by John Conger
As originally published in American Outdoorsman Magazine — Summer 2018
Wham, another wild ‘Slamming Silver’ Salmon just crushed my 1982 Pink Pixie lure on light tackle on a remote stream on the last day of my salmon fishing trip on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. Just like the previous five, (limit is six) this 15-pound hooked-nosed beast took the monofilament out of my spool at warp speed. Down the stream it flew, using the swift current like a slingshot. My only thoughts were, “Put on the Brakes,” before this fish found an underwater log or rock to break off or even before this Silver does their famous acrobatic jumps with somersaults and full twists, jumps that Greg Louganis would be impressed with. Tight lines are a must when fighting these fish especially before the Silvers engage into their ‘Death Roll’ maneuverer. Running downstream, reeling in valuable line, I began to remember my first time Silver Salmon fishing in an Alaskan river, way back in 1982, with my 7/8 oz Pink Pixies, my Dad and his words of Salmon wisdom, “Watch out for the Roll.”
I met Brad Steuart, proprietor of Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge, a 5-star Orvis Endorsed Fishing Lodge several years ago on the Hunting trade show circuit. Brad must have liked me, because every year he kept inviting me up. But last year Brad stated to me, “John, we are now offering some of the best late September Northern Silver Salmon Fishing in all of Alaska; up to 20-pound Silvers on a fly. Come on up and check it out.” Brad didn’t have to ask again. So, I headed north to Alaska in late Sept of 2017, to Ketchikan and then a 30-minute scenic float plane ride to Boardwalk Lodge, on Prince of Wales Island, just as the annual Northern Silver run were arriving.
When you step off the float plane at Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge, you are instantly greeted by Brad and almost all of his staff on the dock. Watching the departing guests leave and the staff saying good bye, I was amazed by the abundance of hugs. Usually you see just handshakes. You could really see the sincerities in these hugs. Looking back towards the Lodge, the woods were full of Sitka Spruce, Hemlock, and Western Cedar trees, just like the photos on the brochures. Of course, the brochure doesn’t show the Sitka Blacktail deer roaming the Lodge’s shoreline, the Harbor seals gorging themselves below the dock on the remains of that day’s catch and of course, the Bald eagles soaring in the skies above. And then there is Boardwalk’s boardwalk. From the top of the dock ramp to the “Welcome to Boardwalk Lodge” sign, approximately 230 yards of pure boardwalk walking pleasure, 25 feet above the saltwater lagoon, nestled amongst the Sitka Spruce, the Hemlock and Western Cedar trees with moss on most of the trees branches. I felt like I was walking in a rain forest, lost in thought, just living in the moment. Viewing the Lodge out in the distance, I was overcome with an Alaskan wilderness sensation. Wow!!
In Alaska, there are fishing resorts and then there are Fishing Lodges. Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge, which is Orvis endorsed, offers the best of both worlds when it comes to World-Class Fishing and Lodging. My first night at the Lodge, I was asked by Brad,” Fresh or Salt?” My first thought was that they were asking about having a fresh green salad or perhaps, having salt on top of my Margarita glass. I was a bit embarrassed when Brad Steuart stated “No John, we were referring to either Freshwater or Saltwater fishing.” My bad. When one fishes the Fresh, the guides were talking about fishing either freshwater-streams or lakes for Cutthroat trout, Dolly Virden or my newest fishing pleasure, fishing for Silver salmon on Prince of Wales Island’s numerous rivers and streams using a fly or spinning rod. As for “Salt,” Boardwalk offers trolling for all variety of salmon, both King and Silver in their beautiful metal boats, with all the modern equipment, fishing for Pacific Halibut, lingcod and a variety of various bottom fish. There is never an off day for Boardwalk fishing guides, because if the winds are howling 20 to 30 knots on the Salt, the guests and guides head for the protected Freshwater opportunities. I asked one of the guides, Bear (yes that’s his name) his thoughts for tomorrow morning. He stated, “Slack tide in the morning, with no wind. Beautiful mornings like tomorrow are best for Halibut. I would go Salt.” Salt it would be.
Day 1: Saltwater Fishing
Day One started right after 6 am breakfast. As for breakfast, whatever you wanted. For me, my 2-egg omelet with onions, cheese, ham, with three slices of bacon. And with orange juice. I passed on the toast, needed to watch the weight a bit. For your upcoming day’s lunch, they had a beautiful buffet—you build what you wanted with a variety of meats, cheeses, chips, breads, apples, candies and cookies—it never ended. No wonder I gained seven pounds on this trip. Thank goodness for the larger lunch bags. Now it was off to the dock. Seven o’clock, be on board or be left behind. Joining me today, I had Boardwalk Lodge’s own Brad Steuart and one of the Lodge’s top Saltwater guides, Sean, who knows fishing far better than his youthful appearance would indicate. We were heading out to catch a slack tide and fish for a few Halies. Just minutes into Clarence Strait, on the Inside Passage, we stopped. Sean states, “We’re here.” I guess I was shocked by the short distance to the Halibut grounds.
I don’t know why this is, I never have had the ability to catch a Halibut over 20 pounds. I’m jinxed. My wife Robin has, my kids have, but not poor old me. I have to add Boardwalk to my distinguished list. I caught my chicken Halie in no time, as did Brad, ranging in the 10 to 15 lb class. Great table fare. In the following days, guests of the Lodge brought up some monsters from the deep, upwards of 60 pounds and released an 80-pounder. It was nice to catch a Halibut but I was really up in Alaska visiting Boardwalk Lodge for the great late run of big Northern Silvers.
We headed across the Strait in search of Silvers and within minutes, Sean stated, “We’re here” and was already rigging up the Scotty downriggers. I must say the weather was very calm, the ocean almost glass-like and skies were clear. I must have brought the great weather in from Arizona I kept telling them. I asked Brad, “Where are the other boats?” I didn’t see a sport fishing boat within sight. Brad stated very matter-of-factly, “This is why anglers love our Lodge, salt or freshwater, our Lodge doesn’t have fishing pressure.” Just then we had a double hitter, fish on both rods. Brad and I reeled in our fighting Silvers. Sean did a great job netting. Blood on board. I loved it. We limited out on some very nice 8 to 14 pounders in the next few hours. And we NEVER saw another sport fishing boat the entire day. Amazing. I never had that experience before. Then again, I’ve never been to Prince of Wales Island before. Brad tells me it’s the norm.
Being a salmon connoisseur, fish preparation is a very important matter to me. There is nothing worse in six months’ time when you grab some fish out of the freezer and it’s freezer burnt. I’ve never seen a ‘Fish Prep facility’ like Boardwalk’s. This building is huge, with numerous drying tables, with two high volume fish vacuum machines, with the largest walk-in freezer I’ve ever seen at a fishing resort. Tons of trays with each client’s name. Fish boxes stacked ceiling high. After my Silver’s and Halibut were filleted and rinsed thoroughly, they laid out the day’s catch on top of large drying tables and then patted down the fish with cotton towels to remove all moisture. Then the fish prep master, pulled out various size super heavy-duty freezer bags to accommodate the fish’s width, height and length. I’ve never seen this vacuum packing sealing machine before in Cabela’s or Bass Pro’s Catalog. Up to 6 to 10 vacuum sealing bags at one time. (Mental note—I got to get me one of these.) The processed fish are placed in the freezers for shipping home. Job very well done.
I was told 5 pm for hors d’oeuvres and 6 pm sharp for dinner. I had a few hours to kill so I just had to walk the boardwalk again before taking a shower and having a cocktail of choice. Water, a variety of pop and a good selection of beers are always placed in the fridge by the Lodge’s patio. My large modern log cabin room with its own shower was awesome. After cleaning up, I headed down to the lodge for numerous hors d’oeuvres and then for dinner. Due to Hurricane Irma in Florida, the other guests were delayed, so I was the only guest for dinner that night. Brad, being the gentlemen he is, pulled up a chair and had dinner with me. The dinner was awesome. The dessert was great but the conversations with Brad was priceless. Brad became a very good friend that night.
Day 2: Freshwater Silver Salmon Fishing
I was introduced to my freshwater guide Kris, who happened to be a former Washington State D-1 soccer player. SHE was far less than half my age, was dressed in Orvis waders (a very cute outfit I must add) and ready to go throw a fly. I said to myself, “This is going to be fun.”
She drove me to one of the numerous streams on Prince of Wales Island (I promised to keep the river’s name private). She grabbed the net, both the fly and spinning rods, lunches and drinks and she headed out. I had to run to catch up. After a 5-minute rainforest walk, we arrived at the river and I just had to stop and take a stare. Several thousand spawning Pink Salmon (Humpies) were in the river, swimming upstream, fighting the salmon fight, trying to fulfill their destiny. As we walked across the river, it was hard not to step on a spawning Humpy and we caused a ‘Humpy Wave,’ the river rose, caused by Humpies moving through shallow water, trying to get out of our way. It was just incredible.
Kris handed me my fly rod, and stated, “Let’s see what you got.” When a woman asks “what you got,” no matter what sport it is, one’s going to be a bit nervous, especially at my age. So, I banged the fly a few times on the water getting loosened up, and then quickly regained my old form and made some pretty nice casts. Silvers were periodically jumping out of the river and I knew it would be a matter of time before I connected. Just then my line went slack; it quit drifting downstream. Kris yells, “Set the hook!” I pulled, and then wham—that fighting silver took off, racing downstream taking out most of my slack line. Game on!!! This gal knew her fishing.
After catching three very nice chromed Silvers on the fly rod and mentioning my back was getting a bit sore from the fly casting, Kris handed me the spinning rod. Yes, I know that Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge is an Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Lodge, not an Orvis Spinning Lodge. Only the “Best of the Best” Lodges obtain this designation. There is an old fly fishing saying, “Steelhead are a fish of 1,000 casts” and I’ve found that to be true. Well that day, fly fishing for Silvers were a fish of several hundred casts. Fishing that day with spinning gear, Silvers were a fish of not too many casts. My little 1982 Pink Pixie just got hammered; hammered so much the hooks were bent beyond repair. However, I did limit out with six glorious silver salmon, between 6 to 14 pounds. As I munched on my lunch, sitting on the river bank, taking in my surroundings, pinching myself that I was staying at Boardwalk Lodge on Prince of Wales Island, Kris had my six Silver’s filleted in a NY minute. As we were leaving, I asked Kris, “How did I do today?” She stated, “You were above average.” My smile grew as we walked back to the truck, I’ll take “above average,” especially at my age with a sore back and all.
When I asked Kris about my fly fishing ability compared to Boardwalk’s other guests, I knew Kris and the other guides can and will help all fly fishermen, from beginners, intermediates and folks well beyond, above average. I asked Kris for a few tips to improve my fly fishing. She stated one of the reasons I had a sore back was because I made so many false casts. I was working the line back and forth in the air to generate more length in my casts. Thus, the word false casting. Instead, Kris showed me the “water load” method (also known as a water haul). It uses the tension of your line on the water, along with the force of the current, to load the rod and create the energy necessary to cast in a single, fluid motion. With these Silver salmon, one doesn’t have to worry about spooking the fish, like one does on a small stream in Colorado or in New Mexico.
When we got back to the Lodge, once again I heard, hors d’oeuvres at 5 pm and dinner at 6. Fishing was sooo good we got back early. Time for a quick nap, shower and get ready for cocktails.
Once again, the hors d’oeuvres were awesome and dinner was divine. And desserts were to die for. I will say this, the food was as good as any fine dining resort restaurant you would ever find, which was great for me, because I love eating.
Day 3: Fishing with Brad at Luck Lake
Brad yelled out to me, “John, we’re heading up to fish Luck Lake.” That sounded great to me. Brad wanted to show me the beauty of Prince of Wales Island’s higher alpine lakes loaded with Dolly Varden, Sea-Run Cutthroat trout and spawning Sockeye and Silver salmon. Brad parked the truck and stated we have a ½ mile walk down the stream to Luck Lake. As we walked down and through the stream, with a variety of salmon, Humpies, Silvers and Sockeyes yielding to our movements, I noticed a dozen half-eaten salmon bodies lying on the stream bank. “Hey Brad, are there any black bears around here?” Brad, stated, “John, this is Alaska, of course there are bears. Some big ones too.” With Brad’s encouraging words, once we reached Luck Lake, I waded out further in the lake, far away from the stream just in case we ever had a furry competitor join us for fishing.
For the first half hour, I had no luck at Luck Lake for Silvers, using my spinning rod. Brad, on the other hand, kept reeling in Humpies and Sockeyes almost every other cast, using his trusted fly rod. At 74, Brad had not lost his love for fishing, nor his love for his adopted state of Alaska. I was quite impressed especially how he ran his lodge, with his 10 plus hour days. I could really tell he loves his work. And then “Bam,” a 14-lb Silver took off with my Pink Pixie. That Silver must have jumped a dozen times. No lie, this Silver swam right towards me and through my legs. In three feet of water, I had to push the rod, tip first between my legs, into the water and grasp the rod from the other side. That Silver might not have been the biggest salmon I’ve caught on this trip but definitely the most memorable.
No-go on the Dollies and Cutts this day. Brad figured the spawning salmon pushed them further into Luck Lake. No biggie, caught three Silvers and a couple of Sockeye. What a beautiful crystal-clear day on Luck Lake.
When we arrived back at the Lodge, the sign stated, hors d’oeuvres at 5 pm and dinner at 6. I was catching on.
Day 4: Last day of Fishing
I went up to Brad begging for another day on the Fresh. So it was, fishing the Fresh with Sean and his father John on my last day of this fishing trip, who came up from the lower 48 to see his son. It was great seeing Sean and his Dad fish together, as I had done with my Dad so many years ago. It bought back so many powerful memories. We went to the same river I had fished with Kris two days before. Sean had told me he visited the same river with another guide the previous week and caught numerous Silvers on flies. As I watched Sean fly fish, I could quickly tell he was well beyond ‘Above Average.’ His casting was like poetry, fluid in motion. He would have easily been the fly-casting double for Brad Pitt in the River Runs Through It movie.
I had a secret contest with Sean that day, I thought it was fair, Sean the ‘young buck fishing guide’ using a fly vs ‘old man’ me with a spinning rod. Game on!!! With me being up 5 to 3 (Silvers on the bank—I’m not competitive) I hooked into the beast. I remembered my Dad cautioning me about the Silver’s Death Roll, and I had a brief chat with my departed Dad: “I got the Roll handled Dad. Just watch me bring it in.” Just as I expected, just like the other five previously, this Silver started his head shaking and body thrashing from side-to-side and began to roll himself up on the line, towards the angler trying to throw that hook. A taught line is a must for these bigger, stronger Northern Silvers or they will be spawning vs. being on my BBQ. I’ve seen Silvers roll themselves up on the line in complete body rolls, rolling four, five, even six times trying to throw the hook. Not this day however, after a 10-minute fight, I pulled my net from behind my back, with one arm holding that rod high and with the other, laid that huge 16-pound Northern Silver into the bottom of the net. As I walked back to the shore, with my net held high, emotions overtook me. I had to spend a few minutes to reflect on my last day as I sat on the bank, staring at my limit of bright chrome Northern Silvers, thinking this might be one of the best salmon fishing days of my life. The beauty and the tranquility of Prince of Wales Island was overwhelming. I was done fishing for the trip, my daily limit in tow, heading back to Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge for another night of great food, spirits and excellent conversations with the other guests and, of course, with Brad before I left for home the following day.
Head North to Alaska yourself someday. There is no better lodge in all of Southeastern Alaska for service, food and of course, both Freshwater and Saltwater fishing opportunities than Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge. I now understand why of all Brad’s guest were hugging Brad and his staff, as their saying goes, ‘Come here as Guests, Leave here as Family.’