WC’s Epic Fails: The Wonderpuff™ Affair

Dick and Mike, Middle Situk River Cabin, Yakutat Forelands, Alaska

Dick and Mike, Middle Situk River Cabin, Yakutat Forelands, Alaska

A few decades ago, two of WC’s buddies – let’s call them Dick and Mike – persuaded WC that he should join them on a fly-fishing trip to the Situk River, chasing steelhead trout.

This was back in the days of drift net fisheries, when those curtains of death had nearly obliterated the famous steelhead runs on southcentral Alaska streams. If you did see a steelhead, its flanks would more often than not be marred by huge scars or open wounds from encounters with drift nets.

The Situk River is near Yakutat, Alaska, a thirteen mile long stream running from Situk Lake across the Yakutat Forelands to Ahrnklin Lagoon. Historically, it has been a spectacular fishery, with all five species of salmon and steelhead, as well as native Rainbow Trout and Dolly Varden. But the drift net fishery had decimated the fish by the late 1980s, especially the steelhead. Despite that, and partly because he hadn’t been there in more then 20 years, WC tagged along.

This was long before there were fishing guides. You rented a boat – for a given definition of “boat” – and drifted downstream from the Forest Service Road bridge to the Lost River Road, where someone would pick you up and take you back to town. Mike had made arrangements, including the use of the Middle Situk Forest Service Cabin, about halfway down.

The “boat” turned out to be a leaky riverboat, ludicrously oversized for three persons, approximately the size and shape of a large dock. Mike threw his back out in the first two minutes of the trip. Dick, despite having grown up in Kodiak and Ketchikan, turned out to be incompetent with a pair of oars. So WC wound up rowing the small aircraft carrier, into the teeth of a strong off-shore wind. Upstream from the cabin, there was some current and it was mostly a matter of keeping the boat lined up. We made it to the cabin without, as WC recalls, seeing a single fish. Bank fishing around the cabin was equally slow.

The night was surprisingly cold. With a blowtorch and enough kerosene, we might have started a fire in the wood stove with the soggy firewood available. We had neither. It turned out that Dick, packing hastily, had brought his young daughter’s slumber party sleeping bag. The brand name was Wonderpuff™, and it appeared to have 100% genuine recycled Kleenex™ as its insulation. Dick froze all night, despite wearing all the clothes he had packed, his teeth chattering loudly enough that he kept WC awake. So we got an early start the next morning.

The wind had picked up and the tide was in so the rowing was pretty miserable. It’s not an exercise WC had commonly performed. When we got to the weir, the cross-river structure where they counted fish, we did finally see a few steelhead. But the river was closed to fishing 50 meters upstream and downstream of the weir. And there were people watching. Those same folks watched – probably laughing themselves sick – as WC struggled to maneuver the barge through the gap, fouling the oars in the nets and generally demonstrating an abject lack of rowing skills.

Below the weir, at slack tide, the wind was blowing up white caps. If WC stopped rowing, the wind would blow the oversized boat back upstream. A sluggish snail headed down the river would probably have passed us. Finally, as the tide turned, we got a little current (and slightly larger waves) and made a little progress, arriving at Lost River Road at 4:30 PM, freezing cold, a journey of about five miles over the course of about 10 hours of rowing.

As we slowly approached the landing, Dick climbed out to manhandle the boat onto the beach. Hours of sitting in the cold betrayed him; he stumbled and fell face down in the river. WC stood up to try and grab him, but hours of rowing had locked WC’s back up; a giant cramp sent WC over the rail and into the Situk as well. It was about as breathtaking as you would expect.

Here’s the summation:

Total steelhead caught: 0
Total steelhead hooked and lost: 0
Total back injuries: 2
Total river dunkings: 2

Oddly enough, however, WC returned to the Situk 24 more times over the following decades, often with Dick and Mike, and actually caught fish. When drift nets were banned, over the course of the next few years the population started to recover and the percentage of fish with net scars fell to nearly zero.

Today, the Situk is a victim of its own success, badly overcrowded during the steelhead season and approaching Kenai River combat fishing. If you beleive the Alaska Fish & Game reports,1 the average steelhead entering the drainage is caught more then two times while it is in the river to spawn. Remember steelhead, unlike salmon, can spawn in successive years. They don’t spawn and die; they spawn, return to the ocean and get bigger still, and then return to spawn again.

Except there’s this horde of fisherpersons.

All of which is too bad. It’s a pretty stream in a breathtaking part of Alaska. Even if you don’t fall in the river.

  1. It is imprudent to believe fishing stories, either as to numbers caught or the size of fish caught.