Grayling or Bust - Three Epic Road Trips for Alaska's Most Beautiful Fish
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If I'd been anywhere other than Alaska, I would've already been in bed – yet I was still streamside and in no hurry to leave even though it was pushing 11 o'clock. Why leave when grayling are still rising and the sun hasn't set? Some of the fish I caught that night would arc from the water, eyes locked on their target, only taking my flies on reentry. Beautiful acrobats,these gorgeous fish should be near the top of your list if you're going to be in Alaska this summer, especially if you fly fish, or you want to learn. Don't pass up a chance to drift dry flies to what some of us consider to be the most beautiful fish in the state.
Members of the salmonid family and, more specifically, the Thymallus genus, grayling are found from the United Kingdom through Northern Europe and across Eurasia and Siberia. Worldwide there may be 14 species of grayling, but here in Alaska, the lone member of the Thymallus genus is the Arctic Grayling. Thymallus is Latin for thyme because a freshly cleaned grayling really does smell like the herb. Not that you should 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. Grayling are slow growing fish that can live up to 30 years and are incredibly susceptible to overfishing – so, please, by all means catch them, but then turn them loose.
The Grayling 411
Beautiful. Plentiful. Eager to strike. What more could you want from a fish? What these fish lack in size, they make up for in looks and grace and style. What's more, you'll find grayling in some of the most beautiful, uncrowded, areas of Alaska. For these reasons, many of my clients tell me – after fishing all over the state – that they preferred the solitude and peace they found while fishing for grayling. I tend to agree.
The fishing is straightforward. If you're a fly fisher you'll need a 3-5 weight rod with a floating line and a handful of go-to grayling patterns. I prefer elk hair caddis, black ants, foam beetles, stimulators, and irresistibles in sizes 10-14. Bring floatant to keep them riding high and be sure to have some bead head nymphs – hare's ears, peasant tails and the like – in case the fish aren't interested in your dries.
Spin fishermen will do well with an ultralight rod and in-line spinners – Mepps, Blue Fox, Panther Martins – in the smallest sizes with your barbs pinched. Better still – if at all possible – ditch the treble hook for a barbless single. You'll injure far fewer fish.
Grayling inhabit most of Alaska, the exceptions being the Southeast, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands, but you'll find the best fishing in the Interior, the North, and South Western Alaska. And you don't have to fly out to some remote river to find fish in good numbers either. That's because there are a number of notable, road-accessible fisheries that await the adventurous roadside angler. I'll cover three great drives that will take you to some of the best grayling fishing in Alaska.
Three Road Trips for Arctic Grayling Fishing in Alaska
Chena Hot Springs Road
The Chena River is a great story. It's a great story because it's a story about the recovery of a once abused fishery that is now one of the best grayling rivers in Alaska to catch big, beautiful Arctic Grayling. Overfishing in the 1980's reduced grayling populations to a fraction of what the river once held, but after catch and release regulations were imposed the fishing bounced back. Today, the fishery is as good as ever, with healthy numbers of grayling and excellent river access. Anglers have a good chance of catching broad fish up to 18 inches.
Just forty miles east of Fairbanks, the Upper Chena River flows through the 240,080 acre Chena River State Recreation Area. This is where you will want to focus; you'll find numerous access points and bridges along Chena Hot Springs Road. The water is usually wadeable and is rated class 1, which makes for a great float-and-fish if you've got a canoe. You're likely to see moose on the river as well, and – at times – spawning king and chum salmon. Sorry, no fishing for salmon on this part of the Chena, but the grayling will follow the spawning salmon as they start dropping eggs. Remember, the fishing is strictly catch-and-release.
The Steese Highway
The 161 mile Steese Highway starts in Fairbanks and ends 50 miles shy of the Arctic Circle in the Yukon River town of Circle. Much of the road is hard packed gravel with beautiful vistas – especially on top of Eagle Summit – with great access to some excellent grayling fishing. What's more this area is famous for its gold mining history; be sure to stop by Gold Dredge Number 8, a National Historic Site. But the real story here is the access to two excellent grayling rivers. The first, the Chatanika, is a beautiful, easily-fished clearwater stream that crosses the road at mile 39, at the Upper Chatanika State Recreation Site. Driving north, the river parallels the highway for a number of miles, offering numerous access points with a good chance of landing grayling in the 8-16 inch range. Further up the Steese, you'll want to consider taking a detour on the Nome Creek road. The road is about 55 miles north of Fairbanks and provides access to good fishing on Nome Creek. As you drive the 18.5 mile Nome Creek Road, you'll note numerous spots to access the river. At the end of the road, you'll find the Bureau of Land Management's Ophir Creek Campground. It makes a great base to camp and fish the area. Much of Nome Creek was dredged, but the river is now reclaimed, with mandatory catch-and-release regulations on grayling. As a result, the fishery can be excellent, with fish from 8 to 16 inches. My advice: if you are not catching grayling, move. If the fish are there, you'll likely catch them. Later in the summer, grayling – especially larger fish – tend to push upstream. So follow the fish up river for more success.
The Denali Highway
Regarded as one of the epic drives in North America and named by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 Drivers' Drives in the country, the Denali Highway is a 135 mile long trek with gorgeous scenery and, at times, notoriously bad all-gravel driving conditions. Closed for much of the year, but open when the grayling fishing is at its best, this route will not disappoint. Drive slowly and you'll be fine. But leave lots of time to explore and know this: almost all the rivers and ponds and lakes along this route hold grayling, the exception being the big silt-laden rivers like the Nenana and Susitna. The highway runs from Cantwell in the West to Paxson in the East. There are few services along the road, so you'll need to be prepared. On the Cantwell end, you'll find excellent fishing amid soaring scenery. You'll find good numbers of fish in the 8-15 inch range. If you are looking for a guide, consider reaching out to us here at Denali Angler. We'd love to show you some of our favorite spots in the Cantwell area. We fish the first thirty miles of the Denali Highway. For more info, be sure to check out our website at www.denaliangler.com Further down the highway, you'll be on your own, but if you have a nose for fish, you'll be in good shape – as there are literally miles of creeks and dozens of lakes and ponds to explore. The area around Tangle Lakes can be especially good. If you are serious about making the drive, be sure to check out Bureau of Land Management's excellent guide to fishing the Denali Highway.
Final Thoughts on why you should consider fishing for Arctic Grayling in Alaska
In a state filled with five species of salmon, rainbow trout, arctic char, and dolly varden I guess it's not surprising that grayling sometimes take a backseat to these more charismatic gamefish. But grayling offer so much. They live in cold clear water in some of the most wonderous places in Alaska, and on most days you can count on them to be eager feeders. I obviously have a soft spot for grayling, much as some anglers love brook trout, or cutthroats – neither of which, like grayling, are giants or are that difficult to catch – but there is something about each of these fish, something that reminds you why – all those many years ago – that you first started fishing in the first place. Enjoy your drive.
If you are going to be in the Denali area and want to fish for Arctic Graying reach out to the Denali Angler fishing guides to find out about guided fishing for Grayling in the Denali area.
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