Situk River Steelhead Fishing – Yakutat, Alaska
By: Courtney Dowd-Stanley
If you’re an avid angling addict, there is no better way to break out of your winter hibernation than with a trip to the Situk River for some spring steelhead fishing. The isolated community of Yakutat is located in Alaska’s southeast region, along the coast between Cordova and the capital city of Juneau. Yakutat is off the road system and only accessible via boat or plane, so the overall perception seems to be that it’s challenging to travel to this place that is off-the-beaten-path. On the contrary, a quick flight will lead you right into the angling paradise, surrounded by the Tongass National Forest and the scenic Gulf of Alaska. The main attraction, however, is the 16-mile-long Situk River, known for its prolific runs of steelhead trout and Pacific salmon. With the mission to catch (and release) some trophies, we decided to hop on a plane and go see what all the fuss was about…
We departed from Anchorage and hopped on a quick Alaska Airlines flight to Yakutat. The total flight distance was roughly 342 air miles southeast of Anchorage. After a quick layover in Juneau, it took about three hours total to make it from point A to point B. There are two daily 737 Alaska Airlines flights in and out of Yakutat, which makes access from other Southeast towns, as well as Seattle and Anchorage, easy to manage.
After gathering our luggage from the Yakutat Airport, we picked up our rental vehicle, an old suburban, which would do just fine, especially since we were bound to be getting pretty dirty over the next week. In remote Alaska communities, old rental vehicles are what you can expect. With no road access to the outside world from Yakutat, they maintain vehicles for as long as possible because the logistics involved with getting new models in can be incredibly challenging.
Yakutat has a handful of lodging options to choose from, but we opted for the most affordable choice that would fit our party of three. We checked into a convenient bed & breakfast and we were pleasantly surprised with the hospitality that we received from check-in to check-out. The hosts really went above and beyond to assure that we had a memorable experience in Yakutat. We were fed hearty meals each morning, providing us with ample energy to make it through a long day of fishing.
Before we even made it inside to our humble abode, we were greeted by an adorable bush dog. He was always hanging around the outside of the bed & breakfast, just loving life and welcoming as much attention as he could grab from the guests coming and going. A true sweetheart this one!
After we checked in, we got our gear together and went right down the road to the Situk River to wet some lines while the sun was still shining. It was near the end of April and nearly every day we were spoiled with bluebird skies.
If you dread Alaska’s notorious summertime combat fishing scene, this place will rock your world. We fished for a week straight and never once saw another person. We had the entire place to ourselves.
Day 1, hour 1… this is what you get! EPIC. While some choose to enjoy the 13.5 mile-long float from the 9-mile bridge to the lower boat launch, we opted to park and walk so that we could check out as many places as possible.
Although it’s always important to be aware of current water levels, nearly the entire 16-mile-long Situk River is easily wadeable.
We chose to catch and release everything, as we were coming for the experience and not with the intention to bring home meat. With that said, we didn’t catch anything under 30 inches!
The Situk River averages about 90 feet wide and three feet deep, so we walked streams and fished from gravel bars the entire trip. Some holes were as deep as 12 feet, which was a blast to cast into and pull out monster piggies.
We achieved complete and utter solitude, but the beauty of the Tongass National Forest that surrounded us really took the experience up a notch.
It was almost as if we were in this middle-earth type of paradise, a million miles away from everything.
The Situk River is one of the most prolific and popular salmon and trout systems in the National Forest System. In addition to strong runs of all five species of Pacific salmon, the Situk hosts incredible Dolly Varden char, cutthroat, resident rainbow trout and Alaska’s largest run of steelhead. We saw a few Dolly’s, but didn’t end up catching anything other than steelhead.
After getting our first day’s fix of fishing, we ventured back into town. Yakutat is home to a population of roughly 663 residents, and is a former Tlingit settlement located on the Gulf of Alaska. Although the population is small, the people in this community are so remarkable. We were treated like gold, with unwavering kindness and extreme helpfulness, which made us never want to leave. We were blown away by how willing the locals were to share their land with us. It was almost as if a level of trust was instantly built, allowing them to help steer us in the right direction, which was simply invaluable.
Situated at the base of the St. Elias Mountains, you’ll quickly learn that Yakutat is home to much more than world-renowned fisheries. No matter where you go in town, you’ll be completed awed by the natural beauty of this secluded area. This is what real Alaska is all about—getting away from the crowds and up close and personal with nature and its richness.
After spending some time cruising around and exploring on the first day, we were rewarded with an electric sunset on the way back to the B&B. Mother nature showing off her fierce watercolor-painted-sky abilities.
We kicked off day two with a stop to the local fly shop (which we frequented the entire time we were in Yakutat). We decided to use mainly dark colored Dolly Llama and other streamer flies for the majority of the trip. These colored flies are great to use when the sun is shining and it’s bright outside. Green Al’s (a streamer fly) also work well. This fly shop is located in an old 40,000-square-foot World War II-era hangar that houses the Warbird Museum, the Situk Fly Shop, and Bob Miller. A little dose of history, located just a quarter mile away from the Alaska Airlines terminal at the Yakutat Airport.
Wrestling these big, beautiful, brilliant fish was no easy task. With fly fishing, finesse is everything. We used eight weight through ten weight rods. I personally recommend using a nine or a ten weight because of the strength and size of the fish. While we were there we witnessed a seven weight and an eight weight snap on fish. Possibly because of the age and use of the rods, but it was high quality equipment. With a nine or ten weight you still experience all the fight of the fish, and they have a lot more backbone. The backbone the nine and ten weight rods provide will greatly help you turn and control a fish that is constantly heading towards log jams and snags on a very skinny river.
You don’t just yank the rod and reel away. You let the fish run, you let them get exhausted, and you meticulously maneuver the line and your position on the bank to get them to shore.
Proper care and handling of these fish is paramount. Take a quick picture, and then gently release the fish back into their natural environment.
It’s a privilege to take part in this great sport, especially in the Last Frontier.
For those traveling to fish the Situk River for the first time (like we were), the Yakutat Ranger District is a great place to gain useful area knowledge that will impart a sense of stewardship towards the outstanding fisheries and local land.
For hundreds of years people have been coming to this exclusive region in Alaska in pursuit of these world-class fisheries. Despite its popularity, when we were here it felt as if we were the only people in the world that knew about this best kept secret.
In actuality, the Situk River supports up to a third of all Tongass National Park freshwater sport fishing, and attracts annual travel from all around the world. Although there are challenges and technicalities involved with fishing in Alaska, visiting anglers are rewarded with the opportunity to catch a world-class trophy.
The advantage of spring steelhead fishing, if you plan it right, is that you don’t have to worry about things like high river flows and swarms of biting mosquitoes, white sox, and other insects. Other general (uncontrollable) hurdles that can affect your fishing experience include heavy rainfall, snow, clouds, and bears. It is very important to educate yourself about the local area and make sure that you don’t travel into these remote areas without being properly prepared for anything that could go wrong.
On day two we walked down to the docks in the evening to catch the sunset. Again, same with the backcountry fly fishing on the Situk River, there wasn’t a single sole in sight. It was perfection. What many don’t know about Yakutat is that it is actually home to the largest surfing community in Alaska. Watching the waves crash against the shore while the surfers do their thing in mere 20-foot-high swells is a sight that not everyone would expect to see in Alaska. But Alaska is king at proving that anything is possible in the mighty Last Frontier. Cannon Beach was one of the neatest places to explore and seeing it in person will help any visitor understand why Yakutat is known as Alaska’s surfing mecca.
As the setting sun reflected off the towering snow-capped mountains in the distance, the view just kept getting better and better. Yakutat Bay is a unique and exclusively awe-inspiring place.
The rest of the trip proved to be as equally successful as the first couple of days. We were rewarded with plentiful trophy catches, scenic beauty, exceptional weather, warm hospitality, delicious local food, and phenomenal sunsets each and every day. If Yakutat wasn’t on your bucket list before, we highly recommend this world-class angling destination!
The Alaska Airlines flight from Yakutat back to Anchorage was the same distance, about three hours total, but this time we stopped for a brief layover (puddle jump) in Cordova. The views out the window overlooking Child’s Glacier were absolutely spectacular. Talk about a great way to wrap of the final leg of an insanely awesome Alaska fishing trip!
Take a peek at the YouTube video below to see these beautiful fish underwater, up close and personal, captured by the GoPro from Isaac Lindall.
Looking for more where that came from? Check out this Alaska road trip that will lead you through some of the most treasured tiny towns in the state. Also, don’t miss Kepler Park – The History, The Future & The Fish. You’ll love learning about El Capitan Cave, Alaska’s largest aboveground cave that will give you an enchanting middle-earth type of experience.