Home » Alaska » Chilly Arctic Grayling on the Beautiful Chena River
Updated April 29, 2023

Chena River State Recreation Area is located just outside the town of Fairbanks. The Chena slowly meanders through the park as it makes its journey, eventually reaching the confluence of the Tanana River in Fairbanks. The chilly Chena waters are home to a thriving population of Arctic Grayling. Alaska Fishing and Rafting™ has amazing 1/2 day float trips (8:00 am – 2:00 pm) for Arctic Grayling the clear-running Chena River.

Chena River-Chena River State Recreation Area
Chena River State Recreation Area

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Much of the fishing hype in Alaska is fishing for salmon or halibut. We have had the pleasure of fishing the Kenai for rainbows and Big Lake for Sockeyes. Each bucket list trip was an amazing adventure. When we headed to Fairbanks on this trip, we wanted to try a different fishery. Fishing for Arctic Grayling had been on our bucket list for this trip. Often referred to as the “Sailfish of the North” they are not to be missed, in our opinion. I call them sailfish because of their striking sail-like dorsal fin. Fish in the river can reach trophy size of 16-18 inches.

Arctic Grayling on the beautiful Chena river
Arctic Grayling Image: Alaska Fishing and Rafting

Arctic Grayling in Beautiful Chena River State Recreation Area

The State park is a year-round is a 254,080-acre playground. Just a mere 40 miles east of Fairbanks, local outdoor enthusiasts hike and camp in the summer and use the park for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. The Chena River, which runs through the recreation area, is known for its crystal-clear waters and provides an excellent habitat for the Arctic grayling. This river, we had been told, is teeming with hungry grayling. The fish can be caught throughout the summer months, with the best fishing typically occurring from June through August.

Note: Anglers should be sure to obtain the necessary fishing licenses and permits before heading out on the water. You can get your Alaska fishing license online. 

Compeau Trailhead
Compeau Trailhead

Meeting at the Compeau Trailhead for our Arctic Grayling Adventure

Our guide, Caleb, called the night before the trip to discuss the details and to ensure we had purchased our fishing licenses. We decided that since we were so close to the park, we would rendezvous at the Compeau Trail parking area (MM30). Unlike the mountainous tundra of Denali National Park, the Chena Springs Road is mostly rolling hills of spruce, birch and poplar. Ideal habitat for moose and bear. On the drive into the park, we saw a moose and her calf just about 50 yards off the road leisurely eating the grasses along the road.

Chena State Park Moose
Chena State Park Moose

We could not have had a better day to take our trip. The sun was shining when we left the cabin and headed towards the park. This trailhead provides access to a network of trails that are popular for hiking, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. The Compeau Trail, in particular, is a popular multi-use trail that is open year-round. It offers scenic views of the surrounding forest and is a great place to see wildlife, including moose and beaver.

Snowshoe Hare Lake Brooks Trail
Snowshoe Hare

The Compeau trailhead paved parking area has excellent clean restroom facilities, an all-terrain vehicle ramp and a large kiosk with trail information. We arrived early before the 9 am meetup time. The sun was already getting warm; the bugs were swarming. I highly recommend carrying insect repellent to ward off mosquitoes and flies.

Arctic Grayling on the Chena River

Getting on the Beautiful Chena River in search of Arctic Grayling

The guide arrived with the crew around 9:30 am a little later than we had planned. This guide service provides the waders, boots, rods and lures. It is fully outfitting you for the day. Quickly we got our waders and boots in anticipation of getting on the water. The mosquitos Caleb said would be quite ravenous closer to the river. Once we all had our gear, we followed the van to the river’s edge just a mile or so down the road. Caleb wasn’t kidding when he said the mosquitoes would be in swarms. Once on the river, the mosquitos vanished.

"If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there'd be a shortage of fishing poles." 
Doug Larsen

Most of the group were doing the scenic wilderness river float tour. Only one guest, Vincent, was tagging along with us to fish. Quickly, we unloaded the rafts, lowering them into the chilly waters. To prepare for launching into the river, Caleb loaded the rods, equipment, and the snack cooler. Since the larger group was free floating, our raft got to launch first. Barry and I garnered the front while Caleb and Vincent took the back. Paddling into the main channel of the river, I could not believe how perfect the setting was for fishing. Today’s weather brought us bluebird skies and temperatures headed toward the 80s.

The bright sunshine made for easy viewing of the underwater structure in the crystal clear river. The bank had lots of downed trees, log snags and rocks for the fish to hide in, under and around.

Arctic Grayling on the Chena River

Learning the Art of Enticing the Arctic Grayling

On this trip, we originally thought of fly-fishing but switched it up by doing a little spin fishing instead. Caleb had rigged the ultra-light spinning rods the previous evening. The lure of choice today is a small trout jig, with a 1/8 ounce jig head with a size 8 hook. Our lure comprised the finesse plastic grub body jigs being white. It made them fairly easy to see in the clear river. The key ingredient to successful Grayling fishing is to match the natural food source, the insect-based forage.

Arctic Grayling tail close up
Arctic Grayling USFWS/Katrina Liebich

The river is shallow in many places, which allows for fishing from the shore or in the river with waders. A few hundred yards downriver, Caleb found a gravel sandbar. Here we all disembarked for a quick lesson on the proper techniques for casting to Graying. Caleb explained Arctic Grayling is a salmonid species. They prefer to hang out in the eddies and edge of riffles, dining on small aquatic insects as their primary food source. We felt comfortable walking the gravel bar casting into the deeper channel, stalking Grayling from the bank. Barry and I each landed a couple of nice fish from the eddy before moving back onto the raft. The Chena river sport fish is catch and release only. Although they are edible, we always prefer to practice catch and release.

Arctic Grayling on the Chena River

Scoping the Lazy Chena River to Find Fish

The Chena river meandered slowly, allowing the raft to leisurely float with little need to paddle. It is easy to become distracted by the beauty of your surroundings. I noticed some bends in the river created changing current; the bottom dropping into deeper eddies where the water becoming swifter. It is in some of the deeper channels in the river, the deadfalls and steep undercuts of the bank are only accessible by raft. Every part of the river has different speeds.

Arctic grayling in Chena river
Chilly Arctic grayling Photo credit K.Sowl-Alaska Region USFWS

Tackling the Wily Grayling on the Chena River

He’d stop at hot spots along the river, focusing on specific target areas. Looking for log snags or places where smaller creeks converged with the main river. These seams are like a magnet for fish. Casting into the slower moving water, the Grayling would rise to chase as we drifted downstream. Occasionally we cast at downed trees or sunken logs and you could see the fish following the jig. Where the current was swift, it was easy to become hung in the downed trees and branches. I know a few times I snagged a tree or two. Luckily, I saved the jig a few times but had one or two breakoff. Casting to the perfect spot was not really necessary. Just casting downstream and slowly retrieving the lure seemed to work best in enticing the fish to bite.

Arctic Grayling on the Chena River

The secret is to learn to think like the fish. It amazed us that the Grayling seemed to rise to our every cast. Most of the grayling was 12-18 inches and a lot of fun to catch! Caleb did an amazing job of putting us on the fish, maneuvering the raft in low water and around fallen trees, and actually spotting fish in unsurpassed numbers. Later in the morning, he provided us with snacks and water that had been packed in the cooler.  

The half-day trip went by so quickly. Before we knew it, we were pulling the rafts up the bank and out of the river. All in all, I would consider this day on the water a success. 

Chena River Grayling
Chena River Grayling

What Supplies to Bring for Your Fishing Trip

Spinners are another popular lure for Arctic grayling and are often used when fishing in deeper water or faster currents. Spinners imitate small fish or other prey that is moving through the water. Some popular spinner options for Arctic grayling include the Panther Martin and Mepps Aglia.

We had a great fishing experience on the Chena River. Arctic Grayling is fun to catch on light sport tackle.

Today’s equipment:

Riverbend Chinock Cabin
Riverbend Cabins-Fairbanks Alaska

Where we Stayed During our Arctic Grayling Trip on the Chena River

We stayed in the Chinook Cabin at Riverbend cabins. It was close enough to Fairbanks to be convenient, yet far enough away to feel away from the hustle and bustle. Surrounded by woods, the two cabins sit on the Chena river. This is an ideal location for day trips into the Chena State park or Fairbanks attractions.

The lower level has a beautifully furnished living room, dining area, and a fully equipped kitchen with a refrigerator, oven/stove, microwave, and all the other necessary essentials. The upstairs level of the cabin has a master bedroom with a queen bed and a smaller room with a full size bed. Just off the master bedroom is a small balcony with a small table and chairs. This is the perfect spot to enjoy an adult beverage and watch the sunrise. In the winter months, they say this cabin is the most amazing spot to view the Aurora Borealis. We loved it here and did not want to leave!

Arctic Grayling on the Chena River- Alaska Fishing and Rafting
Chena River Float Photo Credit: Alaska Fishing and Rafting

Final Thoughts on our Adventure for Cool Arctic Grayling on the Magnificent Chena River

The Arctic grayling is a beautiful fish with a distinctive sail-like dorsal fin, which makes it a popular target for anglers. The Chena River State Recreation Area is a beautiful, yet unique, destination for fishing enthusiasts. It offers up the opportunity to catch one of Alaska’s most beautiful fish species in a stunning natural setting.

The time spent on the water is time well spent even if the catching gets slow. If you are in Fairbanks and want to fish, book with these guys, you’ll be happy you did. Adding any fishing adventure to your Alaskan itinerary is an adventure. We would do a full day of fishing next time. The scenery is unmatched in Alaska. The fishing float for 2 hours lets us appreciate Alaska from another perspective. If you are drawn to Alaska, be sure to experience the thrill of fishing for the beautiful Arctic Grayling on the Chena river.

Have you been fishing in Alaska? Please share your thoughts and adventures in the comments below.