by Chris Shaffer
Kenji King couldn’t see the river, nor could he hear it when he pulled his mid-’90s model Suburban onto a small pullout on the narrow, unmaintained, pothole-clogged dirt road. King had traveled an hour in the 4-wheel-drive vehicle now painted with mud and scratched by overgrown trees. He hadn’t seen another car, bike or person, only bald eagles and deer.
King was on the clock. The fishing guide for Boardwalk Lodge was out to find a steelhead that had never seen a human. It was his sixth day in a row to accomplish this feat. He felt no pressure.
Steelhead Fishing Season
“We’ll go this way,” he says, pointing into the old growth spruce-hemlock forest filled with pockets of muskeg. There was no path, not a single sign or any broken bottles to let us know we were in the right place to be. There are no guide books to follow or weekly newspapers to read an updated fishing report.
This was southeast Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. There are few trails, but heaps of water that has never been fished by anglers. This is what being adventurous really meant. Dressed in full body waders, we jumped, hopped, skipped, waded and practically swam through some of the most rugged and brutal backcountry conditions on the planet.
It was worth it.
After a 20-minute scramble we reached the bank, assembled the rods abs, and found steelhead that had evaded more bears than they had seen humans in their life. There was absolutely no fishing pressure on the system. Come to think of it, we may be the only two anglers ever to fish this portion of the watershed, an experience that Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge offers to its adventurous guests.
“I fish Prince of Wales Island because in some parts of the systems I can be the first and only person to fish,” says King, who calls Oregon home during the winter. “In some areas the fish have never ever seen an artificial fly. They’re like a pack of coyotes circling and taking their turns to ambush your fly or jig.”
Kings has spent his young life tackling steelhead fisheries along the West Coast. British Columbia and in Alaska; however, he’s never found a destination that’s impressed him more than the watersheds on Prince of Wales.
“Prince of Wales Island has a unique fishery,” says King, now spending his eighth year on the island and his third at Boardwalk. “It’s completely different. Here you have stained colored water and the Alaska rainforest. It’s incredible.”
You won’t find intimidating streams and large river systems on Prince of Wales, nor will you catch massive steelhead. Anglers fish the island for intimacy, pure waters, low pressure and for the opportunity to fish small systems for a near guarantee of landing wild steelhead and other fish including sea-run cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden and silver, chum, pink and sockeye salmon.
“The smaller water is very intimate,” King says. “Some of the streams you fish you may be the first person to cast into that stream the entire season. Most of the streams that are fished are ones that you can drive to. Nobody needs to take a plane or to do a lot of walking.”
Lay of the Land
Prince of Wales Island, one of the largest in the United States (behind only Kodiak Island in Alaska and the big island of Hawaii), has more than 1,000 miles of shoreline. It’s 45 miles wide, 135 miles long and encompasses 2,600 square miles. Nearly all of the lands on the island are part of the Tongass National Forest.
The island has a population of 6,000 people. The only way to reach Prince of Wales is via ferry, float plane or boat. There are no roads coming from Ketchikan, the largest nearby mainland Alaskan city. The climate is wet. Part of the southeast Alaskan rainforest, it receives between 60 and 200 inches of rain a year. Bring your rain gear.
While much of the island is truly wild, extensive logging options have cut more than 1,100 miles of roads. These roads connect the small communities and allow anglers easy access to many of the rivers, lakes and streams. Boardwalk Lodge is located on the eastern side of the island in Thorne bay, the fourth largest community on the island.
A short time ago there was little pavement on the island at all. However, whether good or bad, things are changing. A thorough road system is gradually developing. More roads are showing up annually. Fortunately though, there are no plans to pave the entire island. It’s likely Prince of Wales will remain wild forever.
On the other hand, while many anglers come to Boardwalk Lodge to spend a week of vacation in luxury, other anglers use the ferry to bring an RV to the island and try to learn the systems themselves. Others choose to stay and do-it-yourself lodges.
Prince of Wales doesn’t receive a huge number of steelhead, but they’re almost all native fish. Nearly every stream and tributary on the island holds some sort of run, although the numbers range from one to 1,000 on larger waters like the island’s largest river, the Thorne, which empties into Thorne Bay. Boardwalk, an Orvis-endorsed lodge, rests on the shores of the bay.
Many of the rivers and streams have no trails to them and few roads that access their banks. Nonetheless, you can get away with fishing roadside pullouts, but you need to do some scrambling to fish remote areas, which in this neck of the woods is anything more than 20 yards from the road.
There are two runs of steelhead on the island. The first comes in late fall and into December. This run only produces a small number of fish, and the weather is so harsh that the fish remain untouched. The spring run, on the other hand, is what guys like King live for.
Around the middle of April, temperatures begin to increase as the first Pacific storm hits the island. The increased rainfall brings the river up and also attracts a fresh run of steelies. It’s estimated that 25 percent of the steelhead enter on the fall-winter run and the rest come in the spring and vacate the island by early summer.
“The Thorne is unique because it has no glacial flow, and it has major lakes on the upper system and several forks, which creates a large ecosystem,” King says. “It’s a complete system. You have a good rearing system in the lake for the young and a lot of spawning grounds. It’s an island. There are very few places in the world that you can come fish a major island for steelhead. The Thorne is the single major system on the island.”
The Thorne is arguably the most prolific system on the island. The Thorne only sees 800 to 1,000 steelhead a year, but it’s the most accessible system on the island. Two days after a hard rain the stem is back to perfect levels. It can be fished by spincasters, fly fishermen and bobber fishermen. All fishing for guests on steelhead is catch-and-release only.
“We find the steelhead in pods,” King says. “Because it’s smaller water, the steelhead tend to stick together. They feel more comfortable that way in smaller waters.”
There are dozens of great steelhead waters on the island. The Karta, Harris, Salmon and Klawock rivers Eagle and Big Ratz creeks are all excellent steelhead fisheries, but Staney Creek is one of the most user-friendly waters. It clears fast after a rain and is easily accessible.
“In the spring I usually go with a bright color for a flash because the water is colder and the fish are more lethargic,” King says. “the good thing is that with a spinner you can get them to suspend. This gives the steelhead more time to grab it. You need something that you can flutter and allow it to stay in the pocket longer.”
Staney sees two- to three year classes of steelhead. The second-year fish tend to be 6 to 7 pounds, three-year fish run 8 to 12 pounds and you’ll find the occasional 12- to 16-pound fourth year fish.
“Because it doesn’t have lakes in the system, I believe there are better survival rates for steelhead fry because there are few trout,” says King of the Staney system. “In general, the predation isn’t bad. They work their way to holding water and remain there before going to their spawning grounds.”
While many anglers choose to fly fish, Staney is an excellent bobber creek because bobbers allow you to fish slower water.
Steelhead Fishing Season
More Than Steelhead
Prince of Wales Island offers far more than a steelhead fishery. Throughout the summer months, chum, sockeye, pink and silver salmon all choke the rivers and streams on its eastern front. Dolly Varden are also available, yet it’s the sea-run cutthroat fishery that draws in anglers from across the globe.
The Thorne River offers a world-class run of sea-run cutthroat. During the spring, anglers can seemingly catch and release more than 100 cutthroat a day, probably even more if they’re diligent.
The cutts aren’t huge, averaging 12 to 16 inches, but their feistiness and vibrant colors make them desirable, It’s common to catch fish from 8 inches to 3 pounds. They can be taken on a dry fly, by nymphing, with jigs or spinners, by novices or experienced anglers. During the spring they occupy nearly every inch of water on the Thorne. A spring steelhead/cutthroat trip is well worth the money. I’ve never had a 12-inch fish put my drag to the test like the cutthroat here.
When steelhead and cutthroat aren’t the main attraction, salmon are. The island is suffocated by hundreds of thousands of chum, pink, silver and sockeye salmon. The rivers and streams are so infested with them you would have no problem hooking a fish on nearly every cast. The fishing is that good.
For three weeks chums are the only salmonid in the systems. They enter the rivers in early July and are the only salmon in the river until late July, when the first wave of pinks embark on the island. Cum average 6 to 9 pounds, with some pushing 15. They remain in the rivers until early September.
“Because of the high density of fish, if you use a weighted fly you’ll snag them,” says King, who chooses to fish unweighted chartreuse or red-and-black files, size 6.
From mid-June through late August, sockeye are the main attraction on the island. Sockeye tend to average 4 to 7 pounds, with trophy fish nearing 10. Again, action is a no-brainer. How easy is it? You don’t even need any bait, just a slow drifted red hook fished under an indicator. It can even be fly lined. Try and fish it as fast as the current is pushing and stick to slow moving areas.
Sockeye remain in the lakes on the island for at least two months before continuing up tributaries to spawn. A size 8 or 10 fly with red on the body and a little crystal is best. Look for a good density of fish. They won’t be difficult to find. Sockeye aren’t always inclined to bite, but patience will surely put you in the game. Prince of Wales doesn’t see a huge run of sockeye, but definitely enough to target.
“Most of the watersheds on the island aren’t big enough to support them, but some of our systems hold good numbers of sockeye,” King says. “Find a system with a lake on it and you’ll do well.”
Those systems include Trumpeter Lake, the Thorne and Hatchery, Log Jam, Eagle and Big Ratz creeks, among dozens of others.
Fall is framed by fishing the rivers and streams for silver salmon. Silvers are a big attraction and arrive in the fall when most tourists have left the island. Each year, silvers make two runs: a smaller run of small fish in July and the main run in September when the first heavy rain of fall comes. With the rain comes one big influx of fish, which is followed by weeks of stragglers.
Silvers are accustomed to taking flies or spinners. A bright, flashy fly is best: a size 1 or 2 Maribou Streamer, Popsicle or Alaska bouor and orange, silver or chartreuse Panther Martin spinner will do the trick, but make sure to set your drag. Silvers are sure to take you for a ride. The silvers average 12 to 15 pounds, with some fish creeping towards 20 each season.
“You’ll want to cover a lot of water when you’re fishing for silvers,” King says. “Beware looking for aggressive fish. Both with spinners and flies you’ll want to cast slightly downstream and pull across the current so they can spot it, follow it and, as you retrieve, chase it in. It’s a predation thing: They want to be able to chase it. I start high and I work down. It’s better than waiting for pods to come to me.”
Pinks are the island’s pests. They populate nearly every stream and are a cinch to catch. They don’t care much for spinners, but you’ll snag a lot of them if you choose to spincast for them.
Pinks only spend two years in the saltwater. They have a high survival rate and run 3 to 5 pounds on average. Look for trophies in the 8-pound class. Prime season is early August through September.
“If you’re going to use a lure, I’d use a spoon on a slow retrieve because it wobbles,” King says. “the tough thing about pinks is that there are so many of them you tend to snag a lot of fish.”
Bobber-and-jigs and flies also do the job. For fly anglers, try a pink or purple egg sucking leech, size 2, with a fairly long pattern and a weighted head. Short strips are your best method of retrieval. “It looks like a shrimp,” King says.
Dolley Varden are a small composition of what the island has to offer. They are available, but there are much better places to fish for them in Alaska and Canada. Dollies average just 8 to 12 inches on this island, yet can be caught up to 17 inches, still smaller than the 10-pound pigs you get at Inconnu Lodge In Canada’s Yukon Territory.
“Where there are salmon there will be Dollies,” King says. “They follow the salmon up. The Dolly Varden can usually be found sitting on the bottom. They’re very aggressive. They’re a really serious predator. They’re all about eating something.”
That something can be as simple as a Glow Bug, a streamer, a spinner or eggs.