Articles and Photos by Terry W. Sheely
HIGHWAY TO HAINES
A Rare Southeast Drive-In Destination to Salmon Rivers
and Saltwater, Calendar Scenery and Alaska Adventures
Haines is one of only two fish towns in Southeast that I can drive to from anywhere in North, South or Central America. The other is Skagway, a tourist stop more famous for launching an 1897 Klondike gold rush than salmon fishing in 2017. Haines and Skagway are on opposite sides of Lynn Canal connected by a state ferry that shuttles highway traffic across the fjord and links two sections of spectacular northern highway.
That Haines, a Southeast town of 2,400, can be driven to makes it special enough in Alaska’s Southeast where towns are remote and isolated by saltwater, ice fields and roadless forests, and connected to the outside by 737s, float planes, bush planes, boats, ferries or cruise ships.
But there’s more to this town than accessibility, I’m discovering, and a lot of it has to do with fresh and saltwater fishing, two rivers you’ve likely never heard of, and its claim to being “The Adventure Capital of Alaska.”
Haines is a folksy town, less touristy than Skagway, with killer views of North America’s deepest (2,000 feet) fjord, a waterfront that stares up at two ice-capped mountain ranges, along a sea-to-icefield highway, on a wedge of land between two salmon, trout and char rivers just a short run from halibut.
And that doesn’t include the local brag of 3,500 bald eagles that crowd onto the sweeping gravel bars of the Chilkat River to gorge on the third largest coho run in Southeast and provide an excuse for a monster town festival.
Or the chrome sockeye that is turning cartwheels through the boulders in front of my fly-rod, while I try to ignore the trio of grizzlies walking the edge of the Chilkoot River behind me slurping salmon parts and startling distracted fishermen.
Until last summer, like many Outsiders, my take on Haines was that it was living up to its visitor center catch phrase, “The Adventure Capital of Alaska.” Seemed to be mostly an oooh, aaaah and wahoo destination surrounded by calendar-quality scenery penetrated by helicopters, heli-skiers, river boats, float planes, hikers, rock climbers, kayakers, museum wanders, mountain sports, and highway adventurers.
Only a couple of charter boats were in the harbor, and most of the river guides seemed mostly interested in giggle and splash raft trips and watching eagles.
The Chilkat River is big, but the color of concrete with glacial silt, wide and braided with hundreds of gravel bars and channels. Only later did I discover that in October and November it has the third largest run of silver salmon in Southeast, plus a mix of chums.
On the north side of town the Chilkoot River, appears fishy and wadeable but is only a mile long between Lutak Inlet and Chilkoot Lake. The lake is good for trout and char and salmon near the outlet but this state is full of good lakes with trout and char. Lynn Canal is gorgeous but narrow and prone to winds that can turn salmon boats into surfboards. Salmon need a long time to get here, to the upper end of Lynn Canal. Juneau is 80 miles south and from there it’s another 80 miles to the ocean.
First impression: Not so much of a fish town, I thought.
Second time around I found out how wrong that first impression was.
What the regional ADFG staff had to say was an eye opener and that was before I met Greg Schlachter, Leslie Ross and Dorothy McConnell, or waded into the glacier green push of the Chilkoot in front of 60,000 sockeye and who knows how many Dolly Varden and cutthroat.
Three grizzly bears hunt for sockeye in our hole.
My skewed first impressions were set a couple of years earlier when four of us detoured south off an Alaska Highway RV adventure to leave tracks on the famed Klondike gold rush route the Chilkoot Trail, , before taking the state ferry from Skagway to Haines. We settled in for a couple of days at Hitch Up RV Park alongside Highway 7—the Haines Highway. From town the highway rides the edge of the Chilkat River, passes the bald eagle preserve and continues into 150 miles of National Scenic Byway that wind and climb from saltwater up the sprawling Chilkat River Valley to Chilkat Pass ice fields, tundra, top-of-the-world scenery, and reconnects with the Alaska Highway in Yukon Territory.
On that trip we spent an afternoon checking out the Chilkoot River and lake, drove south to the state park along Lynn Canal, poked through the tackle aisles at Outfitter Sporting Goods and wondered about a town that would boast a museum of 1,700 hammers. True: Down on Main Street, the world’s first—and I suspect only--Hammer Museum, “a tribute to mankinds’ first tool,” they say.
Last August I came back.
Greg Schlachter and Leslie Ross were on the tarmac at the small airport when our Alaska Seaplanes twin-prop arrived with TRN publisher/editor Jim Goerg and myself. The low-level flight north from Juneau was simply awesome flying above Lynn Canal between ragged mountain ranges capped with ice and streaked with glaciers, past roadless wildernesses and over small rivers and creeks that begged to be fished.
Greg runs The Expedition Broker and Fly Guides out of Haines, shook hands and assured me he was more interested in fish than giggle floats. Leslie directs the Haines Convention and Visitor Bureau and had put together our itinerary that included river fishing with Greg and saltwater fishing with Dorothy McConnell on 1st Choice Charters, since renamed Kracken Charters.
Greg was eager to get us on the water. We paused just long enough on our way to the Chilkoot River to check in at Captain’s Choice Hotel and throw our duffle into rooms overlooking Lynn Canal and the boat harbor. Greg assured us he had all the fish gear we needed, including waders and fly rods. When it comes to salmon rivers Jim has a lot more faith in painted steel than dyed yarn and grabbed his spinning rod and a box of lures on the way out the door.
AK Fish & Game operate fish wheels on the Chilkat.
The Chilkoot is short and shallow but wide with a strong current and bottom studded with boulders that create countless pockets, runs, eddies, seams and channels. A paved road follows the west bank past multiple pullover fishing spots. During different weeks of the summer the river funnels chinook, coho, sockeye, chums and pink salmon, cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden char between saltwater in Lutak Bay and the clear depths of 3.6-miles long Chilkoot Lake.
Silvers (coho) and reds (sockeye) are the Chilkoot’s big draws. The river has two runs of reds averaging around 60,000 fish. Silver numbers pale in comparison, hitting about 2,000 fish in September-October. The coho run is small, but the river is easy to fish, only a mile long and it’s famous for producing giants—many pushing 20 pounds.
It’s the first week of August. We’re too late for the July kings, too early for the late August-September-October silvers, but right on time for the pinks and second run of sockeye. The first run of sockeye arrives in late June early July. The second in early August. A signboard at the river proclaims that yesterday 13,000 reds passed the ADFG weir just downstream from where we’re fishing, a one-day record. While we fish another 3,000 sockeye swim past us, mostly unseen, according to counters at the weir.
Jim nails first fish, a feisty Dolly Varden, then another. A few reds are rolling, but most are invisible in the colored water.
The current is stout, the water too colored to see the bottom rocks, and about the fourth time I stumble over a rock I can’t see I wish I’d picked up a beaver cutting for a staff.
I’m using an 8-weight fly rod with full sinking line, short stout leader and tippet, with a pink shrimp pattern. Greg catches two nice dollies, hooks and loses a leaping red.
I settle in a couple of hundred feet from the bank at the edge of a channel that folds between boulders and swirls into an eddy. Three good salmon zones are in front of me and I can cover all of them with one cast and drift. It takes awhile to figure the drift and swing and when I do I get a sharp rap and a miss. A few casts later I tickle a red with the line that charges out of the water and thrashes manically. I can feel the line brush scales, but triggering a strike is tough.
Guide Greg Shlachter awaits with net while Sheely brings in his first Chilkoot River sockeye.
Finally the swing stops, I feel weight and strike. It’s a wild ride. This fish does not want to be caught. Four, or was it five, times it leaps clear of the water, and when it leaps I lay the rod over and hold tight. “Can’t believe that,” Greg shouts, “most guys lose reds on that jump.” It was close.
The fish runs a mean rodeo around the boulders and down the chutes. I get it on the reel, put some bend in the rod and when it finally splashes into Greg’s net it’s spent. I keep it. Bright red fillets for the BBQ.
According to ADFG, “the Chilkoot is one of the most popular freshwater fisheries in Southeast,” for reds and pinks. Anglers are allowed six reds and six pinks a day. We catch and release several pinks mixed in with the red run. All were big, flat-sided humpies, a couple of hundred yards above saltwater and they pulled hard in the current.
Other anglers that we could see were about evenly split between spinning and fly gear. Standard spinning fare was small reddish spinners, spoons and fresh eggs. Fly rodders used shrimp patterns, red streamers, and red sponges that could be scented for egg appeal.
Three brown bears walk the shoreline behind us and startle one woman fisher so badly that she plunges into the river and hides behind a boulder. Greg tries to assure her the bears are regulars along the river, accustomed to fishermen, and not to worry. She worried! Loudly.
Back at the truck, we ice fresh reds, and watch brown bears shuffle through the alders between us and the river, while Greg extols the excitement of hitting mid-teen to 20-pound silvers in this same water starting next month. Wish I could be here then.
The Chilkoot attracts a small run of king salmon in May and June, a mix of wild and hatchery chinook. A chinook enhancement program has been abandoned, according to ADFG and kings place a distant fifth on a ladder lead by reds, silvers,, pinks and chums. Chilkoot chinook fishing is confined to the saltwater, primarily in around Lutak Inlet.
At the same time, Chilkat River kings are fished south of Haines at Chilkat Inlet and can produce some beautiful fish. This run, however, has been hard hit by ocean conditions, according to ADFG, and has been ‘weak’ since 2011.
But it’s the late fall—September/October--runs of silvers and chums that earn the headlines, I’m told. Lots of freezers are filled with bright Chilkat silvers and chums and coho are caught as late as February.
The Chilkat is big enough to be fished by jet boats or drifted in rafts but is just as good for anglers casting from the bank along the shoulder of the Haines Highway. ADFG operates fish wheels along the road to monitor the runs, and some of the best silver and chum spots are within a few yards of the road, especially near the airport.
The silt-laden Chilkat drops and clears when cold weather caps the mountain runoff in October and November creating a sharp uptick in roadside salmon action.
Leslie treats us to dinner at the funky Pilotlight, a farm-to-table restaurant specializing in homemade sourdoughs, locally grown veggies, sea food and Alaska game.
The salmon cakes were good, the calamari platter emptied on the first pass around the table and the bacon-wrapped venison loin was worth the trip.
We capped day one at the Port Chilkoot Distillery sampling their latest Boatwright Boubons and called it a day. Tomorrow we fish saltwater with Dorothy McConnell. Tonight I lean on the railing outside my room, watch boats sort through the harbor and the alpen glow light up the Kakuhan Mountains across the fjord south of Skagway.
Dorothy McConnell is waiting at the boat with skipper Zeke Frank when we get to the harbor dock. Three more guests are running late. The 27-foot cabin boat is rigged for halibut and ready. Her charter service, 1st Choice Charters, was one of two in the harbor. The other was iFishHaines. Since Dorothy showed us her Haines halibut honey holes she sold the operation which has been renamed Kracken Charters.
This area of Lynn Canal gets a weak run of Chilkat kings, but from late May through mid-June anglers will be targeting a run of hatchery chinook released from Skagway that will be moving up Lynn Canal past Haines. ADFG expects the run to support a decent May-June chinook fishery for the next two years.
In August, saltwater anglers target either silvers or halibut and we’re too early for silvers. Dorothy points the boat into the sun rising over the Kakuhans and turns south toward a river delta called South Katzhlein Flats. We anchor in 152 feet of water, drop a variety of baits to the bottom and wait.
I’m fishing a squid rigged upside down so the tentacles make the bait appear larger than it is. Others try herring and slabs of cut bait.
One other boat is anchored in the distance. “Couple of days ago we hit a bunch of halibut here,” Dorothy says. “Did okay yesterday, too.” Today we catch flounder, pollock, bullheads, and a small black cod. Later Jim will catch one of the largest, ugliest cabezon I’ve seen.
The halibut bite, though, is dead. On the flats, behind an island, inside a peninsula—everywhere. We fish hard, switch out baits, try different areas, depths, bottoms, tides. It’s halibut dead in Lynn Canal. It happens. I believe her when she tells me about good halibut days. This isn’t one of those days.
It’s a good day to be on the water, regardless. Sun, blue sky, glaciers, mountains, flat water, good company. In a few hours, I’ll be sitting in the sun sipping an Eldred Rock Red at Haines Brewing, thinking about the scenic flight back to Juneau, wondering how the red bite is going on the Chilkoot and thinking I should come back for the Chilkat silver slam.
I like this second chance side of Haines. A good place to stop and fish on the highway from Seattle.
CONTACT THESE GUYS:
Haines Convention and Visitor Bureau
The Expedition Broker & Fly Guides
iFish Haines Charters
Captain’s Choice Hotel