September 14, 2017
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!