Brad Elfers knows the steelhead are back.
Despite cold temperatures and low water in northern Southeast streams, Elfers and two friends boated to Admiralty Island last week to flyfish for the seagoing rainbow trout.
"We saw about eight fish," said Elfers, who owns Juneau Flyfishing Goods in downtown Juneau. "We hooked three and landed one as a group."
Steelhead, largely a catch-and-release sport fish, may be a little late swimming into northern Southeast Alaska waterways this year, but they're still coming.
And that's good news for enthusiasts who consider the fish a refreshing spring break from a long period of cabin fever.
"They come at the right time of the year after waiting all winter long," said Tony Soltys, president of Raincountry Flyfishers.
Steelhead also are valued because of the fight they put up.
"It's partly their elusiveness," said Roger Harding, a flyfisherman and trout research biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. "They're difficult. You have to work for them."
Steelhead are the same species as freshwater rainbow trout, but have a different life history.
"It's basically a rainbow trout that joins the Navy and goes to sea - that's what we tell the kids," Harding said.
The fish hatch in gravel and spend a few years growing in freshwater.
"When they get up to around 7 or 8 inches or a little bigger they go to the ocean as smolts," said Fish and Game sport fish management biologist Mark Schwan. "At that point they begin an ocean odyssey to the Gulf of Alaska, like salmon."
Steelhead return to the waterways where they hatched after two or three years at sea. But unlike most salmon, they can survive spawning and head back to the ocean so they can continue to grow and return to spawn again.
"In any one spawning event in a stream, you have lots of different age classes," Schwan said. "You might have fish spawning for the third time."
The average Juneau steelhead is about 8 to 10 pounds, although the world record is 40 pounds, he said.
Steelhead prefer stream and river systems that include lakes, Harding said.
Some of the Panhandle's more productive systems, such as the Karta River on Prince of Wales Island or the Situk River near Yakutat, can support runs of hundreds or thousands of fish. Larger systems also have a fall run of fish that winter over in lakes and deep pools. Other waterways host much smaller numbers, with just a spring run supporting a few dozen fish - or less.
"There's 330 systems in Southeast with known steelhead in them and other systems we just don't know anything about," Harding said.
Juneau anglers, such as Elfers, often take a short boat ride to northern Admiralty Island streams to search for steelhead. Others boat, ferry or fly to try out waterways around Hoonah. Still others take a quick jet ride to Yakutat for the large run on the Situk.
But on Juneau's road system, Peterson Creek near Amalga Harbor is the best bet, anglers said.
The creek's run is small, about 200 fish, which need to be handled gently in the catch-and-release fishery. But it's a classic, small steelhead stream, said Soltys, who teaches flyfishing classes in addition to heading up Raincountry Flyfishers.
"It's really a jewel of a stream and it gets a lot of fishing pressure and somehow it survives," he said. "We should feel very lucky that we have a place like Peterson Creek. It's a place to be treasured and conserved."
The spring steelhead run is usually during the first two weeks of May, peaking around the 15th, Schwan said. The water has been low and cold enough to delay the run, but it can't be far away.
"Steelhead, like salmon, will sit out in front of a river and wait for a big blast of water," Elfers said.
Some people fish for steelhead in saltwater from boat or shore, using flies or lures. But few of the fish caught in fresh or saltwater are kept for eating, at least in Juneau.
Regulations protecting steelhead numbers allow fishermen to keep fish only when they're 36 inches or larger.
Fewer than 10 percent of the steelhead in any run are bigger than that, biologists said. And the bag limit is one a day and two a year.
But most steelhead enthusiasts don't mind.
"I wouldn't dream of keeping any of the larger fish because they're repeat spawners," Soltys said.
Bait is not allowed, which helps keep the recovery rate of catch-and-release fish high.
Without the reward of a trout dinner, steelhead fishermen value their spirit. The right flick of a bright fly over the water triggers their aggressive nature. They'll jump high, take the fly, and swim fast and hard, sometimes into a tangle of fallen trees or brush.
"For the first fish of the year, you have a lot of energy and enthusiasm," Elfers said.
Information on the state's steelhead initiative is at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/statewide/wildtrout/html/trouthome.stm. Steelhead regulations are available on the Web at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/statewide/regulations/2002/southeast/pdfs/trout.pdf.
Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at email@example.com.