Days 5-6: Exploring Alaska’s Tongass National Forest
I met Arne Johnson owner of Bear Creek Outfitters at his shop early the next morning. The shop was adjacent...
I met Arne Johnson owner of Bear Creek Outfitters at his shop early the next morning. The shop was adjacent to the Juneau airport. It seemed odd at first with the juxtaposition of a flyfishing guide shop overlooking the tarmac of an airport rather than a river, but Bear Creek Outfitters specializes in fly-out, flyfishing adventures–so, really, it makes perfect sense.
I was lucky enough to secure a spot on their morning trip, accompanying the Blake family (Jackie, Gary, and Jordan) and Peter Voss–all of whom were cruise ship passengers out for a day of flyfishing. We stepped into our waders, then were whisked off to the float plane docks.
The floatplane is the best option for reaching the inaccessible wilderness of the Tongass, and these docks were busier than the main airport. We all climbed into the DeHaviland Beaver and taxied for takeoff. A 20-minute plane trip, and we were so far out in the wild that our guide Matt Boline unloaded a bucket from the plane full of supplies…just in case the plane could not get back and we need to spend the night. We were that far in the wilderness. He also unloaded a 12-gauge shotgun and explained about bears and what to do if we see one and what to do if one approaches.
While Matt began a casting lesson streamside, I took the opportunity to walk upstream and make a few casts myself. We were at the mouth of this stream where it opens up to the many straights of the inside passage, and according to Matt, the earliest run of Coho, or silver, salmon starts in this stream.
From the moment the stream was in view, I could see thousands of pink salmon clogging the stream. On the flight over, Matt had clued me in to a hole upstream that usually held a few silvers if they were in, so off I went. I caught a few pinks on a pink Clouser Minnow just to shake the cobwebs. Then tied on a big chartreuse-and-white Clouser that I use at home for striped bass. I found the hole, and on my first cast, I hit silver. It put on an aerial display and forced me running downstream. Finally I slid the great silver toward the bank and tailed it. It was as bright silver as could be–it even had some sea lice still on it. I shot a few pictures and released the fish thinking how amazing these fish really are.
That fish hatched a scant mile upstream from this spot at almost four years ago. Then swam off to the Pacific Ocean to live and grow. Next, the fish made its way back to this stream, bypassing nets and other fishermen for the last two months. And now a scant mile away from where it will spawn and die, I made its acquaintance. Truly amazing.
While that silver salmon will make its spawning grounds, there are some that may not. Not because they get caught, but because their natal streams have been blocked. In the Tongass, this is sometimes due to undersized or improperly installed culverts along logging roads. Hydroelectric power dams are also a threat to the Tongass and its salmon populations. As more people call Southeast Alaska home, the need for electricity increases and with all the streams and rivers, hydroelectric power is really an easy choice. Doing so irresponsibly, however, can lead to big impacts on the salmon population. Once a dam is created it can block the access to the natal spawning beds for salmon. Not all the rivers in the Tongass are in fact salmon spawning rivers, so hydroelectric power is a great choice over fossil fuels and other means of electric production in these non-fishing-producing streams. Trout Unlimited is working to ensure that hydro operations are implemented responsibly in Alaska and that impacts to fish are minimized.
As the group casting lesson concluded, they made their way upstream toward the hole. Peter Voss, on his first cast in the hole, hooked up with a nice silver, while Jackie, Jordan, and Gary continued their assault on the pinks. All four were nothing but smiles as I shot pictures of them on their adventure. No need to say “cheese” here. Most first-time fly anglers struggle to catch their first fish. Here in the Tongass, these happy rookies caught their first 20 fish–easily. Yet another reason the Tongass is so special and unique.
Once back at the shop, I overheard the Blake family recounting their 22 day Alaska vacation they had been on. They had started in northern Alaska, and were on the last 5 days of their trip before returning to Park City, Utah. Jackie Blake stated ” The southeast and the Tongass is our favorite place in all we have seen of Alaska.” Mine too Jackie, and I have one more day!
The following morning, Tim Bristol, TU’s Alaska Director, picked me up at the hotel and we met Mark at the Auke Harbor launch ramp. Today the plan was to head out to Favorite Channel and troll the saltwater for silvers and then take a few hours in search of some halibut. We boarded Mark’s aluminum skiff and raced out of Auke Bay. Before long, we were setting downriggers with flashers with hootchies (small squid skirts) and plug-cut herring. We varied the depths searching for our first strike. Tim got it and deftly fought our first silver to the boat. This one went in the box. My turn and I had a little trouble keeping fish hooked. Eventually I got over that and over the next few hours we boxed several nice silvers, while pods of humpbacks fed and surfaced all around us.
After a short run, we hit Mark’s halibut spot. On stout conventional gear we set 12/0 circle hooks and 1-pound weights down 200 feet to the bottom. Within minutes I felt life on the end of the line. I raised the rod felt the weight and began to reel. I could feel the head shake, similar to the flounder I catch on the east coast–only this was much bigger. As it surfaced we netted a 20-pound halibut, a perfect size to eat. We boated a larger one about 60 pounds and then we decided to pack it in, head to Mark’s house, and Tim offered to prepare some of those salmon and halibut.
Tim seasoned the fish and grilled them to perfection; dinner was delicious. Listening to Mark and Tim talk about the Tongass I could hear their passion for this area. Like it was their backyards and they wanted to keep it pristine for all those that wish visit.
However, Tim, Mark, and Trout Unlimited can’t do it alone. They need your help.
Sportsmen all over the country are losing these truly amazing opportunities for fish and game. The Tongass National Forest is pristine public land. It’s essentially a salmon forest–and we aim to keep it that way. Trout Unlimited is crafting legislation called the Tongass 77 that would conserve the forest’s highest-value salmon and trout watersheds, some 1.8 million acres, while still leaving over 9 million acres for responsible development, logging, and even hydroelectric power stations. This balanced approach should make a lot of sense to anglers and other sportsmen.
Call, email, or write your legislators, let them know that you support the Tongass 77. And that they should too.