Monday, September 17, 2012


The Chena River, Alaska.
There's something in a name.

Some guys just look like a Dave. Some dogs have Buster written on their faces. Cats? I'm not a cat guy. Let's not go there.

And some rivers ... well, after a fashion, their names are reflected in their currents, roared from their rapids or whispered from quiet slicks where fishy noses poke through flat water in search of unlucky caddis or mayflies. Eventually, the water is associated with the words.

So it is with the Chena. Feminine to the ear, by the time the river cruises through Fairbanks from the rolling birch and spruce forests an hour or so northeast of the city, it's big, masculine water. But at its genesis, it gushes from hot springs and tiny creeks and forks. There's a lot of water in the muskeg forests of the upper river, but it's all the Chena.

And in this cold, clear river swims the Arctic grayling, a bright and beautiful fish that fits the water and the name. Much like the river, the fish appears lacy, and curvy and, yes, feminine. But that sail for a dorsal fin can push cold water just fine, thank you very much--an Arctic grayling is worthwhile target, especially with a dry fly presented, classically, upstream over soft water.

I think we owe such a beautiful fish that much. Dry and upstream.

Oh, they'll hit a nymph. They'll even chase a streamer. And I've learned over the years that there's really no rhyme or reason an angler can associate with grayling. They'll hit a fly. Or the won't.

But in the upper reaches of the Chena, as summer slips into fall, the river's grayling binge a bit. And the river cooperates, offering up clouds of evening mayflies as the evening sun slips behind the golden birches. Find a slick in the upper Chena, and you'll find grayling sipping mayflies like care-free spring creek trout.

Chena River grayling.
I had the good fortune to chase grayling on the Chena a few times in early September as autumn nudged summer firmly out of the way. One evening, in particular, I had the chance to cast to rising grayling and the experience was so incredible, that I just couldn't keep it to myself.

A group of us had descended on the river a couple of hours earlier, and after fishing a few convenient runs near the Chena Hot Springs Highway with the gang, my friend Mark Taylor and I wandered away from the crowd a bit. I left Mark fishing a promising run and wandered up the river another quarter mile or so, where I stumbled upon a slick that sported dimples as sexy as Cameron Diaz's smiling face and swarm of gray mayfly duns so thick that, if I try really hard, I can still taste them.

I made one cast--upstream, of course--with a No. 14 Adams and came tight to a 17-inch grayling that leaped from the pool and dashed into fast water. Minutes later, after carefully releasing the fish, I hurried downstream until I could see Mark in the dim of the approaching twilight, still casting over the same stretch of very fishy water.

Mark Taylor with a nice Chena grayling.
I gave a shout and Mark turned my way. I waved my arms, motioning for him to join me. It's the universal signal for "Dude... you gotta see this."

Minutes later in the fading light of the Alaskan evening, Mark was standing in the slick, armed with another Adams, and minutes after that, he, too, was tied tight to big Chena River grayling. The only thing more impressive than the fish's arched fin might have been the smile across Mark's face.

We played with the river's fish until it got too dark to distinguish brushy snags from hungry grizzly bears, and wandered back downstream to rejoin our party of fishers. They, too, had managed to fool a few of the Chena's ballroom grayling and tales of the evening spent casting flies in the Alaskan dusk were traded over cold beers.

And there, that evening, the Chena began to feel like its name sounded... feminine, but not overly so. Cold, but not cruel. Fast, but not easy.

Say it with me. Out loud.


Nice, huh?


  1. Great piece of writing and beautiful fish. The draw of Alaskan waters is strong to say the least. I look forward to getting back up there sometime.


    1. Ben... let's concoct a plan and do it... I have some great ideas! Thanks for stopping by... hope all is well...

  2. That first picture made me 'homesick', it's the North Fork, right? Great to see that there are still good sized Grayling up there. I used to hike Angel Creek near there, on of the small tribs.

    1. Actually, it's the West Fork, not too far from Chena Hot Springs. There are lots of nice fish in there ... I'm jealous that you lived there, but, I gotta tell you, I wasn't ready for fall just yet. And it was full-on fall!

  3. Wonderful homage to a name and a place. I hope I make it there someday...

  4. You're even better with words than you are with a fly rod, Chris, and that's saying something because you throw a heckuva nice line. Loved it! Thanks for inviting me to that pretty little slick for what was a top highlight of my (still going) Alaska adventure.

  5. I can't believe you're still there... I don't hate you for it, but that's the LAST time I share quality water with you.. ;)

  6. My cousin took a fishing trip there once and told me he could've wanted to ride in his own sea ray used boat because it was such a great place to be in. Haven't thought about going there myself though.