bewildered. Mystery fish like this one patrol these waters, and a legend will one day be born from Skagway’s seas when the mystery is revealed.
Legends have already been born from local waters. Lower Dewey Lake is known as a community getaway spot. The short hike advances until it goes over a ledge and down to the lake. Once the ledge is crossed one cannot even hear the blowing of the train whistle. It is a sanctuary amidst chaos, and it’s worth packing a rig and few lures for the trip.
Brook trout are the top predators in this body of water. On a good day, fine pan-size fish can be caught with regularity, and there is no finer fare to filet for the fire. On a great day, something might happen that many trout fisherman only dream of.
During mid to late September the brook trout at Lower Lake go through their spawning ritual. The art in their color and design are rivaled only by the best adorned of the tropical fish. It is during this time in 1998 that a local fisherman tangled with a brook trout with such ferocity and size that he had to jump in the water to land the beast after it tangled the line around a submerged log. The fish topped out at over 4 pounds.
Brook trout fishing is an extreme rarity in the state of Alaska; trophy size brook trout are the stuff of legend. There is currently no Alaskan record for brook trout, as trophy fish are such a rarity. Had the angler at Lower Lake known the scarcity of his catch, and had the desire to keep the fish, he may have laid claim to the state record. Thanks to catch and release, that trout and possibly many more like it, wait in the quiet waters of Lower Dewey for the chance to be caught and made famous.
When summer is in full swing the pink salmon cruise the shorelines of town in schools of fish so large in quantity, that their silvery sides can be seen reflecting sunlight even at a distance. They make their way into Pullen Creek, the Taiya River and the many sloughs that meander the flats of Dyea.
The sloughs are so unknown and under-fished that a trek across the flats can feel like separating from the known world altogether. At low tide, the waterfall that cascades from the heavenly gaze of Face Mountain can be reached at the southwestern tip of the tidal flats. It is here that deep pools have formed and schools of humpies still silver and full of life gather together for the run upstream. Fish caught here will jump, run, and fight with the passion that is only expected from their larger salmonid cousins. They will hit any lure or preferred bait, and the eagles nesting in the trees overhead peek out at the action and one can’t help but think they get a little jealous.
Along with the pink salmon comes the prize of Alaskan waters, the Chinook salmon, the King. There are two runs of kings in Skagway, the first happening around mid-May and the other happening around the time the pinks begin running. This second run lasts throughout the remainder of the season, and offers the angler a chance at catching a true healthy saltwater salmon that is so gorged with herring that it is shaped more like a football than a fish. These fish are hungry, fast and know a few tricks for escaping the net.
Skagway’s charter boat captains know the joys of fishing these waters, side by side with breaching humpback whales, and a lot less boats than will be seen at places that are known more for their fishing than little-old-Skagway.
One need not fish for kings from the confines of a boat. There are plenty of fine fish to be caught from the shore, and locals have found techniques that may surprise anglers from other Southeast locales.
Skagway’s salmon fishing does not end with the kings. September offers great fishing for chum salmon in the Taiya, as well as some fish being caught in the ocean. A tourist on her first Alaskan fishing charter in 2001 caught a 17-pound chum with a local captain. He pointed out that the “dog” could potentially be a record fish, but she said she was here to catch a king and released the egg-laden fish so it could complete its life cycle.
Who knows what size this dog salmon’s litter might attain. Because very few target this species of fish in Skagway, chances are the next world record fish will be taken from these waters.
Silver salmon are considered the hardest fighting salmon pound for pound. In late September and early October the fish move up through the Skagway River and Pullen Creek. They can be caught in both the salt and fresh water, and some years offer action that cannot be rivaled anywhere else.
One local fisherman fished the shores of Pullen Pond the first day after the cruise ships left town in 2002. He caught his first silver and it was a bright 13-pounder. He also caught another dozen fish in less than an hour, some of which were larger than the first.
Other great days on the water can be found in Skagway. There is the primal beauty of Lost Lake, fishing for rainbow trout in a mountain oasis painted with blueberries. There are the armies of flounder that line the ocean floor around Skagway’s many docks and piers, eager to take a scrap of fish or piece of shrimp offered as bait. There is the unknown fish that steal the bait from trolling fisherman by biting through the heavy monofilament leader leaving it looking as though it was severed with a razor. Speculation as to its identity abounds, but until someone armed with wire leader hooks and lands this nameless fish, all one can do is guess.
Who knows what great fishing stories lie in wait for the angler that bucks conventional wisdom and gives the waters of Skagway a fighting chance. Maybe it’s best to let the rumors continue so Skagway can keep its little secret. If anyone asks it may be best to tell him or her, “There are no fish in Skagway.”