CANTWELL, AK (KTUU) - Summer is heating up in Alaska, and so are the fishing opportunities across the state.
Although the allure of the biggest early-run sockeye return in years on the Russian River is drawing hundreds of anglers to the Kenai Peninsula, those looking to avoid crowds can head North and find hot grayling action.
When I learned I would be Roadtrippin’ along the Denali Highway, it presented an excellent opportunity to target grayling.
For many fly fishing purists, arctic grayling are a bucket-list catch. Since this summer is my first in Alaska, I reached out to some experts for guidance.
Cecilia “Pudge” Kleinkauf authored “Fly Fishing for Alaska’s Arctic Grayling: the Sailfish of the North.” Grayling are noted for their willingness to hit a well presented dry fly, but Pudge said she is partial to nymphs. She recommended nymphs smaller than #10 with barbless hooks.
Although grayling can be found in almost every lake and river along the highway, multiple experienced anglers told me that if you want a better chance at a good sized grayling, I would need to put some distance between me and the highway.
However, since we were running a tight schedule and fishing unfortunately wasn’t the only objective of the day, Scott Lee with 49th State Fishing Excursions showed us were we could catch a few fish fast.
Fish Creek near Cantwell is a spot that Lee says isn’t a secret, but many anglers pass up. If I were fishing without Scott I would have driven right past it thinking I should at least leave the paved portion of Denali Highway before starting to fish. It proved to be worth the stop. Scott says just about anywhere the road crosses a creek you can find grayling.
The grayling lived up to their reputation as a fantastic fish for those who like to fish dry flies. I tied on a Parachute Madame X attractor dry fly with rubber legs that have dry rotted, since my traditional trout fly fishing tackle hasn’t been used since I moved to Alaska. Reporter Derek Minemeyer also found quick success with a dry fly chosen from his trout fishing days in Montana.
After getting my first grayling under my belt, I knew had to experience catching these beautiful fish somewhere at least a little more remote than the side of the paved portion of the highway. The crew at the Clearwater Mountain Lodge at milepost 82 on the Denali Highway pointed me towards an area where we could find multiple creeks just above their confluence with the Susitna.
We left the highway, but still drove less than 10 miles before finding a spot too good to pass up. The water was on the high side of good, and the grayling were more concentrated in pocket water than the those we saw along the road while fishing with Scott.
I started off with my favorite dry fly from my earliest days targeting brook trout in Southern Appalachia - a pattern called Smoky Mountain Candy. It’s a wulff style pattern that holds floatant well and is easy to see on the water.
After catching enough fish to wear out my fly, I tied on a flashy Czech nymph with a tungsten bead head. I now understand why Pudge is partial to nymphs.
Drifting it with a tight line technique - meaning no strike indicator floating on the water surface - produced outstanding results. While most of the grayling caught on dry flies were 7-10 inches, switching to the nymph produced both more fish and larger ones.
For those new to fly fishing, fishing nymphs without a strike indicator presents a steeper learning curve, but once mastered it’s a technique that translates across species, regions and types of water.
I could estimate how many fish I caught, but I since I wasn’t counting and we weren’t recording video the entire time, my estimates would likely be too high. Suffice it to say, we caught enough grayling to call the day a success.
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