'A fish like no other'

August 25, 2010 

You'll find it among fishing books at bookstores. But Cecilia "Pudge" Kleinkauf's third fishing title, "Fly-Fishing For Alaska's Arctic Grayling -- Sailfish of the North" (Frank Amato Publications, $19.95) is more an ode to a fish that reaches trophy status at three pounds than any run-of-the-mill how-to fishing book.

And Kleinkauf's piscatorial passion need not take a back seat to the love sonnets of William Shakespeare.

"An astonishingly gorgeous creature, willing to take your fly almost endlessly, the Arctic grayling is a fish like no other," Kleinkauf writes.

"Many revere them as the most beautiful (fish). Those gleaming eyes and the exquisite dorsal fin combine to create an unbelievably lovely fish," she adds later.

"It is the wondrous dorsal fin ... like the fan of a beautiful woman at a masquerade ... that distinguishes Arctic grayling."

And while Kleinkauf spares no adjective in her adorations, she wisely infuses decades of fishing background with the expertise of her consultant Andrew Gryska, the Fairbanks-based fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

At the same time, Michael DeYoung's spectacular photographs visually communicate the joy of grayling fishing.

"I've written two other books, but all the time the book I really wanted to write was on grayling," Kleinkauf said between guiding trips this summer. "I've been in Alaska 41 years and it's about that long I've been in love with grayling."

Kleinkauf has owned and operated her guiding and instruction business, Women's Flyfishing, for 24 years and may have taught more Alaskans to fly fish than any other person. She's a member of the pro staffs of Ross Reels, Patagonia and Scientific Angler.

Both of her previous books, "Fly Fishing Women Explore Alaska" in 2003 and "River Girls: Fly Fishing for Young Women" three years later, earned Benjamin Franklin awards, which go to the best in independent publishing. Both came in the contest's recreation/sports category, one of 54 categories awarded.

And while grayling anglers represent a sliver of the fishing population, there are indications Kleinkauf's book is catching on.

More than 1,000 have been sold, said Lorraine Guelker, who works for Frank Amato Publications. Mountain View Sports in Midtown Anchorage sold out of its first shipment.

Kleinkauf's book describes grayling fishing across the state, from Bristol Bay to the North Slope. She has fished with neophytes as well as celebrities, including longtime grayling pursuer Peter Cockwill of Great Britain, who caught a 5-pound, 1-ounce grayling on Seward Peninsula's Fish River four years ago to set the Alaska state record with a fish that biologists believe to be at least 30 years old.

"I dabble in everything," Kleinkauf said. "But grayling are clearly my favorite. They have to have the coldest and purest possible water, and that makes them kind of the canary in the coal mine that first signals a problem with the environment."

What does she like most about such a tiny fish that thrives in a state where anglers boast about our beefy world-record king salmon (97 pounds) and halibut (459 pounds)? Let her count the ways:

• "First, there's absolutely nothing more beautiful that swims," she said. "The colors will absolutely knock your socks off."

• "They're my favorite dry fly fish. Even though some people think they're a pushover on a fly, they're not."

• "But what really makes me adore them, they're my favorite fish to teach people fly fishing. You can make all kinds of mistakes and they won't leave. They'll keep rising until us stupid humans get it right. And once you get it right, grayling will take your fly."

But first, you've got to locate them. The Interior road system is often productive and the Tangle Lakes area is popular in the fall. Big grayling come out of the Northwest along the Seward Peninsula. Water that's pure and less than 60 degrees is essential.

As the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says in its Wildlife Notebook Series, "The tendency of grayling to eat almost anything endears them to the angling public." And that, in Kleinkauf's view, made it high time for the first North American book devoted to grayling.

"Early on, it really made me angry," she said of the absence of such a book for years on end. "Every other fish has a book of its own. There's got to be a hundred bazillion fishing books out there."

And now, there's one on grayling. Perhaps having a species to yourself is the rarest feat of all.


State fishery biologists are trying this summer to get a better handle on the grayling population at Symphony Lake above Eagle River, where fish were stocked in 2001 and 2003.

"Fish and Game's largest grayling management issue is the difficulty of keeping larger fish (over 12 inches) in the population for procreation," Kleinkauf writes. "When anglers take the spawners out of the gene pool, the population suffers."

Earlier this year, a team from Fish and Game captured and marked 240 grayling over four days at Symphony Lake, which sits at an elevation of 2,687 feet and requires an 11-mile round-trip hike from the trail head.

Soon, biologists will return. How many marked grayling they recapture and how big those fish have become will provide a better understanding of the lake's population.

"Just from talking to people, we thought fishing pressure was pretty high last year," said Fish and Game area management biologist Dan Bosch. "This year was not as strong."

In April, Fish and Game issued an emergency order closing Symphony Lake to grayling anglers through July 1 to protect spawners while, at the same time, reducing the bag limit.

"They are extremely vulnerable to overfishing," Klienkauf writes.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

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