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The Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS; www.ferryalaska.com), a unique water-based transportation system that gets my vote as one of the most underrated and underutilized angling assets in America. From its southern terminus in Bellingham, Washington, the AMHS stretches more than 3,500 miles to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, with stops in a host of Alaskan towns, as well as Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
Anglers who spend a bit of time online can unearth endless fishing vacation ideas. For starters, you can bring your own car or RV aboard an AMHS boat and use it to make day trips out of a number of Alaskan towns. Alternately, you can bring a bicycle or just some hiking boots and a pocket full of fly-out reservations, bed-and-breakfast bookings, and guide appointments.
One of the delightful things about traveling up and down the Marine Highway is the way travelers turn their ferries into floating campsites. They crash on a couch, pitch a tent on deck, or take a stateroom on the cabin deck. Some walk on with backpacks or suitcases; others come aboard with everything from bicycles to large motor homes. Pets are welcome, too. Travelers bring cats, dogs, and even horses on the ferry.
I’ll provide some Web sites later that will give you a leg up in planning your own unique trip to southeast Alaska via the Alaska Marine Highway System. First, let me give you some highlights of my own trip this past summer.
My wife and two daughters, ages 14 and 18, and another companion opted for the 418-foot Columbia, the flagship of the Alaska Marine Highway System, on its weekly run up the Inside Passage. Thirty-six hours after we boarded the ferry, we drove our SUV off, onto the streets of Ketchikan. In Ketchikan, we stayed at the Narrows (www.narrowsinn.com; 888-686-2600), an upscale hotel on the north end of town with a dock and a view of the water (rooms starting at $145). On the Creek Street Bridge, standing shoulder to shoulder in the crowd, we caught pink salmon. The next morning, we drove 20 minutes north out of Ketchikan and rented a 20-foot Thunder Jet boat ($200 per day) for the 30-minute run to Naha Bay Lodge (www.nahabayoutdooradventures.com; 907-617-2895).
Guests at Naha Bay Lodge stay in yurts, walk a forest path through the cedars to breakfast, and can sit on the deck and gaze out at the water. Meals are served family style in the Edwards’ home. The food, prepared by Miriam Edwards, is excellent and ample and includes dessert. Sack lunches are provided for the midday meal. The yurts and the bathroom/shower facilities are served by 12-volt power, giving sufficient light for reading at night.
Visitors at Naha Bay can fish the saltwater here, explore several nearby streams (canoes and kayaks are provided), or just hike to a waterfall or visit an old cemetery. The owner of Naha Bay and host, Mark Edwards, guided us personally one day on nearby Margaret Creek, a popular bear-viewing area. Rainbows and cutthroats, which average 14 inches, reside in Margaret Creek and Margaret Lake. Sockeye begin to run upstream in July, and pink salmon fill the rivers in mid-August. We were there the first week of August, early in the salmon run, so we concentrated on trout instead. The trout fell for beadhead Prince nymphs and brightly colored woolly buggers. Our girls used flies and spinners and caught trout in all of the deeper pools. The next morning, we paddled and portaged to the remote Naha River: Sam and I in one canoe, Merrilee and Mikayla in another, and Jennifer in a kayak. It was 25 minutes around Dogfish Island to the tidal race of the Naha. From there, we portaged around the rapids, up into Roosevelt Lagoon, where we found the mouth of the Naha and pushed our way upstream for a half a mile before dragging our boats ashore.
I put on polarized glasses and scrambled up a nearby bank. There in the shadows, I spotted a hundred or more salmon stacked in the tea-colored water at the head of a pool. We cast pink and purple streamers for pink salmon, rainbows, and cutthroats. The kids used a spinning rod rigged with a pink and purple jig under a float. We saw five black bears in one stretch of river and caught dozens of pinks and a few rainbows.
The Naha River is designated for non-commercial use and no guides are permitted on the stream. Edwards provided us with a map of the route.
Naha Bay Lodge offers several packages to fit the needs of the traveling angler. Three nights and two days of selfguided freshwater or saltwater fishing, including the use of boats, lodging, and meals, costs $1,060 per person; for guided fishing, the rate is $1,306 per person. Another Ketchikan-area option is Clover Pass Resort and RV Park (www .cloverpassresort.com), which offers lodging, meals, and guided saltwater fishing and boat rentals. Resort fees start at $195 per person, per day, and full RV hookup is $34 per day. (Yes, the Marine Highway System boats can accommodate RVs 25 feet and longer.)
No matter what kind of accommodation you choose, the Ketchikan area offers a wealth of fishing opportunity. I’ve already mentioned some of the salmon streams. As for freshwater lakes, some of the better ones are Wilson, Humpback, Manzanita, and Ella. All have healthy populations of cutthroats, kokanee, Dolly Varden, and salmon. Ward Lake, near Ketchikan, is home to silver salmon, steelhead, trout, and Dolly Varden. The Ketchikan Visitors Bureau (www.visit-ketchikan.com; 800-770-3300) can connect you with a variety of lodging providers, outfitters, and floatplane fly-out services.
The next stop on our summer trip was the town of Yakutat. Our mid-August arrival there coincided with the beginning of the coho run. Our base camp here was Glacier Bear Lodge (www.glacier bearlodge.com) in Yakutat. The road system in Yakutat provides access to the Situk River and other streams, so we were in the catbird seat with our own SUV. From the lodge, it was about ten miles on a gravel road to the river, where we cast pink and purple streamers on 7- and 8-weight rods.
The river was full of pink salmon and the coho were moving in. When we wanted to target fresh silvers and avoid catching pinks, we tied on lead-eye or beadhead flies such as the King Salmon Special, Double Bunny, and Fat Cat Leech in black and chartreuse. One angler in our group landed 64 pink salmon in four hours before a black bear pressured him into the water. He sent it packing with a slap across the nose with his casting rod.
Spawning salmon bring both brown and black bears out of the forest to the stream banks here. It is common to see bruins along the river or in town from June through October. Be bear aware at all times if you come here. Anglers who fish the lower Situk River, by the way, should know that there is a section downstream from the old railroad bed that is reserved for anglers 65 and older. We saw younger anglers ticketed by fish and game officers.
If you don’t have a vehicle, you can rent one at Situk Leasing (www.situk leasing.com; 907-784-3316) near the airport. Just don’t expect to rent a late model. If the rearview mirror hasn’t rattled off the windshield, the vehicle is probably new to the fleet. They have vans and sport utilities that come equipped with working fish boxes and little more in the way of options. The main roads around Yakutat are paved, but secondary roads are washboard gravel. Where the gravel ends, they become two-tracks with bumps and mud holes. The leasing company provides a basic map of the local roads.
We spent one of our days in the Yakutat area hiking into Pike Lakes, a chain of nine still waters about 25 miles inland from Yakutat. Unchanged in 8,000 years, the valley where these lakes are found is surrounded by mountains and bordered by trackless forest. When glaciers covered the land, this valley remained free of ice. Consequently, the lakes here hold pike that are biologically distinct in North America. The ones we caught averaged 24 to 40 inches. We caught them by skating big tinseled streamers among the lily pads.
Glacier Bear Lodge offers a number of packages. One popular option is five nights and four days at $1,275 per person. The cost covers room, meals, vehicle (from Situk Leasing), one-day river guide or ocean charter service, and all taxes. Rooms are basic with queen beds, baseboard heat, and hooks for hanging waders. Meals and desserts are ordered off the menu in the lodge restaurant, which opens at 6 am and closes at 10 pm. Fully guided packages start at $1,350 per person and can include anything from ocean charters on the 28-foot Aerofish, to river trips, to fly-outs to remote camps.
Steelhead fishing here runs April 15 through the third week of May. The best halibut fishing is in May and June. Sockeyes and pink salmon enter the river in July and the first silver salmon enter the Situk in mid-August. The silver run peaks in September.
One of the foremost authorities on fishing in and around Yakutat is Bob Miller at the Situk River Fly Shop (www .situk.net). Located in an old World War II–era hangar at the airport, the shop is a good first stop before hitting the river. Ferries stop in Yakutat several times a month. Check the latest schedules online to plan your trip. For more information, contact the Greater Yakutat Chamber of Commerce (www.yakutatalaska.com).
We headed back south when we left Yakutat with enough memories to last a lifetime. Had we seen enough of southeast Alaska? Not by a long shot. We are already planning our next trip. If you want to plan a trip of your own, be aware that there are 11 ships in the Alaska Marine Highway fleet. Here are just a few of the places you can visit and things you can do north of Ketchikan:
The MV Columbia makes a weekly run up and down the Inside Passage from Bellingham to Skagway, with stops in Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Sitka, and Haines. Prince of Wales (POW) Island can be reached by the Inter-Island Ferry system (www.interislandferry.com), which takes travelers from Ketchikan to the port of Hollis on POW’s eastern shore. One-way adult fares are $37, while vehicles are billed at a rate of $5 per foot. Canoes, kayaks, and motorcycles are charged $3 per foot, and bicycles are free. Lodges in Craig, Klawock, and Thorne Bay offer meals, accommodations, and fishing in nearby streams. Dozens of campgrounds serve the do-it-yourselfer.
The Petersburg/Wrangell area holds numerous islands for marine and river fishing for all five species of salmon. Steelhead, rainbow, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden offer options for the freshwater fly-rodder. A number of creek and lake systems give the fisherman a chance to explore intimate waters.
In south-central coastal Alaska, the Marine Highway runs between Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Kodiak, Port Lions, Homer, and Seldovia, the jumping-off points for a thousand different fly-fishing trips. Highlights in the Cordova area include the Copper and Alagnik rivers for coho, sockeye, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. Out of Homer, the Kenai, Kasilof, and Ninilchik rivers and Deep Creek are accessible from the road. This list could go on and on.
The cost of traveling on the Marine Highway System varies widely depending on whether you have a vehicle, want a room to sleep in each night, and other factors. Here are some sample costs that will give you an idea of what to expect. A trip from Bellingham to Ketchikan runs $239. Add a vehicle up to 15 feet long, and the cost is $515. Kids six to 11 travel at approximately half the adult fare. Kids under six travel free. Travelers may sleep on deck, but for more comfort, two-, three and four-berth rooms are available. A two berth cabin, with a window and facilities, costs $257 for passage between Bellingham and Ketchikan. You can find sample itineraries on the ferry system Web site, which will give you a better idea of the cost of a number of different trip options. You can make a Marine Highway reservation online (www.ferryalaska .com) or call the reservation center at 800-642-0066. Just do your research ahead of time. The possibilities are almost endless. Enjoy!
Postscript: A book Gary Lewis particularly recommends for planning a trip on the Marine Highway is Alaska Fishing: The Ultimate Angler’s Guide, deluxe third edition (www.publishersdesign.com), $34.95, compiled by Rene Limeres and Gunnar Pedersen. It offers detailed information on more than 300 locations, many of them accessible from the Alaska Marine Highway.—Gary Lewis.