Fishing Fairbanks

By Kevin Yokum

In the midst of a wild, untamed land, my ears strained for a familiar sound. Nothing! No car horns, rush-hour traffic, ringing cell phones or other annoyances of civilization; just the river. The calming ease of the river’s gliding water, the occasional screech of a soaring eagle and joyful exclamations of my partner landing king salmon were the only sounds given up by this portion of Alaska’s wilderness.

My partner and I couldn’t believe the solitude, the scenery and the fact we had an entire stream of king salmon all to ourselves. It was so refreshing not to jostle for position among hundreds of frantic shoreline anglers crowding in to ambush approaching salmon.

For sure, one of the true joys of Alaskan wilderness is partaking of world-class salmon fishing without the crowds.

Sight-fishing for the highly coveted king salmon is an awesome experience and can be downright heavenly when conducted in pristine surroundings with no competition. While Paradise will have to wait, interior Alaska does offer the promise fine fishing for any angler journeying to Fairbanks and beyond.

Overshadowed by Alaska’s famous coastal fisheries, the Interior doesn’t get the respect it deserves within the sport-fishing realm. Admittedly, Alaska’s coastal region generates some of the world’s best fishing, with which few places can compare. However,Alaska’s Interior has some fine fishing adventures as well, some of which might suit your style perfectly. 

The Chena River

The Chena is “the” river around Fairbanks. Beginning as a trickle deep in the wilderness, the Chena River gains in stature as it flows by Chena Hot Springs and cuts through the edge of a rugged wild land. Widening even more as it nears town, the Chena shoots through downtown Fairbanks before finally emptying into the Tanana River.

From the headwaters toNordaleBridge, theUpper Chenalies on the edge of a virtual wilderness. A rugged landscape composed of endless evergreen forests, bogs and pristine streams teeming with natural wonder and wildlife.

The North Fork of the Chena and the main Chena both serve as primary spawning grounds for Chena River salmon. The river’s upper regions also happen to feature spectacular grayling fishing.

The setting is utterly picturesque: a pristine river with short pools and raging riffles, wilderness fringes guarding one stream bank while a single paved road provides intermittent access on the other. Surrounded by magnificent scenery and wildlife, attentive visitors can’t help but be engulfed by the Chena’s residual sense of serenity.

Grayling thrive in this unspoiled setting, some reaching mystical 20-inch dimensions. Such pristine environments remain rare acrossNorth Americaand are getting rarer with each passing day.

Closely related to the prestigious trout, grayling display an abnormally large dorsal fin and come outlined in iridescent colors, which shimmer when struck by the sun. The fish’s unique appearance, along with its intolerance for pollution, have distinguished the grayling as a symbol of wilderness.

While self-guided anglers can experience great grayling fishing from shore, a scenic float down the Chena River is a fabulous way to observe miles of this wonderful land, and fish in areas few people ever see. Floating some 12 miles of the Chena River with Joe Letarte of Wilderness Enterprises, I garnered a deep appreciation for the river’s scenic beauty, its turbulent history and picked up some excellent advice on grayling fishing.

Favored by fly fishermen because of their willingness to take dry flies off the surface,ChenaRivergrayling will also attack spinners and small jigs.

Chena River offers some of the best grayling fishing in the world, thanks in part to conservation regulations that now include mandatory catch-and-release within the Chena River system. Since modern management strategies have been implemented on the Chena, the river’s grayling populations have dramatically improved, thus the fishery has become a modern conservation success story.

The Chena River also boasts a healthy salmon fishery. During July, anglers intersect the annual run of Chena River king salmon, but only fish below the Chena River Dam may be targeted. Salmon above the Chena River Dam are protected by design as they journey to critical spawning grounds.

Downstream of the Chena River Dam, king salmon season is open through July, and anglers catch decent numbers of kings on this section of the river.

The Chena is a sizeable river below the dam and large motorboats are employed by anglers on a regular basis. Most folks choose to fish for salmon from a boat, although shore fishing does still take place. Typical setups of egg masses and divers or even stationary crankbaits spinning in the current remain the norm for Chena River salmon anglers.

Pike are present up and down the Chena, too, although most anglers target them in the backwater sloughs or tributary mouths along the river’s lower end.

Chena Lakes

Another option for anglers fishing near Fairbanks is the ever-present Chena Lakes Recreational Area. Chena Lakes is a great option for anglers looking for a “quick hitter” fishing trip or a convenient family outing.

The main attraction is the 260-acre Chena Lake, which houses a variety of fish species. Renewable fisheries in the lake are courtesy of Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), which stocks the lake with rainbow trout, silver salmon and Arctic char.

Trophy fish aren’t a trademark of Chena Lake as the lake remains a stocked water whose management goals stress quantities instead of trophies, but it is a solid place to encounter consistent action for a variety of species.

Plenty of shoreline fishing is available all around the lake, and anglers should find the area’s “roomy” feel appealing since many Alaska rivers get crowded during salmon runs.

Numerous boating options exist for Chena Lake anglers. A boat launch/dock welcomes anglers wishing to bring their own vessels, while anglers without watercraft can rent small boats and canoes at the lakeside rental office. Two docks are available for shoreline anglers, including one with ADA accessibility.

Spinners and spoons comprise “hot” lures for anglers looking to connect with trout, char and silver salmon, and sometimes the strikes can be bone jarring. Anglers willing to slow troll around the lake seem to have great success on trout and salmon. 

Convenience is the name of the game at Chena Lakes. Chena Lake features modern amenities such as restrooms, campgrounds, picnic areas, plenty of parking and a swimming beach. Quite luxurious for a fishing destination, and welcome additions for angling families.

In addition to Chena Lake, a section of the Chena River is included in Chena Lakes Recreation Area. This section of the recreation area is known asRiverPark, and it too includes shoreline fishing and a number of modern amenities such as a boat ramp capable of handling sizeable motorboats.

Running through River Park, the Chena River offers fishing for northern pike, burbot, whitefish and a seasonal run of king salmon. Two backwater sloughs within the River Park area provide excellent northern pike fishing, and surprisingly, local anglers don’t show much interest in pursuing them. The backwater sloughs are easily accessed by shoreline anglers, and the high banks near the water’s edge create a perfect setup for spot-and-stalk tactics.

An interesting side venture for anglers and/or their families is the Chena River Dam at the far end of the recreation area where the ADF&G conducts annual salmon counts. In addition to actually watching salmon migrate upstream, an informational display detailing the counting process remains readily available on top of the dam. Sometimes, ADF&G personnel will even be on site to answer questions. 

Nearby Options

Less than an hour from Fairbanks on the Nenana River, guide Reed Morisky offers some of the best sight-fishing for king salmon in all of Alaska. Reed guides anglers into the wilderness on single-day fishing trips or multiday angling excursions. Anglers will be ushered to clear tributary streams by boat where they can sight-fish for king, silver or chum salmon.

Obviously, species options vary by month, but sometimes anglers can overlap salmon runs and cash in on two species.

For serious anglers, the wilderness creates a phenomenal setting, and the fishing can only be classified as extraordinary. Few places in Alaska offer sight-fishing opportunities like those found on the Nenana tributaries.

Grayling are also present in the Nenana tributaries, and these unique fish provide fabulous dry fly and light tackle action. Trophy grayling up to 18- to 20 inches can show up at any time on these waters, and grayling fishing remains good throughout the season.

On the Nenana tributaries, king salmon run up to 40 pounds with the average fish weighing between 15- and 20 pounds. Silvers and chums average 5- to 10 pounds with bigger fish present at times. Any of the three pack plenty of power for light-tackle and fly-fishing enthusiasts.

Salmon are taken on a variety of colorful weighted flies, jigs and flashy spoons, while grayling prefer floating dry flies or small spinners.

Despite being virtually ignored by local Alaskans for years, northern pike fishing is growing in popularity, and the Yukon River and Minto Flats areas continue to generate spectacular opportunities for trophy pike.

Offering nearly 800 square miles of lakes, rivers and sloughs, the Minto Flats area located west of Fairbanks has attained a well-deserved reputation for producing lunker pike. Wading anglers can work their way into the pike grounds, but anglers fishing from a boat will gain access to a wider range of pike habitat on Minto Flats. The area typically ranks as one ofAlaska’s best fisheries for producing trophy pike (15 pounds or larger).

The Yukon River, a relatively new trophy-pike destination lies close enough to Fairbanks to offer even more angling options. The area houses monster pike, perhaps some of the world’s largest. Clearwater tributaries and backwater sloughs on the Yukon as well as the Tanana River serve as superb locations to encounter giant pike. North Country River Charters offers multi-day trips on the Yukon River as well as Minto Flats.

Fly Outs

For those looking for extra adventure and extraordinary fishing, fly-out trips are a fabulous way to discover the real Alaska. Marina Air of Fairbanks offers a variety of standard and custom fly-out fishing adventures, including overnight trips on remote wilderness lakes.

Anglers with tight schedules can fish Alaska wilderness with a day-trip option, flying out early in the morning and returning later in the evening. The multiple day wilderness option offered by Marina Air comes with lakeside accommodations in the form of small cabins and a ready motorboat. Fly-out trips from Fairbanks seem very reasonably priced when compare to other Alaska destinations.

While certain Interior locations feature rainbow trout, silver salmon or even lake trout, it’s more common for Alaska lakes to offer shots at grayling and northern pike.

Trophy pike are becoming the latest rage, and Alaska has tons of places where pressure on pike remains minimal. Sometimes, pike are so adaptive to wilderness environments that they become over-abundant. Pike can become stunted when competition for food among individuals becomes intense. The trick is to find locations where pike grow to trophy size, and thankfully many such fisheries exist in the Alaska wilderness.

Anglers will know when a northern pike hits due to the vicious nature of the strike, and the more competition within a lake, the more aggressive pike become.

Due to the lack of fishing pressure and abundant resources, pike fishing in Alaska’s Interior region should continue to be fabulous for generations to come.

Regardless of which species gets your adrenaline pumping, the view from a low-flying bush plane generates perspective on what true wilderness is all about. Discovering pristine rivers and forests teeming with wildlife in an unspoiled landscape becomes a memorable experience for nearly every fly-out angler.

 As for the home-base city itself, Fairbanks remains a progressive modern city with an appealing local flare. The city has plenty of interesting ventures such as the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North, Tanana Valley Farmers Market, Pioneer Park, Riverboat Discovery tours and a slew of great dining spots. I loved the food at the Pump House Restaurant, which at one time was an ancient gold washing facility and still maintains that décor, and the salmon bake at Pioneer Park is legendary.

Fairbanks radiates a rich sense of history, tradition and wilderness adventure, which can enhance any angler’s journey as they prepare to tackle the rugged Interior in pursuit of Alaska’s bountiful sport fish.

Fishing opportunities around Fairbanks and Alaska’s Interior simply gets overshadowed by an endless array of Alaska’s coastal fisheries which indeed offer world-class fishing and dramatic scenery. However, the Alaska Interior carries its own appeal, with an endless sea of evergreen forests and vast wilderness.

Among the Interior’s Alaska wilderness lies a variety of fabulous fisheries, some are wild adventures while others shift toward the “cushiony” nature. Whichever suits your fancy,Fairbanks and vicinity can deliver!

Outfitters/Guide

Marina Air, Rick Gold  www.akpikefishing.com  907-479-5684

Wilderness Enterprises, Joe Letarte  www.wildernessenterprises.com  907-488-7517

Wilderness Fishing Inc, Reed Morisky  www.wildernessfishing.com  907-479-0479

North Country River Outfitters,   www.ncrc.alask.com  907-479-7116 

Ever been to the North Pole?

Located just 13 miles south of Fairbanks

Great Christmas shopping

Santa’s House – A fabulous shop where Christmas rules 12 months of the year. The shop houses a live, authentic looking Mr. and Mrs. Claus and real reindeer outside.

Nearly everything about the town is named in the spirit of Christmas.

Not everyone can prove they’ve actually been to the North Pole; North Pole, Alaska that is.

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