It’s the last day of my Sitka salmon spree trip, and the forecast is for a steady rain all day. I toy with the idea of calling my guide Tad Kisaka and begging off. My idea of a good day fishing doesn’t include water dripping off my nose. But miraculously, after breakfast I look out my hotel window and see the rain has stopped, and the sun is making a valiant attempt to break through the clouds shrouding Baranoff Island where Sitka is situated.
So I suit up in my warm neoprene waders, pull on 3 layers on top, and descend downstairs to meet with Tad. Our destination today is the Katlian River, only a short half hour run to the northeast.
Like the first two days, the boat ride in is spectacular. As we motor into Katlian Bay, we see rugged peaks lining the shoreline that is cloaked in a mist, conjuring up images in my mind of the Tlingit (p. Clink-It) war chief Katlian leading his fierce warriors into battle against the invading Russians just over two centuries ago.
I’m up earlier today—the boat ride to the Nakwasina River will take almost an hour, and my guide Tad Kisaka wants to get a jump so we’ll have a full day chasing salmon. My stomach is growling, but to my chagrin I find that the hotel restaurant isn’t open for another hour! Fortunately, out of my third story window I spot a Subway shop just across the street so set out in my waders for a delectable (well, at least filling) flatbread egg and ham sandwich.
The Nakwasina was purportedly named by a Russian navigator. According to a 1949 geologic/place name study it reportedly means “fermented” in Russian. Doesn’t sound Russian, but who knows. According to Tad it’s loaded with big chums and gnarly male humpies. That’s the music I like to hear.
We are motoring out of Crescent Harbor where Tad moors his boat at 7:45 and then slowly through Ann Harbor which has a long no-wake zone. Big fish processing plants line the shoreline, attracting scads of noisy gulls and even some eagles where fish remains are dumped. I spot an otter swimming insouciantly on his back—that’s always a good omen!
Mount Edgecumbe, a volcanic peak, looms over Kruzof Island to the northwest of Sitka. As we reach running speed, there is just a light chop on the water, and the sun is peaking through occasionally. Rugged mountains line the route. When we reach Nakwasina Sound, the wind is dead calm and the surface glassy slick. We can see salmon surfacing here and there at the mouth of the river.
Tad navigates carefully through the shallow river flats upstream as far as he can, then we hop out and make a pile with our gear for the day—fly rods and reels, big net, backpacks and fly vests. Tad heads back out to deeper water where he’ll anchor the boat and kayak back in.
In the meantime, I head upstream to a good-looking pool where salmon are occasionally breaking the surface. I spot a dark line of torpedo shapes on the opposite shoreline—a big school of pinks!
I throw a long cast, using a double-haul to get the extra distance I need to reach the fish, and let th flashy purple and pink streamer bump slowly downstream through the school. A couple of pinks follow it, then suddenly a bright flash and I’m onto a nice silver! The salmon tail walks then bores downstream with me in hot pursuit. After a good fight, she’s on the shoreline for a quick release. Great start! By the time Tad is back, I’ve landed a half dozen feisty pinks.
Tad and I work our way upstream towards what he promises is the salmon mother lode. The pinks are everywhere in big schools, and in the deeper runs we spot some outsized chums. The fertility of these salmon runs never ceases to amaze me. Such natural abundance is such a treat to see…and reminds me of the sacred duty all of us have to pass it on to future generations unimpaired.
I see a couple of big chums hunkered down against the opposite shoreline and arch a cast above them, letting the bright pink fly drift slowly, tantalizingly in front of their hooked jaws. No dice after a half dozen perfect floats. Tad suggests changing to a Dolly Lahma fly, a black and white marabou fly that is deadly in Alaska.
On the first cast, one of the big chums rockets forward and inhales the fly, then erupts on the surface when I set the hook. It’s a monster—probably pushing 15 pounds! He does a 50-yard dash downstream, turns around and shoots forward through the riffles into the next pool, then back again. Compared to freshwater fish, salmon are like Arnold Shwarzenegger versus the girly men Hans and Franz. Here me now and listen to me later, they can fight! My 9-foot, 7-weight fly rod and 10 pound leade are put to the test, but hold. Tad runs downstream and positions himself to net the leviathan, but the fish eludes him several times. Finally on the third swipe, he’s in the net. One of the biggest chums I have ever caught…a beauty.
We find throughout the day we have to keep changing flies after catching a few salmon on one pattern. Apparently familiarity breeds contempt. I pause to lounge in the sun that’s beaming down, usually MIA this time of year. I few gnats are flitting around my head, but not to worry. All is copacetic. Until one of the little critters takes a chunk out of my hand. Gnats indeed—it’s a pestiferous swarm of no-see-ums, microscopic flying sharks smaller than gnats but with some of the biggest jaws compared to body size in the insect kingdom according to entomologists. I never dreamed I would run into them in Alaska. Mosquitos, yes, but no-see-ums?!? Luckily I have some bug repellant in my fly vest. It’s not the 100% Deet concoction I use in the Everglades, but good enough to keep the little buggers at bay for the day if I spray it on every hour.
The bugs spur us back into action—which continues in every deep run as we work upstream.
We find a deep, fast-running pool with snags all around, but with careful casts and retrieved manage to coax several nice silvers out of it plus some pinks. Then further upstream we hit a big school of humpies, and a big male sucks in the gaudy streamer. He puts up a great tussle. Male humpies turn into gnarly looking creatures, with the trademark big humps and dog-like jaws. I always have to laugh when I net one—a face only mama could love.
After we release the big fellow, Tad spots a couple of ghostly apparitions with black tails among the humpies—tell-tale signs of silver salmon. I carefully place my fly above them, but they ignore it as it floats by only a few feet from their snouts. But then one turns and jets downstream and nails the streamer. Fish on! The silver scatters the school of pinks as he rockets around the pool. Such fun to pick up the odd silver among the humpies and chums—we’ll net a half dozen or so of the prized fish during the day. They are excellent eating—some of the best salmon—but I can’t bear to kill such beauties, so off they go to fulfill their destiny.
By early afternoon, we’ve explored a mile or so upstream and then hit a deep hole and a thicket of downed logs. We decide it’s a sign to work back down to the first honey hole. I insist Tad make some casts, and he immediately nails a big chum.
Then it’s my turn….and another good one comes to the net.
Then we’re back to the pickup point, and Tad slips in his kayak and glides out toward the mother ship. By the time he returns, I have caught eight more pinks—just too much fun for one day. Together we have probably caught and release 75 fish in a pristine wilderness setting. Not a boot mark anywhere.
As a bonus, it’s been another day of no rain—a big surprise—and the sun is popping out again, making for a relaxing run back to Sitka.
With all those salmon we have caught, I’ve developed a hankering for a fish dinner. Maybe some halibut tacos? Or fresh salmon sushi? Ah, such tough choices, but someone has to do it!
There are few things in an angler’s life more devilishly delicious than being able to piggyback a fishing trip on an all-expense paid business trip, especially to Alaska. I was treated to just such a moveable feast in September when retained to work with the City and Borough of Sitka. My assignment was to conduct an audit of their development codes and advise on how they might be revised to promote the community’s sustainability goals. I had a great time working with a very able group of community and tribal leaders.
When that was done, I was fortunate to tack on three days to my itinerary to explore some wild backcountry lakes and rivers. A week later after returning home to Colorado, I was still nursing a severe case of salmon elbow as a result of scrapping with too many muscular fish….but was getting little sympathy from my local trout fishing chums.
Sitka’s setting is spectacular, nestled on two islands with rugged mountains, peaks piercing the clouds, jutting up dramatically from the ocean. It’s a small town, only 9,000 or so folk, but is the largest municipality by area in the United States—almost 3,000 square miles! As might be expected in such a remote location reached only by boat or airplane, its inhabitants include many characters that remind me of Colorado mountain towns. Funky and eclectic are two words that come to mind to describe both the local buildings and populace. Twenty-five percent of the population is Native American, most from the Tlingit tribe (pronounced Clink-It). The so-called Oceanic climate and temperate rainforest can be accurately described as wet! 233 days of rain, 132 inches annually, plus a little snow. But thanks to the nearby ocean, the temperatures are moderate, though on the cool side. The average high temperature in August is only 62 degrees. In other words, bring your best rain gear and some warm jackets!
Sitka has a rich and varied history that adds to the fishing pleasure and time in between streamside endeavors. The Tlingit ruled the area for nearly 10,000 years before the Russians came looking for sea otter pelts and other wealth. The Russian American Trading Company set up an outpost in 1790 and soon thereafter a trading post called New Archangel. The enterprise had been chartered by Tsar Paul 1. Clashes with the Tlingit followed soon thereafter, and the warriors under the leadership of their brave chief Katlian drove off the Russians in 1802, destroying their fort (We’ll fish the Katlian River on Day 3). Governor Baranoff (upon which his namesake island Sitka sits) returned in 1804 with more firepower and eventually reclaimed the fort. An uneasy peace ensued.
The Russians built churches and other impressive buildings, one of which served as the site of the transfer ceremony for the Alaska Purchase in 1867.
Sitka served as the capitol of the territory until 1906 when it was transferred up the coast to Juneau. Growth based on gold mining and fishing. Famous authors like Richard Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, and Louis L’Amour in Sitka used the area for background in their novels.
Today tourism and commercial fishing drive the economy. Big cruise ships disgorge hundreds of tourists periodically during the summer months, and the salmon, halibut, and cod fishery make Sitka the sixth largest port by value of seafood harvest in the United States. The harbor, with almost 2,000 boat slips and fish processing plants, is a beehive of activity 24-7.
On my way in for the workshop, my plane from Denver to Sitka via Seattle and Ketchikan descends below the scudding clouds, I put down my book by famous local mystery author John Straley, The Woman Who Married A Bear, which gave me a taste of the peculiar town to come. Soaking in the scene, I swear I can see the salmon jumping!
Day 1: Redoubt Lake and River
I am up early, finishing off a hearty and excellent breakfast at the Westmark Hotel in downtown Sitka that’s my base for the week. You won’t find much “health food” in the restaurants here, where flapjacks and reindeer sausage reign. Then it’s back to my room to get suited up for my first day on the water. I walk out of the hotel, somewhat self-conscious in my neoprene waders, wading boots, rain jacket, and fishing vest, but no one gives me a second look. My guide, Ted Kisaka (pr. Kee Socka), wants me to be ready to hit the water. We shake hands, exchange a few pleasantries, then jump into his pickup and head to his boat in the close-by harbor. Fish await.
Our destination is Redoubt Lake and River, about a thirty minute boat ride to the south. Tad’s twenty-five foot rugged aluminum boat has a nice warm cabin. Amazingly it’s not raining and the sun is actually threatening to poke through. We navigate out of the protected harbor into the big water outside, which is only a little bumpy this morning. I am surprised to learn that we will have to anchor the boat and wade ashore when we reach our destination, then portage our gear into the lake where Tad has a small motorboat boat awaiting. Redoubt Lake is huge, long and narrow—nine miles by one. It’s 870 feet deep and has an odd mix of fresh and saltwater. The lake is fresh to 330 feet then has a dense saltwater layer to the bottom. The Russians used to harvest up to 50,000 sockeye salmon per year, but that run has declined dramatically. Our quarry today is fighting silver salmon as well as chums and humpies (also called pinks). Truth be told, since I haven’t caught a salmon in a half-dozen years, I’ll be happy with anything that bites!!
The scenery is breathtaking all the way, then we round a point and see the Redoubt River plunging over a small waterfall into the bay, which lies before us like glass. I hop out of the boat into the freezing water, thanking the fishing gods for my toasty neoprene waders. Tad hands down a bunch of gear to me, and I navigate cautiously through waist deep ice-cold water to the shore. Tad guides the boat out to deeper water—it’s high tide now, but will fall six feet or more later in the day so he has to anchor further out where we won’t get marooned. In a few minutes he’s paddling back in a kayak that was strapped to the top of the boat cabin. We organize our gear, load up, and begin the short trek through the rain forest to Redoubt Lake.
As Tad readies the small fishing boat, I see salmon cavorting at the far end of the little bay where he has secured the craft. The water is dead calm, and we decide that we’ll need to sneak up on the fish and make some long casts to avoid spooking them. So we opt to start with spinning gear—light/medium 6 ½ foot rods and reels with 15# test line.
Tad creeps us slowly, quietly towards the rising fish, and when we are within range, I flip a bright Mepps spinner into a deep hole at the outlet of the bay into the lake. On the third cast my rod is nearly jerked from my hands, and I’m onto a good silver salmon. But just as quickly he’s off. Dang! When I reel in, I check the hooks and find they are dull. Aarrggh! Rookie mistake. I sharpen up, and several casts later connect again. Another good-sized silver that puts up a terrific battle. A quick photo, and he’s off to his girlfriends. For the next hour we have steady action around the little bay fishing to surfacing fish that innocently give away their position.
My arm is getting tired, so I magnanimously hand the rod to Tad, who at first declines as a good guide will do. But I insist, so he makes a cast and of course hooks another good silver immediately! Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a gentleman! Tad will turn out to be an excellent, hard-working guide, always attentive and looking to put me on fish, giving me tips and guidance in a gentle fashion. At the end of the three days, he will become a good fishing buddy. Highly recommended!
It’s approaching noon, so decide to explore the main body of the lake, motoring almost five miles to the upper end where the Redoubt River runs in. Tad hasn’t been up there for a while, so it’s a crap shoot as to what we will find. It’s getting late in the season for chums and humpies.
The 25-horse motor scoots us along the lake, and after a scenic 30-minute cruise, we anchor up at the river mouth. Enticingly, salmon are surfacing where the current eddies out into the lake. We switch to fly rods and tie on some big pink salmon streamers, wade out waist deep, and before long both of us are onto some nice bright fresh humpies. They only go 3-5 pounds, but look and fight ever so much like rainbow trout. Who can complain?!? Again, steady action for an hour or so then we gobble a quick lunch.
I ask Tad if we can bushwhack our way upstream. He says there is some good water above, but the going is tough because of a big landslide up there last year. The slide actually took out a U.S. Forest Service cabin, but fortunately the three anglers who were staying there were out fishing when the cabin was buried beneath tons of rocks and mangled trees. I’m game, so we motor to the opposite side of the mouth and wade ashore. Now I can see what he meant. Scaling the rocks and big downed trees is an adventure especially for an AARP member, but we finally make it…and are rewarded.
I flip my fly into a pocket behind a big boulder and let it drift, then suddenly a big chum is on it. Chums may not be big jumpers, but are bulldog fighters. The big boy comes to Tad’s big net very reluctantly. The action is non-stop for the next hour or so, with four or five pinks alternating between some hefty chums. In one pool above the rapids the water is slow and clear, so we can watch the salmon stalk and inhale the flies. What a treat!!
Finally we decide to head back to the little bay down the lake and catch a few more silvers before the portage out. They don’t disappoint. We explore a couple of shallow
fingers off the bay and score silvers in each one.
Now it’s almost 3 p.m. and time to portage back the mother ship. While Tad kayaks out to get the big boat, I wade deep and loft some long-distance casts into the water just below the falls. Something whacks my spinner hard, and I have another nice chum, then a humpie. What a great way to the end the day. Tad gets to see my rod bending as he motors back around the point 15 minutes later.
The trip back is smooth, and it won’t be long before I am downing some suds and a big hamburger at the Bayview Pub overlooking the harbor. Up tomorrow is the Nakwasina River where we will be wading and fly fishing for silvers, humpies, and chums. I’d better ice my elbow tonight!