Days 3-4: Exploring Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

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The day after the hunt, I boarded the Fairweather, a high-speed catamaran run by the Alaska Marine Highway system (AMH) and one of the fastest in its fleet. In a scant four hours, I would travel the 150-plus miles to Juneau. Getting around the Tongass is very unique, with 656,000-plus square miles of islands and water, travelers must go either by air or boat. The AMH makes traveling this region simpler with stops in all the major ports.

While all ferries offer vehicle and passenger space, depending on the length of the trip they offer cabins, restaurants, game rooms and more. The ride from Petersburg to Juneau was filled with the stunning scenes of the famed inside passage. As tired as I was from the previous day's hunt, the sheer beauty of the glaciers, icebergs, snow capped mountains and whales made it hard to even blink for fear of missing an instant, let alone some sleep.

Juneau is Alaska's state capital, yet not a single road connects this city to the rest of Alaskan mainland. The only ways in and out are by plane or water, and in this city most visitors arrive by water. Juneau is a major cruise ship destination with almost a million visitors and crews disembarking from April to September. The influx of tourists makes this bustling port one of the most visited cities in all of the Tongass. Even with this huge influx of summer population, the areas directly surrounding Juneau are still as wild as it gets, as I would soon find out.

At the ferry terminal, I was greeted by Mark Kaelke, Trout Unlimited's Southeast Alaska project director. Mark gave me the quick tour of Juneau beginning with the Mendenhall Glacier. This glacier is a popular tour spot for tourists. With a viewing platform and facilities, this park makes seeing the glacier accessible for all. From there we walked to a small creek just off the parking lot. Here in a crystal-clear small stream I finally caught my first glimpse of what the heartbeat of the Tongass is truly all about--salmon. In the creek were the last of the sockeye salmon finishing out their life cycle spawning and expiring.

Mark and I made plans to fish the following day on a little creek called the Montana. It feeds directly into the Mendenhall River and ultimately runs into the Pacific. The Montana is a major spawning creek for both pink and chum salmon. These types of salmon are two of the lesser sought-after species primarily due to their subpar table fare once they enter the freshwater.

On the Montana Creek--like many other creeks, rivers and streams in the Tongass--once the pinks and chums begin dropping their eggs during the spawn, the Dolly Varden begin their feast. Dolly Varden, a member of the char genus, time their migration into the rivers and streams on the heels of the salmon and feed voraciously on the salmons eggs. These colorful "dollies" as they are known, were our target the following day.

Armed with a Temple Fork 3-weight fly rod, a floating line and an 8-pound tippet, Mark and I drove out to the creek and began the three mile hike to where we would step in. Astonishingly enough, the Montana is just 15 minutes from downtown Juneau, but once in the stream the wilderness takes over.

From the moment we stepped foot in the stream, there was not a square yard that did not have at least five pink or chum salmon in it. The stream was amazingly prolific; salmon both alive and dead were everywhere.

On my orange bead egg's third drift past a salmon redd (a redd is the depression the female digs out to lay her eggs) I felt the take of my first Dolly. Ounce for ounce these fish can pull. They were constantly using the current to their advantage; I was truly impressed. Many times the fish would run downstream with Mark or I running as well. These fish were simply awesome in a three weight. What was even more impressive were the markings and colors of the fish, they looked like an artist had painted them.

Both Mark and I proceeded to catch countless numbers of fish along the entire three mile stretch back to the car. Some topping out at over two pounds! Every so often I would take a break before my next fish to look around at the lush greenery and soak in the sound of rushing water. This was truly a special place, and it is all yours. The Montana Creek is public land waiting for the people to access it, as is the entire Tongass.

What was even more amazing was the number of spawning salmon we passed on our quest for Dollies. It is a conservative estimate to say thousands and thousands. This really drove home the point that Mark had been making since my arrival: Salmon are truly what the Tongass supports. This 2011 commercial salmon season alone will boast a record harvest for Southeast Alaska, with a net worth of well over $1 billion.

The Tongass is a perfect salmon producing habitat. It has all that the salmon need to procreate and to do so with great abundance. And not only does the Tongass give the salmon a place to grow and spawn, but the salmon give the Tongass nutrients back to grow. Researchers have found that the salmon carcasses left behind by feeding bears and eagles pass organic nutrients back to the trees and vegetation of the Tongass.

Scientists have found conclusive evidence of salmon signature molecules showing up in analyses of ancient trees rings. This fact has given the Tongass the designation of a "Salmon Forest." While the salmon numbers are impressive, resting on laurels rarely produces the best results. As one would expect, Trout Unlimited understands the interconnectedness of the salmon, the water and the forest, and has taken a "watershed" approach to protecting these vulnerable areas.

Thirty-five percent of the one thousand plus watersheds are protected, but that is not enough. Of the remaining unprotected watersheds, TU has identified 77 of these, roughly 1.8 million acres, as the most prime salmon and trout habitat in all of the Tongass. TU plans to push for legislation to protect them. Named the Tongass 77, the legislation would protect these 77 essential watersheds from industrial encroachment and other threats, and for the first time ever these areas would be managed for the fish, and ultimately be available for generations to come.

By the end of the day, my right arm ached from fighting fish. Other than Mark, I never saw another person all day, and gained a true appreciation for the "dollies" of the Tongass. As for the salmon, at one point during the day I had to actually push the salmon out of the way to cross the creek. That scene will forever be etched in my memory.

The following day promised the chance to get out and catch some of those salmon the Tongass is so good at making, ones that were fresh from the ocean and strong. The following morning I had to meet owner Arne Johnson of Bear Creek Outfitters, and my guide at eight a.m. sharp for a float plane trip in search of pink and silver salmon on a fly.