The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY DENNIS MUSGRAVES
Sportfishing road trips in Alaska are a must for most residents. My home in the Fairbanks North Star Borough sits hundreds of miles away from the fabulous freshwater salmon and trout streams of the Southcentral region, and is even further away from saltwater destinations.
Although the majority of my angling adventures unfold many mile markers south from where I live, I’m not ready to permanently pack up and migrate from the Interior just yet.
I hold an enduring appreciation for the fantastic sportfishing found only in the northern reaches of the 49th state. Living north of the Alaska Range provides opportunity for some very unique fishing escapades, and most fishing trips can be made in a single day. The far north regions host a variety of sportfish species, both stocked and wild, and there are plenty of lakes and river systems I have not conquered.
One very special location which should be considered by highway anglers departing from the Fairbanks area is the Yukon River system. Fishermen eager to target northern pike won’t be disappointed. Accessing the famed river can be done be taking the James W. Dalton Highway to the only bridge spanning the waterway and dropping a boat in at the nearby launch. Numerous clearwater tributaries that feed the muddy giant can be found both upstream and downstream, and typically they hold good populations of pike. What’s even better is the relative close proximity of the bridge crossing to Fairbanks, so a successful outing can be accomplished in just a single day.
That’s exactly how I made the trip with fellow fishing buff JR Merritt and his uncle, Joe Michalsky. Our plan was hatched after several visits to JR’s work – Big Ray’s Fly Shop (bigrays.com) in downtown Fairbanks. Northern pike fishing always seems to be the topic of discussion when I stop by the local store. One location I had never been to but that JR said has been very productive for him is the Dall River.
It took little convincing when JR finally extended an invite to join he and Joe for a day trip to the Dall in their boat.
OUR EARLY-MORNING RENDEZVOUS at JR’s house to hitch up the boat trailer and load up gear went off without issue. All of us were excited about the prospects of catching a big pike. Leaving before 6 a.m. gave us plenty of time to safely make the trek to the Yukon River and still have a full day of fishing before making the return trip home. After a final load check the three of us buckled our seat belts and hit the road.
Out of Fairbanks, we headed north via the Elliot Highway for about 80 miles to an intersection where the Dalton Highway officially begins. From the start of the Haul Road it was an additional 55 miles to the Yukon River Bridge. We arrived at river’s edge and it took little time to launch the boat and begin zooming up the river.
I felt tiny sitting in the 16-foot-long aluminum boat as it cut a wake against the quick-flowing, monstrous river. Joe wisely kept us on a course nearly centered in the half-mile width of the roaring chocolate-colored water. Keeping the boat in the deepest part of the main channel helped to avoid submerged timber and prevented running aground inadvertently on any of the numerous shallow sandbars hidden below the surface.
Joe’s focus remained sharp on the tiller throughout our journey as the 90hp outboard powered us effortlessly upstream. Our route was short, covering only 15 river miles of the Yukon. I sat near the bow, giving me an unobstructed panoramic view of the historic waterway and scenic surroundings. I was enthralled by the seemingly endless wilderness along the riverbanks as we traveled towards our final destination, the Dall River.
The Dall flows into the Yukon from the north a few miles downstream of the small community of Stevens Village. As with many other tributaries of the Yukon, an abundant number of pike are present near the confluence and further up the narrow, clear-running Dall since it provides ideal habitat for the fish to thrive.
JR ENTHUSIASTICALLY POINTED OUT the Dall. “There’s the river!” he shouted over the noise of the outboard. He eased up on the throttle, turning us from the stained Yukon towards the mouth of the Dall. As the boat glided through the confluence, we passed over a distinct silt line, which marked and created a separation of the two bodies of water.
The clear water of the Dall mixed with the dirty and turbulent Yukon not only provides a natural boundary; it is also a great location to catch fish because pike suspend near the silt line waiting for easy meals exiting the murky Yukon.
We anchored the boat near the confluence, perfect for casting past the silt line and swimming lures back into the clear tributary to imitate prey fish. With the vessel secured, all of us could safely stand and cast our lines from the platform the boat provided. Fishing at the river mouth was almost automatic; just about everything we threw in the direction of the silt line produced a catch.
My first cast enticed an aggressive northern that went just over 2 feet in length. JR and Joe managed to hook up immediately also, each catching some very respectable fish. JR harnessed a very nice pike that pushed close to 3 feet long and weighed well over 10 pounds.
Action eventually slowed down and we repositioned the boat to locate fresh takers. The process of maneuvering the boat to locate a fresh bite was simply repeated as the catching dictated. My fishing highlight on the trip was a sheefish, a rare catch. A member of the whitefish family, the meat is similar to the flavor of Pacific halibut – I was quick to dispatch the tasty fish for harvest.
FISHING AT THE DALL River was rewardingly fun, living up to all the hype. We were fortunate to have great weather and catch many northern pike on the short one-day adventure. As we pulled anchor to head back to the bridge, I appreciated the moment and thought about how these good times solidify my decision to remain rooted in the Interior.
Yes, the turn-and-burn fishing excursion from Fairbanks to the Yukon River had depleted my energy level by the time we returned to the Golden Heart City. But being exhausted was only a temporary condition; memories of the unique outing would definitely outlast the fatigue.
Taking a scenic road trip 150 miles north along the famous Haul Road and navigating Alaska’s iconic Yukon River for sport fishing in a single day reminds me of how lucky I am to live smack in the middle of the Great Land.
Freshly cooked sheefish has a particular way of recharging one’s battery rather quickly too! ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Dennis Musgraves’ adventures fishing the Last Frontier, check out alaskansalmonslayers.com.