Alaska Day 2  A Lucky Steelhead 

“James. James. Come in, James.” I said into the walkie talkie after hearing a bit of gargle-y static just seconds before. James had chosen me to hold one of the two walkie talkies after dubbing me the resident wanderer of our group.

“Can you hear anything he was saying?” asked Case, who was standing nearby, but not close enough to hear anything from the little radio. 

“sHHHHHHH, Chhhhhak, Prrrrrup, Fhhhhhhhhh!” Screeched the walkie talkie. I gave a slight glance at Case and said, “Thank goodness we have these.”

“What’s the range?” Case asked. 

“I’m sure the package said fifteen to twenty-five miles.” 

“Well, maybe it’s all these trees in the way.” 

“Maybe, but I doubt we are more than a mile away from James. If he is trying to contact us, it’s because he’s into some fish. Shall we find him?” I asked. 

“Why not?” Case agreed, and the two of us continued upstream on the path. 

Case and I had worked some water for a long while before hearing the walkie talkie static, while Corbin and Eric remained a little further downstream in the spot where I had hooked into a steelhead the day before. Felecia and James had walked their way up to the weir, where James had high hopes of finding steelhead. However, one glance at the water and you could spot steelhead anywhere. They were very easy to spot, or so I thought, until we had reached the weir. 

“Oh my…look at the size of those fish!” Case said, his voice almost boyish with excitement. His gaze was fixed on the dark torpedoes swimming over the white weir that highlighted every movement of a passing steelhead. 

“Oh yeah, that’s cool.” I said, but Case was not moving, his eyes were following the steelhead as they shuffled around before making the final push over the weir. 

“They’re frickin’ HUGE!” 

“They were huge down there too.” I said, pointing downstream, referring to the spot we had just fished. 

“I couldn’t see the fish like you guys could. This is my first time seeing them.”

“Oh, you’re kidding?”

“I just didn’t know what to look for, but now I do.” Case said, tearing his eyes off the massive fish and continuing our hike upstream to find James and Felecia. 

“There’s one.” Case said, stopping on the trail just a few yards upstream. Sure enough a long, dark cylinder shape was moving upstream on the other side of the river. 

“Yeah, there it is.”

“Well, now that I know what I’m looking for…” 

“You will see them everywhere.” I finished. 

“James, can you hear me now?” I said, after reaching a point where we could see two anglers further upstream. 

“That’s got to be them.” Case added before the walkie talkie answered back confirming what we had suspected: they had found fish willing to play. 

From a distance we could see the silhouette of Felecia as her fly rod shot up. 

“Yeah!” Her scream echoed down to us. The distant sounds of thrashing and her rod at a bend told us she had hooked up. James was right next to her with the net when we saw the recoil of her line. All the life in her fly rod went still, and her frustration echoed down the water. Still a bit far away, we couldn’t quite make out what she had said, but it sounded like “fudge!”

It was well past lunch time when we reached Felecia and James. They gave us a quick rundown on the spot they were fishing, pointing out each location they had hooked into fish but lost during the fight. Giving up the spot to us, they both headed back downstream to the van to grab some lunch. 

“Where do you want to start?” I asked Case. The spot was big enough for two anglers, and Case pointed to where Felecia had just lost a fish.

“I’ll take the upper.” He said, and together we began fishing. 

We could spot fish stacked dangerously close to the large deadfall that made up the pocket-water we were fishing. I was landing my cast close enough to the log that I felt every cast was presenting to the fish and to the log. Every one of us had already given up a freshly-tied steelhead rig to an unsuspecting branch hiding underwater, but when there are fish present, you make what could end up being a sacrificial presentation.

“YEAH!” Case yelled. I looked up to see his arms up past his head and stepping backwards. His rod was torqued to maximum capacity, and an enormous thrashing fish was at the end of his line. 

“CASE!!!!” I yelled, bringing in my line and storing my rod. We had partnered up today so one of us could help net the other’s fish, and I wasn’t about to let him down. 

“I saw it eat!” Case yelled. His stature from an excited hook set had now changed to a more firm stance in the water. The steelhead was nowhere ready to give itself up. Eruptions of water gave the impression of a geyser as the steelhead fought to shake free. 

“The net is on my pack.” Case said, his eyes never leaving the fish. 

Case had Corbin’s cradle net tethered and synched to the side of his pack like a rod tube. If I had the net on me, I would already be in a great netting position, but I was directly downstream from Case. The steelhead shot right in-between us, only visible by the fly line chasing behind. I was careful not to further spook the fish by remaining still. Case shifted his rod opposite of the turning steelhead, allowing me to finally reach the net. I had never used a cradle net before and, after unfolding it, it reminded me of a hammock. I pointed the two poles with the mesh net draped in-between directly at the fish, locking onto it with every movement. 

“Okay, lift the head out of the water when you think you can.” I instructed, after noticing a lack of struggle from the steelhead. Case had maneuvered the fish right in front of me, and with one last heave with the rod we saw the scarlet cheek of a hefty steelhead. I stabbed the net into the water, and brought it up with the fish clutched inside. Any small chickadee that had chosen a low hanging branch to perch was spooked away by the yell of triumph that came from Case. 

Eric Elliot had come to aid us in the shuffling of gear so that Case could get his hero shot with his first ever steelhead. However, the shuffling took a bit longer than expected. I kept both hands on the net, while Eric and Case got the rods out of the way, and when it was time, Case lifted the steelhead out of the safety of the net. The fish had some time to rest, and right when I took the picture, the fish kicked out of Case’s hands leaving us with a less-than-ceremonial fish shot. 

The fish hit the water like a cinderblock, and the three of us watched it scurry away.

“Oh well, I have it on video.” Case said, looking down at his GOPRO mounted on his chest. Eric had also gotten into a steelhead before coming down to assist us, and with him and Corbin having no net, they had to tail the steelhead. 

“Ooo, that’s cool. I have always wanted to tail a steelhead.” I said. 

“Well, we didn’t get a good picture with it either.” Eric said, before joining back up with Corbin. 

The plan was to fish the lower section for the first part of the day, then switch to the upper around 2pm. We arrived back at the van hungry with the lunch menu for the day being bologna sandwiches. With the van an absolute mess, James flattened a beer box to be used for sandwich prep. We each took turns fashioning our own sandwiches.  Case had found pickled pepperoncinis at the grocery store, and with the limited items available to us in such a rural place, the peppers took the sandwich to the next level. 

Corbin and Eric eventually made it to the van, with Corbin stepping up first to fix himself a lunch.

“WOW! This bologna is pretty damn good. Maybe I need to give it another chance.” Corbin said, as he turned around a sat on the only open spot in the back of the van. 

“HEY!!!” The four of us yelled at Corbin, who froze mid-chew.

“That’s our damn sandwich making spot you just sat on!” James shouted. 

“Oh.” Corbin said, quickly hopping off the little strip of cardboard. 

A long, “Geeeez…” came from James, after pushing Corbin out of the way and flicking away the small sticks and dirt he left behind. 

“It’s ok, I don’t mind.” Eric chuckled, having yet to make his sandwich. 

Corbin stood frozen, unless you count his chewing, watching James clear up the spot for Eric. As Eric fixed himself lunch, Corbin looked around to see us eyeing him. 


Twelve miles upstream was the next entrance point, and the river was substantially smaller. Tall pines flanked the stream with a few leaning at a sixty degree angle over the river, creating the perfect Alaska landscape. 

Even more impressive was spotting the steelhead.

Case, Corbin, and Eric got into the river and started fishing their way upstream, while Felecia, James, and I took a trail to get some distance between us. 

The trail lead us across the river and, as we crossed, we saw Eric and Corbin fishing a ways downstream.  Loving the pebbles that made up the riverbed, I was wading across easily.

I heard a distant yell. Looking downstream I could see Eric’s rod at a bend. 

“He’s hooked up!” James yelled. I turned at the sound of James just in time to see him fling his fly rod in a soft bush and plunged into the river at full sprint. James was the only one around with a net, and he knew the best chance of landing that steelhead was with his help. Water blasted away from him with every stride as he sprinted through the river, giving him the mystic of a Bay Watch lifeguard.

Large deadfall was the only thing that slowed James down. He maneuvered past it, and stepped into much deeper water. Running was no longer an option at this point, as James was now more than waist deep and still moving as fast as he could. 

Corbin had made way for James as he approached. Panting, James was ready with the net. 

So often in situations like this, the net guy gets to his destination only to have the fish come unbuttoned upon his arrival, but not this time. Eric’s seasoned Alaskan fish fighting hands were at work, and with a calculated heave, James thrusted the net into the water. The fish thrashed, but it was too late because it was now in the net. 

“Yeah, baby!” I yelled, after seeing Eric’s arms rise up victorious. 

“You can say whatever you want about me.” James said, after returning to us and plucking his fly rod out from the bush. “But when there’s a fish on, NO ONE will work harder than me to get that thing in the net.”  Both Felecia and I looked at each other with no doubt in our eyes. After that display of devotion we saw from James, how could we question it?

Frustration was the name of the game hence fourth. Huge steelhead were moving by us, with some tucked far under deadfall or branches that made them impossible to fish. This doesn’t mean that we didn’t try, often sacrificing steelhead rigs as we did. 

“Mind if I pass you?” An older gentleman asked, heading downstream. The river here was much more narrow and all the thick brush along the riverbed made it impossible to go any another way.

“Yeah, sure.” I said, pulling in my line to make it easier for him to get by. 

“Any luck today?” He asked. 

“No. These damn fish are having me rethink life.” I said, and that made him laugh. 

“Well I have had a few in, but I am rigged up a little different than you.” He said, and showed me his rig. The main difference was the size of beads we were using. His were substantially smaller. 

“With the water being so low, I found myself dropping in size. And it seems to be working. The only problem is I can’t keep the dollies off my line.” He said, getting by me. 

“So, much smaller?” I asked. 

“Yeah, and also your indicator. Get that one off. I noticed that was spooking the fish too.” 

“Thanks for the info.” I said, and he walked off with a polite wave. Felecia, who was fishing nearby, also heard the advice, but sadly it came near the end of the day. Neither of us had small egg patterns, and the walkie talkie James handed to me had died, leaving us no way to communicate with anyone. We were both about a mile upstream from where we had parked, so to be safe we made our way back to the van. 

Case was across the river, fishing upstream from the bridge near where we had parked. James was giving him advice on nymphing as I waded over, while Felecia stayed back on the bank with Corbin. Eric was watching them fish from the bridge and chatting with fellow anglers ending their day. 

“That makes sense.” James said, after telling him about the smaller egg patterns. “That’s what these dollies are eating. There’s a pocket of them right here and Case has been hooking into them.”

“I’m ready to be done.” Said Case, after a few landed fish.

“Get in there, Moncada.” James suggested.

“Why not? After getting my ass handed to me by the steelhead today, I may as well pick on something small to make me feel like a man.”

I unhooked my fly that I had switched to after a quick stop at the van, and was now pitching out a small pink pertigon I tied up for the Kokanee salmon in Idaho.

One, two, three casts…one, two, three dolly varden. It was cake, and fun to be catching some fish so easily.

“Give me that thing, I want to catch one.” James said.  I handed him the fly rod, and he ripped up a few fish before handing the rod back to me. “I’m done.”

“It’s about that time.” Eric’s voice called down to us from the bridge. “One more!” I said, getting into position and making a cast.

“We have been bringing in these fish with every cast, and now nothing?!” I said, shaking my head. I kept casting when my indicator went under.

“Finally!” I said, and set the hook. The small dolly varden are easy to bring in, and a quickly landed fish could end the day – only that did not happen. Like a gator’s death roll, a massive fish thrashed at the surface, and I knew this was no dolly varden.

“That’s a STEELHEAD!” James yelled, drawing his net out of the holster faster than a samurai. The eruption of this fish grabbed the attention of everyone. And cheers from Eric, watching from the bridge, echoed as my fish flew out of the water. 

“That’s a huge one!” He yelled, getting the attention of other anglers that came to watch the fight.

“Better not screw this up, Moncada. You have an audience now.” James said, not taking his eyes off the struggling fish. 

“I do best with an audience.” I said to James, booming with confidence. Just as I said that the fish ripped line from my reel, leaping in the process. Cheers came from all around with every arial acrobatic display performed by the fish.

“I should keep my mouth shut. After I say crap like that is when I lose the fish.” I said, bringing the fish within netting distance. As I did the fish bolted for another run, splashing water as it took off. 

James stood ready. His demeanor in the water made it obvious this was not his first rodeo when netting a big fish. Patiently waiting for the right moment to thrust the net under the fish, his gaze never left the water. 

“Easy, Moncada. Don’t feel the need to bring it in too fast.” He said, noticing my determination. I was easily eight or so minutes in this fight, and the last thing I wanted was the tippet to be sawed through by the sharp teeth of this steelhead. 

“I’m getting anxious.” I said, the fish now on its third run and still leaping out of the water. 

“You have a nice hook set, it’s not going anywhere.” James reassured. “What color did it take?” 

“It took a pink pertigon. It’s a size 14 hook.” 

“YOU GOT THIS THING ON A PERTIGON!?” James yelled in amazement, shock, and disbelieve. Or perhaps a combination of all three. This was also the only time his eyes left the water and turned to me.

“Geez, leave it to the frickin’ Euro-nympher to get a steelhead on a frickin’ pertigon!” 

This point in the fight was when the fish took off for another run. I could see the leader getting close to the tip of the fly rod, only now the red cheek of the fish became fully visible for the first time. 


The sound of a net being thrusted under the fish at lightening speed is a James Teat trademark. The perfectly timed thrust catches the fish off guard, and when it turns at the sound it finds itself running face-first into his net. Cheers rang out all around as James held up the net with the fish secured inside. For the first time in what felt like an hour, I let my arms go slack and yelled in triumph like a wolf howling at the moon.

Wet hands clasped of a job well done, and cameras came out for a hero shot that ended our day.

“A frickin’ pertigon.” James said, watching the steelhead shoot away and disappear back into the river. 

“I was not expecting that.” I said, washing the slime off my hands. “I’ll take a lucky steelhead any day.” 

“That was pretty awesome man.” Case said, extending his hand for a fist bump. 

“Thanks.” I said, and together the three of us waded back to the van. 

Every time we started the van we all laughed. As a matter of fact on the first day, when we started the van for the first time, we all looked to one another for reassurance that it was not going to seize up as soon as we put it in gear. The sound of a loose belt screamed, and the clanking of what sounded like metal on metal was not a comforting sound in the middle of nowhere. Still, she was getting us to where we needed to be, and was safely returning us to the lodge. And the next morning, bright and early, we had no doubt she would one again shriek with joy when we started her up, ready for a new day of adventure.