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Mini FAOL Fish-In Alaska, 2000

By Bob Fairchild

"In with a flood and out with a thud." or "What if they gave a `Fish In' and nobody brought fish?" Both were suitable subtitles to the gathering that we billed as the "FAOL Mini Alaska Fish In".

The Setup

The Alaska gathering was born in the chat room this past winter. Jeremy (Host Grayling/Flyfisherman12) and I told many tales of the large (and plentiful) grayling on the upper Chena River in Fairbanks. For Jeremy, it's his home waters. For me, it's a 400 mile drive that I take EVERY chance I get. The upper Chena truly offers the best grayling fishing on the Alaska road system. After listening to our tales night after night, Mark and Dan (both of Anchorage) decided that they wanted to see for themselves. We all agreed to hook up this summer to make it happen.

Since Dan and Mark and I are all Alaska Fly Fishers (AFF) members, so we also made the invitation to our AFF club members to join us as well. We added a few more participants from AFF.

The Countdown

As spring approached, my wife and I began planning our annual trip to Fairbanks over the Memorial Day weekend. We decided to take a few extra days and invite the guys to join us. As the days counted down, the details began to come together: the dates, the camping spot, suggested flies, etc.

And then came the bad news. An email from Jeremy let us know that the Chena was flooding. Now, the Chena floods almost every spring. But, there's flooding . . . and then there's FLOODING! A late breakup, followed by LOTS of rain led to a 10 year high water mark on the Chena. We kept in almost daily contact. In addition to the flooding, the temperatures were cool - highs barely 60 (compared to the 70-85 that we usually get during that weekend)! The reports from Jeremy on the scene weren't good at all.

Less than a week before our projected arrival, the rains finally stopped. The only question was, would it be in time for the river to recover? With a day or two to go, a few dropped out of the trip. At least one dropped due to weather and two more due to family commitments.


My plan was to arrive late Friday night (read here: Saturday morning!) and leave the following Thursday. Others were arriving sometime between Saturday and Monday and leaving at various times throughout the week.

My wife Jeannette and I left from work, shortly after 5pm Friday night. The trip to Fairbanks is over 350 miles. It's another 45-50 to the campsite on the river. As high as the river was, it was uncertain whether we would even find our campsite above water! As we drove through Fairbanks, we saw the lower Chena . . . flooded over the banks and into back yards. Not good, indeed. It was after midnight, but we pushed on. Less than 10 miles from our proposed campsite, we encountered more bad news... water running across the road! (It was only a couple inches deep and as it turned out, the only spot where the road was wet.)

Bob's camper and family tents

At this point, we received our first good news: Due to the rains and cold temperatures, the locals had decided to skip camping over the holiday weekend. The camping areas were almost empty! The next bit of good news? Our campsite was above water! It was obvious that the water was receding and was "tea stained", but no longer muddy. (The Chena normally runs very clear.)

It is interesting to note that I was able to make this assessment at 2am! Officially, the hours of "daylight" (from sunrise to sunset) is 20.5 hours during this weekend. In reality, it is light 24 hours a day that time of year. Even the dusk is not very dim. (I was able to read INSIDE the tent without using a flashlight!)


Saturday morning, I scouted the water around camp and cast a few flies. Not a rise to my flies... not a fish in site. I wasn't done yet, though. I'd fished the Chena during high water before and had some spots in mind.

That morning I also decided to make a pile of rocks right at the water's edge to track the amount of the drop (I hoped) in the water level.

Badger Slough - Badger Gas in the background.
Gas, restrooms and a pretty mean jalapeno cheeze hot dog! Through the morning, a little more scouting and still no fish! My first break came because of a communication problem. One of Jeannette's friends was supposed to pick her up Saturday morning. There's no cell coverage on the upper Chena, so when she didn't show up, I had to drive her to North Pole (just outside of Fairbanks). Bob with Grayling Part of the drive took me by Badger Slough . . . a meandering piece of water 1-3 feet deep with just a hint of current. The slough empties into the Chena River. As I was gassing up, low and behold . . . rising fish! I stopped and fished for an hour and landed a half dozen small grayling. Finally slimed!

I headed back out to the campsite, 48 miles away to greet the first of the arrivals.

The Group Assembles

Jeff's rig, prepared for anything! Jeff and his wife Kathy were to first to arrive Saturday afternoon. It was their 'maiden voyage' in their new (to them) camper. Jeff is an AFF member and has visited FAOL, but we haven't lured him into the chat room yet! Their "trials and tribulations" to that point had included making SEVERAL stops just to fill up their propane tanks!

The water had dropped about 4 more inches.

Jeff, Georgia, Jeremy (left to right)

The next arrival was Jeremy (from Fairbanks) and his wife Georgia. Jeremy gave the water the once over and pronounced it "improved" from earlier in the week. That evening, we went on a little 'road tour' of the area, including an inspection of the Chena Hot Springs Resort. He also pointed out 2 stocked ponds within a few miles of camp. Even they were flooded! However, still no fish spotted. Jeremy and Georgia headed home, promising to make it out to fish Sunday and also make the barbecue that night.

Jeannette's family - parents, sisters & spouses and nieces and nephew - all live in Fairbanks. They were planning to join us Sunday for the barbecue as well.

Sunday morning arrived and Jeff and I hit the river. We fished more than 1/2 mile of the Chena below camp, again with no luck at all.

Sunday afternoon, the family started to show up. (13 in all including some family friends.) Jeannette's family is primarily nonfishermen, with a few 'sometimes' fishermen. Nephew Dan and niece Davya (you may remember her from the "Reader's Cast" column about her first fish) have fished the upper Chena with me. But, they're primarily bikers, skiers and hikers. And so, I made a very unusual choice that afternoon . . . with the fishing so 'underwhelming,' I decided to join them for a hike up to "Angel Rocks". (There are many hiking trails, as well as the river, along the 25 miles of roadway through the Chena River Recreational Area.) In the past, the fishing has been too good to hike! I figured this might be my only chance. Jeff and Kathy headed out to put their boat in at one of the ponds and Jeremy and Georgia dropped off some food for the barbecue that night and then headed for the hot springs . . . and then disappeared!

The big barbeque, taken at 9 PM - notice how light out Except for the "disappearance", it was a typical barbecue . . . twice as much food as needed and everyone went away stuffed! And a surprise guest: as we were wrapping up, here came Mark - about 4 hours ahead of schedule!!! Seems he got off work a few hours early and bent several traffic laws along the way! So . . . by Sunday night, everyone was there . . . hmmm . . . except what happened to Jeremy!?

The river had dropped about 8" since we arrived.

Didn't We Come Here to Fish??

I mentioned earlier that I had fished the Chena during high water before. So, on Monday morning, I took Jeff and Mark to some of my 'secret spots' on the river. The only things biting were the mosquitoes!

Mark at Badger Slough

At this point, Mark and I decided to make the long drive into TOWN to fish Badger Slough again! Despite "rigging up right next to the road" (to use Mark's words), it was a great day of fishing! Mark landed his first ever grayling. Between the two of us, we landed around 70 fish. Mark's first fish! The best flies? Al Campbell's SHWAPF (orange body & black hair)! See the fly tying section for instructions. And a black fur ant. Those two flies accounted for about 90% of our fish. Mark and I also managed to get sunburned!

Jeff around the fire
Jeff, not to be outdone, also caught fish. He and Kathy drove 2 miles up the road to "46 Mile Pond" and put in their dory and caught grayling and rainbows.

Still no Jeremy. Hmmm.

The Departures

Tuesday morning was the start of the departures . . . it turned out to be more than just the 'start.' Jeff and Kathy had planned all along to take off that day. They're early risers, so said their good-byes the night before. Good thing. I think it was 5am when they pulled out! Mark awoke next and took a drive. When he came back to camp, he announced that he was too sick to fish(!?!) and decided to drive home. (Turns out that he ended up spending a night in the hospital with dehydration and Giardia!) And Jeannette and I? I fished one more day at Badger Slough (the only game in town?), caught a bunch more grayling and one 8-9" pike. Then we spent a day or two with family before heading out.

The river had begun to rise again! It was back to where the weekend began. (Rain in the hills and more run off.)

The Wrap Up

Bottom line - a failure? Not really! Both Mark and Jeff are already planning their next trips to the upper Chena River, even though they never even saw the 'fabled' big graying of the upper river.

We didn't get rained on. We had a great campsite.

Mark caught his first ever grayling.

Bob Fairchild and Grayling

And you never have to twist my arm to get me back up there . . . after all, I've actually CAUGHT some of those fish!

And what happened to Jeremy? I caught up with him again before I left Fairbanks. It turns out that Jeremy's allergy medicine kicked in and completely knocked him out Sunday night and caused him to miss the barbecue. Then, something REALLY bad happened to him . . . he got called into work!

So look out Chena grayling . . . to paraphrase Arnold . . . "We'll be back!" ~ Bob Fairchild

For the 1999 Kenai fly fishing trip in Alaska, click here!

For the 1998 Kenai fly fishing trip in Alaska, click here.

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