Yesterday’s trip up Southcentral Alaska’s Glenn Highway started off with winds gusting to 65 mph. I almost turned back, but found Eureka area relatively calm, if cold (around 0 degrees F, not including a light chill factor). It was a perfect afternoon for snowshoeing – and hunting up some snowshoe hares. Some I shot with camera, a few I took with the .22 Henry. The scenery along the way was exquisite.
The immature northern goshawk above, seen yesterday near Gunsight Mountain, followed me for close to a mile. The local snowshoe hare cycle is high and I kicked up many as I walked. The bird used this to its advantage, eventually disappearing into the brush on what I assume was a successful hunt.
Sometimes, the hunt is less about game harvested than getting outdoors and playing a living role in the some the most beautiful country on Earth.
Success of yesterday’s hunt will be measured this evening in a nice meal of hare and dumplings.
Successful hunts are perfect conspiracies of preparation and good luck.
By Ken Marsh
I’d arrived late in the day, after a long drive followed by a hike into the hills. By the time my tent was pitched and camp organized, little time remained for hunting, maybe half an hour at most. Already dusk rose from the ground shadows, muting the light around me and gathering overhead like campfire smoke. Still, it was worth a look; moose move on windless September evenings like this one, the kind that promise a full moon and hard frost. I thought I might spot a bull, if I were very lucky, in the meadow before dark.
So I picked up my rifle, a decades-old bolt-action Remington 30.06 purchased new with paper route money when I was a boy, and left camp, walking slowly, quietly toward a point overlooking the meadow nearby. I’d scouted the place the previous fall and discovered promising signs: moose trails worn into the duff, generations of antler rubs marking the saplings, a wallow where bulls had rolled during the rut. Drained by a brook and set in a small spot burn, the meadow was backed on its far side by a grass- and alder-covered mountainside that swept up into crags 3,000 feet high. Bulls would file down to this place from their high-country summer ranges with the cooler days of fall. On my side of the meadow, a forest of aspen and spruce stood where the burn tapered off, providing cover for moose and safe places for them to bed.
I found an opening among some charred stumps and settled in to watch. My riflescope would gather the light remaining and allow me to scan the meadow edges for a bull. Around me the country was still, the air cold and tangy with the sweet-and-sour smells of autumn-ripe berries.
A hunter remembers best his first bull moose and his last, and even as those past bulls flashed their antlers in my mind, each with a rack distinctive in spread and symmetry, a shadow in the meadow filled my scope. The shadow vanished when I lifted my head and peeked over the rifle, so I looked back into the scope and found it again – and this time recognized the smoky-gray shoulder hump and unmistakable flowing stride of a moose. At nearly the same time, I spotted the antlers.
The bull was headed for thick cover at the meadow’s edge, so calculations on its rack had to be hastily made. Pause for much more than a heartbeat and the moose would vanish, perhaps forever; shoot before determining whether or not the antler width made the bull legal – 50 inches was the minimum – and I would risk breaking the law.
I measured the antler spread against what I figured to be the foot or more of space between the bull’s ear tips. The beams were tall and the palms flared widely, extending far beyond the ears, and I reckoned the animal was just legal.
Flame shot from my rifle muzzle, blinding me momentarily. I ejected the spent cartridge and shoved in a fresh round. When I brought the scope back up, the bull appeared unscathed and had almost reached cover. At stake now was a comfortable winter of good eating – delicacies like back-strap steaks with mushrooms and Dijon, stroganoff over brown rice, and roasts braised in red wine. So with the bull quartering away, I placed the crosshairs near the top of its head, squeezed carefully, and fired again.
By the time I picked my way through the burn rubble to where the bull lay, its 52-inch-wide rack reflected the light of a full September moon.
Successful hunts are perfect conspiracies of preparation and chance. The best hunters, the alleged 10 percent said to consistently take 90 percent of the game, are those who prepare thoroughly to maximize their odds of success. These hunters cultivate their own “good luck” by studying the game they hunt, scouting the country to be hunted, owning quality equipment, and spending adequate time in the field hunting.
As a young man, I spent many Septembers hunting moose in the forests near my home in Southcentral Alaska. I refined my tracking skills along the way, learning not only to find hoof prints in the mud and moss, but to gauge how much time had passed since a moose made them. I learned to look for the bone-white trunks of saplings left bare after a bull scraped off the bark while rubbing the velvet from its antlers – the antler-scraping bull, and others too, usually lingered nearby. I discovered that moose trails worn along the open edges of lakes and swamps were places to watch only in the late evenings and early mornings; by day, the moose were mostly bedded out of sight in tall grass shadows and hilltop alder thickets.
I learned these truths and many others about moose in my region and eventually began bringing home meat consistently. By taking some of the mystery out of finding a bull, I’d become a lucky moose hunter. Even so, I still had much to learn. You need only butcher in the field with a 4-inch Swiss Army knife one 900-pound bull moose to ever after carry not one but at least two proper sheath knives or large folding knives with skinning blades. You need only burst shirtless once (OK, twice in my hard-headed case) from the cool September forest, your bare chest crisscrossed with devil’s club scratches and white-sock bites, because the shirt you’d worn had to be cut into strips and hung from trees to mark a route from the kill to the road. These days, I never hunt moose without bringing along a roll of survey tape for that purpose; more sophisticated hunters use handheld GPS units to pinpoint their kills.
Unlike that bull in the burn, most of my moose have fallen with a single shot from my 30.06 Remington BDL loaded with 180-grain silvertip bullets. Some hunters swear by more powerful rifles and heavier bullets, but really, I’ve learned, there’s no substitute for proper shot placement. Conventional wisdom suggests Alaska big game hunters’ riflescopes be sighted to place bullets two inches high at 100 yards. This is because hunting over the state’s open tundras and treeless mountain ranges often calls for longer-range shooting. But for hunting in my Susitna Valley forests and thickets, where moose are most frequently encountered at close range, I dial in my rifle to punch out a dime at 100 yards. The lesson here is not to tear down conventions, but to know your game, your distinctive terrains and equipment, and to hunt accordingly.
News in the Nelchina basin travels in the wind, rain, and snow. One night in mid-September, I heard wolves howling near my camp and knew the last of the caribou were passing through. Wolves follow caribou herds, picking off the straggling old, lame and unlucky; as I lay in my sleeping bag listening, a cold rain pattering against the tent fly, I wondered if perhaps I’d come too late.
Earlier that day, I’d stood on the shore of a lake near camp, watching bands of caribou, mostly cows and calves, hustle through the stubby spruces on the lake’s far side. Hoping for a bull, I let them all pass. I would settle for a barren cow, given no other choice. But a bull would provide more meat for my effort.
Next morning, the rain had stopped and the wolves were no longer howling. The temperature had fallen sharply, and I realized as I awoke that my nose was cold and a peculiar brightness glowed outside the tent. I dressed warmly, picked up my rifle, and opened the fly to newly fallen, shin-deep snow.
Alaska hunters live for September. The month, or at least the better part of it, marks our brief autumn, a season that for most of us slides too quickly into winter. That brevity has a way of heightening one’s sense of mortality. Even as we enter September’s cool days and brittle-cold nights, the willows and aspens gold against scarlet hills of bearberry and dwarf birch, it’s difficult to escape a profound sense of urgency. Time simply doesn’t linger the way it does in January’s post-solstice darkness, or during late June’s endless days. Instead, life in September accelerates, the days measured as grains in an hourglass, falling ever faster as winter’s shadow grows long and dark.
From a breezy hillside a short hike beyond camp, I scanned the country that morning for game. Nothing. Even the cows and calves had moved on. Lunchtime came and went; I grew cold and impatient. Finally, I decided to take a walk and, within a mile or so, left the open country and entered a section of broken timber. The Nelchina basin’s taiga – a botanical edge formed where boreal forests dissolve into open tundra – can be problematic to hunt. Thickets of willow and weather-stunted black spruce (a particularly tall tree might exceed 12 feet high) limit visibility, and caribou blend well into the black, gray, and white mosaics of spruce, shrubs and early-season snows.
In the timber, tracks marked the fresh snow and it was clear that several bands of caribou had passed that morning without me seeing them. Not that caribou are especially sneaky creatures, but instinct serves them well. On open tundra they tend to follow natural convolutions – subtle seams and gullies – that conceal them from distant, meat-hungry eyes. Timbered stretches hide them equally well.
I’d paused over some moose tracks, and was considering following them, when antler tines appeared bobbing through the trees nearby. Caribou. I saw them in flashes as they bounced through openings in the brush, a group of heavy-racked bulls headed east toward winter range in Canada, like the cows and calves before them. Unable to find an open shot, I chased the bulls, like a two-legged wolf, to the timber’s edge. The closest bull trotted broadside less than 50 yards away, jaw tipped slightly skyward, tall rack cradling its back. I raised my rifle, found the heart, and ended my hunt with a single shot.
After that the work began, the skinning and butchering and packing meat to camp. But it was good work, the kind that follows successful hunts and sheds warm light against the darkness of the coming winter.
At its most remote, Alaska resembles Stanley’s Dark Continent. The state is unfathomably huge and mostly roadless; many mountains, valleys, streams and lakes remain tucked away in distant corners, unnamed and unvisited. As hunters we are drawn to the mystique of it all, to the promise of seeking game in North America’s last, great unspoiled wilderness.
In this sense, to hunt Alaska is to embark on safari. Reaching the dream venues – places like the Brooks Range for Dall rams, the high Arctic tundras for caribou, the rocky coasts of the Inside Passage for bear and black-tailed deer, the Interior’s trackless forests for moose – requires travel. And travel over endless miles of hummocks, muskegs, bays, mountains, rivers, and interminable jungles of devil’s club and alder requires imagination, research and, often, more than a little money.
Hunters here frequently step off passenger jets at regional hubs – Dillingham, Yakutat, Kotzebue, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, and others – and onto small commuter-type flights (Alaskans call them “puddle jumpers”) to remote villages and outposts. From these isolated communities, hunters may climb into even smaller planes, chartered in advance, or perhaps riverboats, for further 50-, 100-, or 200-mile shuttles into the backcountry. For many, even that won’t be the final destination; as the engine hum of the plane or boat fades into the distance, some hunters turn to long, hard climbs into the heart of the country, where the big grizzlies den, or the Dall sheep feed, or where the mountain goats await. Get this far and you’ll have traveled back in time. You’ll experience complete wildness, and get a sense of North America as it was before Lewis and Clark, or even prior to Christ and the Crucifixion.
You’ll see that reaching Alaska’s hinterlands is rarely easy or inexpensive (hunters seeking Dall sheep, grizzly bear or moose with a guide may spend $15,000 to $25,000); weather is always a complicating factor and gasoline in the Bush is a particularly precious commodity. But for many hunters, getting there is half the battle. For the rest of us, it is half the charm.
Your hunt began two days ago, at a port along Alaska’s Southcentral coast – someplace like Whittier, Cordova, Valdez, or Yakutat; or perhaps a venue much farther southeast, out of Ketchikan, Petersburg, or Craig. You stepped into a friend’s open fishing boat (really an oversized dory) and, framed by the world’s most exquisite scenery, traveled the coastline in a rare stretch of still weather and sunshine. Already a dozen black bears have shown themselves, trundling along remote mountainsides, out of reach. Even so, you’ve found sport in the searching and finding, in the visual pursuit. You’re aware, of course, that spotting bears is only one phase of the game.
Around mid-morning on your third day, a coal-black silhouette appears on a mountainside high above you. You raise your binoculars and feel your heart speed up; a tickle flutters in your chest as you realize that this bear is a possibility. The animal is meandering north along the mountainside, stopping to feed and sun as it makes its way casually toward a shallow ravine a half-mile or so beyond. That ravine is your key; it will provide you a pathway up the mountain to an open bench the bear must cross, and allow you to stay out of sight as you move. Now the real stalk begins.
Soon you’re scrambling up a fan of broken shale – it’s like climbing a mountain of poker chips – your lungs heaving as you suck thin air. Your sprint will take you 2,500 vertical feet up from the beach, beyond a belt of hemlocks, through barriers of clutching alders and clawing salmonberry brambles, and finally into broken alpine tundra. If you’re lucky, if you’ve been quick enough and quiet, and the wind hasn’t betrayed you, you’ll reach the bench first.
You’ve heard of more creative stalks. A friend once recounted the time his father climbed after a large, berry-feeding black bear on a Kenai Peninsula mountainside, only to have his approach blocked by a flock of wandering Dall sheep. Figuring the bear would flee if the sheep spooked, your friend’s father reached into his pack and wrapped himself in white toilet paper. On hands and knees he crept unnoticed by the feeding sheep and, without further incident, killed the bear.
You’re exhausted by the time you reach the bench at the top of the ravine, your thighs worn from the fast-paced climb. Worse, there’s no bear in sight. Not to worry, a little rest will be good, allow you to steady your breathing and better place your shot when the bear does arrive.
But the bear does not arrive. You wonder if perhaps you’re too late, or maybe the bear changed course for, an hour later, the animal has not appeared. Still sweating from the climb and feeling a little defeated, you figure it’s time to descend back to the skiff.
You’ve started picking your way down the mountain, wondering what might have gone wrong, when a strange feeling makes you stop. You turn to look back up the mountain and, by god, there the bear stands, so close you could hit it with an easily-chucked stone. You’re startled, and for an instant you hesitate. Then your body acts, even as your mind looks on, as in a dream.
The first shot sends the bear tumbling toward you down the slide, and you figure that it is dead, your hunt over. But it catches itself suddenly and springs with incredible agility to all fours. Your second shot is a reflex directed at the fleeting target that vanishes too quickly into thick brush in the center of the ravine.
There’s nothing to do now but wait. Wait a half hour or so, like the professional hunters in Africa do for lion and Cape buffalo, for the animal to weaken. Wounded bears are best approached with backup, but you’ve done this before. Stay sharp and calm, work slowly, and you’ll be OK.
When the time comes, you are locked and loaded, wondering. The blood spoor is easily found and, to your relief, the trail is short. The bear is lying dead in knee-high grass. Your shots were solid and now you may savor the afterglow, as would a mountain climber on reaching a summit, or an athlete scoring a winning goal.
Later you will linger in the sunlight on a boulder above the beach while a friend climbs another mountain for another bear. Rufus hummingbirds will flash among the salmonberries and you’ll watch a pair of black-tailed deer feed along the base of a mountain. The air will smell strikingly fresh, slightly fishy, as it always does near the sea. And in the skiff, the bear’s meat and hide, rolled and tucked out of the sun, will mark a spiritual gain snatched from an intangible passing.
Roads are few in Alaska’s remote Copper Basin, but the Gulkana River makes passage as simple – and wonderfully adventurous – as stepping into a raft or canoe.
By Ken Marsh
We’d rafted downriver from Paxson Lake a bend, maybe two, our five-day float trip barely begun, when the splashes of feeding grayling drove us in for a hasty landing. Five men and a boy piled out of our two-boat flotilla and briefly, as we rummaged for fishing gear among dry bags and waterproof totes, the world sang only to the tune of the river.
I had my rod together in minutes, fitted it with light reel, line, and a dry fly the size and color of the mosquitoes buzzing around my face. Then, framed by spruce forests and rolling hills, the river sliding black and smooth out front, I began a series of false casts, my focus narrowing into what the late author Norman Maclean famously described as “a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish would rise.”
My fly dropped onto an eddy and I watched it spin idly atop a tiny whirlpool before vanishing in a splash. I yanked my rod back, felt the line tighten. And just that quickly my connection to the river was complete.
That recent float was my latest in a lifetime of treks on Alaska’s Gulkana River. A National Wild and Scenic River, the Gulkana is quietly renown for its accessibility and wildness. Connected to the world by the state’s road system, the river is easily reached from several points even as its remote wanderings keep it starkly detached from the 21st Century.
From its sources in the Alaska Range halfway between Denali Park and the Yukon border, the Gulkana’s main stem flows south, entering and exiting 10-mile-long Paxson Lake. From there it continues on, joining with its West Fork and the West Fork’s South Branch to alternately meander and dash through more than 180 miles of perfect wilderness. En route to its terminus at the Copper River – a broad, brown, glacial giant – the Gulkana drains a primal basin larger than the state of Delaware.
Anglers are lured by grayling that swarm like sail-finned piranhas, and by salmon – Chinook and sockeye – and rainbow trout. Indeed, plentiful grayling and trout to 8 pounds were behind my recent early-August main-stem float. But fishing is only one reason to board a raft, kayak, or canoe and float the Gulkana.
I’ve floated the river’s main stem, forks, and branches many times over the years simply to camp and explore the far-out, lonesome Copper Basin country through which it runs. Thirty years ago, my first time on the Gulkana, I accompanied a Bureau of Land Management survey team on a 10-day canoe trek down the South Branch of the West Fork. The crew was to assess the South Branch’s potential for preservation under National Wild and Scenic status by paddling 150 miles downriver from a headwaters lake to the Gulkana’s main stem.
Interestingly, that starting-point lake was uncharted; it didn’t appear on maps of the time, an omission that underscored the depth of wilderness we would traverse. During our days on the river we surveyed bird species and nesting sites; floral variety and distribution; recorded the presence of fish and wildlife; and logged evidence of historical use by the region’s first people, the Ahtna Athabascans. In the sandbars we found the signatures of wild creatures – mink, moose, otter, grizzly. And once, rounding a bend, we encountered a lone gray wolf.
That first journey was an expedition of the Lewis-and-Clark kind, a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of exploration and discovery that set the tone for every float since. Of course, discovery is a relative term. And in Alaska where roads are few and “remote” takes on distinctive meaning, it’s heartening to know that your next grand adventure can begin by simply choosing a river and boarding a raft, kayak, or canoe.
Getting Your Feet Wet
The Gulkana is but one of 12,000 Alaska rivers, most of them navigable for experienced rafters, canoeists, and kayakers. Backcountry camping skills, research into whitewater potential, and planning are critical for do-it-yourselfers preparing to float any Alaska river. For first-timers, hiring a river guide is the safest bet.
From the 1,980-mile-long Yukon River – Alaska’s own Mississippi – to streams with abbreviated runs like Kodiak Island’s 24-mile-long Karluk River, there’s an Alaska float trip perfect for you. Here are a few ideas:
For simple, scenic daylong or overnight canoe or kayak floats, the Maclaren River Lodge offers numerous options at affordable prices.
An easy day’s drive north of Anchorage at Mile 42 Denali Highway, the lodge rents canoes and will transport your party and canoe upriver via jet boat into the heart of the Maclaren Valley. Day-trip drop-offs start at $50 per person; spend the day canoeing downriver to the lodge. Grayling fishing is excellent, the country open with stunning mountain views and opportunities to see wildlife including caribou, moose, and bear.
Few better ways exist to see Denali State Park than from a raft on the Chulitna River. Located off the Parks Highway roughly halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the Chulitna is a glacial river. On clear days, enjoy truly breathtaking views of 20, 310-foot Denali and its rugged Alaska Range peers. Several Talkeetna-based river outfitters offer half-day, full-day, and multi-day trips. Go with a guide or consider a DIY option with raft rental and drop-off provided. For more information, check out:
Famous for its distinctive emerald-green waters, superb fishing, wildlife, and mountain scenery, the Upper Kenai River (pronounced “Keen-eye”) out of Cooper Landing is a popular float destination. Located about a 90-minute drive south of Anchorage via the Seward Highway (an official National Scenic Byway and All-American Road) and Sterling Highway, the 12-mile-long stretch of river flows through the quiet community of Cooper Landing and into the wild Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Numerous river guides offering raft or drift boat floats ranging from two hours to all day. These trips are worth doing for the mountain views, but anglers will want to look into outfitters offering fishing options. For a listing of local rafting businesses, visit http://www.alaska.org/destination/cooper-landing/rafting-tours
More than 300 Pacific Flyway bird species funnel through Southeast Alaska each spring, crowding the skies in numbers sure to inspire even a casual birder.
By Ken Marsh
Salmon Bay Lake on Prince of Wales Island was alive with birds that late-April evening, proof that even here in Southeast Alaska no winter lasts forever. In the cedars away from the shoreline varied thrushes trilled and Pacific wrens sang, while across the water a pair of common loons called in their high-pitched, howling way. Woodpeckers in the hills above the lake tapped rhythmically against dead spruces and the sky seemed a country of its own where winged creatures passed in droves, honking, quacking, and tweeting.
Roy and I had taken a skiff down the lake to scout for fish, returning at dusk by the guiding light of a campfire Tony had built on the beach. The air smelled of skunk cabbage and wood smoke, and by the time we’d joined Tony at the fire the stars had come out. Flights of geese passed low overhead as we settled around the coals, talking quietly. Even after midnight when we entered our rented U.S. Forest Service cabin to sleep the geese continued flying; we listened to them all night long, yelping and whooping in the darkness.
Over the years I’ve traveled many times in April from my home in Anchorage to Southeast Alaska, always for the same reasons and always with the same results: To search not for birds, but for spring steelhead – big, bright sea-run rainbow trout. Yet on every trip birds – not fish – have proven the common denominator. Cued this time of year by the mild days of an advancing spring, they descend upon local wetlands, coastlines and forests, often in startling numbers. On these trips, fly rod in hand, I’ve come to count on watching birds, listening to their calls and identifying as many species as I can, whether or not the tides bring fish.
Southeast Alaska extends some 600 miles from Icy Bay northwest of Yakutat to Prince of Wales Island’s southernmost tip just north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. A wet, temperate, coastal region where sunken mountain ranges off the mainland rise from the sea to form hundreds of islands and islets, Southeast encompasses more than 35,000 square miles of land area and nearly 10,000 miles of shoreline. The region is home to the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest – the largest national forest in the United States – and is a natural thoroughfare for more than 300 species of Pacific Flyway birds.
Waterfowl, seabirds, shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, even tiny hummingbirds arrive between late March and early May, many en route to breeding grounds a thousand miles farther north. Some stay on to nest and raise young in the region’s seaside bluffs, estuaries, and rain forests. Mixed in with the snowbirds are familiar resident species like bald eagles, great blue herons, Steller’s jays, and sooty grouse.
The migrants’ return is a celebrated spring event in many Southeast communities. From Ketchikan’s April-long Hummingbird Festival and Wrangell’s Stikine River Birding Festival to Yakutat’s Tern Festival in late May and early June, the birds are welcomed, logged on checklists, and captured in pictures and art contests. Meanwhile, beyond the region’s isolated fishing hamlets, legions of winged things pass unheralded through the far-flung, out-of-the-way places.
Back at Salmon Bay Lake next morning I sat outside our cabin sipping tea in the sunlight. The geese had passed in the night, but thrushes still sang and an early-rising woodpecker knocked on a hollow spruce nearby.
I’d pulled on my waders and my steelhead rod leaned against the cabin, rigged and ready, when a flash of color caught my eye. Not two feet from my nose a rufous hummingbird hovered, its metallic-raspberry chin patch glowing in a sunbeam. Drawn by a splash of hot-pink embroidery on my ball cap, the diminutive bird paused on buzzing wings before breaking off and vanishing into the forest.
I can’t recall now whether I hooked a steelhead that morning; they’re fickle fish to be sure. But I’ve never forgotten the hummingbird. Perhaps that says something about me, that I’m more birder than angler. Or maybe it speaks to the power of Southeast Alaska and the spectacle of color and sound delivered here each spring on millions of northbound wings.
Perhaps the best news about grayling is that anglers needn’t be longtime Alaskans to find, catch and appreciate them. All that’s required is a rod and reel – a light fly rod or ultra-light spinning outfit, whichever you prefer – a few bits of tackle, and directions to the nearest grayling stream or lake.
Fly-fishers seeking grayling normally use rods ranging in size from 2- to 6-weight; the lightest rods will handle even the chunkiest fish, but heavier models are sometimes needed to cast across larger streams and lakes. A weight-forward floating line with an 8- or 10-foot-long leader will handle pretty much all Alaska grayling fishing situations, since these fish rarely lie far from the surface.
Ultra-light spinning rods are perfect for catching grayling. Rig them with 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament line and, when adjusting the reel, ease up on the drag to maximize the sport promised in the fishes’ feathery runs and occasional leaps.
In streams, look for grayling in deeper, calmer pools; in lakes, watch for them near stream inlets and outlets and in protected bays. The old saw, “match the hatch,” can be useful in selecting a fly, lure or bait on a given lake or stream. Keep an eye out for grayling food items like mayflies or caddis buzzing low over the waters, salmon spawning in the pools (stray eggs are protein-rich delicacies), or young minnow-size fish schooling near stream banks.
If feeding grayling can be seen breaking the surface – and occasionally, even when no fish are rising – try a dry fly. A sampler of excellent dry fly patterns for grayling might include Adams, Irresistible, Elk Hair Caddis, Humpies, Griffith’s Gnat, Mosquito and, of course, the Black Gnat and Royal Coachman. Fly sizes should range from Nos. 20 to 10. Anglers with spinning rods can successfully cast dry flies for grayling by clipping a small bobber 18 inches or so above the fly. The bobber’s added bulk allows weightless flies to be cast long distances.
Many fly-fishers agree that for every grayling caught on a dry fly, at least twice as many wait below the surface to be caught on nymphs. Good nymph fly patterns include Hare’s Ear, Zug Bug, Bitch Creek, and Pheasant Tail in sizes 18 to 10. These nymphs in bead-head varieties can also be fished under a bobber by anglers with spinning outfits.
Grayling are often suckers for small, flashy spinners – Mepps, Rooster Tail, and Panther Martin brands are a few local staples. Try casting sizes 0 to 2 in a variety of colors. Bait fishers can catch grayling on salmon eggs and mealworms. When salmon are spawning nearby and opportunistic grayling are gobbling up the eggs, salmon-egg fly patterns such as Iliamna Pinkies or beads will effectively match the hatch.
Ancient, elegant and, in a most innocent sense, gullible, grayling are unique characters cut from the rare and precious tapestry that is Alaska. For a few old-timers (and for this one in particular) they compose the first lines of a long, colorful angling story. And for those new to fishing upstream of the 60th parallel north, the little fish promise admission to a world of clean, wild waters and unspoiled vistas.
It’s bedtime at my Denali Highway campsite. The fire has burned down into coals and I’ve run out of willow sticks to feed it. A hard frost glitters on my tent fly nearby; the grayling lake will be frozen by morning.
For now those fish with the flashing scales and tall sail fins will rise and leap only in my heart, where Alaska’s arctic and subarctic waters flow year-round. But I’ll catch them here again next spring, and surely for many seasons to come, when the aurora fades in the light of the midnight sun.
In camp along the Denali Highway the night is broken by the popping of my campfire and, more subtly, by the hissing of a creek that enters one end of the little grayling lake and exits the other. Those water sounds have me thinking again about grayling, and about time, and the way the two have merged and mingled to form a part of me.
I found them first in the mid-1960s, north of Anchorage in a brook off the Glenn Highway not far from Eureka Summit. The slightly warped bamboo fly rod my father assembled for me easily spanned the brook, allowing me to dangle midstream a dry fly – probably a Black Gnat or Royal Coachman, grayling favorites of my youth that remain powerful medicine today. The grayling in that brook were particularly small, perhaps six or eight inches long, but voracious. I can still picture them leaping from the water for my fly, sometimes two or three fish at once; they made the surface boil. I caught them, too, fish after wriggling, wet, delightful fish, little trophies for a little angler.
A year or two later, when I was old enough to step into the Copper River Basin wilderness each fall to hunt caribou with a close-knit group of family and friends, I was appointed camp fisherman. Only six or seven years old, I took the job seriously. While the grown men busied themselves scoping and hunting for caribou, I would catch grayling on whatever creek was nearby – and in that broad, rolling taiga-and-tundra country grayling water such as Flat Creek, Crooked Creek, or the Little Nelchina River was never far away. I learned along the way to scrape off the scales with a pocketknife and to clean each fish carefully. And when our grizzled camp cook, the patriarch of our group, rolled those grayling in pancake flour and fried them in bacon grease on the Coleman stove, it was as if a four-star restaurant were operating beneath the tarp that served as our mobile cook shack.
Since those very early days, grayling have resurfaced in my life continually. I’ve caught them in the Gold Rush waters of the Klondike country – in streams like Bonanza Creek, North Fork of the Klondike, the Forty-mile River – and in the ice-cold lakes off the Richardson and Denali highways, in the rivers of windswept southwestern Alaska, and in the tea-colored creeks of the Susitna Valley. From an angler’s standpoint, those hours spent fishing for grayling account for a lifetime of Alaska summers. Sometimes, the connection between those fish and me can seem almost spiritual.
Dwellers of clear, cold streams and lakes, Arctic grayling are elegant creatures easily identified by their uniquely oversized pink- and powder-blue-spotted dorsal fins, purple- and turquoise-sequined flanks, small pouty mouths, and bellies that seem rubbed with gold dust. Anglers adore them for their beauty and for their willingness to strike a variety of spinners, spoons, baits and flies. Grayling are especially renown among fly-fishers for their tendency to rise to dry flies.
Compared to Alaska’s tackle-busting legends – halibut to 459 pounds, world-record king salmon weighing more than 97 pounds, and steelhead topping 42 pounds –grayling are smallish and delicately built; the state record, caught in 2008, weighed a hair over five pounds. As a result, these modest fish never draw trophy-fishing mobs, which is fortunate since the best grayling waters and the environments surrounding them are generally fragile as the fish themselves and intolerant of crowding or heavy pressure.
At a glance, grayling seem cast from an ancient mold: their broad, scalloped scales and webbed, sail-like dorsal fins suggest a living fossil pulled from mudstone and magically brought to life. In fact, Arctic grayling are Pleistocene fish, ice age survivors that over the last 10,000 to 20,000 years have spread from North Slope and Yukon River Valley origins to become common throughout Alaska’s Southcentral, Southwestern, Interior and Arctic regions. The only part of the state where they’re not found in abundance is in the Southeastern panhandle.
Today, many excellent grayling fisheries can be reached from Alaska’s highway systems. Good grayling waters include many of the streams and lakes along the Parks, Glenn and Denali highways north of Anchorage in Southcentral; the Tok Cutoff, Richardson, Alaska, and Steese highways outside of the Interior city of Fairbanks; and the Dalton Highway snaking into the Arctic north of Fairbanks. The isolated, abbreviated road system outside of Nome is also known for excellent grayling fishing opportunities.
Ancient, elegant and innocently gullible, the little fish with the big dorsal fins promise admission to a world of clean, wild waters and unspoiled vistas.
By Ken Marsh
I’d uttered my good-byes earlier that evening, not aloud, but inwardly, and without sadness. Of course, the grayling wouldn’t have heard me anyway, nor would they have cared. Hardly a fly rod’s length from the lakeshore, the little fish with the sail-like dorsal fins busied themselves sipping black flies and mosquitoes off the surface. They fed even as reflections of pink tundra hills faded into darkness and the water rings they left behind sparkled with starlight.
Now an astonishing galaxy of faraway planets and suns whirls overhead, and my campsite overlooking the lake glows by the light of my fire. I’m little more than a speck in the wilderness northeast of Paxson, a mostly deserted community at the junction of the Richardson and Denali highways, and the early-September night wields a hard, cold edge. Concealed by darkness, ptarmigan cackle around me like comedic villains (and judging by the varying placements of their calls, the tundra chickens have me surrounded). The birds are settling into their willow roosts and will soon hush for the night, leaving me alone to stir the campfire coals and savor some solitude and untainted air.
This is the universe as I’ve known it for much of my life. Certainly, the moment represents life as I prefer it, the venue far-flung and sparsely peopled, fresh, wild, pure. When we envision Alaska, we gather images of mountain ranges, glaciers, aurora borealis, caribou, grizzlies and wide-open tundras. These icons and perhaps a thousand others set this place apart.
For an angler, though, nothing defines Alaska more distinctly than grayling. I found them here 50 years ago, when time for me began, in little mountain creeks, roadside lakes, and large glacial rivers. And although I’ve said farewell to them this evening, it is only for the season. I will find them again when the ice, now forming on the pond nearby, trickles away next May.
Coaxing Alaska silver salmon to strike dry flies is sport of the highest order.
By Ken Marsh
I found the fish late that afternoon lurking in the frog water (angler’s slang for languid sloughs, stagnant creek mouths), a dozen or more cruising slowly, prowling. That’s typical of silver salmon. Determined as they are to reach sacred gravel they’re notorious dawdlers, drawn to shady backwaters where they loiter like truant punks in dark arcades.
I knelt on the bank across from them, stripping line from my reel, gauging the distance. Figured I could hit them after one false cast, maybe two, followed by a double-haul to extend my reach. My fly would plop onto the surface just ahead of them. And then … well, that was the question.
Called coho by many, silver salmon are adored by Alaska anglers for their willingness to crush baits, lures and flies. Not all Pacific salmon are so accommodating. As part of their lifecycle silvers spend two or three years at sea, feeding voraciously on herring, needlefish, sand lance — nearly any bright, flashing, living thing they can jam into their toothy mouths. That instinct never leaves them; those hunter reflexes remain even after they stop feeding and enter natal streams to spawn.
Almost ready, I inhaled deeply, focusing. Then my rod tip was up and I was into my back-cast, eyes locked on those torpedo silhouettes. Beyond the fish and the frog water I was aware of the passing river. It was a southwestern Alaska beauty and I could hear it and see it in my mind dashing coal-black from its source high in the cloud-veiled Ahklun Mountains.
Over five decades I’ve tackled silvers in many places in many ways. I’ve played them on fly rods in far-flung Bering Sea tributaries, stuck them with saltwater gear while mooching herring outside the port of Seward. I’ve pulled them leaping and flopping from Alaska’s famous Kenai River and from streams throughout the Susitna Valley, enticing them with buck-tails, spinners and cured-roe baits. And one steamy summer 20 years ago on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, I wrangled “feeders” in a rocky bay where hunting salmon were marked by squalls of needlefish leaping ahead frantically to escape.
This time was different, though. I planned to ask the fish, aggressive as they can be, to leave the safety of darkness to strike a fly presented where the water meets the sky. That’s asking a great deal of any salmon.
My rod fell forward, pointing toward the fish, and floating fly line rocketed through the guides. At the last second, I gripped the reel and lifted my rod tip, halting the fly’s trajectory, letting it fall lightly as possible onto the water. The fly was a Pink Pollywog — a ridiculous assemblage of hot-pink saddle hackle, clipped deer hair and sparkling tinsel — and it landed with an audible splash. The salmon winced, halting mid-cruise, and for a moment the world seemed to stop.
The fish looked nervous, their lidless eyes glaring. I twitched my rod tip and the Pollywog strutted sharply toward me, leaving a tiny wake. I expected the salmon to bolt, but they remained transfixed.
Another twitch and the fish — the entire bunch — eased in unison toward my fly. I began twitching my rod in short, continuous pecks causing the fly to break the surface in little splashes.
And that’s all it took. An 11-pound buck with a faint ruddy blush attacked so swiftly that I scarcely had time to react. Pow!Leaping two feet into the air, haloed by a galaxy of droplets, the fish resembled an exploding star.
Today that image lingers, tribute to a question asked and an answer received in a game played by men like me whose lives are defined by rivers.