Without a doubt, the most distinctive characteristic of Arctic grayling is the large, sail-shaped dorsal fin that has come to signify the fish for so many. If the fish has another signature characteristic, it’s that the species is so at home, and abundant, in the far northern waters of interior Alaska. In fact, for many anglers, no other fish represents the north so completely as the Arctic grayling.
Though an opportunistic feeder like most salmon, trout and char, the grayling is chiefly an insectivore, for the most part feeding on aquatic and terrestrial insects on or near the water’s surface in both streams and the shallow areas of lakes. This makes it a popular fish for traditional fly anglers. Alaska populations sharing watersheds with the state’s anadromous salmon species will also eagerly devour both the eggs and the juvenile salmon that eventually wiggle free of the substrate. And grayling eat all the time. Still, even with the most abundant sources of food, they rarely reach anything most would consider great size for a gamefish. Studies have shown that a 12-inch fish might already have reached five- or six years of age, while a 19-inch trophy grayling is probably ten years-old or even older.
Although seasonal timing is not as important for the grayling angler, there are still preferred times of the year, and fishing methods will differ from season to season and area to area. Just after ice-out, those targeting spawning congregations can have nonstop action. Even before the ice has completely left a clearwater stream, in fact, grayling will be concentrated near the mouth, awaiting an opportunity to ascend to their spawning grounds. In many areas, there can be thousands of fish in a short section of water. Small size 8 or 10 streamers work well during this early time of the year, especially those that imitate juvenile salmon in watersheds that also contain out-migrating smolt. And even though there usually won’t be much insect activity during the early Alaska spring, general attractor patterns like Humpies and Royal Wulffs skated across the surface can bring good results.
Late June through early August present anglers with the most sunlight of the Alaska year. It’s also the time of greatest insect activity on the streams of the state. After spawning, grayling will migrate to their summer feeding grounds, usually in small clearwater streams or springs near the headwaters of large river systems. And although Alaska’s hatches can be sporadic, depending greatly on relative humidity and temperatures, anglers will encounter the very best dry-fly fishing of the year during these few months, especially in the evenings. Grayling do not, however, take the heat well. They’ll generally flee areas where the additional sunlight and the nature of the streams combine to substantially increase water temperatures. Good spots to begin looking for summer congregations of fish are near the outlets and tributary streams of clear alpine lakes and in the inland waters of the Interior. In many watersheds it can be truly difficult to find any clear-flowing water without at least a few fish present.
Probably the best time to tangle with grayling, though, is the early fall, from September through October in most areas. The fish will be in prime shape, especially in systems where they’ve had a chance to feed on salmon eggs, and with the falling temperatures, they’ll be very aggressive towards most any fly drifted in their vicinity. Nymphs and wet flies will generate fast and furious action, and in the right drainages, egg imitations can be deadly. Historically, the week before freeze-up is even better, as grayling become reckless feeders the closer to winter the year moves. The fish are usually highly concentrated again before freeze-up, as by October they will have begun migrating back towards their overwintering areas, mostly lower stream sections with deep water. There is still some chance of encountering surface activity during the warmer parts of the day, too, but again, nymphs, wet flies, and subsurface streamer presentations will undoubtedly garner the most strikes. In lakes, the areas near shorelines will be most productive during the early morning and evenings, as the grayling move in towards the generally greater insect activity that takes place near lake margins during these times of day.
Grayling are distributed throughout the entire Yukon drainage, from extreme headwaters in Canada to streams that terminate in the Yukon Delta. Sport fishing for the species is likewise widespread. Historically, most of the attention has been focused on the middle section of the Yukon River system, between the mouth of the Porcupine River downstream to the Koyukuk River. Tributaries like the sprawling Melozitna River and the Wild and Scenic Nowitna system offer good opportunities for the species, though access is always a challenge when the Yukon is part of the conversation. Another tributary, the Anvik River in the lower Yukon area, has also been a consistent grayling producer, with much of its fishing accessed via a lodge located on the upper river.
Basically, in the Yukon system, as in most of the rest of interior Alaska, drainages without good Arctic grayling opportunities are more difficult to find than a stream chock full of eager fish. For much of the region, ADF&G assessments of population densities are significantly higher than most other Alaska streams. In fact, many Interior streams contain grayling populations of more than 500 fish per mile of water.
One such big producer also happens to support Alaska’s second largest grayling sport fishery. The Gulkana River, which originates in the Alaska Range and flows approximately 96 miles to its confluence with the Copper River, provides plentiful bank, float and powerboat fishing opportunities for anglers. Both the greatest catch and harvest of Arctic grayling from the river typically occurs in the mainstem portion, which flows about 45 miles from the outlet of Paxson Lake to the Sourdough campground. Generally, adult summer residents of the mainstem Gulkana spawn in tributary creeks, such as Poplar Grove and Sourdough creeks, and are available to anglers near these tributary mouths and others in the early spring. For the most part, the fish then distribute themselves in the Gulkana River after spawning, according to size. Larger and older fish will take up feeding stations n the upper reaches of the river, while the smaller and younger fish accept banishment to lower reaches near Sourdough.
Another of interior Alaska’s most heavily fished grayling populations occurs in tributaries to the glacially occluded Tanana River. The Goodpaster River, a clearwater rapid runoff stream, may offer the most sustained opportunity of these, for Arctic grayling will use the Goodpaster for spawning in the spring and then retreat to other Tanana tributaries for summer feeding. Then again in the fall the grayling migrate back to the Goodpaster for overwintering purposes. The river maintains its own summer stock as well, making the fishery viable from ice-out in May through freeze-up in October. According to ADF&G sampling, the grayling feeding in the Goodpaster River throughout the summer are situated in hierarchal strata much like the grayling in other parts of the state. Juveniles and sub-adults tend to occupy the lower 33 miles of the Goodpaster, while a mixture of all fish sizes can be found in the middle stretches of the drainage between the confluences with the South Fork Goodpaster River and Central Creek. Typically, the river above Central Creek plays summer pasture for the larger adults only.
Of the streams that Tanana drainage grayling migrate to for their summer feeding, the Delta Clearwater River is the most significant, and not surprisingly, the Goodpaster River contributes the greatest portion of the fish that migrate there after spawning, up to 60% of the total summer population. In all, it’s believed that Arctic grayling from eight different spawning streams spend their summers in the Delta Clearwater, the largest of several spring-fed tributaries to the Tanana. Good grayling fishing occurs throughout the summer, though low relative humidity can make the insect hatches rather random.
If an interior Alaska grayling fishery rivals the Gulkana for popularity, it occurs in the Tangle Lakes system, an interconnected lake-stream drainage located just west of Paxson on the Denali Highway. Though road accessible, the fact that grayling are the primary sport fish of the area means only moderate angling pressure occurs even at peak times. Tangle Lakes visitors are also assured they’ll encounter a real wilderness character, stunning scenery, and quite often, excellent fly-fishing potential. Prior to 1953 the Tangle system was inaccessible by road, and predictably, the region received little attention. Since then, the most directed effort has been expended on Upper and Round Tangle lakes and the interconnecting Tangle River, where a pair of BLM campgrounds are located. There are a dozen major lakes in the system, however, and fly fishers willing to do a little paddling or hiking can easily escape any crowds.
The grayling of the system are highly mobile and migrate throughout the lakes and their interconnected streams to meet their reproductive, feeding, and overwintering needs. Currently, a total of 17 distinct spawning populations have been documented. For the most part, these concentrations of fish will move together to common summer feeding locations, though the proportion of the groups as a whole that remain together varies some depending on the spawning population. In the fall before ice-up, the grayling migrate back towards the larger lakes like Landmark Gap (the largest in the entire system) where they’ll overwinter. Open water season in the Tangle Lakes system is usually from early June through the middle of October, with fly anglers able to target feeding fish the whole time. Inlets, outlets, and thoroughfares between the lakes provide prime hunting grounds, as do some shallow areas in the lakes’ littoral zones where insect activity may peak, typically early in the morning or in the later evening hours.