Heavily Palmered Flies & the Skate

Heavily Palmered Flies & the Skate

By G.B. Barnard IV

The Arctic grayling (Thymallus Arcticus (Pallus)) is a marvelous fish.  While the majority of Alaska predators key themselves directly around the nutritious annual salmon runs the grayling seems unimpressed.  They find, in fact, a great deal of solace with everything at their disposal, especially the creatures living in a river or lake throughout the year.  Yes, seasonal meals do sometimes include salmon eggs but one not so prophetic fact exists:  Grayling love to eat bugs.  It is one of the many supplements they thrive on, chiefly since the Arctic grayling has evolved into a disposition that leaves it competing for every last morsel granted after the trout, char, and dollies have had their fill.  Fortunately, the grayling’s adaptive nature lends itself an integral component of the cold fisheries and it will continue to thrive in the food slot it has been given.

There are two huge draws to grayling in regards to this avid fly rodder.  For one, grayling fishing has taken me to the cleanest, most beautiful rivers and streams I have ever known.  The fish won’t have it any other way.  In fact, the grayling can only survive in the least polluted, cold rivers of the world which explains their decline and, in some cases extinction, in watersheds of the lower 48.  They also carry a unique characteristic in that a grayling handles low levels of dissolved oxygen in locales where many other fish could not survive.  They have found their notch in these watersheds, and thus, countless fishermen have been fortunate enough to experience incomparable angling at some amazing, remote locales of the north.

The second, and admittedly favorite, attraction to the beautiful, iridescent grayling comes in the form of purist dry fly fishing.  The Arctic grayling will hit, no rather attack, dry flies all summer long inAlaskaand any angler enamored with watching a fish’s take cannot ignore this fact.  They are said to be so opportunistic towards dry flies that if one beats the water enough times with the same fly, the grayling will eventually think a hatch is taking place.  Although this myth does hold a shred of evidential support the fish aren’t that naïve…at least not the larger ones.  It is an absolute fact, though, that the Arctic grayling are often looking to the surface for food and can be enticed by a number of different dry flies on any given day.

Pressing further into the issue of dry flies and grayling, there happen to be a few things any fly fisherman can do to take the game to the next, more exciting, more visual level.  This all begins with enticing the fish to attack the fly with the most voracity one can hope it will relinquish.

Any fly fisherman can find a number of successful fly patterns to use on grayling.  Some of those flies will have the grayling leaping for the meal at times.  Other fly patterns will conjure soft, rolling takes.  And, even, some patterns will ensure the majority of strikes are barely visible, just mere inhalations occurring at the surface.  There is a grouping of dry flies, however, that work exceptionally well at attracting the opportunistic grayling upwards, above the waters film to attack the dry fly nearly each and every time.  These are the palmered dry flies of the world and they speak for themselves on any renowned grayling fishery across the state ofAlaskaand elsewhere.  Furthermore, if the fly happens to be heavily palmered and fished in the right fashion any grayling will be stimulated into one of the most visually stunning displays known in the angling world.


A palmered fly is named after the technique of dressing the body of the fly when it is being created.  Palmering is simply applying material to the body of a fly in a consistent displacement from tail to head or, otherwise, along the entire hook shank.  In terms of grayling fishing techniques discussed in this article, the palmered flies are the result of using small fibered feather material, such as hackle, to create a dry fly that floats well and imitates many of the natural adult flies present inAlaska.  A few examples of commonly fished palmered grayling dry flies are the elk hair caddis,Griffith’s gnat, and crackle-back.

For the purposes of grayling fishing I prefer heavily dressing my dry flies with hackle.  For a few patterns I will even opt to use longer than normal hackle on very small dry flies.  It has been found that these heavily palmered dry flies present the profile and appeal that the fish truly respond to.  If one cares to watch grayling expend their all just for a chance at a scanty meal, one must try throwing a heavily palmered fly.


When many natural adult flies, be it caddis or other types, move along a river they will often hover just above the water’s surface.  This is especially true if the adults are laying eggs in the water.  A heavily palmered fly imitates this hovering aspect because it sits high in the water, often just resting on the tips of the hackle fibers.  This makes the fly’s profile look incredibly natural to any fish, especially the grayling which are always up for a buggy meal.  The heavily palmered fly sits so high and is made in such a way that one rarely needs anything but a swift false cast to ensure it doesn’t lose its ability to float.  One can usually just leave the “gink” at home.

Also, because the heavily palmered fly possesses such a “high riding” temperament it only seems logical that nearly every strike must be an aerial take.  The fly sits too high in the water for most any other strike to occur.  In fact, as opposed to any other type of dry fly, the grayling will often jump in the air and take the palmered fly while heading down towards the water after inspecting it from two different angles.  This can be an experience grayling fisherman have witnessed with many other types of flies but not nearly to the extent one will find with the heavily palmered variety.  I may be able to conclude why the fish behaves in this manner but the whole process may forever leave me in awe.  It can be compared to those people who stare at airplanes throughout their lives and wonder how they fly no matter how much physics is known or how many times the spectacle is seen.  Some of those same thoughts go through my head each time I watch a grayling jump over my palmered dry only to suck it in after a few angles of inspection.

Finally, despite the fact that heavily palmered flies carry obvious attributes as to why grayling consume them so readily, there is one final characteristic of the fly that makes it a prime candidate for targeting the Arctic grayling.  The palmered dry fly is, perhaps, the perfect small dry to use when executing the act of moving a lure across the surface of the water.  The technique, termed skating, is one known to attract even the most closed-mouthed grayling transform into a feeding state of mind.


A dead-drifted fly will catch grayling, no doubt, but not as efficiently as if it were moves during the drift.  As stated earlier, natural adult flies are often present on a watershed and will come in contact with the surface at times while flying.  Flies have a built in instinct, on rivers, in that they prefer skimming the water’s surface, to lay eggs, while flying in the upstream direction.  Accordingly, a natural fly that is stuck in the river’s film will attempt to swim in an upstream direction while searching for the shoreline or other structure to ground itself.  For any animal in a river, including flying insects, traveling with the current, be it in a skimming or swimming fashion, will hinder its maneuverability.  The heavily palmered fly can copy the habits of a natural insect skimming the water’s surface, or just struggling to survive, through the technique of skating.

Skating a dry fly is a simple technique of moving the fly against the current thus creating a V-wake and a natural swing.  The proper skating technique is for the angler to cast out the fly in a direction approximately 30 to 45 degrees downstream of his or her stationary position.  As the current pulls on the line the fly will move, thus creating the V-wake.  If one is using a high floating fly, such as the heavily palmered variety, the dry will actually “skate” along the surface film and thus catch the fish’s attention as that of the real thing.  As the drift continues the fly will swing back to a point just downstream of the fly fisherman.  An obvious, visual strike will hopefully occur at some point during this whole process and it is important that the angler gives the fish an extra half second before lifting up to set the hook.  If not, many fish won’t be properly hooked and will get away.

The technique of skating, however easy it is to execute, has a couple issues often overlooked by beginning anglers.  For one, if, when the fly begins its movement, the line drags it down current the fly is likely to sink.  To correct this issue, which is most prevalent on rivers with many current eddies, the fly fisherman should throw an upstream mend just after the dry fly contacts the water.

The other issue in skating flies, that often adheres itself to the novice, is one of heading into the next cast prematurely.  I cannot stress the many, many times the grayling strike comes just as the angler pulls the fly out of the water in search of the next cast.  Sometimes, to a grayling, the fly summons attention as it swings but doesn’t look natural enough until it quarters itself in a directly upstream fashion.  A rule of thumb, to ensure the fly is in the water long enough, is to wait and count to five just when one thinks it is time to cast again.  An angler will be surprised at how many fish are caught during the count of two, three, or four.

Skating is a preference for grayling solely because it seems to work a little better than dead-drifting dries.  Of course there are always exceptions but many grayling may overlook the dead-drifted fly because it isn’t as appealing as a fly that seems to be struggling.  The skated fly produces somewhat of a beacon for the fish.  It will certainly garner a reaction from some of the most dormant grayling.  Combine the technique of skating with its obvious, natural looking counterpart, the heavily palmered dry, and any Alaskan angler is certain to have a productive and exciting fishing day on their favorite grayling fishery.


There are many palmered flies on the market as well as an uncountable number of successful grayling flies. Alaskafishermen typically find most dry fly success by targeting grayling with caddis, gnat, Adams, Wulff, humpy, and terrestrial patterns.  The following palmered examples are alterations of some of these patterns and have been found to produce exceptional results throughout the state where grayling are present.

The “Kranmer-gade,” fly, a combination of the “humpy” and “renegade,” is a creation by the late Harold Kranmer ofMissouri.  Harold spent more than my lifetime fishing greatAlaskaand often put years into his flies to perfect his favorite sport of fly fishing.  This fly, one perfect for streams with plentiful caddis, remained his favorite grayling fly followed closely by the “crackle-back.”

Hook   –           size 10-16

Tail      –           Deer body hair (stacked)

Hackle –           Grizzly & Coachman Brown

Body    –           peacock herl, Deer body hair

The heavily-palmered “Griffith’s Gnat.”  TheGriffith’s Gnat, in very similar form to the Bivisible, is one of the most productive flies for targeting grayling.  I prefer fishing this fly later in the summer when the nasty white socks make their presence known.  The long fiber hackles are what set this particular pattern apart from a standardGriffith’s Gnat.

Hook   –           size 12-20

Body    –           Peacock Herl

Hackle –           Grizzly (fibers at 2X hook gap length)

In conclusion, grayling aren’t known for their focus on detail.  I could likely list off hundreds of patterns I’ve personally witnessed work.  Some flies are exceptional while others can trick a few fish.  I have yet to find, however, as exciting response from the grayling as I get when throwing my 3-4 weight, armed with a heavily palmered fly, down river and watch the fish literally launch themselves towards the hook.  It is incomparable to any other type of fishing and a well worth pursuit of your time.


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