The History of Arctic Grayling fishing on the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska
By Joe Letarte
In the early 1980’s Fairbanks was a totally different place compared to what it is now. The pipeline had just ended and many of the construction camps along the Dalton highway; or the Haul Rd as it was called back then were still in operation and putting the final touches on the road and infrastructure of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. Once this was finished it would be putting an end to one of the biggest booms Fairbanks and Alaska as a whole had ever seen. The construction of the 800 mile Trans Alaska Pipeline brought good times to Fairbanks and there was alot of money and building going on around the interior. The optimism to a great future was at an all time high.
I had just arrived a few years before and missing the main pipeline boom I set my sights on starting my own business. The business my wife, Victoria and I started was Wilderness Enterprises later to be known as Joe and Victoria Letarte’s Alaska Wilderness Enterprises. I was a college student in the 1970’s and full of adventure and wanting to make my mark on the world, so I went North. After arriving in Fairbanks in 1979, I purchased a plot of land located on Chena Hotsprings Rd to base our business out of with the intentions of offering fishing for Arctic Grayling.
The Grayling fishery on the Chena River had been decimated from over fishing. The main cause was the sudden influx of people seeking work on the pipeline it had been overwhelming to Fairbanks and the surrounding areas turning it into a modern day wild west town. On the fishing end people simply caught and killed far too many Grayling, this combined with the fact that Grayling take a long time to grow with a 12 inch fish taking about 5 years to get that big. The lifecycle of the Chena River Grayling is complex after spawning in the lower stretches of the river and sloughs they migrate up the river and distribute themselves usually by age and class throughout the river system. They do this to feed for the summer with the bigger fish occupying the upper river.
Having been raised in the Midwest I had heard some of the old timers talk about going to the far North in search of Arctic Grayling this combined with the legendary Grayling fishery around Grayling, Michigan. That fishery vanished in the late 1800’s, due to an increase in water temperature that killed the fishery. Hearing these stories and tales of my youth set a hook so to speak on my lifelong infatuation with the Arctic Grayling.
So the stage was set when Victoria and I walked onto the upper Chena River with the thought of starting a fish guiding operation for Arctic Grayling. We knew it would work, however people around us had doubts and this is still the case today. They did not regard the Grayling as fish of value, quite the contrary many even think of the Grayling as a trash fish. They even said in the beginning our endeavors would never work; “That no tourist would want to catch a Grayling.” Honestly I knew many a fisherman that had read the stories and dreamed of catching a game fish only found in the true Northern wilderness settings and that is a symbol of pristine waters in far off wilderness areas with fisherman fishing under midnight sun; we could not go wrong with this endeavor.
Little did we know we were starting an industry that would grow in Fairbanks for the next 39 years and also jump start the guided ice fishing industry. Our first raft for the the newly formed fish guiding business was a 14 ft Avon raft. All the rafts we use today with the modern materials were pretty much nonexistent back then so we started out with the best equipment and started focusing on sections of the river that were out of reach to shore fishermen and campers. We found pockets of fish mostly smaller ones as whole age classes of fish had been wiped out and some sizes no longer existed in the river in any numbers at all. Most local people quit fishing altogether, then fish and game put an emergency order of catch and release on the river. This was the significant factor that was the turning point for the recovery of the river and turned it from a distressed fishery into the world class Arctic Grayling fishery that we know today.
At first it was slow going, just getting the word out was difficult. This was in the pre computer days and tourist numbers in Alaska were no were near the tourist numbers we see today. They were steady enough to keep us busy and over time with the catch and release policy Fish and Game had put in place the fish got bigger and more plentiful. We enjoyed ten years of the river all to ourselves. We watched firsthand the change catch and release was having on the Chena River and it was fantastic. We would float the river all summer and knew every bend and hole in the river. We floated dry flies through the holes and bounced nymphs along the bottom unlocking the secrets of the river and the fish. We caught the occasional Pike and Whitefish and had a blast catching and playing with the Arctic Grayling in the later years up to 20 inches long.
The action by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to turn the fishery into a catch and release the last 20 years has proven to be some truly fantastic Grayling fishing on the Chena River with tourists coming from all over the country and the world to experience the Chena River State Recreation area and the crown jewel of the Upper Chena River corridor and the fly fishing and spin fishing for Arctic Grayling that can only be experienced in the land of the midnight sun.
Joe Letarte is a lifelong fishing and hunting guide in Two Rivers, Alaska and has personally guided hundreds of fisherman on the Chena River; he was the first fish guide on the upper Chena River pioneering the industry.