By Mike Benbow / Special to The Herald
It wasn’t long after I moved to Washington state 40 years ago that I became completely crazy about fishing for steelhead.
Steelhead are rainbow trout that go to sea to find more food, and they come back to their home rivers in the fall looking pretty much like salmon.
But there’s nothing quite like the trouty tap, tap, tap of a steelhead on your line, followed by the aggressive grab, an electrifying run, and, sometimes, a spectacular leap into the air. That’s often the time when steelhead spit your fly back into your face, but I prefer to remember the times when they’ve knifed back into the river, fly intact, and taken off on another screaming run.
Over the decades, memories of steelhead fishing have started to replace the real thing for me. That’s partly because I’ve gotten older, but mostly because steelhead fishing has all but disappeared in much of Washington. Fishing for steelhead is either closed or greatly restricted in most local rivers. It’s still good on the Olympic Peninsula, but most of the better water there is crowded.
So you can imagine how excited I was when a friend steered me to a still wild river where the steelhead fishing remains every bit as good as it used to be.
The river? It’s the Sandy on the Alaska Peninsula, about 500 miles from Anchorage, smack dab in the middle of nowhere.
The remoteness of the Sandy and it’s wild beauty are a huge part of the enjoyment.
“Alaska is just a fascinating place,” said Jon Magnussen of Bellevue, who has been fishing the Sandy for seven or eight years for both Chinook salmon in June and steelhead in October. “You get out into this area and it’s like going back 150 years. You stand out here in the river and you don’t hear airplanes, you don’t hear traffic. It’s truly wilderness.”
Magnussen was among several members of the Evergreen Fly Fishing Club of Everett who made the trip to the Sandy. Others included Sandy Atkinson of Granite Falls and Ron Pera of Camano Island.
On one of the first nights that we were there, we watched in the dark as lava oozed over the rim of Mount Veniaminof, an active volcano on the Alaska Peninsula named after a Russian missionary.
In the morning, we saw black smoke spew from the volcano and noticed that a glacier at the volcano’s base was covered with ash.
Caribou roamed the tundra, and we saw foxes and big brown bears nearly every day along the river during our six-day trip.
Bears figure into the river’s discovery as a great place for steelhead fishing. As the story goes, a hunter visiting the lodge in the fall for a trophy brown bear brought a rod along, too, and started catching wild steelhead on a spinner.
The six members of our group, arriving on the second week of October were all fly fishers. We used spey or switch rods, which are long rods that you cast with both hands that allow you to roll the line out into the river without getting your fly tangled in the bushes.
Using a jet boat for transportation, two anglers and a guide fished different sections of the river every day, wading and casting along gravel bars and using sink-tip lines that keep the fly near the bottom.
We were swinging flies: casting to the far bank, allowing the fly to float downstream, and then letting it arc to the other side of the river at the end of the line.
Then you take a few steps and do it again, covering the river pretty methodically as you wade downstream.
The Sandy, a shallow river right off the Bering Sea, gets a daily injection of new, aggressive fish, so the numbers of steelhead caught and released were pretty impressive. It’s fair to say that I had some days where I landed more fish than I usually do in an entire winter steelhead season.
“A slow day here is better than anywhere else,” said Jay Robeson, lodge manager. “It’s a pretty special place.”
Atkinson called his trip “astounding” in part because there were so many fish and they were so unpredictable. “Every one is unique,” he said of the steelhead. “You don’t know what they’re going to do. One might cartwheel across the water. Another might explode on the surface. One might come right at you and then finally realize it’s been hooked. You never know what’s going to happen.”