In Search of the Holy Grayling

By Darryl Quidort

Of the various fish I’ve caught with a fly rod, grayling are my favorite.  It’s not the difficulty of the endeavor, the fishing skill required or the great fighting ability of the grayling that draws me to them.  The pleasure they have given me comes from the beautiful places their pursuit has taken me and the wonderful adventures they have led me on.

My first grayling rose to a #16 black gnat over 25 years ago.  I was borrowing fishing time from a family vacation to Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park area.  For two days I flogged the surface of a beautiful alpine lake with various artificial flies.  Trout I caught, but the grayling eluded me.  On the afternoon of the second day I noticed tiny rise rings on the surface near a patch of shoreline willows.  After carefully sneaking through the brush, as if I were stalking a wary elk, I sat down to watch.  An offshore breeze was blowing small black flies from the willow patch out onto the lake.  Cruising fish were gently taking the tiny flies from the surface film.  Looking through my supply of dry flies, I found a near match that my dad had tied for me just before the trip.  The artificial matched so well that I would lose track of it when floating among the naturals.  After several attempts, my cast was timed perfectly and the little fly laid down softly, two feet in front of a cruising fish.  A 13-inch grayling sucked in my fly, and I’ve been hooked on grayling ever since.

Grayling are to me what trout were to Robert Traver when he wrote, “I fish mainly because I love the environs where trout are found…and further because I happen to dislike the environs where crowds of men are found.” 

To me grayling are closely linked with the untamed North, the clear, clean water of alpine lakes and unspoiled wilderness settings.  A grayling, fresh from the ice-cold water, is a delicate, almost exotic fish.  Their great sail-like dorsal fin, fine black spots and iridescent purple or bluish sheen gives them a rare beauty.  In areas where they are abundant, it’s hard to believe they are a fragile fish.  But they can be just as fragile as the pristine wilderness they live in.  Grayling are so precious that they are measured in inches, not pounds like other, coarser fish.

Michigan, my home state, has a rich history of grayling, including a town on the famous Au Sable River named after them.  Sadly, the grayling is now on the list of Michigan’s extinct species.

A century and a half ago, north Michigan streams literally teemed with a species of grayling which had been isolated from the main Arctic populations by glacial activity long before.  Accounts from the mid 1800s tell of people harvesting them by the basketfuls and hauling them home by the wagonload.  It was said that grayling, “lay like cordwood in the Au Sable.”  Lore has it that anglers could catch three fish with each cast.

Although over-fishing may have contributed to the grayling’s demise, some argue that the Michigan grayling was doomed anyway.  The major cause of the species downfall was the logging of the state’s vast pine forests in the late 1800s.  The pristine streams were the “highways” used to deliver the logs to the mills.   Huge log jams scoured the stream beds each spring, destroying the grayling’s spawning areas.  Without essential shade from the riverside pines, many of the streams became too warm in summer to support the fish.  The Michigan grayling soon disappeared.

Although several attempts have been made to reestablish the fish in Michigan waters, all have failed.   The last attempt, in the mid 1980s, did allow me to catch a grayling in my home state. 

My son and I were fishing an isolated stretch of the Manistee River.  A place that certainly was home to Michigan grayling in days gone by.  In a chute of rapids below a large beaver dam I could see the “splat” of surface feeding fish.  Although I could see no insects on the water, I tied on a small mosquito imitation to see what might happen.  I waddled up to the stream on my knees in an effort to keep a low profile.  After working out a short length of the five weight line, I laid the little fly at the upper end of the chute.  On the very first drift a fish eagerly grabbed my fly.  To my surprise it was a small grayling.  My boy came running over to see what all the excitement was about.  When he saw the skinny, gray, eight inch long fish laying in my net he looked up at me and laughed out loud.  “But it’s a grayling!” I repeated.  I guess the fact bore no historical significance to a ten-year-old.

As my son grew up our fishing trips were expanded to include trout fishing in the mountainous western states.  On each trip I also searched the high country for grayling. 

On one grueling backpacking trip into a designated wilderness area, we experienced some great trout fishing in the crystal clear, ice cold, alpine lakes.  I was happy to also find the grayling that a Wyoming fisheries biologist had reluctantly admitted were there.  At the time the Wyoming state record grayling was only about fifteen inches long.  We may have actually broken the record with grayling we caught and released that afternoon.  Lying in our sleeping bags in the little backpacker’s tent that night, I tried to impress on my son what a great day of fishing we had just enjoyed together.  “I’m glad to be here with you, Dad.” he replied.  In the darkness he couldn’t see my smile.  “But, I still don’t see why you like grayling so much.” 

Alaska is certainly one of the last great strongholds for a healthy population of this wonderful fish.  Although, I don’t find many Alaskans who will help me defend the species, it is the best place ever for grayling fishing.  Yes, they pale when compared to the showy rainbow trout or powerful king salmon, but to me they remain a precious, exotic fish that I love to pursue.  It is always a good day when I catch grayling. 

Arctic grayling may be the best fishing opportunity for the visitor, vacationing in Alaska, because they can be accessed right from the road system.  Boats, motors and specialized fishing equipment aren’t needed to catch grayling.  They will respond eagerly to even the simplest fishing equipment.   Also, grayling can be available all summer, so there is no need to time the runs as in salmon fishing.  On my trips to the GreatLand, I’ve enjoyed good grayling fishing in many lakes and streams within walking distance ofAlaska’s main highways.

There is a little mystery involved in the Arctic grayling though.  They can be hard to keep track of.   I’m told that in winter they seek deep water in lakes or larger rivers.  Come spring they migrate, sometimes for many miles, to their spawning areas.  They will spend the summer in any area where the food situation is to their liking.  Hungry grayling eat mostly aquatic insects, both below and on the water’s surface.  They will also feed heavily on fish eggs when the various species of salmon are spawning.  Often grayling are found in groups of similar sized fish.  Other times the largest grayling in the pool will take your fly first, followed in succession by gradually smaller fish.

While traveling the Denali Highway one spring, I stopped to explore some distant beaver ponds I’d spotted from the road.  The hike in was harder than it appeared.  Thick, chest high willows hid knee high sod hummocks from sight, causing me to trip over them.  Swarms of mosquitoes rose around me as I walked.  By the time I reached the ponds I was soaked in sweat.  But it didn’t matter, because to my joy the stream between the beaver ponds was full of grayling. 

The proper way to fish grayling is with a light fly rod and small dry flies or nymphs.  That day they were taking dries.  My father was an accomplished tier of flies.  I never needed to learn the art because he was always happy to keep me well supplied with his excellent imitations.  Dad is gone from this earth now, but my fly box is still filled with his creations.  I carefully tied a #14 Adams to the tippet and began what was to become a forty fish afternoon.  Time after time a nice grayling would eagerly suck in my offering, barely making a dimple on the water’s smooth surface.  The day was a dry fly fishing lesson.  Generally, grayling aren’t fussy eaters, but a poor cast or dragging drift never got a strike that day.  A proper presentation and flawless drift resulted in fish after fish.  The more ragged my fly became, the better they seemed to like it.  Dad would have been pleased.  Memorable days of fishing like that one don’t come often enough.  Not for me anyway.

Two years later, when I returned to the same area hoping for a repeat of that wonderful day, I found the little stream completely void of fish.  Grayling are like that.  I never take them for granted.

Last year, in early June, I found the ice just going out on a mountain lake in the Chugach Range.  The remaining ice would shift around in the middle of the lake wherever the wind moved it.  Grayling could be seen cruising the shallows between the floating ice and the rocky shore.  There were no insects present and the fish wouldn’t touch a dry fly.  Searching through my nymph box, a greenish-yellow fly caught my eye.  I could just hear dad saying, “This could be just the ticket sometime.”  The first quick, stripping retrieve resulted in a solid strike.  The fly was “just the ticket” that evening.  

The big, silvery fish were dressed in their spawning colors with blue and purple highlights on their fins.  Grayling are generally not large fish.  The Alaska state record is a 23 inch, 4 pound, 13 ounce fish, caught many years ago at Ugashik Lake.  That evening, as I fished alone, I reset my personal record for “biggest grayling ever” more than once.  Sixteen to 19-inch fish were not uncommon that night. 

There is just no place on earth like Alaska.  A bald eagle, perched on a rocky outcrop above the lake, watched me as I fished.  As Alaska’s long, June twilight deepened, a thin fog descended down the valley from the snowfield above, bringing with it a light mist.  I was actually grayling fishing in the clouds!  Intent on my fishing, I lost track of time.  At some point I noticed that the eagle was gone.  Sometimes it’s good to be alone.

A good cast dropped the fly at the very edge of the floating ice with a light plop.  After only two or three strips of the retrieve there was a solid strike.  I raised the rod tip and knew immediately that it was a big fish.  Grayling are not great fighters but this one put up a respectable struggle.  I was pleasantly surprised at the weight when I finally lifted the big male in the net and surprised again by the girth of the fish as I carefully grasped him to remove the fly.  I then released the fish unharmed. 

After he swam out of sight I stood there, with a smile on my face, thoughtfully watching the spot where he had disappeared.  I had taken no measurements or photos of the big grayling.  I didn’t need to.  I caught that fish for my own pleasure and the precious memories of Alaska it gave me, not to compare him to any record or someone else’s trophy standards.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

I know that I may never catch another grayling of that size.  I guess I really don’t need to.  You see, on that unforgettable evening, fishing alone in the rain through Alaska’s long magical twilight, it wasn’t really fish I was after.

Back to Fairbanks Area Pages