Springtime in Alaska is marked by longer days and melting snow. It reveals a drab landscape of dead vegetation, void of color, and is without question, the least appealing face of Alaska’s distinctive four seasons. Beneath this sullen exterior, a bounty of new growth awakens from its annual winter slumber. Perhaps nowhere is this new growth more vibrant than in southeast Alaska rivers. For beneath the retreating shore ice and remaining snow, is an anadromous silver lining.
Beginning in late March, spring runs of wild steelhead are entering these tea colored streams after their instinctive sojourn at sea. Their white bellies, black backs and parasitic sea lice represent their life in the ocean. As they push forward against the relentless current of their natal rivers, many fall victim to awaiting predators. The most efficient are hungry sea lions that instinctively guard the river mouths where fresh and salt water meet. Tell-tale scars, missing fins, and torn flesh reveal that many returning steelhead came very close to never again seeing the gravel they emerged from.
These fish have escaped near death for their entire existence. This will to survive and overall wild beauty is why steelhead trout top the list of sport fish world-wide. These rainbow trout that somewhere in evolution, transitioned from fresh water to sea, are truly one of nature’s most mysterious and awesome creatures. Like salmon, the juvenile steelhead undergoes a remarkable transition by which they acclimate to salt water and eventually migrate to the ocean. There they achieve remarkable weight gains in the rich marine environment and return to their home rivers; big, bright and full of life.
Although many Alaska rivers see fall runs of Steelhead, spring fish seem especially unique. They come at a time when most rivers are still waking from winter hibernation and most importantly have no salmon to catch. The steelhead that fill Southeast Alaska rivers are an Alaskan angler’s dream and offer a timely fix for deprived, winter-weary souls. As their silver bright tails dance atop cold, snow-fed waters, so do the hearts of pursuant fishers. Feeling the arm numbing tug of a wild steelie as it races for the safety of submerged cover will leave even the most experienced angler trembling in their waders. For this is not just an everyday trip to the river or a routine hookup with an ordinary salmon. For many, this is the pinnacle of river fishing, a once in a lifetime connection that only a privileged few will ever experience. Perhaps the only feeling that can rival the take of this magnificent fish is the heart felt thrill of seeing it wiggle from your hand and swim away. For unlike salmon, steelhead trout do not always perish after returning to the river to reproduce. Like those that dream of their silver sides and rose colored gill plates, these gray ghosts will again return the following season and small southeast Alaska rivers will teem with the unmistakable sparkle of spring steel.