Arctic grayling on the fly: a wilderness fish close to campus

Joseph Jackson / Guest Contributor


Student Joseph Jackson fly fishes. Photo courtesy of Joseph Jackson

There are numerous fishing opportunities in the vicinity of campus. Fly fishing around Fairbanks is simple enough with the right information on
gear, regulations, and where to go. World-class grayling fishing is less than an hour away.

First of all, it may be slightly helpful to own a fly rod. The equipment associated with fly fishing is precise, toned and often very expensive. Your search for the right fly outfit need not be a $500 investment, however. A rod equipped with a reel already spooled with backing, fly line, leader and tippet can be found at a sporting goods for as little as $150, and with proper maintenance, can last many years.  However, choosing to purchase equipment from a department store may yield unsavory results.

The most important thing in choosing a fly rod is to determine your quarry. For the Arctic Grayling, a 5-weight rod is proper. Nine-foot is a good length for beginners; it has great flexibility allowing for easier casting.

Beginners may find it easier to purchase a rod and reel as a packaged sale.  Choosing a kit with a reel spooled with backing, a line, and a leader will ease the process of setting up for the first time.  For a college student or someone living in small quarters, choosing a rod that comes in several connecting parts will ensure easy transportation and storage.

In order to keep a fishing line at the appropriate length, one should carry a spool of 4X tippet material (about 6.4 pound test monofilament specifically designed for fly fishing) and cheap nail clippers to cut line. As your leader gets shorter and shorter from snipping off flies, getting the line snapped off in trees, it will help if you can simply add a few feet of this thin tippet material to attach your fly to using a blood or surgeon’s knot.

Other useful supplies to carry include a pair of pliers for removing hooks, a fishing vest to store materials in, and hip or chest waders.

If you do not have the time to make your own flies, it is possible to purchase them from sporting goods stores in Fairbanks.  A few reliable flies are the Elk-Hair Caddis (Size 14-18), Light Cahill (Size 12-16), Bead Head Leech (Size 12), Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear (Size 14), and Mayfly Nymph (Size 14).  Grayling are rough on flies, rendering them unusable relatively quickly, so picking up a few of each fly you intend to use may prove advantageous.

On the basis of knots, the best knot I have found is the Improved Clinch Knot for attaching flies.

Nymphs, such as the Mayfly Nymph and Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear (as shown), are meant for fishing beneath the surface, as this stage of insect life typically crawls or drifts on the bottom among the rocks until it is ready to come to the surface and hatch. Typically, nymphs are good for early spring fishing when the chills of winter have not yet left the area, or during a period of time in late summer when you don’t see any fish rising or bugs on the surface of the water. Oftentimes nymphs can be good stimulator flies, triggering grayling to strike even if they are not necessarily feeding at that given time.

Nymph fishing is relatively simple. The easiest way is to cast the fly upstream of a pool that grayling are in and let it drift down past you, mending with the fly rod to let out line as the current takes the fly. The idea is to keep the fly moving naturally with the current; you don’t want to tug on the line or get your line in an area of faster current, as both of these things will make the fly look unnatural.

Higher up the water column, between the bottom and the surface, is the Bead Head Leech. This fly can be fished just like a nymph, letting it drift languidly in the current. Or, if you prefer, it can be fished more actively and aggressively by casting upstream and giving your line periodic jerks as you pull the fly in to make it look like a live leech fighting against the current.

The surface flies, like the Elk Hair Caddis (see picture) and Light Cahill are very straightforward. These flies imitate caddisflies and mayflies hatching on the surface. They are drifted upstream to down, and it is imperative, more so with these flies than any other, to keep them drifting naturally. Any small jerks in the line as you mend it will make the fly appear unnatural and may throw it off course into too fast or slow currents.

Fishing licenses can be purchased at the Department of Fish and Game and at the Wood Center front desk, among other locations.  A nonresident sport fishing license costs $140, and a resident license costs $24.  Shorter-term licenses are available as well, ranging from a few days’ permit to a few weeks.

-Graehl Park: A twelve minute drive from the college, this park offers great fly fishing in September near the heart of downtown Fairbanks.

-Pike’s Landing: An eight-minute drive from campus, this fishing spot is open to guests of the hotel and visitors alike.

-Loftus Road:  Two miles from campus at the end of Loftus Road, the Chena River curves slightly southwest and goes under the bridge of the Parks Highway. The current here has created lots of deep pools for grayling to hold in.

-Badger Slough: This slow-water slough is located in North Pole and is about 25 minutes from UAF. A productive spot to fish is near the intersection of Persinger Drive and Keeling Road below the culvert. With no strong current to drift flies in, you have to give the flies some lively action.

-Rosehip Campground and Chena Hot Springs Road: While this location is a little bit farther from campus, (around a half-hour drive) it is a good spot to try and catch larger grayling. You will have to do a little bit of exploring to find good locations to fish.

-Delta Clearwater River: An hour and 45 minutes (approximately) from campus, fish topping 20 inches have been routinely caught here, and there are hundreds of fellows exceeding 17 and 18 inches. The best access point is at the Clearwater Campground off of Remington Road. The mayfly hatch, during which time the mayfly nymphs swim to the river’s surface to transform into their dun phase, occurs roughly around one o’clock in the afternoon nearly every day. Hundreds of mayflies float down the river, and, as a result, hundreds of huge grayling lie in wait to gulp them down. Light Cahill flies are golden here.

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