Native to many parts of Alaska, the Arctic Grayling is a member of the salmon family that is identifiable by a large sail-like dorsal fin that is spotted with intricate patterns. It is considered one of anglers’ favorite species to target on light tackle, most commonly on fly rods, and many argue that Grayling are the most beautiful freshwater fish in North America. While there are six species of Grayling worldwide, the Arctic Grayling is the only species native to North America.
Grayling, at maturity, average between 8 and 16 inches in length, but have been recorded to grow past 30 inches and 8 pounds! They are found in many of the same waterways as trout and salmon in Alaska, and can live in both rivers and lakes so long as those bodies of water are cold and clean. Grayling can be identified by their long trout-like bodies that are scaly and a brown-silver color, with a red splotch of color just behind the head. They have larger fins than trout and swim with a forked tail; the real distinguishing feature of Grayling, though, is their large sail-like dorsal fin on the top of their bodies that is turquoise in color and is dotted with astoundingly beautiful red and blue spots. This large fin has earned Grayling the nickname of “sailfish of the north.”
Grayling spawn in the spring, like rainbow trout, and exhibit similar spawning patterns to trout: they will seek out shallow and fast-moving sections of a river to spawn in, and will leave fertilized eggs unguarded to hatch. The main difference is that Grayling do not dig spawning beds, or “redds”, as trout do, although noticeable signs of disturbance in the sediment are common. Grayling that live in lakes will either spawn in the shallow banks of these lakes, or, more commonly, will venture into small tributary streams to spawn. These fish are also very migratory, seeking out water temperatures of 58 degrees or lower. This means that they will move into higher elevation streams and lakes during the warm summer months to find cold water. Thus, fishing for Arctic Grayling will take place in different bodies of water depending on the season, and the best time to target them is usually early summer, just after their spawning season has concluded.
Similarly to native cutthroat populations in the contiguous United States which spend much of the year under ice, Grayling have a short period per year to gorge on insects. Thus, if you find a population of feeding Grayling, you can expect them to be quite willing to take just about any dry fly you put a good drift on. Grayling, because of their small circular mouths, are notoriously bad at actually getting their mouths around flies they attempt to eat, so don’t be discouraged if these fish miss your fly a few times before you finally get a good hookset. When you do land an Arctic Grayling, be ready with the camera because the intricate patterns on their dorsal fins are a beauty reciprocated by few other things in nature. Good luck!