Nome is an angler’s paradise
BY LES GARA
Arctic grayling get short shrift by many who fish Alaska’s rivers. They compete for attention in a big state with big mountains, big rivers, and much bigger fresh and saltwater fish.
For some, this beautiful small trout that often sports teal and pink fin stripes and has a seemingly oversized, floppy, sail-like dorsal fin is a bother that interrupts trout or salmon fishing. For me, the lure of grayling fishing has taken me to Nome, the mountains and arctic rivers of the Seward Peninsula, and many other remote places.
“I CAST AGAIN, LET THE FLY SKITTER TO THE SAME SPOT, AND THEN FELT THE BIGGEST TUG BY A GRAYLING I’D EVER EXPERIENCED.”
I enjoy grayling fishing, in part because of the regions I’ve found them, whether near the towering peaks of the Alaska Range, in the heart of Bristol Bay, or in cold, clear arctic streams. They’re a beautiful fish that often lead me to places of peaceful solitude. It’s also exciting to find larger-than-average ones in some of these places—often 16 to 22 inches (the longest recorded in Alaska is 24 inches)—even though larger grayling are much smaller than fall rainbow trout or Dolly Varden. Nome, which technically sits a bare sliver south of the Arctic Circle but is considered an “arctic” community, has roughly 200 miles of road system providing easy access to a dozen grayling streams and other fishing opportunities. While you can find silvers and chum salmon, especially near the ocean where they are still fresh, and reds in various rivers, I leave that food source to those who live there. I go to see this region’s smallest fish.
The largest grayling I ever caught was on the first day of my first trip to Nome. I drove until I found a particularly scenic river after having passed others where cars were parked. This stream flowed through a valley surrounded by tundra hills and green mountains. After putting on my waders and setting up my fly rod, I made my way a quarter mile upstream and started casting. I continued casting and wading upstream for an hour, without a bite. I was perplexed, as I’d heard about streams full of grayling. Still, I dead drifted Parachute Adams, and let sinking Muddler Minnows and olive Wooly Buggers swing.
When I was about a half mile above the highway, I took a seat on a large rock. Instead of being frustrated, I admired the mountains in the distance and made some noise, periodically keeping an eye on a bear about a mile away on a hill. I looked for likely holding spots. I’d seen a few fish splash and just had to figure out how to catch them.
A little farther upstream, the river transitioned from a smooth run into riffles and deeper water. I figured there had to be fish holding there, so I walked 20 feet above the riffle, cast a size 14 Parachute Adams, and started to work downstream. For 10 minutes, I worked my way down what looked like the best part of this run, staying off the river so I wouldn’t walk through fish, but still didn’t get a bite.
At nearly a mile off the road, I felt I was far enough upstream that no one had likely fished this stretch for hours, if at all that day. As I walked up and down that stretch, trying fly after fly, I saw a few fish sip insects off the surface.
Until this day I’d never fished a foam fly for grayling but had been told by former Department of Fish and Game area biologist Fred DeCicco to buy some black Chernobyl Ants to skitter and pop across the current. I sat down, had a snack, and tied on that floating foam fly. Fred’s not only a biologist; since retiring, he’s guided part time at Twin Peaks Adventures, a lodge and guiding company owned by Nome pilot Ben Rowe.
I started again above the same riffle. The first casts brought nothing. When I reached the riffle, I cast and let the fly skitter across the river. I got my first quick bite, lifted my rod, and the fly flew out of the water, wet and attached to nothing.
Feeling unjustifiably confident, I cast again, let the fly skitter to the same spot, and then felt the biggest tug by a grayling I’d ever experienced. The tug was so heavy I thought maybe I’d hooked a pink salmon. The fish strongly pulled out line and used the current to take my fly 50 feet downstream.