Alaska Day 1, The Tug is the Drug

“Well, don’t you look chipper.” Fellow steelhead angler, Case Hegg-James, said to me as I regrouped with the team of five after an overnight layover in the Seattle Airport. The rest of the crew spent the night at Gate N, awaiting our early flight to Alaska, while I caught some zzz’s at my brother’s house in Seattle.

“How was staying here?” I asked, but I knew it was a stupid question. Case looked at me with what appeared to be sleep-deprived eyes, took a deep breath, then spoke.

“I didn’t get much sleep.”

“Aww, that sucks.” I said, and did a pretty good job of sounding a tad surprised. 

“How about you?” I asked Felecia. Felecia is relatively new to fly fishing, and is the significant other to my colleague, James Teat, who organized the trip. She too had sleep-hungry eyes and said, “I forgot my sleeping pad”. 

“Oh no.” I said with a chuckle, knowing full well that this hard floor would provide little to no comfort. 

Lucky for us all it wasn’t long before we heard the announcement to board our flight to Yakutat, Alaska. With one quick stop in Juneau, and with the change of time zones, we arrived at our destination at around 10:30 a.m., Alaska Standard Time. 

James Teat, fellow guide and friend, set up our trip and was fantastic with communications so each of us knew exactly what to expect before we set off to fish.

A quick stop at the grocery store, next check into the lodge, lastly stop at the liquor store, and finally fishing. 

We were all anxious to fish, so getting some priorities straight was the best move for us. Once the liquor store out of the way, it was time to hit the water. 

“Let’s get the sea-run cutthroat out of the way first, just to check it off the list.” James said. We had all agreed to this weeks ago, but being there in the moment made it all the more thrilling. In unison, we all glanced down at the water that held the cutthroat as we passed over the small bridge and scrambled out of the van once it was parked.  

Eric Elliott, owner of Float Alaska, and Corbin Ayers, graphic designer for Drift West in McCall, were also part of our team of six. The two of them added a great deal of knowledge to our crew; Eric with his vast knowledge of Alaska, and Corbin with his love for steelheading and spey fishing. The sea-run cutthroat trout stood no chance, and were a quick check off the list, as far as species go.

Cannon Beach was just a few minutes away, and actually has an old cannon to which the beach was named after.

A quick stop there offered up a fantastic view, and next came the main event.

Fishing the lower section of the river was the plan of attack. The theory was that with the amount of time it takes for guides to float the river, the lower stretch would be untouched for the better part of the day. James was the only one of us that had fished this river in the past, a few years prior, and this plan had been brewing in his mind ever since. 

This lower stretch really is a lower stretch, as it is greatly affected by the tide. The mouth of the river that opens up to the bay is within eyesight of the takeout where we started to fish.  Lucky for us the water was at low tide, and the six of us were within eyesight of each other as we found a spot to fish. 

A path on river-right led us upstream, and although the path was less that ten to twenty feet from the bank, we were still walking in thick, lush forest complete with large beds of moss that covered the trunks of the trees and anything else that had been abandoned on the trail. 

James, Eric, Case, and Corbin were on the water fishing, as Felecia and I walked upstream from Corbin, who stood out among the bunch due to his spey fishing. We found a small path off the main trail that led us to the water. Getting to the river any other way would be almost impossible, due to the thickness of the foliage that flanked the river’s edge.  

Stepping into the river was quite nice after a small hike on the path. The river bed was made up of smaller, more gravel-like rocks, rather than the slick boulders that I am accustomed to in Idaho. 

“What stretch would you like to fish?” I asked Felecia as we unhooked our lines. 

“I don’t know. I am not sure what I’m looking for.”

“You know, I don’t know either, but I saw James fishing a stretch that looked similar, so…”  

Without any instruction on this river, we decided to just start fishing. 

The waves of rain battered our jackets as we made cast after cast, and with the rain came lower visibility on the water. 

“Moncada, you have Chromers right in front of you.” I looked over my shoulder to see James with his fly rod pointed at the water. Chromers, or chrome, is a term used to describe a steelhead fresh from the ocean. The steelhead eventually changes color to look more like an enormous rainbow trout, which is essentially what they are. To target a chrome steelhead is the most coveted opportunity in the steelhead world. I whipped my head around to look right where James was pointing. 

“I don’t see a damn thing.” I said, eyes still on the water. 

“Look.” He said, moving in right next to me and pointing again. I quickly realized I was looking too far out into the river, and…

“Wait. That movement?” I said, looking at what looked like shifting riverbed.

“Yep, you see them now?” 

“I thought…” I said, bewildered. “I thought it was the rain making me see that.”

“Nope, that’s a fish, Moncada.”

And now it was clear as day. The chrome fish reflected everything around them, and now that they were pointed out, I could see several large masses moving no more than fifteen feet in front of me. 

“There’s more up there!” I pointed. 

“Yep.” James confirmed, looking upstream. 

“Go for ‘em!” I said, ensuring James that I had no worries about him fishing so close to me. 

“Okay” he said, and we both started to target the masses that shifted in front of us. 

Over and over we casted to these fish with no love. At one point, Eric Elliot was up on the trail looking down at us, calling out fish as he saw them move in. 

“Right on that light sand line you have about eight steelhead sitting in front if you, Moncada.” 

“James, your steelhead just shifted upstream behind that log.” 

This went on for a long while until I came to the conclusion that no matter where you were on the planet, steelhead still won’t eat what you throw at them. 

“Stupid ass fish.” I said, giving up on the spot to look for something else.  Corbin had a hit with the spey rod, but the fish hadn’t stayed connected for long. 

“I felt a bump and saw the flash.” He said, as he too was looking for some fresh water to fish. 

Steelhead are a funny beast. They can have you feeling great about life when you are hooking into them, or leave you down in the dumps as if you have no right to even be on the water. Right now, I was not feeling good. Though night didn’t fall until after 10pm, I could tell it was getting late. I found a way to get back on the trail and headed upstream to look for a better spot to fish.  

I soon found myself alone and way out of earshot from the rest of my crew. I really didn’t even know what I was looking for on the river, just something that looked more “fishy”, I guess. I did let someone know I was headed upstream, but how far I wasn’t sure. The path maneuvered closer to the water’s edge when I saw it: a beautiful section of deeper pocket water that looked “fishy” as hell. I found a way down to the water and got into position to cast. 

A steelhead porpoised out of the water just downstream from me. I had my eyes on the location where I saw the fish, and it was so close that I could pull some line out of my reel and let my rig drift down into that section. I mended my line above my indicator, only my indicator wasn’t there. 

“AH!” I yelled, and shot the rod tip in the air. A bump and a very large chrome flash just under the water revealed I had just missed my opportunity in hooking a steelhead. 

“STUPID!!!” I yelled at myself, “What the hell are you doing looking at some porpoising fish when you should be watching your damn indicator?! GEEEZ!”

I had to shake off the disappointment quickly and get my head back in the game. With newly found focus I started to fish the same pocket, and this time when my indicator went down I was ready. Or was I? Any steelhead I have ever hooked into was in Idaho, and those fish had traveled a long way to get there. This was a fresh chrome steelhead, and that was apparent as soon as I set the hook. 

A large chrome rocket erupted out of the water like a Space X launch. The force of the fish ripped line from my hands, burning my fingers before I could react. The water spray from the splashdown hadn’t even fallen back to the river before the fish catapulted again. The fish soared completely out of the water like it was going for Olympic gold in the high jump. 

“IT’S A CHROMER!” I yelled out to anyone that could hear me, but I was alone. I also had no control of this fish and, with it being this hot, any idea of control was an illusion. 

“WHERE ARE MY BOYS!” I yelled, out of desperation, as the fish leaped again, tail walking like a dolphin preforming at Sea World. The fish was now dangerously close to all the brush and sunken twigs in the water.  The pressure I was applying was already maxed out as it jumped again, this time performing a full front flip and landing in the bushes that were half submerged in the river. 

“GET OUT OF THERE!” I yelled at the fish, but it had no intention of being landed. With max tension the fish thrashed in the sticks, and SNAP! 

I saw my line shoot back at me and I shielded myself to block it from slapping me in the face. 

“WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” I yelled, laughing maniacally at what had just happened. 

I was visibly shaking from adrenaline as I grabbed my line to re-tie my rig.  In a hurry to tie on the hook, I synched the line down and it completely came undone. 

“Damn.” I said. I went to give it a second attempted when I heard Eric Elliott’s voice coming from the path about ten feet up the bank. 

“Hey Erik…” (Oh no! I know that tone of voice.)

“It’s getting a little late…” (Oh damn it, no, no.)

“And the rest of the crew is back at the van.” (Mmmmmmmmmmm.)

“We are all getting a little hungry.” (No, don’t say it.)

“It’s time to head back.” (WAAAAAAAAAH!)

“Did you hear me yelling?” I asked, still tying on my hook.

“No. Did you have one on?”

“I did, and it just broke off. And now you are telling me to leave.” That last bit got Eric laughing. 

“Ten casts, just give me ten more.” I pleaded. 

“Ok, ten.” Eric agreed, and I started to cast. 

At around cast number twenty, James appeared at Eric’s side. 

“Moncada, it’s time!” He shouted down. 

“I know…” I said in defeat, and reeled in my line to head off the river. As I waded across I could hear Eric telling James why he allowed a few more minutes on the water.

“You hooked into one?” James asked, as I joined them on the path to head back. I told him all about it, the jumping the complete lack of control, and finally the loss. James seemed happy, not for the loss, but for the fact that one of us had felt the power of these fish. 

Case, Felecia, and Corbin ran into us as we were heading out. 

“There you guys are.” Corbin said. 

“Moncada hooked into a steelhead.” James said. 

“Did you bring it in?”

“No, it broke off.”


“You know…” Corbin went on to say. “That’s actually the best excuse to be running late. We thought you had hurt yourself or something. This is way better news.” 

“Well, I appreciate all of you coming back for me.” I said. 

We got back to the Yakutat on the Bay Lodge where we all got warm again and hung up our gear to dry. Dinner was very late this evening, but the fish I had hooked into gave me an entirely new jolt of confidence in my approach to steelhead. Although sleep came fast, the next day couldn’t arrive soon enough.