Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Thirty-three


Arctic Grayling in Alaska

Part 3

Text and Photos by Bob Fairchild
Grayling drawing by Clive Schaupmeyer

The Interior

The past two weeks, I've introduced you to grayling. I've also taken you to their "transplanted" homes in some of the mountain lakes on the Kenai Peninsula. Now it's time to visit them in their native home: the cold, clear waters of the interior of Alaska.

There are many places to fish for grayling in Alaska (including the large fish of southwestern Alaska and Nome), but those places require airfare! For my purposes, I'd like to focus on the fish to be found on the road system.

Grayling begin to appear in the tributaries of the Susitna River about 70 miles north of Anchorage on the Parks Highway. But, to get into real consistent fishing, one generally has to go further north. For "serious" grayling fishing, that means the Glennallen area, the Denali Highway or the Fairbanks area to me. In any of these areas, you can count on grayling living in ALL of the clear streams: any stream big enough that you can't step across (and even some that you CAN!) will hold grayling.

A few things to keep in mind. First, the smaller the stream, the more "hit and miss" the fishing might be. Grayling spawn in the spring. In the spring, they will run into the clear streams (from lakes or even from glacial rivers) to spawn. You might catch them as they "pass through" or you might catch them in the summer "holding waters". (The waters that grayling winter in are sometimes fairly "hostile" - silty or oxygen deprived - and are not usually the same places to find them once the ice is off.

Grayling have adapted to go into almost a "hibernation-like" state in the winters and require very little oxygen or food. This lack of activity also explains why even though they are VERY easy to catch in the summer, they are seldom caught by ice fishermen.) To return to the point of actually catching these fish, just because you caught 50 fish from a hole one day, doesn't mean that there will still be any fish there a month later. You may have just found them "passing through". As I said before, this is even more common in smaller streams.

Second, if there ARE grayling in the area, they'll probably be feeding! As we saw in "Part 1", they're very active feeders during the summer. And just because you don't see anything taking dries, don't be bashful about throwing a dry into "good looking water". You may have just started your own hatch! The grayling will often give themselves away. And finally, if you don't see any fish (in the water, actively feeding or chasing your flies), MOVE ON! If you don't see any fish, there's usually no sense in just pounding the water - they're not there. It sometimes only means moving on to the next bend in the stream. Other times it means moving quite a ways further.

Oh, one other thing to remember! Grayling generally are most active on bright, sunny days! (And you wonder why I love them?) Remember, in Alaska, a sunny day might get up to 70 degrees. Notice I said UP to. It's not warm enough on many cloudy days for the bugs to hatch. And since grayling feed by sight (not scent), we need those bugs. So, there's no trade off between good "fishing weather" and good weather!

So where to fish?

One of the best known areas (and yet, still good fishing) is at Tangle Lakes on the Denali Highway. Or, often in the Tangle River that runs between the lakes. However, to focus on just the Tangle Lakes region of the Denali would be extremely short sighted! The 135 miles of the Denali Highway is crossed no less than 7 times by streams. All of them hold grayling in some numbers. As a bonus, the Tangles hold whitefish and lake trout. (While lakers are not known as fish targeted by fly fishers, they can readily be taken right at ice-out.) The same is true (grayling, whitefish & lake trout) of Fielding Lake, just 15 miles north of Paxson on the Richardson Highway. (Paxson is at the eastern end of the Denali Highway.)

In fact, it was not the Tangles, but Rock Creek (just 2 miles west) where I took my 13 year old niece, Davya, to catch her first fish ever! (She's lived in Alaska all her life, but does not come from a fishing family.) I had fished that afternoon at Rock Creek while I waited for the rest of the family to catch up with me. I had caught & released over 4 dozen fish (including a 15 incher!), when Davya, her grandparents and my wife rode up on their bicycles.

(Did I mention that this was approximately the mid-point of a 500 mile bike trip for them? Maybe that explains why she's never fished - other hobbies. But that's another story!) Rock Creek is only about 30' across and has brush right up to the water's edge almost everywhere. I taught Davya to roll cast (no sense in getting frustrated by tangling every other back cast), outfitted her with rubber boots and a cap and we hit the stream. In no time, she was hooked up! I don't remember how many she caught, but we did keep two for the fire that night. (Grayling are very tasty - but the ONLY way to eat them is fresh. If you freeze them, you'll just be disappointed. Grilled over a fire is my favorite way.)

But, I've saved my most memorable destination of 1998 for last! In all the years that I've traveled to Fairbanks to visit my wife's parents and sisters, I'd fished the Upper Chena River. I made two trips to the Upper Chena this year.

The Chena, as it runs through downtown Fairbanks, is almost a canal - wide, slow, docile. The upper river is another world - wild, full of character, and yes, full of BIG grayling!

The upper river is accessed from the Chena Hot Springs Road and can be fished from numerous locations over 30-40 miles of the road! For those who don't care to fish, there are numerous hiking trails, a resort at the hot springs and tons of places to camp.

The first trip was after 16 straight hours of rain! (Yes, the river was up and the fishing was slow - comparatively speaking!) I had broken my 4wt on the Chatanika River (another grayling stream near Fairbanks) just days before and had to resort to a 6wt. I was glad to have the 6wt as it turned out! The river was swift, the fish were strong (average 14") and most of them were in and around snags. Grayling are generally found in braided water, in current seams and behind rocks. But, with the river up a foot (or two), this time they were most often right against the bank, seeking any respite from the strong currents behind downed trees or points of land. I fished very hard the first night, catching only a few fish in the first 2 hours. I rounded a bend and found myself across the stream from a guide and his clients (he'd landed the raft on the other side of the stream). The timing couldn't have been better.

(Or worse - depending on which side of the river you were on!) I proceeded to pull out a dozen fish from MY side of the stream, including the "prize" - a grayling that measured just over 17"! (If I lied better, this fish would be over 20", but I made the mistake of actually measuring it!) It's the first time I'd ever had to use 2 hands to handle a grayling. (I'm hoping that these don't sound big to you. I'm already regretting telling you all my "secret spots"! Grayling are fun fish, not big fish.)

The next couple days, the water receded and the fishing improved, but I never topped the size of that fish the first night.

My 13 year old niece, Davya

The second trip to the Chena was almost as special. It was over the Labor Day weekend and again, I was joined by my niece, Davya. I caught fewer fish that second trip to the Chena. In fact, I caught less than she did. I was too busy "playing guide" and helping her find and catch the fish. (But we still caught 3 dozen or more.) And she caught some in the 15" range - something that many people never do.

We put all the Chena grayling back. The Chena River is catch & release ONLY. I plan to go back and catch them again in '99. There is no better grayling fishing on the Alaska road system that I know of. I hope you've enjoyed my journey through grayling country. It makes me long for the sunny days on the cold clear streams of the interior! Until then, I'll tie some more caddis and have the warmth of my memories to sustain me through the winter.

Good fishing, everybody. And most important... have FUN doing it. :-)
~ Bob Fairchild

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