The Art of Grayling I

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.

(To be continued.)

What the Coho Said

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.