Denali Area Fishing for Artic Grayling - Epic Scenery and Clear Cold Creeks
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Just south of Denali National Park, you'll find an uncrowded Arctic Grayling fishery framed by the mountains of the Alaska Range with clearwater creeks, tundra ponds, and – best of all – wild Arctic Grayling. I know this because I've been coming back to the Denali area for 28 years now, as I spend my summers guiding out of a cabin that my wife and I built in the little town of Cantwell, Alaska. It's a piece of paradise on the edge of Denali Park and the grayling fishing is as good as it's ever been.
If this is your first trip to Alaska, you'll almost certainly want to visit the Denali area. Denali National Park should be high on your list of places to visit in Alaska. Most people make the four-hour drive up from Anchorage or take the Alaska Railroad's scenic Denali Star Train directly into the park. It's a must-visit Alaska destination with huge vistas, abundant wildlife, and excellent grayling fishing not far from the park entrance.
Inside the Park
You should know that the best fishing is NOT found inside Denali Park. Although I've had some decent fishing inside the national park itself, the problem here is access: with few exceptions, you can't drive a private vehicle beyond the Savage River Checkpoint at mile 15 of the park road. Savage River is glacial and has poor fishing, although there are a few clear creeks that dump into it before the checkpoint and I have had some good grayling fishing here.
If you choose to take a shuttle further into the park – beyond Savage River – you'll find most of the rivers in Denali are thick with glacial runoff. Again, you'll need to target small clearwater creeks. There are not a lot of these creeks, but they do hold some nice grayling and they get almost no fishing pressure. Ask the rangers at the visitor's center to point out some of these creeks on a map. You may find good fish and I guarantee you'll have an adventure getting there. What's more, you won't need a fishing license in this area of the park and you almost certainly won't run into anyone else fishing. View Denali Park specific fishing regulations here
Denali Area Fishing - Go South of Denali Park
So my first choice is not to fish in the park itself. The best fishing in the Denali area – and it's the area where I guide – is found south of the Denali Park entrance, an area centered around the town of Cantwell. This is an area that stretches south of Cantwell along the Alaska Parks Highway for about 15 miles through a stunning area known as Broad Pass, and then East along the remarkably scenic Denali Highway for 30 miles to Bruskana Creek Campground. It's a big area with LOTS of water: spring creeks, clearwater streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes – and except for a couple of glacial rivers, every bit of this water holds grayling.
Some of My Favorite Denali Area & Arctic Grayling Photos
Don't Just Catch...Release!
Worldwide, there are 14 different species of grayling in the Thymallus genus. There's the Mongol, Baikal, Amur, and East Siberian grayling, among others. Here in Alaska, the lone member of the genus is the Arctic Grayling. Thymallus is Latin for thyme – because a freshly cleaned grayling really does smell like the herb. Not that I clean and eat many. In fact, I'm fanatical about letting them go and I only clean one on the rare (and sad) occasion when I hook one too deeply.
Most arctic grayling in the Denali/Cantwell area don't reach sexual maturity until they're six or seven years old. Interior Alaska grayling can live as long as the family dog. If you're lucky to catch a truly large grayling around here, that fish will almost certainly be over ten years old.
These are slow-growing fish making a meager living in a harsh climate. What's more, they are usually not hard to catch because they can't afford to pass up food. Or your fly. So they eat with abandon, taking advantage of long days and open water, knowing that it will be a long winter ahead. So please, please practice catch and release, as these beautiful fish are very susceptible to overfishing!
Much of this area is owned by the local native corporation, Ahtna – so be sure that you aren't trespassing. I strongly suggest that if you're fishing the area around Cantwell, that you download the Ahnta Regional Map App here. It's free and it will show you exactly where you are, so you know whether you're on Ahtna, BLM, State, National Park, or private land.
Incidentally, there's a lot of very good grayling fishing on Ahtna land. To access it easily and legally, you'll need to buy an Ahtna day-use permit for $20 (As of 2021). It's money well spent if it helps you get onto a beautiful little creek or river. Buy your day Ahtna Permit here.
Remember, too that Alaskans enjoy the constitutional right to access any navigable waters regardless of who owns the underlying land. This is the gold standard for anglers looking to access MILES of water. The Alaska State Constitution states that: "Free access to the navigable or public waters of the state, as defined by the legislature, shall not be denied any citizen of the United States or resident of the state …." Use of the water and land below the ordinary high water mark is not considered trespassing. This doesn't mean you can hike across posted property to get to a river, but it does mean that if you can gain legal access to a body of water – such as at a road crossing – you can fish or hike anywhere along it. Knowing this will give you access to MILES of water.
Where to Fish
As I mentioned, almost every bit of water in this area South of Denali Park holds grayling, except the glacial rivers. The main glacial river that drains the area is the Nenana. All of its clearwater tributaries hold grayling in good numbers. Brushkana Creek is one of these and the campground makes an excellent place to start your fishing. It's 28.5 miles East of Cantwell on the Denali Highway. Try working downstream from the campground.
Heading back toward Cantwell on the Denali Highway, you'll find Canyon Creek and then Seattle Creek. Both hold grayling, with Seattle also holding some small Dolly Varden. There's a rough trail west of the creek that leads upstream on Seattle.
Continuing back toward Cantwell along the Denali Highway you'll find more water, all of it draining into the Nenana, and most of it holding grayling. Two easy spots to access are where Fish Creek crosses the Denali Highway at 5.5 miles and 1 mile east of Cantwell.
Take advantage of the excellent map that Bureau of Land Management has of this area:
South of Cantwell
Driving south of Cantwell, you'll find lots of water as you head into gorgeous Broad Pass. Pass Creek is 2 miles out of town. Work upstream, or head downstream until you hit the glacial Cantwell Creek. Further south of town you'll find Edes Lake and Summit Lake, as well as a number of other unnamed ponds. Concentrate on the outlets. If you have a boat, cruise the shorelines in the morning or evening. You'll see rising fishing. This is another beautiful area to fish with very easy access off the paved Parks Highway. This area is all Ahtna land so a day permit is required. As a result, a lot of people simply do not fish some of this easy to access water. I rarely see folks fishing in this area.
Arctic Grayling - The Perfect Fly Rod Fish?
If you don't fly fish, you can certainly still catch grayling – try small spinners with a single barb-free hook – but these fish are made for fly fishing. They feed on top and it's a rare day when grayling aren't willing to take a dry fly. If you've never fly fished, they really are a perfect fish to learn from because they're eager to strike and they are forgiving of less than perfect presentations. For this reason, I especially love guiding families – because, after a little coaching, even kids who've never picked up a fly rod will have success.
DIY Packing List
Thinking of a do-it-yourself trip? Some suggestions: you'll want to bring bear spray. I don't see a lot of bears in the area when I'm guiding, but I do run into grizzlies every summer. So be bear-aware. Also, make sure to bring insect repellant and a bug net. In a bad bug year, you'll go mad without them. As far as fly fishing gear goes, bring a 3-5 weight rod with a floating line. Fly floatant is essential. As far as flies go, be sure to check out my blog post on must-bring dry flies for grayling: Top 5 Flies for Denali Grayling! — Denali Angler, "Guided Fly Fishing Denali Park Alaska.".
Guided Fishing with The Denali Angler
If you don't want to go the DIY route, I'd be happy to talk to you about guided options that I offer at Denali Angler. The great thing about spending the day with a guide is that you don't have to worry about access, gear, bears, or – more alarmingly – teaching your spouse or kids how to fly cast. That's my job. So don't hesitate to reach out and contact me if I can help answer your questions.
We offer half-day and full-day trips, as well as a specific learn-to-fly-fish trip. We like to try and customize every trip. If you tell us what you're looking for, we can usually make it happen. We have access to miles of beautiful water, with options for every skill level. We can provide any gear that you might need: rods, reels, flies, and hip boots, and pick you up at your lodge.
So reach out to us. I'd be happy to help you plan a fantastic day of grayling fishing in one of the most beautiful areas you'll ever visit. I've been spending my summers here for over 25 years, and I'm still not tired of the scenery or the fly fishing. Some of my fondest memories are of showing visitors this very special place. If you'd like to know more about what Denali Angler has to offer, go to my website: https://www.denaliangler.com
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