Arctic Icons

By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.

Grayling have probably saved more trips than any other fish in Alaska. Let me count the ways… 

For two straight days, we’d had plenty to worry about other than fish. The stream had looked tight but manageable from the air, but we’d spent more time dragging the rafts through the shallows than floating. Low clouds had settled in shortly after our arrival, and when the rain later began to fall, it clearly meant not to sprinkle but to saturate. Despite our best efforts, all our gear was either soaking wet or headed that way rapidly. Welcome to southwest Alaska in August.

As we pitched our tents on our second night in the middle of nowhere, the ceiling began to lift, and an hour later we had our sleeping bags and most of our clothes spread out across the gravel bar to dry. Sunlight sparkled from the tundra, creating brilliant highlights upon a rich tableau of crimson and magenta. We’d come to hunt caribou, and for a moment I considered stringing my bow and heading as far up into the hills as my legs could carry me. But the stream, which had gathered force slowly beneath our rafts for the last twenty miles, kept calling, and in the end I chose my fly rod instead.

I knew the stream supported salmon runs, but over a hundred miles of fresh water separated us from the sea, affording plenty of places for inbound silvers to hide. In seasons past, I’d taken plenty of rainbows and Dollies from the creek’s lower reaches, so the apparent lack of salmon in the riffle just below camp didn’t really bother me. My principal intention was nothing more than to explore the water and sample what it held, a purpose no fly in Alaska serves as well as the Egg-Sucking Leech.

Appropriately rigged, I waded as far out into the current as my hip boots would allow and pitched the heavy fly into the slick running against the opposite bank. As my line drew tight and straightened downstream, I deliberately let the fly hesitate in the current, for no matter what the species of gamefish, that is often the moment at which a streamer is most likely to draw a strike. And sure enough…

The fish struck aggressively, but a few feet into its first run I realized it was too small for a silver salmon and not lively enough for a Bristol Bay rainbow. Guessing Dolly Varden, I played the fish conservatively, since we were already tired of freeze-dried food and it’s always risky to count on caribou steaks when you’re hunting with a longbow. But as I led my catch into the shallows, I realized the meal of pan-fried char I’d anticipated so eagerly would have to wait until another day.

For the fish proved to be an Arctic grayling. I don’t know why I felt so surprised, since grayling are one of the most widely distributed freshwater gamefish in Alaska and the cold, clear current in the upper reaches of the stream represented ideal grayling habitat. But I’d been busy expecting something else, and despite the number of times I’ve caught Alaska grayling more or less by accident, I still had to stop and take a careful look at what the water had served me.

Enough daylight remained to illuminate the fish’s flanks. As the grayling turned slowly back and forth against the sun’s dying rays, its coloration fluctuated between silver, bronze, and an eerie, iridescent lilac hue. The long dorsal fin—such a beautiful but apparently useless appendage—rose and fell rhythmically as the fish lay at my feet. (In fact, male grayling use their extendable dorsal fin to impress females and deter rivals during spawning displays). Robust and chunky, the fish was a large specimen for an Interior grayling, but I still had trouble imagining what it was thinking when it attacked my #4 Egg-Sucking Leech with its #12 mouth.

In the end, I opted for another night of dehydrated glop rather than sautéed grayling, and returned the fish to the stream. I suppose I found it too beautiful to kill, although I won’t pretend my principles would have stood up to another meal or two of mush reconstituted over an open fire. Besides, the grayling—the first of many that night, as it turns out—had already served a higher purpose just by reminding me where I was and why I’d come. Even more than salmon and caribou, that trip was about the spell of wild places, and few species speak to the enchantment of the Far North quite like the Arctic grayling.

The world’s four species of grayling enjoy a circumpolar distribution that closely parallels the historic range of the grizzly bear. In the course of my travels, I’ve caught them all the way from northern Canada to Siberia, but no place I know offers better grayling fishing than Alaska, where they are the state’s most widely distributed freshwater gamefish. From Prince William Sound to Bristol Bay all the way north to the Brooks Range, I’ve taken grayling on countless occasions, often when more glamorous species chose to stand me up.

Despite virtues ranging from beauty to abundance, grayling don’t enjoy a lot of respect among Alaskan anglers. Size is part of the problem. When you’re concentrating on forty-pound kings, it’s hard to get excited about foot-long fish. While grayling will strike lures with remarkable enthusiasm, they’re principally a fly rod quarry, and anglers intent on the technical challenges of matching the hatch may find themselves put out by the grayling’s willingness to hit almost anything.

Of course, the grayling’s lack of sophistication can be a virtue as well. A remarkable amount of my own grayling fishing has come secondary to the pursuit of other things, ranging from rainbows to ptarmigan to moose. On many of those outings, space constraints kept me from bringing along anything other than a skeleton fishing kit, usually a four-piece rod, a reel with one line, a packet of tippet material and a small box of basic fly patterns. Such minimal equipment options may not do much good in the face of king salmon or pike, but that’s all I’ve ever needed for grayling. In fact, on many wilderness trips I’ve caught enough grayling to feed camp on nothing but a length of mono leader, a non-descript fly, and a willow rod whittled at the streamside.

Because of their abundance, wide distribution, and naïveté, grayling often make a welcome addition to the menu on extended expeditions in the Bush. While I’m basically a catch-and-release angler, I believe those decisions should be made on the basis of biology rather than political correctness, and under suitable conditions fresh fish may make an ecologically prudent dinner option as well as a delicious one. Grayling freeze poorly—another good reason to limit your take—but prepared fresh at the streamside they can be quite tasty, especially if you’ve been living off freeze-dried food and canned goods for a week or two. Since their flesh tends to fall apart in a skillet, I prefer to wrap whole grayling in foil (along with butter, onion, salt, pepper, and any other appealing camp leftovers) and cook them slowly at the edge of the fire. No fuss, no muss… but a consistently savory result.

As noted, grayling don’t pose a lot of technical problems for the fly rod angler. Long casts are seldom necessary. Grayling are rarely leader shy, despite the clear waters they inhabit. And they will hit virtually any fly that’s ever caught an Alaska salmon or rainbow, even streamers that seem way too large to fit inside a grayling’s diminutive mouth.

But in contrast to most of Alaska’s freshwater game fish, grayling are primarily insectivorous, and no fish in the north rises as readily to surface hatches. Most Alaska fly-fishing takes place beneath the surface, but I’ve never completely escaped the notion that fish taken on dry flies are somehow more meaningful than all the rest. Leave it to the grayling to remind anglers like me of their top-water roots. If space allows, I always pack at least one small box of dry flies when I head into grayling country. Anything that floats will usually do (although I’ve occasionally been embarrassed by wilderness grayling rising to hatches as selectively as educated spring creek brown trout). Opportunities to take fish on dry flies don’t come along every day in Alaska, and should I encounter a stream full of rising grayling, I want to be prepared to enjoy the show.

Where to fish for Alaska grayling? They’re so widely distributed that it would be easier to list drainages that don’t contain them than those that do. Grayling prefer cold, clear current, which means they’re generally more abundant in the upper tributaries of major salmon streams than in their lower reaches, which can be a drawback if you are trying to catch grayling and salmon at the same time or an advantage if you are more interested in escaping salmon-obsessed crowds. Many smaller mountain streams and lakes in southcentral Alaska contain grayling that can be reached by a short hike from the road system, sparing the expense of flying out to remote water. While I have taken grayling throughout the state, there’s no doubt about where to head if you are interested in record-class fish. The Ugashik Narrows on the Alaska Peninsula consistently produces the largest grayling in the state.

Abundantly distributed across thousand of miles of inaccessible wilderness, the biologic status of Alaska’s grayling population seems secure at first glance. Grayling certainly draw nowhere near the management attention afforded commercially important species like salmon or premier sport fish like rainbows and steelhead. But history suggests the need to guard against complacency.

A little over a century ago, a unique species of grayling (Thymallus tricolor) thrived in northern Michigan. Within a decade or two of its discovery and promotion by the sporting press, the Michigan grayling succumbed completely to a combination of habitat degradation and gross over-fishing by visiting anglers who often left barrels of them rotting on the streamside. When I was learning to toss a fly on Montana’s mountain streams as a kid, we frequently caught grayling in waters such as the North Fork of the Bighole, but Montana grayling are now listed as an endangered species.

In fact, despite their apparently unlimited abundance in Alaska, grayling remain vulnerable. They thrive today because they inhabit tough places, not because they’re a tough fish. I’ve killed a few when I needed to, but only in remote waters that receive little or no fishing pressure. And I’ve always been careful to release the rest as delicately as possible. In light of the Michigan grayling’s tragic story, that seems the least an angler should expect to do.

High in the western foothills of the Alaska Range, the seasons have already begun their relentless advance. Yellowing willows etch the watercourses tumbling down the hillsides a brilliant gold. Ice tinkled inside the coffee pot this morning and even now, at midday, the sun fails utterly to warm the bones. For two days, I’ve been preoccupied with the bears in the high country behind camp and the promise of rutting bull moose in the hundred miles of river below. But now, it’s time to go fishing.

For reasons I’ve never really understood, no rainbows inhabit this drainage and the annual run of silver salmon still lies dozens of miles below. Absent these conventional glamour species, the long, steep hike down to the river might seem difficult to justify. But it’s been too long since my last cast to an Arctic grayling, and with two full weeks of bowhunting yet to come, I need some quiet time with a fly rod in my hand more than I need another hike uphill to the bears.

As I slide down the bank toward the first deep pool, a cloud of bugs settles over me and I reach instinctively for a bottle of repellant. But nothing whines and nothing bites, and I finally realize that I’ve stumbled right into a stonefly hatch. Congratulating myself for packing along a box of dry flies, I climb upon a conveniently located boulder and study the pool.

“Gin-clear water” is probably a cliché that angling writers should learn to lose, but in these circumstances the term seems fully justified. At its deepest point, the current runs a good fifteen feet below the surface, but every pebble on the bottom looks as distinct as if it were lying in my hand. Despite the remarkable visibility, at first glance the pool seems empty. But suddenly a pale green shape appears midway up the water column as if by magic. How grayling can hide so effectively in such clear water remains a mystery, but as soon as they start to feed it becomes apparent that the pool is teeming with fish. Picking out a fly more or less at random, I rig up, false cast, and lay the line into the head of the pool.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the process of a fish rising go on so long. The grayling lies deep in the current when I first realize it’s tracking my fly. Moving backwards languidly, its rate of closure seems measured in minutes. Finally a dimple appears on the surface with my fly at its epicenter and I quickly set the hook. Too quickly, as it turns out, and I should know better. Grayling are notorious for taking their time devouring flies, which often leads to premature strikes and inaccurate complaints about the species’ soft

Next time around, I’ve learned my lesson. The fish—quite likely the same one I struck at and missed with my first cast—has turned and headed back toward the bottom by the time I finally set the hook. It’s hard not to admit a little disappointment at what follows after the long anticipation of the rise. Nearly 17 inches in length, the fish is a nice-sized grayling… but it’s still a grayling. After a little head shaking and a lackluster ten-foot run, the catching part is over.

But I still get to appreciate the fish, a male, as revealed by the high profile of its splendid dorsal fin’s back half. For a moment, I admire its hues changing colors in the sunlight and then I return it to the stream where it belongs.

Grayling have fed me when I needed food and the nearest grocery store lay hundreds of miles away. They’ve let me feel the tug of fish against my line on days when the salmon I came for were nowhere to be found. Best of all, they’ve never failed to remind me of the northern wilderness I love, and in the process they’ve become an essential part of it.

###

E. Donnall Thomas, Jr. divides his time between homes in rural Montana and southeast Alaska.  The author of 12 books on the outdoors, he is currently finishing works on Labrador retrievers and worldwide bowhunting destinations. He contributes regularly to Fish Alaska.

Back to Fairbanks Area Pages