It was hot and stuffy in Fairbanks when Lander Crook and I left his apartment and started driving north. I was in Alaska for a few weeks; Lander worked there all summer. We had planned the trip so that we could spend a few days fishing together. I had just returned from hunting Valdez halibut and sockeye salmon all along the Copper River watershed. Lander took a few days off to drive tour buses so we had time to properly explore the roadside fisheries around Fairbanks.
Early July isn’t the best time to fish Interior Alaska, as salmon aren’t far into the river systems yet, and trout fishing doesn’t really exist north of the range. of Alaska, except for a few lakes in the state. shares.
This was my first trip to Alaska and Lander’s first time fishing in the interior. Little did we realize that the rivers that meandered sumptuously through the verdant landscape were largely devoid of fish and would remain so for at least another month. Sure, a few streams probably had a few nearly dead kings or pike. But we hadn’t come all the way to Alaska to fish for a maybe.
So, on a whim, we left the Elliot Highway and looked downstream at a tributary of the Yukon River. Our guide indicated that it had king salmon, pike, monkfish and grayling.
“Maybe there is shade here,” Lander said as we hung up our fly rods.
I shrugged. “May be.” I was not excited at the prospect. I had caught graylings in the Rockies, but they weren’t big. They didn’t fight well and I knew my weight 6 would be overkill.
What I overlooked – a common theme in this story – was Alaska’s tendency for wildlife to exist on a scale an order of magnitude larger than most anything we have in the lower 48 .
Within ten minutes of launching a size 12 Adams upstream, I saw a dark shape erupt from the bottom of the river. It followed my dry fly for a few seconds, then quickly ate it. I put the hook, surprised by the bend in the rod. The fish raced upstream, darting through branches and around rocks before I brought it to the net.
It was an 18-inch shade, all purple and green in the rare glow of full afternoon sun. Its enormous dorsal fin flexes, catching the light and casting a menagerie of colors in the water.
This fish was the most beautiful I have ever caught. As it slipped through my fingers in the river, I suspected we had lucked into something great.
Moments later, Lander screamed from downriver. He had just caught his first shadow.
For the next three hours we fished far upstream, catching fish in all the beautiful pools, runs and rapids. The shade varied in size, but not in beauty. They jumped out of the water several times, performing stunts that would put any wealthy rainbow trout to shame. By the time we left the river, I had completely forgotten about the salmon we had originally planned.
Lander and I spent two more days fishing for grayling, finding stream after stream filled with native wonders. We even found a few lunkers, including a captured Lander that was 22 inches long and nearly three pounds. It wasn’t until I got home and started researching grayling that I realized what a special fish this was.
The price to pay for shade (photo: Earl Harper).
Of course, when I got home to the Rockies, I was looking for some nice grayling fishing. I was living in Utah at the time, which actually has some fantastic grayling fisheries. Nothing to do with Alaksa, of course, but these are waters capable of growing 20-inch shadows.
I found some good shadows on the southern slopes of the Uinta Mountains in northeast Utah. I found others in central Utah, a few hours north of Zion National Park. The best ones, however, were nestled in a small pond nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, deep in the thick woods of the Uintas. Thanks to a tip from a friend, I got the GPS coordinates of a lake that supposedly had the biggest shadow in the state.
It took almost two hours to do the 3.5 mile hike from my truck to the lake. Most of the hike was flat, but the last half mile was through downed wood and on a fairly steep incline, I almost lost my footing and fell on the kettle at the bottom of the mountain.
When I finally made it to the top, the pond was right at the top. Not in a bowl, or under a cirque, like most lakes. No, this pond is right at the top, its crystal clear water always agitated by the omnipresent wind.
I hadn’t even assembled my fly rod when I saw the first rise. Then another. Then two more. All over the lake, appearing so frequently, I wondered how many fish were swimming in the lake. I rushed to finish rigging my rod, then waded waist deep. A few casts later and my fly – another size 12 Adams – perched on the surface, dancing in the soft wakes.
Then the fly disappeared and I placed the hook in a 15 inch shadow. Of all the graylings I’d captured since my first trip to Alaska, this one looked the most like its Far North cousins.
Rings of rising shadows speckle a remote Utah lake (photo: Earl Harper).
For the next three hours, I caught as many shadows as I wanted. The fishing was too good to be true. It was like being back in Alaska, on streams that spend more time buried in snow, ice, and endless night than the sunlight and symphony of a living, vibrant forest, where fish must eat with reckless abandon if they want to survive.
Maybe that’s why I developed such a love for shadow. They are the most cooperative fish I have ever hunted. A well presented fly draws them to the surface with more regularity than any cutthroat I have encountered. If I could choose one fish to get new anglers started, it would be dry grayling.
Grayling is a pretty special fish now that Lander and I are taking trips specifically to catch them. Last year we spent a week on the Kenai Peninsula, hunting salmon and dolly varden until we filled our boxes with takeout fish. Then we hopped on a plane to fly a few hours north, where we borrowed a car from one of Lander’s work friends. It took another 90 minutes to get to a lonely spring stream deep in the interior. In less than 24 hours, we had gone from the sprawling mass of glacial gray-blue of the Kenai River to something that wouldn’t have felt out of place in Montana.
And, if we had timed it right, we would have come along the migration of the biggest grayling of this little river.
In Alaska, grayling must be 18 inches long to be considered a trophy fish for catch-and-release fishing. During the six hours we spent fishing that afternoon, every fish we caught met those guidelines for trophies.
We only had one day on this spring creek. We had both caught personal bests in sockeye, kings and dolly varden on the Kenai. We even managed a great day of offshore halibut and coho fishing. We had seen killer whales, grizzly bear tracks, seals, moose and more fish than we could comprehend.
And the one thing we talked about excitedly on the flight home was the shade.