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Visiting Alaska has been a long-time dream of mine with the rugged mountains, deep forests, and untouched rivers. So when I was offered the last minute opportunity to jump on a plane and go to Southeast Alaska, I didn’t hesitate.
The next thing I knew, Photographer Jesse Packwood and I were loading up all of our gear onto a fishing boat for a three-hour commute from Juneau to a small fishing community nestled in between the mountains. We arrived at Elfin Cove Resort to find a beautifully renovated lodge with a majestic backdrop of Brady Glacier and the Fairweather Range.
A quaint boardwalk leads you throughout the community of only 25 year-round residents, You can feel the history that remains, the bar & grill, other small homes, and lodges, and even a few sailboats that have been docked for years.
Elfin Cove is known worldwide for its renowned fishing. The opportunities are endless with off-shore fishing for Halibut, King Salmon, Ling Cod, Rockfish, and other species. Also, Captain Kieran Oliver recently discovered an abundant steelhead fishery and has been passionate about sharing the resource with others. We set out on an exploratory mission to search for the elusive steelhead.
We started each morning early, with a delicious chef-prepared meal at the lodge to then set out on our day’s adventures with Captain Kieran, Captain Jeff Mans and Deckhand Charlie Denatale. The endless fog and rain intensified this journey. It was usually rough conditions to get to the unnamed and remote river systems. We’d get to the opening of the river, transfer onto another boat, then commute the rest of the way on a small aluminum jet boat.
It felt like we were in Narnia, rifles, and pistols were attached to the guides and we were all prepared in case something went south. Trekking into unknown territory and following a trail along the river that was made from centuries of bears walking this same path.
We spent the next few days searching various rivers, hiking for hours in downpouring rain, only to find a few steelheads and some coastal cutthroats. When the tide and conditions weren’t right, we would head offshore to fish for Halibut, King Salmon, Rockfish and other species. Most of us being fly-fisherman, the guides had a good laugh watching us struggle with a conventional rod. After a while, we figured it out and landed some cool species. I caught my first Yelloweye Rockfish! It wasn’t a steelhead but it was exciting nonetheless.
We had two days remaining on our adventure and with time running out, we were feeling eager to find steelhead. With it being our last chance, Captain Kieran warned us about the river he was going to take us too. Known for its abundance of bears, and a difficult river to fish, we accepted the risks and set out on the adventure. A short hike in, we started spotting a few steelhead. The river was crystal clear, small, with thick, tight trees overhanging. You had one cast and if you messed up, you’re entire rig was caught in the trees overhead.
After a few hours, one of the other anglers spotted a massive Steelhead. The excitement was high among us all, Will Baker, one of the anglers on the trip, stepped upstream to take a cast at the fish. The steelhead was sitting in the most difficult spot to cast too. It was tucked up under the bushes making it nearly impossible to get a good drift. Will dropped his fly about 40 feet upstream of the steelhead, we watched as he carefully swung it downstream under the overhanging branches, through a spider web of foliage, just in front of the fishes face. The steelhead aggressively ate it, Will stripped set and the guys yelled fish on! We watched as Will battled the steelhead, through the maze of trees. Running backwards, forwards, stumbled and fell in the river all while the steelhead still remained on. Hooking into this fish was one thing, but being able to land it was another. The stars aligned and Will brought the fish in.
We captured a few photos and then let the beauty go. It was then time to head out and start the trek back to the jet boat. That moment was one we will all remember, and we drank beer and swapped stories with staff when we got back to the lodge.
The following morning was our last day, and we headed back to the river. Our hopes were high, we knew there were fish and we were eager to try again. When we arrived, Jesse and I started walking ahead. As Jesse was looking into his backpack, gearing up for the hike, I walked around the corner of a rock cliff, looked up and saw a bear just ahead. My heart dropped.
The bear hadn’t noticed me and I walked out of view of it and signaled to the rest of the crew. The guys joined me and we watched the bear, directly on the path that we needed to be on to access the river. The bear then noticed us and stood up on his hind legs. We weren’t sure if that was a sign of aggression or perhaps he was just checking us out like we were on to him. We did a few things to try to scare him off but the bear wouldn’t budge. The guides made the final call and decided to head out.
I wasn’t able to catch a steelhead on this trip, but honestly, that’s just steelhead fishing for you. There are so many different factors that go along with steelhead fishing. “The fish of a thousand casts,” they say and boy are they sure right. It’s not easy and it’s not always about the fish. It’s about the incredible journey and adventure along the way. The guides and staff at Elfin Cove Resort were phenomenal and it was an experience I’ll be forever grateful for. All the more reason to come back and try again. Someday, Steelhead. Someday.
Article from Shyanne Orvis, an angler based in Carbondale, Colorado. Give her a follow at @shyanneorvis. Photos from Jesse Packwood of Team FlyLords. If you are interested in booking a trip to the Elfin Cove Lodge, shoot us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.