All About Arctic Grayling

Tom Klein

If fish were people, northern pike would be an Arnold Schwarzenegger—muscular, aggressive and not particularly good looking. Arctic grayling on the other hand would be a Natalie Portman—delicate, sleek and yes, quite good looking.

Most of our Scott Lake anglers want to spend all their time with Arnold, the beast, and ignore Natalie, the beauty. The grayling is severely underappreciated. That’s a shame. With its overall bluish/sliver coloration including a dash of pink/purple iridescence along its back and with the dramatically high dorsal fin, the grayling (Thymallus arcticus, a member of the Salmonidae family) is a feast for any angler’s eyes. Behind that beauty though lies a fighter. For its size it’s a fighting machine with acrobatic grace. And how many fifteen inch pike have ever got anyone excited? Matched with the proper tackle, a four weight fly rod or a five foot ultralight spinning rod, grayling are exciting fish. And no fish defines the North like our miniature sailfish. While pike and lake trout are found way, way south of Scott Lake’s environs, grayling don’t do south: they are an icon of the far north. They need the cold, clear water of the north, preferring water temps in the 50s but tolerating it in the 60s. They can’t survive in even mildly contaminated water which is why they have disappeared from nearly all of their native lower 48 habitats like northern Michigan. But they are doing well in the real north country: Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Alaska and the northern halves of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba on this side of the world and in Sweden, Norway, Finland and northern Russia, especially Siberia, on the other side. The Brits by the way love grayling and many journey to grayling lodges in northern Scandinavia. (Grayling are appreciated somewhere anyway.)

Scott grayling

Photograph by Matt Peters

It is a size problem. Living in the same neighborhood as fifty pound lake trout and thirty pound pike is a challenge for angler’s perceptions. Grayling just don’t get very big. Though a literature search will reference grayling of over eight pounds, the official world record according to the International Game Fish Association is a five pound, fifteen ounce fish caught in the NWT. Alaska lists a record grayling of four pounds, thirteen ounces and Saskatchewan lists their record as four pounds, five ounces. Saskatchewan also documents a “live release” record of twenty-two inches on the Grease River, the same river that plunges over Lefty Falls, the favored grayling fly out destination of Scott Lake Lodge. The grayling in our neighborhood get very close to that twenty-two inch mark. Over the years at Scott, there have been quite a few landed at the twenty inch mark.

I have caught a few at or just over twenty on our fly outs but have seen bigger fish than that both at Lefty Falls and at the Elk River, a river over a hundred miles north of Scott. I did have an evening with huge grayling once that I consider my most satisfying fishing experience, ever. It was during a canoe trip down the Northwest Territory’s Coppermine River. Starting north of Great Bear Lake, my wife Pat and I with a group of eight other canoeists (but no other anglers) paddled all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Somewhere in between we camped at a bend in the Coppermine River. It was a dead calm evening with a massive caddis hatch. The river was alive with rising grayling and they were all big. For perhaps three hours, long after midnight but still with the surreal light of the arctic “night”, I caught grayling after grayling, many in the twenty inch range, and some well over. It was too perfect an experience—a once in a lifetime– to sully it with a measuring tape or a counter. It was just perfect the way it happened.

It’s at spawning time when the biological reasons for that huge dorsal fin become apparent.

In the far, far north, above the treeline, grayling do get bigger and heavier for one good reason—bugs, bugs of Biblical import. Insane levels of bugs simply build big grayling. They go together. Around Scott we don’t have bugs like that but we still have wonderful grayling fishing. There are often on our waters “frenzies” like the one I had on the Coppermine. Grayling need those feeding spurts to prepare for long winters with essentially no food.

Happy young grayling angler

Like their cousins, the trout, grayling drift into the deepest pools they can find for their winter rest, finding only a few insect larvae to hold them over until spring when they spawn. Spawning occurs in sandy, shallow areas of rivers right after ice out. Most spawning grayling are four to eight years old. Apparently an age of around twelve is the top end for the grayling life cycle, much less than the pike or lake trout living in the same region. It’s at spawning time when the biological reasons for that huge dorsal fin become apparent. The extra big fin, found only on the males, is used in threat displays against other males, as an attraction for females and for a more practical function: it can be folded over the female to hold her during spawning, about as romantic as any fish spawning can get. The female will deposit between 4,000 and 7,000 eggs but neither the female nor the male guards the eggs. Fortunately in most of their far northern habitats there are few if any crustaceans or many other bottom scavengers to suck up the eggs. As it has for thousands of years in the rivers of the far north, this system works. In all the rivers north of Scott there continues to be abundant grayling and they are a cooperative fish.

The euphemistic description that anglers, especially fly fisherman, give to easy-to-catch fish is “opportunistic”. Graying are that in the extreme. When they are ready to eat, they eat with abandon. They can make all of us feel like great anglers. For fly selection I have a hard rule: flies must either sink or float and be smaller than your thumbnail. Beyond that anything goes. I’ve caught grayling on far northern river trips on hopper patterns even though the nearest real grasshopper would be hundreds of miles south. Anything that vaguely resembles a bug will be a target or anything that looks like a small minnow: they eat meat, at least in small portions, as well as bugs. Frankly grayling will consume just about anything that can fit in their small, square mouth. Little spinners or spoons, small jigs or small plastics will all induce a strike. But this really is a fish designed for a small fly rod. And if it’s not in the middle of a cold front, it’s a crime not to use dry flies, just for the thrill of watching the take. Sometimes grayling will leap high out of the water and take the fly on the way down. Everyone misses a lot of those strikes but grayling are forgiving; they will take the fly on the next cast.

What more can one ask of a fish? They put on a show and add an interesting dimension to fishing in the far north.