Tenkara In The Last Frontier
By Paul Vertrees
I recently traveled to Alaska with tenkara. It was epic. In a way, I really don’t know how to begin to tell this story, because the whole experience was so big, so successful, and so perfect! It was a trip to a place that has left an indelible mark on my soul, because Alaska has a way of getting under your skin. I suppose I should start at the beginning, as most good stories must.
I have dreamed of visiting the north since I was a boy, spending many nights sitting up in bed with a flashlight propped against my right shoulder, reading about the north country in Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild, which took place in the Yukon, but could have happened in Alaska just as well. The fact that I’ve always been drawn to wild, lonely places filled with wild fish only pulled me closer to making a trip to Alaska, but it took until the summer of my 53rd year to put everything together and head out.
Many things converged to make this a special trip, but it couldn’t have happened the way it did without two things…a good traveling partner and some folks on the ground in Alaska, who served as my hosts. I was blessed with both, and that made all the difference.
My good friend, Shawn, and I are nearly twins. If viewed from behind, you probably couldn’t tell one of us from the other. The two of us, on a full stomach, soaking wet and fully clothed, wouldn’t tip the scales to 300 pounds. We both eat like maniacs, live life to the fullest, and we hit the trail and the water the same way. We’re both slightly over 50 Colorado natives with a love for backpacking, hunting, and most importantly, backcountry fishing. Shawn and I have hunted and fished wilderness together in the Colorado Rockies off and on, and he was the one person I knew who would jump at the chance to go to Alaska. I took a well-deserved week-long break from guiding tenkara trips for Royal Gorge Anglers here in my little town in south-central Colorado, and Shawn was wrapping up a six-week sabbatical from his work in financial and retirement planning. He had just returned from a fly fishing trip to Iceland, and I had wrapped up a very busy week on the water of the Arkansas River in Bighorn Sheep Canyon, and on tiny creeks in narrow canyons. It was time, and we had some of it. Alaska would wait no longer.
My man on the ground in Interior Alaska, Mike, is a fellow backcountry hunter. We share the same love of foot- and paddle-powered hunting of game, both big and small. We also belong to the same hunting and fishing conservation organization, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA). Mike is doing work as the interim state chairman for Alaska, and I serve as the Pike National Forest representative here in Colorado. After a year or so of corresponding, we finally met in person at the national BHA Rendezvous in Boise, Idaho, back in 2013. In the years since Mike and I had talked many times about my hypothetical future first visit to the Last Frontier. Mike has extensive knowledge of Interior Alaska in and around the central and eastern Alaska Range, which contains some trophy grayling fishing. Based on seven years of solid tenkara experience here in Colorado and elsewhere, I felt that tenkara would be challenging, but very effective. What I didn’t realize until we arrived in Alaska was how absolutely perfect tenkara is for arctic grayling, how completely suited for the streams and upper reaches of rivers in the Alaskan interior it is. Mike was a godsend, and I can’t thank him enough.
Any extended fishing trip over great distances is much more affordable and fun with a traveling partner. Shawn and I split the cost of shared expenses like ground transportation and lodging. Since we would be camping for most of this trip, we only required lodging for the first and last nights (the only days we would have a hot shower too!). Our surprisingly uneventful flights from Denver to Seattle, and from Seattle to Fairbanks landed us in Fairbanks at around 1 AM. After picking up our rental Jeep, we were on the road east, following the Tanana River in near-dark along the Richardson Highway. Bleary-eyed, we reached Delta Junction and our room at Fort Greely (I was eligible due to my retired military status) at around 3:30 AM. We couldn’t really see anything in the way of scenery on the drive from Fairbanks to Delta Junction, because it was the middle of the semi-dark night, but we did manage to see a cow moose and her calf along the highway near North Pole, and a porcupine waddling along the shoulder at Birch Lake. After checking into our room, we caught up on sleep for a few hours and were ready to travel south later that morning.
My friend, Mike, is the sort of guy who goes out of his way to make you feel at home. After checking out of our room at Fort Greely, we drove a few miles to Mike’s house on the north side of Delta Junction, which is the terminus of the Alaska Highway, and the crossroads for interior Alaska. Delta Junction is a “big town” by rural Alaskan standards, with a population of around 1,000. Mike’s wonderful wife, Christy, had prepared a huge pot of caribou chili, and we sat around the table talking about our trip and wolfing down the chili and pilot bread. Christy also loaned Shawn and I a copy of Milepost (THE Alaska travel guide), some maps, several field guides for Alaskan plants and animals, and a blueberry picker. The blueberry picker was an ingenious hand-held contraption used to skim the berries off the tiny branches and twigs of the blueberry bushes. We would learn later that Christy’s comments about the proliferation of blueberries on the tundra were an understatement! Mike would accompany us south to the Alaska Range, and we would camp there together along with Mike’s hunting partner, Gary. Mike and Gary were hunting caribou and moose on subsistence tags so our basecamp would support both our fishing and their hunts
As we drove south from Delta Junction, we began to get an idea of the enormity of Alaska. I had heard it for years, and I always thought it sounded cliché, that “everything in Alaska is bigger”, but as we pointed our Jeep southward up and over the pass on the east side of Donnelly Dome, we began to understand. The Delta River valley stretched far and wide for many miles, and none of it contained a house, an antenna, a powerline…nothing but wilderness, except for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline zigzagging across the landscape near the road. Somewhere far below a bend in the Richardson Highway, several miles to the west, a herd of bison grazed along the edge of the alders, aspens, and black spruce on the other side of the Delta River. The landscape of Alaska at once isolates you and draws you in. We were hooked.
Mike had reserved us a campsite at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campground at Tangle Lakes, which is also the spot on the Denali Highway where the pavement ends. The remaining hundred-plus miles to the intersection with the Parks Highway at Cantwell, is gravel, with a maximum speed limit of 30 miles-per-hour. The miles between the Richardson Highway and Tangle Lakes are covered with wide-open interior Alaskan tundra, that country above about 2,700’ elevation that stretches up toward the nearby foothills of the Alaska Range. It’s very different, in distance from the sun than the treeline in my home state of Colorado, which averages around 11,700 feet! The wild tundra west of Paxson also contains the Tangle Lakes Archeological District, a 226,000-acre area that holds the densest grouping (over 600 documented sites) of early prehistoric archaeology in Alaska. Near the Tangle Lakes Campground, alongside the Denali Highway, sits the Tangle River Inn, an off-grid roadhouse that offers travelers showers, gas, cabins, canoes, good food, billiards, and beer.
It’s time to get down to the fishing! I had planned for this trip to be a focus on tenkara. I personally knew of only one person who had taken tenkara to Alaska, my good friend, Richard Wheeler, from Evergreen, Colorado. I’m sure others have, but after scouring the Internet, printed articles, and such, Richard was my only boots-in-the-water source of information. Richard had actually used tenkara earlier the same summer on one of the streams we would visit while in Alaska. One day in July, while I was working behind the counter at Royal Gorge Anglers, Richard called me. He was standing on the edge of the Delta Clearwater River, catching grayling! Richard knew I planned to arrive in Alaska about a month after he did, so getting his call only added to my excitement of the upcoming trip!
Prior to the trip, I had done a lot of research about the fishing in interior Alaska that would be suitable for tenkara. I had a whole atlas full of topographic maps for the entire state, and I had spent months poring over them. I had also discovered, and read (over and over), Cecilia “Pudge” Kleinkauf’s excellent book (one I would highly recommend to anyone fishing for grayling in Alaska), “Fly-Fishing for Alaska’s Arctic Grayling-Sailfish of the North”. After reading Pudge’s book, and talking to Mike about the local water, I knew that Arctic grayling would be what we’d be looking for, especially trophy grayling. It seems, even to the Alaskans, that respectable grayling start at 16” and anything over 18” is considered trophy-class. What Shawn and I discovered is that there are a lot of grayling around 16”, but very few at the 18”-plus length.
The first location we fished was, of course, on the Tangle River. Our camp at the Tangle Lakes Campground was no more than a hundred yards from the river so we could hike down to everything we would fish there. The Tangle Lakes is a 16-mile chain of lakes connected by streams. We fished the stretch between Round Tangle Lake and the next lake upstream, south of the Denali Highway, which crosses the Tangle River.
It didn’t take long for us to get into grayling! The first day Shawn and I estimated that we each caught around 50 fish, but neither of us are “fish counters”, so that was just a guess. What we did know is that we caught a LOT of grayling! We soon discovered that the largest grayling occupied the best feeding lies in the river, pushing the smaller fish out. We caught many fish over 16” and a few that would go close to 18”. Both Shawn and I had brought several tenkara rods, but we ended up fishing 12-foot or 360 cm rods all of the time. We threw dry flies and we nymphed, with nearly equal good results. Floating lines were used for the dry fly fishing, allowing us to more effectively cast and drift the #16 CDC and Elk, #16 Extended Body PMD, and Larry Kingrey’s #16 Lil’ Hottie patterns, along with the venerable Parachute Adams. Our nymph rigs were identical to the ones we use at home in the Colorado canyons, with #20 RS2s trailing behind #18 bead head Pheasant Tails with a little weight in front of both of them. Our tenkara nymphing technique is very similar to the tactical nymphing done by western fly anglers…no indicator, tight-line nymphing. Tenkara rods are extremely effective at this. Over the previous few months I had been designing, constructing, and testing a new line for nymphing, and this trip would prove to be an excellent laboratory.
Mike had given us his warnings about grizzlies, and even though we were in a relatively grizzly-free area, we both strapped bear spray canisters to our belts. Those would be standard equipment for the entire week, and once we moved south into the grizzly’s backyard, we felt much safer than without the bear spray. We never saw a bear during our week in Alaska, but one evening, while we were picking blueberries along the Denali Highway, Shawn nearly stepped into a huge, warm, purple pile of grizzly scat. One day, while fishing the Tangle River, I found myself on what looked like a bear trail in the thick of the alders along the water. Five-foot visibility, and with the rush of the river, I couldn’t hear a twig snap if it was right next to my ear. Grizzly country…they were here first, we were visitors, so kept our “bear radar” on the whole trip!
We had hauled a canoe down from Delta Junction to our camp at Tangle Lakes, and after a couple of successful days fishing for big grayling on the Tangle River, Shawn and I decided to carry it several hundred yards down to the lake to see if we could catch any lake trout at the inlet, where the river comes into the lake. We took turns manning the canoe and fishing, as the wind and the current of the river at the inlet required constant paddling. What we found was that there no lakers at all at the inlet, and that the grayling were stacked up there, rising and splashing at what we decided must be the smallest midges we had ever encountered. We had nothing with which to match the hatch. Traditional kebari were all but useless, as the grayling were very keyed-in to those midges. We wrote the still water of Round Tangle Lake off the list.
Mid-week Shawn and I decided to travel southeast to the upper reaches of the Gulkana River to look for more trophy grayling. It was within a half-hour drive, so after a leisurely breakfast at Tangle River Inn, we headed to unknown water. A quick stop at the small Alaska Department of Fish and Game hatchery just upstream of Paxson proved to be invaluable. The hatchery worker gave us some good beta, let us know that salmon fishing on the Gulkana was now closed (any salmon caught must be immediately released), and wished us good luck. We headed down the Richardson Highway, and by exploring a few two-tracks, found a spot along the Gulkana that put us on water small enough to use tenkara.
Where the Tangle River was wide, shallow, and full of pocket water, the upper Gulkana was narrow, deep, and packed with very strong current for its size. We put boots in the water to find that not only were there big grayling there, the spawning sockeye (red) salmon had moved up into the same water. Looking down into the crystal-clear water we could see many 24-36” salmon stacked up in the current. Tangle River, and its surround tundra had a campground within a stone’s throw. The densely-vegetated Gulkana was totally different, with a feeling of total isolation. Tangle was relatively bear-free, while the Gulkana was littered with half-eaten salmon, bear scat, and pawprints, and several bald eagles watched us fish from their perches at the tops of the tallest spruce trees along the river. Wading on the Tangle was routine, on the Gulkana it was suicidal. We were in no position to call the shots on this water!
Once we arrived on the Gulkana, Shawn and I rigged up and started fishing. I had gotten some help from my boss, Royal Gorge Anglers owner, Taylor Edrington, on what fly patterns I would need to target grayling and rainbow trout that were following the spawning salmon. Taylor has extensive knowledge of fly fishing in Alaska, and I valued his opinion. Although we never even got close to water that held rainbows, Taylor’s recommendations held true for the grayling. I rigged up a bead type egg pattern, sized and colored appropriate for the task, with a BB split shot about 9 inches above the egg. Since we were fishing for grayling, I used a smaller hook than the ones Taylor had given me for the trip. I deployed a fluorocarbon tenkara level line and started drifting the egg pattern.
We began to catch very nice grayling almost immediately, again with the largest 16-20” fish holding in the deepest and heaviest current, which was very similar to our experience on the Tangle River. We fished right on the brushy edge of the river, simply because the river was too deep and fast to wade into, and the willows and alders were too thick to step back into for better positioning. All the while, I kept my bear radar on, mostly because of the lack of visibility along the river’s edge, and the fact that I was almost always within arm’s length of a half-eaten salmon or bear track.
After catching a half-dozen big grayling, I decided to move down below Shawn twenty-five yards or so to fish down by an abandoned salmon cage, left there by the hatchery workers. I ran my egg down through a deep, fast strip of current as a few yard-long sockeye salmon bumped into my legs in the water. After a few drifts, I hit what felt like a Greyhound bus! There was way too much current and very few obstacles in the water, and I know in an instant that I had hooked into one of those salmon! The fight was on! I yelled to Shawn to come down and run the net for me. He ran down, started shooting video, and stayed very close. That salmon called all of the shots, moving when he wanted to, into and out of the current. Few thoughts ran through my head, but I remember two distinctly…I’m either going to break my rod, or I’m going to break off this fish! I continued to dance with the salmon for what seemed like an eternity, keeping him in the power bend of my tenkara rod, and he took me for a walk downstream, into and out of the heavy current. I finally got him out of the main current and into shallower water near the salmon cage. Shawn reached out several times with his net, and it took several tries to finally get it done. Only half of that big fish fit into what we thought was a big net.
I was shaking as Shawn helped me get a grip on my salmon and remove the hook. We both marveled at the fact that he had actually eaten the egg, as anadromous fish seldom, if ever, eat once they start their trip upstream to the spawning grounds. He was heavily colored, had a huge kype and hump, but was still strong even after swimming upriver some 350 miles from the ocean. After a couple of quick photos, I lowered him into the current, letting go of his tail after he gave me the signal he was strong enough to swim away. That feeling as he slipped out of my right hand, was one of the most wonderful moments of my trip to Alaska. I was saying goodbye to that fish, but right then and there I made myself a promise that I would return to do this again.
Shawn and I hit the road the next day, traveling north, for a return to the Delta Junction area. We were headed to where Richard had made that awesome phone call from the edge of the Delta Clearwater River earlier in the summer, to see if we could match his success with trophy class grayling. We accessed this gin-clear, frigid, spring-fed river just a few miles northeast of Delta Junction. There’s a short section of public water there, so we set up for some dry fly fishing, both of us using floating tenkara lines. We spent all day catching eager grayling, many of them pushing the 18” mark. Despite the fact that every couple of hours a jet boat would scream upriver in front of us, the grayling didn’t seem to care. Five minutes after each boat passed, we were back in the fish. Adult caddis, PMDs, and Adams were the flies of the day. I simply cannot remember a day when I’ve caught more fish on a dry fly! The highlight of my day wasn’t so much all of the big grayling I had caught, but watching Shawn fight a 20” monster for at least ten minutes, finally landing him on the far side of the river. It was a fitting way to end the fishing for the week, and with sore arms, we walked back to the Jeep and stowed our waders and rods for the last time.
I cannot say when I will return to Alaska with a tenkara rod, but I know it will be soon. Shawn and I had no sooner unpacked after arriving home than we were planning the next trip north. As I’ve said, Alaska has a way of getting under your skin, and after fishing there, just about everything you do is compared to it. We stepped into an unknown…fishing in Alaska for trophy grayling, and the possibility of catching salmon, with tenkara. It felt so very good to have traveled so far, seen so much country and found success with tenkara. What’s next? Trophy Dolly Varden on a wilderness float north of the Arctic Circle? Coastal mountain rainbows? Yard-long sheefish along the Brooks Range foothills a hundred miles from the nearest settlement? Perhaps the answer may be “yes” to all of those, and more. I’m certain of one thing…this hasn’t been my last trip with tenkara in the Last Frontier!
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.