Yoni Morse holds his first-ever caught coho in one of our columnist’s secret spots on the lower Taiya. Andrew Cremata

Coho Secrets


The last gasp of summer always begins with a hint of yellow in the leaves and a noticeable chill in the morning air. The start of fall marks the edge that delineates the two Skagways – one dominated by tourists and commerce, and the other that defines it as a community. Many will only experience the former. For those few who endure the hardships of winter, the struggle to redefine the essence of what being a Skagwegian truly means begins anew.

It is late September, and this is the time and place where the river forks. Part of what makes a river unique is that it is constantly changing. The water will rise and fall with rain and drought. The many backwaters and eddies are forever being reshaped as the elements lay siege upon its form. There is no formula for predicting how and when it might change, and it’s easy to latch onto the past and deceive ourselves into thinking anything can remain constant from one year to the next.

Only a month ago our local waters were choked with pink salmon. Every single one of those fish, married to primal urges, met their demise as victims of a mysterious instinct. The sickly-sweet smell of their sacrifice now mingles with the newly realized north wind. From this some might draw the conclusion that as the summer season ends, so too does the fishing.

Rest assured. Just because you might be taking the next ferry south, life here in Skagway does go on. And for those of us who stay there is still ample opportunity to try our luck with rod and reel.

There is no shortage of truth in Skagway, and most of it has little to do with reality. I’ve heard the stories with my own ears – tales told by both lifelong locals and seasonal tour guides who confidently tell visitors, “There are no fish in the Skagway River,” or “There are only Dollies in the Taiya River.”

But there are secrets in the Skagway and Taiya Rivers – secrets that are only revealed to those who are willing to seek them out. These are bodies of water that change from year to year, and angling success can only be met by those who understand that catching fish and fishing are two very different things.

Fishing begins with faith – faith that fish can be found if you can figure out the places most likely to hold them. Because those places change from year to year it’s necessary to study the river, walk its banks, scan its surface, narrow down the unlimited angling options to the ones with the best potential.

In this there is no great mystery or secret to be unveiled. Accomplishment requires only the willingness and motivation to search. Often there is discouragement or failure, but fishing is no science or mathematical equation. Once the best options are assessed, then it’s time to wet a line and hope that all of the hard work brings rewards.

A month ago I was walking the Skagway River with thoughts of fall coho starting to creep into my mind. The river was swollen with heavy rains, and I knew it was unlikely the water would stay as high, but I noticed one small backwater that would surely be prime, if and when the last of the salmon made their run.

Last weekend the water looked good and had dropped significantly. I was able to climb down the steep embankment and throw a medium sized spinner into the pale blue-green water. On the fourth cast I felt a familiar bump and set the hook purely by instinct. The rod bent, and the quiet of that little pool was shattered by a bright silver coho leaping fully into the fall air.

It ran toward the main flow of the river, forcing me to put heavy pressure on the fish to keep it from gaining an advantage. It’s one thing to fight a strong fall coho, but it would be disastrous to attempt to fight the unyielding torrents of a raging river.

Soon the fish was safely on shore – one for the freezer, a winter’s reward for summer perseverance.
Three days later I was fishing the Taiya, in a spot that holds coho most years, but the water just didn’t look right. After 20 minutes I made a move to a spot I thought could be better, and even before reaching the water’s edge I could tell everything looked perfect.

Still, there is always an edge to the emotion you feel when casting into a river, and until that first bite comes along there is a place where doubt lingers. With each subsequent cast it grows a little larger and stronger, but when that first fish happens along it disappears like a phantom as though it never had any substance.

The coho hit a split second after the lure hit the water. It immediately rolled and it was obvious that it topped the 10-pound mark. It ran with the slow current and thrashed on the surface while I patiently worked it to shore. To be honest, it wouldn’t have mattered at that point if it had gotten away. The reward for quality fishing came from the finding, but the catching wasn’t such a bad thing either.

An hour later three nice coho were lined up on the shore, ready to go under the knife. My friend Yoni, who caught his first-ever coho under a light evening drizzle, said, “I was always told there weren’t any fish out here.”
So it goes in good old Skagway – a place where rumor often trumps truth, and the only place on earth where a fishing story is the one thing you should believe.

No matter which part of the river you travel this winter, you can take this tale for what it’s worth. Next spring our divergent waterways will once again mingle, and we can all revel in the fact that our little Alaskan home will be flowing fully once again.