The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: surviving a spring steelhead assault on Alaska’s Taku River

Editor’s note: As many of you know, longtime friend and Tonic patron Kent Sullivan is the most adventurous angler I know. He’s shared some of his experiences here on Tonic and I’ve also detailed some of the craziness that he and I have endured/enjoyed together over the years, from a wall tent full of 2,000 mosquitoes, to scary health issues, to bad hangovers, to lost anchors, failed engines and failed fish runs, all the way to perfect situations where we’ve railed kings and cohos, pulled crab traps, and spent nights dining on Dungees and coho on remote sand spits under the northern lights with brilliant phosphorescence dancing in the water. And we’ve introduced our daughters to the saltwater world, which brought memories of whales bubble-feeding, halibut coming to the gaff, and cohos slapping the deck. We’ve had it good, and we’ve had it bad. But our friendship and all those memories remain, which means Sullivan is a great fishing partner and, as you’ll see, a solid storyteller. Best of all, he likes to share his wild Alaska with newcomers. Enjoy this one, Tonic brothers. We’re fortunate that Sullivan shared the words and that his bud, Nick Segal, allowed me to run the picks. Many thanks to both. gt

THIS PAST WEEKEND (April 28/29), a buddy, Nick Segal, and I headed up the Taku River in southeast Alaska, outside of Juneau.  As with most trips up the Taku, this one was a mix of the good and the bad.  While it would have been nice had everything been good, that would not have been realistic and it would have made each of the good things slightly less appreciated.  It seems like it is often a mix of the good and bad that makes us enjoy the good all the more and makes some fishing trips so memorable.  This trip certainly helped emphasize that.

To begin the trip, we were not sure that the ice had even broke on the river.  The last report we had was from Ward Air which had flown the river on Friday afternoon.  They reported that the river was broke up high, but that approximately 10 miles of ice remained on the lower river between the Taku Lodge and the tidewater. My buddy and I decided to take the risk and head out in my jet-sled. Here’s a chronologically organized good/bad detail of the trip:

A view up the wild Taku from the helm of Sullivan's jet-sled.

1. Good: Found a neophyte to the river, who was good enough to agree to go up there with me. Wahoo! I was not having to risk doing a solo trip in the spring. My chances of surviving were now better!

Bad: Not sure whether or not we were going to make it up the river or not. By all accounts, it is was still frozen as of the day before. Talking to the pilot at Ward Air who had flown the river on Friday afternoon, he indicated that the river might break within two high tides (~16 hours). We left town without any further word, on Saturday at 11 a.m.

2. Good: Made it through the sketchy section of the river we thought might have ice. It had broke during the night. Awesome! Were told by the caretaker at Taku River Lodge that we were the first boat up the river this spring.  Perfect timing.

Bad: The river was ultra-low and difficult to run. There were pieces of the river’s bottom I have never seen before. For the most part, the riverbanks are covered with 4-6 feet of shelf ice and snow. There is only one channel to run the boat in (as opposed to the usual many) and that channel is extremely challenging.

3. Good: Since the River is ultra-low, we figured it would make for great clear water and awesome fishing at our ultimate destination.

Bad: We were constantly worried about whether or not the river would be deep enough to allow passage to where we wanted to be and whether or not there would be any trees across the river that would block our passage.

4. Good: Great wildlife viewing including many moose and goats.

Bad: The honey hole we had planned on fishing had substantially changed. It was now 200 feet away from where it had been the year before and was now a shallow, fast riffle as opposed to a long, 4-6 deep and wide run.

5. Good: Came upon a moose carcass very close to the river, which had two wolves on it (one black and one white). We were able to get up-close and personal to the wolves (<100 yards) and even had them standing and looking at us a good part of the time.  Very, very cool!

The black wolf returning to the forest.

Bad: Not only had the honey hole changed, but in addition to that, it was uncharacteristically muddy and unfishable.

6. Good: During the entire trip, the weather was warm and we had no rain or wind. By Taku standards, it was incredible weather!

Bad: The reason for the river being muddy above the honey hole was a large landslide.  Below the landslide, the river was blown out. Above the landslide, it was fishable.

7. Good: Nick was enthralled with the river experience. It is so awesome taking somebody up the river who has never been there before. To many, it is a life-changing experience. By Nick’s reaction, he may well fit into that crowd. It is incredibly gratifying to have been partly responsible for having brought that about.

Camp on that.

Bad: Another series of honey holes exist about six miles above the landslide. However, just above the landslide there is a large log across the only navigable part of the river. It was approximately 3 feet in diameter and needed to be cut on both ends. One end was in approximately 4 feet of extremely swift water and the other end was in approximately 8 feet of fast water. In the end, I estimated  that, being 70 miles from town by boat, it was far too dangerous to risk making the cut, and that even if we made it through the log, the river was likely too low to get to the next series of honey holes and/or get out of there without destroying the boat.

8. Good: Made quick time coming back down the river from the log blockage.

Bad: Ended up planting the boat on a tree/stump sticking up in the middle of the river at 20 m.p.h. and wound up at about a 45 degree angle, due to a malfunctioning shifting unit and lack of reverse. The crash nearly threw me out of the boat (I have a grapefruit sized black bruise on my leg to show for it). However, ultimately, after about five minutes, we were able to get the boat off without any damage or repercussions. This incident was by far my closest call on the river yet.  It puckered me up – just a bit, and not to mention hurting my pride!

9. Good: Survived the boat crash.  Also, we had tons of very nice, clean and soft, spongy shelf ice to camp on down the river.

Bad: The shelf ice and snow on top of it was so soft that you would post hole down into it several feet.

10. Good: Nick and I each caught steelhead at an alternative location that I have only caught one steelhead at before.  Nick’s steelhead was his first on the west coast and his first in Alaska.

Bad: I broke my rod on the only steelhead I caught.

Nick with cold steel.

11. Good: Nick and I both caught lots and lots of big bull trout and very nice dolly varden.

Bad: Banged the hell out of the jet-boat at all sorts of different locations going down the river.

12. Good: Found an awesome campsite that we were able to catch bull trout and dollies at all night long. Additionally, Nick and I imbibed after our near-death boating adventure and great fishing. It was a wonderful!

Sulli with Taku steel.

Bad: I am not used to hanging around youngsters so immune to alcohol and its bad effects,  meaning sleep deprivation and muscle soreness. Needless to say, I suffered the next day!

13. Good: The trip down the river was beautiful and relatively uneventful.

Bad: Unfortunately, I realized that when filling one of the tanks on the boat in Juneau, the pump automatically shut off, and the tank was not full. Instead, it was empty and the nozzle had simply needed adjustment. We had 1/3 less fuel than we had thought.  Very big bummer!

14. Good: Fortunately, the Taku Lodge agreed to sell us some gas.  I was reluctant to ask for any more than I thought we might possibly need, particularly in light of the grumbling by the lodge caretaker (he agreed to provide us fuel, but was obviously not overjoyed at having to do so, since they were relatively low on fuel as well). As a consequence, I only asked for 10 gallons. I also switched over the tank we had been using to get to the lodge to another tank I had partially filled at the lodge. My plan was to use the lodge tank until it ran out and then switch back over to the partially depleted tank and and run my extremely fuel efficient kicker engine.

Bad: For the 10 gallons received, we ended up paying the lodge the $23 we had in our possession, approximately $30 worth of leftover Knob Creek Bourbon (which was extremely hard to let go of), and, promise that I would be back to make up the difference of what I still owed, whatever the caretaker deemed that to be (keep in mind that fuel in remote places in Alaska is far more expensive than elsewhere). The caretaker huffed and puffed, implying that I had not really paid anything in light of the fuel’s ultimate worth.  Whatever! We received our fuel and were hoping to make it back to town.

15. Good: It was very beautiful out, including the seas, until about 12 miles before Juneau or about two miles before Point Bishop.


Bad: At that point, we ran out of gas.

16. Good: At least we had the back-up tank that we had switched over from at the lodge for the kicker.

Bad: Actually, we didn’t. Turns out, the tank was switched over at precisely the same moment it must have also run out of gas. As such, we were dry, dry, dry. We had zip, zero, none in the way of fuel.

17. Good: We had oars.

Bad: Oars in that tide and wind, and 12 miles from town in a 3,000 lb. jet boat, suck! They are good for very little other than enabling you to get to shore—if you are close.

18. More Bad: Good Samaritans on the ocean are very few and far between this time of year.

Good: A family of Good Samaritans finally came upon us and shared some of their fuel with us. We were once again on our way. Woohooo! Another Taku trip survived!

Tate and Finley, a couple years ago, on Sulli's boat, with humpback whales approaching.

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5 Responses to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: surviving a spring steelhead assault on Alaska’s Taku River

  1. Ron Haffner says:

    Although the good/bad thing was irritating, the story had enough interesting content that I posted the link to it on The fish look great!

    • Greg Thomas says:

      Glad you liked it enough to repost. I thought it was a great story written by someone who’s been there, does it, and is passionate about it. Often difficult to find that equation.

  2. Phil Fagerstrom says:

    Great story from a fellow steel chaser! What an adventure that trip was! As one who has experienced the “good/bad” thing on many (most) fishing trips, I thought it was an excellent way to write about it! What a first run of the year…..hope we can wet lines (and tumblers) this year!

    • Greg Thomas says:

      That was what I liked about it. If you fish often you’ve been through THOSE trips. This article was written with the authority of someone who gets out there and treasures the wild places and isn’t afraid to work hard for his fish.

  3. Kurt I says:

    ha ha ha. I’ve read through this about 4 times now and each time I chuckle, cringe, shake my head, and laugh out loud. I told Kent it should be shared or “written up”, and I’m glad you posted it.

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