Above, our columnist’s guide from Sitka shows him how it’s done. Below, the author with his steelhead. Andrew Cremata
Nerves of steel
By ANDREW CREMATA
I couldn’t see the fish, but I knew they were there. I was fishing alongside a seasoned professional from Sitka, targeting steelhead in a remote stream without another fishing party anywhere nearby.
We had been dropped off by floatplane in the early morning hours, flying low to avoid the thick fog that blanketed the entire region. We stood on the beach as the plane took off and disappeared around the far side of a narrow inlet. The sound of the plane was muffled by the fog, but still echoed off of the lush, steep cliffs until everything was silent except the distant sound of rushing water.
We had minimal gear including our fishing equipment, packed lunches, a satellite phone, and a shotgun – just in case. From the beach we had to hike through thick rainforest undergrowth, battling ten-foot-high stalks of Devil’s Club along the way and occasionally traversing a deep pool or creek. When we walked along the muddy shoreline of the river, there were no other footprints in sight. It was in those moments I began to have a sense of how isolated we truly were, and I was eager with anticipation to catch my first-ever steelhead.
It didn’t take long. I quickly caught onto the technique of maintaining a drift in the river’s current with a small ball of neon orange yarn affixed to a small hook, about a foot underneath of a sliding float. The trick was preventing the fishing line from becoming slack or too taut. If the presentation was solid, the steelhead would bite.
The first fish I hooked was a bruiser. I was able to work the steelhead in close to my position but when it caught sight of my face it turned and ran downriver at near-light speed. I gave chase while trying to turn the fish’s head, but couldn’t seem to make up any ground. The fight came to a standstill when the steelhead ran under a large submerged tree, tangling the line while trying to catch its breath. I used every trick in the book, but couldn’t free the line before the steelhead regained its composure and snapped off just above the leader.
The second steelhead took the yarn and made a giant leap from the river, spraying beads of water in every direction. It was a textbook fight and I did everything perfect, right up until the time I lost the fish.
“The third time is a charm,” they say, but they obviously have no idea what they’re talking about because the third steelhead got away as I reached for it, causing me to slip and get a considerable amount of water down the inside of my waders.
When I finally managed to land my first steelhead I was exhausted. Still, it was a bright-chrome beauty that fought like a champion. As it swam away I began to understand why steelhead fishermen are a desperate and obsessed lot that should be pitied by the average person.
I managed to catch about a dozen wild steelhead that day, and lost quite a few more. All the while we were comfortably nestled in virgin rainforest, dark green and brilliant. Fat, jet-back slugs crept along on fallen logs as ravens watched curiously from the moss-covered limbs. A massive waterfall raged just behind our position where snowmelt descended from massive, snow-covered peaks. In this place, steelhead have been engaged in their annual spawning ritual for countless generations, yet few humans have been witness to their primal calling. It is unspoiled, raw and delicate.
Our party arrived back at the beach a little early. We sat and ate a snack while we waited for the plane, thoroughly depleting our entire supply of trail mix and fruit. The plane was due back at 5 p.m., and it was around 5:30 that I began to listen for the roar of the prop. By 6 p.m. we were all exchanging concerned glances, and by 6:30 my guide was reading the instructions on his satellite phone.
In an effort to get a signal we walked around the beach hoping to make a call and find out if we should start hunkering down for a night out in the cold spring air. As we walked around a rock outcropping we were suddenly standing over the skull of a medium sized grizzly, stark white from being picked clean by birds and worms, and bleached in the elements. Nearby was the rest of its skeleton, the spine twisted as though the animal had curled up hopelessly in expectation of death.
Thoughts of one’s mortality when waiting for a float plane in the middle of nowhere are unwelcome.
After ten minutes of trying to get a signal on the satellite phone to no avail, all we could do was wait. My guide sat on a large log and loaded his shotgun. Obviously, the sight of the bear skeleton also had an effect on the seasoned professional, and this actually made me feel better about the situation.
Sometime around 7:30 he made another attempt at calling the float plane company. This time he managed to get through, but it was obvious the connection was tenuous.
“Hey there, Bob, where the hell are you?” he said. “I can’t HEAR you, Bob…. Where is our float plane? Yes…. Yes… Can you repeat that? Okay.”
He calmly pressed a button on the face of the phone and then slowly collapsed the antenna. He lifted his head, looked me in the eye and said, “Our plane had a flat tire.”
Fortunately he also explained that another floatplane was just taking off in Sitka, and would be picking us up within 40 minutes.
When I heard the sound of the plane, daylight was at a premium. I could still make out its form as it banked around the mouth of the inlet and turned toward our position. Saying I felt relieved would be an understatement.
Had we spent the night on that beach we would have been woefully underprepared, and here are a few good lessons that this experience taught me.
Pack extra food.
Understand the limitations of your gear.
Always make sure your float plane has a spare tire.
This past spring Fish This! won yet another first place Alaska Press Club award for best outdoors column (we've lost count, it has won something like 6 of the last 7 years!). Want to read more? You can go diving into our summer archives, or you can wait for the book of Andrew's columns, coming later this year from Lynn Canal Publishing. Watch for announcements on the website.