There’s No Place Like Nome

O.K. click your heals together and repeat after me, “There’s no place like Nome, there’s no place like Nome.” Now you’re in the right frame of mind for me to tell you that the far north’s Seward Peninsula, and the Nome area in particular, provide some fishing opportunities that you may have been missing.

Salmon in the North Country

Many people find it hard to believe that northwest Alaska rivers experience runs of salmon. But they do. Some are accessible only to fly-in or rafting anglers, but the Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game’s Kotzebue or Nome offices have information about lots of possibilities. In the case of the Nome area, ADF&G publishes an informative little booklet, The Nome Roadside Fishing Guide that details the different species of fish present in the nearly twenty creeks and rivers along the three gravel roads that lead out of town. Pink salmon are present in most of them, as are chums, but spawning populations of silvers, sockeye, and king salmon also occur.

One of the best known of the sockeye runs along Nome’s road system is found in the Pilgrim River, which drains popular Salmon Lake. The Nome-Taylor (or Kougarok) Road parallels the river for nineteen miles from the lake to a bridge at milepost 65. A popular boat put-in spot, the bridge also offers wading access both up and down river.

We didn’t have a boat, one year, so we’d taken our rental car and driven to the lake and its BLM campground/picnic area on a sunny August afternoon. It’s a beautiful, if very buggy, spot with a number of cabins lining the shore. Big pods of sockeye were splashing and pairing up for spawning just off the beach. We did our best to eat under and around our head nets as we sat on the bank to watch. “I didn’t realize that there was such a large run of sockeye up here,” my friend said. She saw for herself that she had been mistaken.

Since the river was open for salmon fishing some distance down from the lake outlet, we rigged up the 8-wts and hiked off downstream to see if we could find any keepable sockeye, or in the alternative, to fish for Dollies and grayling as we went.

Why is it that the same sockeye that refuses to strike a fly when they are silver and fresh, absolutely inhales anything that drifts their way when they’re all toothy and scarlet-bodied in their spawning phase? Over and over again we ended up with one of these feisty reds on the end of the line with the tiny egg imitation, intended for a fat grayling, stuck firmly in their jaw. Still strong, even though nearing their end, it was a battle to get them to shore for the release, especially when we’d hooked them on the 5-wts.

Of course, grayling, Dollies, and even the stray whitefish also took these flies. Following up tight behind the salmon, they were as eager as fish anywhere to pounce on what looked like stray eggs to them. As often happens, some of the Dollies up-chucked real eggs as we worked to dislodge the hook and return them to their feeding. We never did encounter any bright sockeye that afternoon, but we had a great time just the same.

While king runs in the north are typically small, and chum runs have been depressed in recent years, a respectable run of silvers often makes an appearance in some of these arctic rivers. The Sinuk and the Cripple River, on the Nome Teller Highway as well as the Niukluk at the termination of the Nome-Council Road, and the Fish River into which it drains, can have some good silver fishing at times. Many Nome residents also head to the Nome River on the Nome-Taylor Highway for silvers when it is open. Some of the rivers, like the Niukluk, require a boat to access the best fishing, but many do not.

Summer of 2004 produced some strong early runs of coho in several of these creeks after a number of closures in recent years. Before the run tapered off and emergency regulations went into effect to end the fishing, we experienced some exciting silver action during our annual trip to the Niukluk River in mid-August. Most of the fish were fairly “colored-up,” but aggressive and acrobatic just the same.

Nichole, who was just learning to fly fish, and her dad, who had given them both our Nome trip for her college graduation gift, could hardly decide whether they liked the grayling fishing or the silver fishing better. Since they didn’t have to choose one over the other, they just spent the days alternating their time between the two.

The strength of these northern salmon runs varies widely from year to year, resulting, at times, in stricter bag limits or complete closures, but a call to the Nome office of ADF&G can easily provide information on which to base a fishing excursion to the area.

More Than Salmon-Dolly Varden

Just because the salmon runs might not be as prolific as those on the Kenai or in Bristol Bay, don’t think that the farther north you go, the less enticing the fishing

possibilities are. It’s just not true. Merely shift your perspective (and the size of your fly or spinning rod) a bit and you’ll be surprised at the marvelous Dolly Varden and

Arctic Grayling fishing with which you can while away the long-light Arctic days on a trip toward the top of the state.

Especially in even-numbered years when the pink salmon runs have been strong in the Nome area, the Dolly Varden char fishing can be excellent. In typical Dolly

fashion, these pink-spotted beauties key on the eggs of the spawning fish and provide exceptionally fast action in Nome’s shallow, riffly streams, which are generally very wadable and crystal clear.

A few years ago, the perfect conditions made for a day of truly “every cast” success. The water was low and just the right temperature. Dozens and dozens of pinks were busy digging their nests and laying their eggs in the dish-shaped indentations among the riffles. The Dollies were absolutely everywhere. With good Polaroid glasses, their gray shapes were clearly evident flitting back and forth between mating pairs of salmon or holding right behind a nest. Big ones, small ones, silvery ones, and brightly colored ones in their own spawning colors, they seemed to rival the salmon in sheer numbers. It was Dolly nirvana.

It hadn’t taken Sally long to find just the right color and size for her Iliamna Pinkie egg fly. She was surprised by the fact that the first dozen or so fish she caught were in water only about five inches deep and less than a foot from the bank. She’d been smart enough to follow the rule to “fish the water before you walk through it,” and was rewarded with a mother-lode of fish.

With so many targets so close at hand, she just kept meandering along the bank casting to waiting fish. She didn’t even get her boots wet for the first couple of hours of fishing! “I’ll never forget this lesson,” she promised. “I’ve been as guilty as anybody of thinking that I’ve got to be half-way across the creek and cast for 40 or 50 feet to catch fish. Not anymore.”

More Than Salmon – Arctic Grayling

Grayling fishing can be even better than Dolly fishing in Nome’s streams because grayling are resident fish, not dependent on the salmon runs. And, while they, too, key in on salmon eggs when such protein-rich fare is available, they never completely abandon their craving for bugs. The lovely Niukluk River, typical of the crystal clear rivers with firm gravel bottoms which characterize the area, is reported to shelter more than 1,000 grayling per mile.

“You will think you have found fly-fishing heaven when the surface of the river is alive with rising grayling,” says John Elmore, owner of Grayling-On-A-Fly Camp (Formerly Camp Bendeleben) on the Niukluk. “All of our guests have caught trophy grayling larger than 18 inches; some say that they have trouble catching one smaller,” he adds with a chuckle.

“Right there,” Maggie said as we fished the Niukluk one year. “That large grayling just keeps rising right on the edge of the outside current seam. I’ve got to get my fly to drift to that exact spot.”

She was right; we could all see the regular swirls of steady rises, one right after the other. The fish was feeding in such a leisurely fashion that it appeared to be waiting patiently for Maggie to present her #12 elk-hair caddis just perfectly. When she did, it was like watching the ballet. The fish zoned in on that floating bit of deer hair and tracked it briefly as it drifted downstream. Then, as we watched, he eased up and, with a fin-flared rise over the fly he made it disappear by sipping in gently as he re-entered the water. Hardly a ripple revealed where the event had taken place.

“Yessss,” she whispered. “I’ve got him.” She’d remembered that grayling often take “on the down” and had been accommodating enough to give him just an extra second or two to get solidly hooked up before she’d made her set. Now, she did, indeed, have him.

“What a bend I’ve got in my rod,” she marveled. “This is some grayling.”

Some grayling, indeed. It was evident from the size of the dorsal fin protruding from the surface of the water as she played him, that this was a very large fish. Maggie is a focused, experienced angler, and she knew not to rush things. On just 6 lb tippet, she didn’t want to risk breaking off her prize.

As she finally slipped her hand gently under the fish’s belly and brought it just slightly out of the water to remove the hook, it was evident to us all what an accomplishment we’d just witnessed. The tape showed a 21-incher, a trophy by anyone’s standards.

Seven Arctic grayling are listed in the 2004 International Game Fish Association’s book of World Record Game Fish. Five of the seven come from Canadian waters. The remaining two are Alaska fish. The largest of these record grayling (4 lb- 8 oz) was caught in western Alaska’s Goodnews River. The other, a 3 lb-4oz fish, came from the Nome area’s Niukluk River.

In Alaska, a trophy grayling is consider to be any fish 18-inches long or over. Generally, those fish approach 2 ½ to 3 pounds in weight, but this can vary greatly in different watersheds at different times of the year. Eighteen-inch long trophy fish do not at all reflect the largest of the State’s grayling. Many anglers fishing rivers throughout Alaska have caught larger fish with both fly and spin gear, but have not been willing to kill them simply to acquire a record. Grayling are the slowest growing of all sport fish, and an 18-inch specimen is typically much older than the same size trout or char.

ADF&G’s Fred DeCicco of the Fairbanks office has been conducting studies of grayling around the state. He aged one 18½-inch grayling from the Nome area, and determined it to be 30 years old! Certainly not all the Nome area fish are of this size or age, but for the serious grayling fisher, the sheer numbers of large fish can definitely enliven a trip to Alaska’s north country.

Because it takes grayling longer to achieve significant size, it doesn’t take much convincing to get people to treat them with special care and to release them for another day. A just-released fish will often rest quietly in just three or four inches of water right next to the angler’s foot. “I’m surprised,” one of my clients remarked on a recent Niukluk River trip after carefully releasing a gorgeous, slate-colored grayling. “My fish is just sitting there. Is it all right?”

I told her that it was and suggested that she stay squatting down without moving for a few minutes and watch him. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such a great opportunity to just look at a fish in the water and see what it’s doing,” she commented after a few seconds. “Look, you can see its white mouth opening and closing as it rejuvenates itself. And, those wonderful golden eyes are clearly looking right at me. He’s not afraid at all.”

“You’re actually breaking the current for him and providing an easy resting spot,” I told her. “He’ll stay there until he’s ready to resume his feeding or until you move and spook him back into deeper water.” Sure enough, within a few minutes that extended fin waved good-bye and the fish headed back to the drift from which he’d come.

A unique reward of releasing grayling is that it provides one of the best opportunities to observe the full extension of that unbelievable dorsal and the exceptional coloration these fish are noted for. If camera-ready while the fish is resting after a release, an angler can often get great photographs, shots that never seem to be as successful when the fish is being held for a hero/heroine shot. Light refraction through the water highlights the glistening emerald, lavender, fuscia and blue spots and spines on the fish’s fins as well as the gold sheen that often dusts the gill plates and body. The luster of the grayling’s scales is also much more pronounced under water. It’s worth the extra time and effort to try to photograph the fish there.

Driving the Roads

I always get the feeling that I’m in the western U.S. as we drive the Nome road system. The wide-open sky, the almost treeless hills, and the far-away Kigluaik or Bendeleben mountains on the horizon enable me to see for miles. I can easily imagine myself on horseback riding off into some gorgeous sunset. But just when I get too nostalgic, suddenly a weird and wonderful pile of rocks will appear at the crest of a hill, reminding me of the mysterious rock cairns of Ireland. It’s impossible to believe that these are not man-made. Many are so symmetrical I can hardly accept that nature could fashion them all by herself. They certainly enhance the mystique of the drive.

In August there are always cars parked along the road with the bright-colored windbreakers of berry pickers high up on the hillsides. People invariably wave as we pass by. Often, the crests of other hills will host bands of reindeer with the big, wide-antlered bulls carefully leading their harems away from any danger or grazing herds of caped and bearded musk-ox.

“Stop, stop,” Ellen cried as we rounded a curve just out from Nome one day. “Musk-ox, there, on the hill,” she said.

We stopped the truck, grabbed our cameras, and slowly climbed the small ridge next to the road where we could see about a dozen animals grazing contentedly. Two were moms with young ones. Even though they didn’t run, they and the other members of the herd were very aware of us and managed to stay a safe distance away. Every time they’d stop, though, one of the babies would insist on nursing again. As we’d move closer to try for a better picture, his mom would automatically lead him off. What a game of cat and mouse. We could have stayed there all afternoon if we hadn’t been on our way to the airport.

I couldn’t help but think of Carolyn, one of my clients who had come to Nome fish with us a few years ago and wanted so badly to see the musk-ox. She’d had to “settle” for seeing a cinnamon grizzly move into the willows near the creek as we watched and then paying a visit to the Anchorage zoo on her way back to California.

The Nome-Council Road is especially inviting in the fall. Not only is the tundra flushed gold and russet as far as the eye can see, but birds and ducks by the thousands are gathering for their southward migrations. Groups of snowy tundra swans dot the ponds along the road and a wide variety of ducks, resting in sloughs right beside the road, take flight when a vehicle approaches. We’ve had snowy owls and peregrine falcons fly up in front of us as we pass. Many people consider this area a birder’s paradise.

The very informative Roadside Guide, the mile-by-mile manual of species, fishing locations, access, and more refers to Nome’s road system as “unique in rural Alaska.” It documents the fact that the hills around Nome are vastly more accessible than most “bush” areas of our state. Besides the birding, fishing and wildlife watching, there are almost endless opportunities for hiking and backpacking.

Historic Nome

A fishing trip to the Nome area has the extra special benefit of permitting the visitor to take step back into Alaska history. Nome is, of course, where Alaska’s famed Gold Rush took place. Remnants of this great saga are everywhere in the area. A dilapidated gold dredge rests in a salt marsh right outside of town, and the often photographed “little trains to nowhere” with their attendant ore buckets and other mining paraphernalia all lie rusting in the sun along the Nome-Council road in the Solomon area.

The tiny, but engaging Gold Rush historical museum in Nome is also a delight. Everyone finds that they can spend hours and hours there imagining the hardships and achievements of those gold-crazed men and women as they panned and dredged the beaches, mined the mountains, and built a system for ore transport. The old

pictures alone are the stuff of legends. Book after book of them waits for modern day admirers. But it isn’t all just the stuff of museums. A walk along Nome’s nearby beach reveals active dredges still pursuing the dreams of gold to this very day.

Another special museum and shop in Nome is operated by the local Sitnusak Native Corporation. It houses marvelous native artifacts and dolls as well as one of Alaska’s very best libraries of historic books and films. I spent one of my most memorable airport delays on one trip whiling away the hours in that library viewing some truly remarkable films.

Modern day history also includes the incredible Iditarod Sled Dog Race that ends under the much photographed burled arch on Nome’s main street. Commemorating the historic thousand mile serum run when dog-sleds delivered life-saving medicine during an epidemic in the Nome area, the Race is now world-famous. Out on the Nome-Council road one can see the wood tri-pods that mark the trail into town that would otherwise be obscured by deep snow in the winter. In town the famous arch, under which so many race winners have posed with their lead dogs, can be photographed just off the street.

The Nome Visitors Bureau provides a wealth of information for anglers, birders, history buffs and more. It seems a shame to me that so many Alaskans have never visited this very intriguing part of our state. Now that you know that you can take your fishing rod along, there’s no excuse for you not to head north.

~Pudge Kleinkauf

“There’s No Place Like Nome” was originally published in Fish Alaska magazine, April 2005