Found! A Drive-To Arctic Grayling Fishery
By Gary Lewis
Alaska is a land of big rivers and big fish. So why would anyone bother to chase grayling in the spring when there are salmon in the river all summer? Because grayling are silver-sided denizens of deepest Alaska, with tall, sail-like dorsal fins and a propensity for popping dry flies. To me, they are the very symbol of the far north, pure water, wild country and mountain streams.
Our trip took us to Fairbanks the second week of June, where we found the rivers clear after the spring thaw. To start, we rented a car at the airport.
First stop was a fly shop in Fairbanks, where we met Howie Van Ness. He stressed the importance of finding the fish. "Don't waste your time," he warned us, "fishing where there are no fish. Grayling move up and down in the watershed more so than most fish and they could be anywhere. But when you find a school, you'll have good fishing."
Today when you go to Fairbanks, the place to get the local information as well as flies is Big Ray's. Click them up at http://www.bigrays.com/servlet/content/big_rays.html
Alaska has grayling in abundance. In the Yukon/Tanana drainage where we fished, there are several famous grayling streams, including the upper reaches of the Chena, Salcha and Chatanika rivers.
We fished the Salcha first, but found better access and better fishing on the road-accessible North Fork of the Chena, a tributary of the Tanana. The water was on the drop and clear after a series of thundershowers. The grayling averaged 10 to 18 inches long.
Heeding the advice we'd been given, we used spinners to cover water until we located a pod of fish. Then we strung our fly rods and started fishing seriously.
Wherever a boulder broke the flow or a fallen log eased the current, grayling set up in feeding stations. These are graceful creatures with small silvery-bronze scales and speckles behind the gills. Their most prominent feature is that towering, speckled purple-green-gray iridescent dorsal fin.
Grayling are best on a 3-, 4- or 5-weight rod. They are not sophisticated; match the hatch if you like, but in most waters grayling will rise to anything from a No. 18 midge to a No. 4 hopper.
My first fly-caught grayling fell to a No. 14 Adams; I later replaced it with an Elk Hair Caddis which floated better through the riffles. Other effective dry fly patterns included Goddard's Caddis, Black Gnat, Light Cahill and Mosquito. Wet flies and nymphs account for bigger fish, so bring a selection of No. 10-14 subsurface patterns: Woolly Worm, Egg-Sucking Leech, Beadhead Hare's Ear, Teeny Nymph, Brown Hackle and Zug Bug.
Later in the season, when salmon are on their spawning grounds, grayling put on weight. The river grayling you'll catch between July and September have gorged on salmon eggs. If you plan your trip for later in the summer, be sure to bring a supply of Glo Bug single egg patterns.
Rig with a floating line and a nine-foot, 5x leader. Bring waders, polarized glasses and mosquito repellent. A lightning-fast hook-set lost us more fish than it produced. The better response was to wait until the fish was headed back to the bottom before letting it feel the steel. In the faster water, these fish will often slash at the fly, miss, then swipe again.
We pulled off the highway at one spot and found a long, slow run of clear water over a sandy bottom, adjacent to a deeper pool strewn with fallen timber. In the shade, rise-rings dimpled the water. Dad worked the top end of the run and I plied the lower section, where the channel rejoined the main river. There were at least 50 grayling within reach. More than one fish would rise at the same time.
Grayling are migratory. June through September, these fish make their living in the upper reaches of clean, clear river systems. Look for riffled water, deep pools and undercut banks.
An angler can find the best action in side channels off the main river where downed timber provides cover and woody debris helps fish camouflage against the bottom. Grayling hang over the gravel bars and off to the side among the boulders.
So, when should you go? By the second week of June, the rivers are usually running clear. Good grayling fishing continues through September. The first King salmon reach the Fairbanks area by mid-July. Chum salmon show up in August and Coho hit these waters in September. Pike are available in some local lakes and in slower sections of river throughout the summer.
The best road-accessible grayling water on the Chena system can be found about 50 miles out of Fairbanks on the Chena Hot Springs Road.
The Chatanika is located 20 miles northwest of Fairbanks. The best grayling fishing is in the upper river, accessible from the Steese Highway. The Chatanika's tributaries, Tatalina Creek, Washington, Goldstream and Beaver creeks, are also good for grayling.
Fishing guides are available. Arctic Grayling Guide Service,907-479-0479, offers trips in the Tanana drainage to spring-fed tributaries. They use a jet boat to fish water that is inaccessible by air and difficult to reach on foot.
A nonresident 3-day license and a nonresident 7-day license are available as well as an annual license if you plan to stay longer.
The first evening, we checked in to Pike's Waterfront Lodge, 907-456-4500, in Fairbanks. Pike's is minutes from the airport, overlooking the Chena River. The room was clean and comfortable and well-appointed with two queen-size beds. Rates start at $109, but standard discounts apply. All rooms are non-smoking. Dogs are welcome. The buffet breakfast was very good. Pike's Waterfront Lodge provides an airport shuttle.
Next, we visited The Aurora Express/Forget Me Not Lodge, 907-474-0949, in the Tanana Valley, and stayed one night in the old train they have converted into a bed and breakfast on 700 feet of railroad track. Each car has been restored or renovated to individual themes and Victorian-era style. In the morning, we partook of what remains in my mind as one of the top 10 breakfast experiences of my life. Room rates start at $145. The Aurora Express is located 10 miles from downtown Fairbanks. Take Airport Way to the Parks Highway and turn left onto Chema Pump Road.
Finally, we stayed at Chena Hot Springs, 907-451-8104, our base for fishing the Chena River. Over a hundred years old, the resort retains a rustic flavor reminiscent of Alaska's prospecting past. The full-service restaurant stays open till 10:00pm. The huge open-air hot springs rock lake was a welcome retreat on a rainy evening. Rates start at $189. Yurts are available for $65 a night and RV parking is available. Chena Hot Springs is 60 miles from Fairbanks on the Chena Hot Springs Road. The road follows the river for much of its length.
We rented a compact from Dollar Rent-a-Car at 907-451-4360. Rates for June 2010 are $385.99 per week for a compact (Toyota Corolla or Chevrolet Cobalt) and $595.90 for a sport utility (Chevrolet Trailblazer or Toyota 4Runner). Reserve at least a week in advance. More information on auto and RV rental is available at www.explorefairbanks.com.
RV and tent campers can find a place to camp, as well.
For rafting or to find additional information about fly-fishing in the Fairbanks area, visit Blue Moose Rafting at http://www.bluemooseraft.com/new_site/
Those wild grayling will remain in my mind as a symbol of wilderness in the land of the Midnight Sun.