February 1998 – By Lori Lincoln
All addicts have their own code, so at first I was baffled listening to the anglers debate the merits of matching the hatch versus purple egg-sucking leeches and woolly buggers while we snacked on fresh oysters.
I’d only arrived at Boardwalk Lodge by float-plane a half an hour before, and already I was caught up in a heated debate about why steelhead bite or don’t. Over pre-dinner cocktails, I’d met a few frustrated fishermen who had logged hours on the local rivers and had nothing more to share than tales of nips on their flies.
You can’t hide much for long in a lodge that caters to a maximum of 19 guests, and soon I’d confessed I’d never fished, let alone fly fished, in my life. The consensus: If I had any tendency toward masochism, I’d be hooked. That was fine with me. I was here on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Forest to do the time-battle with the river and sea.
Like many, I’d been captivated by the movie A River Runs Through It, and I believed I too could make a fly rod’s line dance.
I’d come to Boardwalk because I loved the rejuvenating effect of Alaska, and although it was as far from roughing it as you could get, the lodge was remote and sat in the lushly forested Inside Passage. The fact that it was the middle of April and the season for steelhead, among fly fishermen’s most prized catch, was a bonus.
Over a dinner of fresh Dungeness crab legs and halibut, it was decided I’d spend my first day with a regular rod and reel at sea. Everyone retired before 11 p.m., and I tucked into my bed, wrapped up in a thick Navajo-print comforter and flannel sheets, dreaming of catching and releasing huge steelhead.
The 6-7 a.m. breakfast feasts are coordinated with freshly squeezed juices, coffee and a spread of muffins to go along with the chef’s made-to-order omelets and pancakes. You pull together your own lunch before heading out for the day, picking from a buffet of fish spreads and lunch meats, as well as fruit, chips and fresh cookies.
I met up with my guide after breakfast, and we walked the lodge’s winding boardwalk to a heated Olympic Ocean cruiser. Surrounded by mist shrouded mountains, we motored out into Thorne Bay.
At Boardwalk Lodge the guides are gods. They know that if the water is cooler than usual, the fish are sluggish. Too much krill in the water, and the fish won’t jump at bait. Most importantly, they know the best spots, The guides cater to novices as well as fanatics, so the skipper was practiced in giving the initiation run.
We cast about peacefully for hours, moving to different fishing spots, and I successfully reeled in red snapper, sea bass and rockfish. But my guide was edgy. He wanted us to hook a Big One, and the day was nearly over. We cruised over to a spot off Split and Double Island, and I let out 250 feet of line into a trench. Minutes later the line snapped taut, and a monster fish ran with it. “Whatever you do don’t let the rod tip drop. Keep the tension.”
Halfway through the hour-and-15 minute tug-of-war, with crank arm raging, I huffed that I couldn’t hold on any longer. “Yes you can,” he insisted. “I can’t help you. That’s why it’s called sportfishing.” With constant coaching and a mantra of “Don’t let the fish win,” I finally reeled the halibut up to the surface, where my skipper harpooned it. The beast thrashed, broke the hook and down for its final underwater run with a buoy attached. Twenty minutes later, the skipper was heaving it into the boat the biggest, ugliest fish I had ever seen.
He radioed in to the other guides to get the scale and camera ready, and as we motored up to the dock, a small crowd gathered. The catch of the day turned out to weigh 98.6 pounds. The gods of fish would have their way with me the next day, but this evening I reveled in my beginner’s luck and the first big catch of Boardwalk’s season.
I awoke the next morning primed for a day of fly fishing. After breakfast a few other guests and I headed out with the head freshwater guide to one of more than a dozen fishing holes that were jumping with small cutthroat trout. It was one of southeast Alaska’s rare, cloudless, hot days, and eagles swooped from tree to tree spying on us. I quickly discovered that fly fishing is not as easy as it appears in the movies. The graceful arcing and looping of line that my fellow fly-fishers seemed to execute so effortlessly eluded me. I watched at this hole and the next as everyone caught and released dozens of trout. For hours I tried, but I just couldn’t lay out my line and make the fly dance on the water.
“You have to find a rhythm,” advised fellow guest Brian back at the lodge, as he soaked in the hot tub and I drank a beer plucked from a cooler. After days of fishing, he was finally satisfied because he’d almost reeled in a steelhead, but our conversation was cut short in my haste to find my camera to photograph a huge black bear ambling a few hundred feet away across the mud flats below.
I spent the next morning hiking before departing on a seaplane that afternoon with 65 pounds of frozen vacuum-packed halibut and a humbled appreciation of fly fishing.
The Fine Print
The resort is in Thorne Bay, 42 miles northwest of Ketchikan, Alaska. Alaska Airlines flights from Seattle to Ketchikan take one and a half hours.
Boardwalk Lodge is deluxe accommodation that serves up gourmet meals and personalized service. The steelhead run is in April and early May. While King Salmon fishing starts in June, other Salmon runs begin in mid-July. All gear is provided.
Rooms have queen or twin beds and private bathrooms. Rates are all inclusive, with a 30-minute floatplane flight between Thorne Bay and Ketchikan. The lodge can be rented out by groups. For reservations, call the lodge at 800-764-3918.