By Matt Hage
By the end of June, every road-accessible waterway in Alaska that holds even a rumor of a king salmon is buried under a tangled web of 60-pound test and surly fishermen slinging heavy tackle. Days spent dodging the constant barrage of sinkers, neon spinners, and treble hooks will wear on even the coolest of fishermen. So when you find yourself trying to pick a fight with the guy 50 yards downriver for stealing ‘your fish,’ it’s time to chain up that spruce pole with the industrial sized baitcasting reel and lighten up. Sometimes we all need to be reminded of the simple enjoyment of casting into crystal-clear waters on a wispy rod. Leave the salmon crowds behind and head north where the lucid waters around Fairbanks are filled with feisty grayling all summer. And the kings don’t show up until late July.
Stake out your own slice of Alaska on a clearwater creek, drifting nymph patterns through subtle eddies, pools, and under cut banks. Or tie on a size 16 Black Gnat and a 6X tippet for some of the best dry-fly fishing in the state. Strip the fly back up the current, leaving a ‘v’ on the surface, and watch the water come alive as these sailfins fall over each other to strike. You have to love a fish like that. Especially in the salmon battleground of Alaska.
Grayling rank as our state’s smallest sport fish. The record-holder tips the scales at a whopping four pounds, thirteen ounces. The runner up is cutthroat trout, which top out at almost twice that size. Regardless, landing a 12-inch grayling will make the day of any Interior fisherman. The small salmonids average between a foot to eight inches from snout to tail. Most weigh-in at less than three pounds. Anything over that is considered a lunker. With these measurements in mind, it’s no mystery why these sporty sailfins are overshadowed by the state’s huskier species. Not many Outside anglers are planning their Alaska fishing vacations around the grayling fisheries. Even locals can be hard pressed to downsize after the early summer salmon runs. But if the reason you fish is for nonstop action on your own stretch of water, you might want to consider these feather-weight fighters.
The oversized dorsal is the signature mark on Arctic grayling. Colored with splashes of pink and blue, the fin flags back like an imperial standard. This banner is noticeably larger on males, drifting almost back to the tail on some brutes. Their bodies are armored in large scales that range from light gray to a yellow-brown to almost black. Grayling grow darker as they begin to spawn, usually in late April or early May. As the ice begins to melt on Alaska rivers, huge populations of grayling queue up at the mouths of tributary creeks. They work their way to choice spawning grounds where they dig a small depression and deposit thousands of eggs on the sandy gravel creek bed. Young grayling hatch anywhere from two weeks to a month later, depending on water temperatures.
With their work done, the parent fish spend the rest of their summer in these spawning waters or migrate to better feeding areas on a different creek. Most often, grayling like to hang out in the shallow headwaters of swift, clearwater creeks. You’ll find them seeking protection under cut banks or on the bottom of the deeper holes. Though they feed constantly, evenings seem to bring more activity than the middle of the day. This changes as the temperatures start to drop and the colors begin to turn in the middle of August. Grayling become voracious as they replenish their calorie reserves for the coming winter. Along with their staple of insects, they gather salmon eggs and flesh as they start to move downstream. Populations in the Tanana Valley drop sharply by the end of September and most fish will be tucked away by November, floating lethargically deep in the state’s major waterways.
Meager as it is, the tea-colored waters of the Chena River will always be one of my favorites. Flowing 70 miles from the Tanana Hills through downtown Fairbanks, the Chena offers some of the best road-side angling in the north. And growing up in the Interior we would rise early and pedal down to its dusty banks. It was on the Chena that I landed my first fish. Sure, I had caught dozens of lake-stocked trout on family outings. But this was different; no parents, no boat, no bait. Just my bike laying on its side in the dirt, a box of Mepps spinners from my grandfather and the river. The grayling lay flopping around in the silt until I dispatched it with a piece of driftwood. I pulled open its mighty dorsal and was thrilled at what I had done on my own. By noon I had half a dozen more on the bank where I cleaned them like trout before carrying them home to my astonished mother. As I got older spinning rods where traded out for a fly-casting outfit and Woolly Buggers took the place of the rusty Mepps. But a morning alone and on foot is still the way I prefer the Chena.
The upper half of Chena Hot Springs Road (57 miles to its end) is branched with dirt tracks that lead right to the water. A set of waders and boots will allow you access to the river’s many cut banks, gravel bars, and side channels. Casting from the willow-choked banks can be difficult; it’s best if you can get out in the river. Many fish will be holding in plain view, but they also hunker down under cut banks and sweepers. Work your way upstream investigating all shadows.
Halfway through a day-trip down the Chatanika River, and I had already tallied over 50 hooked grayling. The math did itself in my head: If this keeps up I could reach 100 fish by the time we reach the bridge. My fly line trailed along the Grumman canoe as I pondered the magnitude of hooking a century of grayling in a day. Suddenly a sailfin struck at my skipping Mosquito pattern, adding one more to my tally. The race was on as each cast brought in a frantic grayling, splashing at the gunwales in the hot June sun. But for every great accomplishment there is sacrifice, which in this case came from my partner who protested from the canoe’s stern. His count remained in the single digits and had not increased ever since I put my paddle down ten minutes into our ten-hour float. Some one had to skipper our craft and my attention was devoted to this new challenge. Finally he also took up his rod.
The canoe quickly spun out of control in the swift current and a contest of nerves ensued. Who would drop their rod and paddle before we crashed into the oncoming sweepers? Into the brush we went, the aluminum hull bouncing off the submerged trees with the sound of a bass kettledrum. Still we casted out into the current, dragging hapless grayling along on our chaotic descent of the Chatanika. I gripped my rod with white knuckles and sweat dripped from my brow as our dangerous game continued. The roar of a logjam echoed from around the bend, quickly approaching. My hands were pulling a hook from number 60, making no move towards the paddle. The pile of timbers came into view and the tension mounted until there was a cry from the stern. Quickly he pulled in his fly and worked furiously to straighten our line through the prickly obstacles. I continued to cast, reaching the bridge with a count of 98. But I grabbed two more while he wrestled our battleship up onto the roof. It’s always good to surround yourself with such supportive friends.
The quickest way to get into the Chatanika River is at the Elliott Highway bridge 11-miles north of Fairbanks. Pull into the Olnes Pond Campground, which offers easy and popular access. The river can also be fished from a drive up the Steese Highway where dozens of bends come close to the road all the way to mile 69. For paddlers, easy put-in options are Sourdough Creek (mile 60 and two days to the Elliott Highway takeout) or the bridge at mile 39, which makes a good day-trip back to a car left at Olnes Pond. Be prepared to portage seasonal logjams. Nice gravel beaches on each bend are good places to pull over and cast.
Put away the broom stick that you use in the king salmon combat zone and gear down, way down, for some of finest dry-fly fishing to be found in Alaska. During the hot, buggy months of summer, grayling can be found by the constant dimples left on the surface as they feed on local insects. If fished properly, Black Gnat and Mosquito patterns in sized 12-18 will take a fish on each cast. Light Cahill, Elk Hair Caddis, and Adams patterns on small hooks will also produce strikes. Grayling seem to be more concerned about the fly size instead of matching the pattern with what they’re feeding on at the time. Pack a fly box with light, neutral, and dark colored patterns, such as a Light Cahill, an Adams, and Black Gnat patterns, in sizes 10-20.
Fish these on flat, calm waters where they can spin tauntingly in the slow currents. Fish heavier floating flies, such as a Humpy or an Irresistible, in faster, more turbulent sections. Grayling are rarely leader shy and will rise from near the bottom of a creek to take a well-presented dry fly. With a floating line that matches the size of your rod, an eight-foot leader with a four-pound tippet is a good set-up. Grayling can also be attracted to simple black leech patterns for sub-surface angling. Once salmon do move into their domain, everything revolves around the egg; single and double egg patterns, flesh flies, and Polar Shrimp are the workhorse patterns. Spin casters will do well with a lightweight, fast-action rod loaded with two-pound test line. All spoons and spinners will bring in fish, but Mepps and Panther Martins are all-around favorites.
Arctic hot spots for grayling
Jim River, 224 miles north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway
Pull-outs at two bridges over the river north of the Arctic Circle. No crowds and can almost guarantee a fish on with every cast. Get a burger at the truck stop in Cold Foot 30 miles north.
Kanuti River, 190 miles north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway
Just below the Arctic Circle with good places to camp. Walk across the tundra and fish endless bends as you hike the creek. Crystal-clear waters packed with fish.
Birch Creek, 94 miles east of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway
Wilderness river trip with some rapids and more fish. Put in at Steese Highway bridge at mile 94 and pull out four days later at mile 147 on the same road.
Salcha River, 40 miles south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway
Parking at the bridge; follow paths in the woods along river. Stay away during king salmon season in late July.
Delta Clearwater River, 85 miles south of Fairbanks near Delta Junction
Put a canoe in at Delta Clearwater campground and paddle to Clearwater Lake, a distance of 10 miles. Huge grayling in the fall during the coho run.