In time, rivers begin to emote their names … or maybe it’s the other way around
There’s something in a name.
And some rivers … well, after a fashion, their names are pushed from their currents, roared from their rapids or whispered from quiet slicks where fishy noses poke through flat water in search of unlucky mayflies caught in the surface film. Eventually, the water is one with the words.
So it is with the Chena. Elegant to the ear when it’s spoken aloud, by the time the river cruises through Fairbanks after meandering through the rolling birch and spruce forests an hour or so northeast of the city, it’s big, burly water with crappy table manners. But at its genesis, it gushes gracefully from hot springs and tiny creeks and forks that drain the Ogilvie Mountains. There’s a lot of water in the boreal forests of the upper river, and it all belongs to 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 sophisticated, like a fancy cocktail doily in some swank SoHo lounge frequented by people who use the word “summer” as a verb. But that sail for a dorsal fin can push cold water just fine, thank you very much — an Arctic grayling is a 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 they won’t.
A sipper’s river
In the upper reaches of the Chena, as summer slips into fall, the river’s grayling binge just a bit. And the river cooperates, offering up clouds of evening mayflies as the almost-Arctic sun dips behind the golden birches. Find a slick in the upper Chena, and you’ll find grayling sipping mayflies, seemingly without a care in the world. And they do it oh-so-politely, like a socialite tasting tea with the pinky finger extended.
I’ve had the good fortune to chase grayling on the Chena a few times in late summer and early autumn. One evening some years back, I and a group of friends were attending a conference at Chena Hot Springs Resort — a sweet little spot on the North Fork of the Chena that’s probably better known for its piping hot mineral water and the night-time views of the dancing aurora borealis than it is for the fishing.
We 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 and colleague Mark Taylor and I wandered away from the crowd a bit. I left Mark fishing a promising run and trekked up the river another quarter mile or so, where I stumbled upon a slick where grayling were rising at will under a 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.
I hollered downstream into the failing daylight 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, 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, palming the cans of bear spray at our hips. Our buddies, too, had managed to fool a few of the Chena’s ballroom-dancing grayling and tales of casting flies in the Alaskan dusk to willing fish were traded over cold beers — no extended pinkies.
And there, that evening, the Chena began to feel like its name sounded… Delicate, but not overly so. Cold, but not cruel. Fast, but not easy.
Say it with me. Out loud.