Arctic Grayling

The Arctic Grayling is a smaller member of the salmon family. Weighing in at just over five pound and with a shimmering body length up to 24 inches its a beautiful fish for which to cast a fly. This oddly styled fish seems somehow to as much a part of Alaska as the salmon are. It is a strikingly beautiful fish that presents a variety of colors depending on habitat and its food source. They primarily eat insects and that fact makes them outstanding target for fly fishermen. It is not uncommon to find these amazingly colored fish displaying a dark side coloration with beautiful iridescent spots in red, purple and even blue/green. They have a huge sail-like dorsal fin that helps them navigate the streams. Due to their smaller size these fish use their smarts to survive in rivers where there are monsters such as Northern Pike. Their brilliance is part of what makes it fun to fish for them. They may well be the smartest fish in the salmon family. Their amazing colors helps them blend into the dappled waters of the summer streams and lakes throughout Alaska.Their voracious appetite makes them accessible to most fly fishermen.

Arctic Grayling caught at Angler's Alibi Lodge - Alagnak River, Alaska
Arctic Grayling caught by Rebekka Redd at Angler's Alibi Lodge - Alagnak River, Alaska

Fly Fishing for Arctic Grayling: Insects, Smaller fish and Shrews

Arctic Grayling are primarily insectivores. They love their bugs. When fishing for them, try flies that are insect-like such as those that mimic the mayfly flies, black flies, caddis flies, and stone flies. Some common flies to try would be the Black Gnat, Royal Humpy, Sparkle Dun, X Caddis and the Bead Head Stonefly, to name but a few. If they are hungry, they will chase almost anything from which they can make a meal. Their first choice of food will be aquatic insects. They will strike surface flies that resemble non-aquatic insects such as bees and dragonflies try a deer hair Bee Fly or a Gibson's Dragon Fly. These are smaller fish usually less than 5 pounds. They fight like crazy, but the true beauty of fishing for them is their intelligence. If you are not having luck with insect flies switch to a mouse fly. They have been known to eat small invertebrates such as shrews and small mice. They will happily sip salmon eggs too.

18-10 size flies fly well

The salmon family, by nature, are opportunistic feeders. The Arctic Grayling has developed a niche that allows it to compete effectively with larger fish such as Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden and even Salmon. Think smaller flies. You can fish for these beauties almost anywhere there is a clear bottom creek. They are visual feeders so waters with high turbidity are not likely to hold them, though oddly you can sometimes find them in the turbid waters of the Tanana River.

Where to Find the Beautiful Arctic Grayling

The three places that you will not find these fish are on Kodiak Island, Along the Aleutian Island chain or in the far Southeast of Alaska's sounds and saltwater islands. Everywhere else that has clear waters and a gravel bottom stream is a likely candidate for Arctic Grayling. In the lower 48 states, they are mostly gone except for a few stocked lakes in California and Montana. Alaska is full of beautifully clear streams with nice gravel beds, and that is where you will find Grayling.

In the river environment, you will find these striking fish almost everywhere. These guys love to hang in the quiet pools adjacent to ripples. Ripples are often a haven for aquatic insects, and smaller Graylings will work ripples and shallows when hungry. Arctic Grayling in lakes almost always stays there year round while the river Grayling migrate to spawn. It is not uncommon to see them along the margin of a lake or slower moving river sucking down insects that dot the water.

Live on the edge, experiment with fly options

The Arctic Grayling has keen eyesight, and it is constantly on the lookout for both predators and prey. It is not uncommon to see the fish lounging in a pool and finding it impossible to entice it to strike. Change your approach and you may find success. You will also find these beautiful fish in the faster sections of the river. Their sail fin allows them to deal with currents, and they may use the speed of the water to out-swim predators or to chase down smaller fish. They are a smart fish. Arctic Grayling is also known to live in lakes. They like the deeper water and can survive where there is less oxygen. Benthic fish, or those that like the bottom, such as these require a deeper pole setup when fishing for them in deep lakes, but in shallow rivers and streams dry flies are the weapon of choice. When fishing for Arctic Grayling, in lakes, take advantage of aquatic vegetation, and the quieter pools around these plants. Many insects use vegetation as a haven and for food. Where you find aquatic insects, you will likely find Grayling. Because these fish have a lower oxygen need, they are awesome to fish for in frozen over lakes in winter.

Fishing for Beauty, finding Treasure

A lot of anglers turn their nose up at Arctic Grayling because of the overwhelming selection of larger sports fish such as salmon, steelhead, rainbows and even pike. The beauty of grayling is that they are smaller and smarter. One of their best qualities is that they will strike a dry fly with ease and vigor. It is not uncommon for these amazing fish to leap completely out of the water to take a fly that is dangled. Their sail fin allows them to achieve a lot more for a fish their size. Sit back and watch them work. They are impressively agile, and we should all be thankful for them and their love of flying insects such as the dreaded mosquito.

Grayling Rod Set Up

If Arctic Grayling is your target, a light rod is all you need. A pole that is under a 6 weight is good. A rigging with a nice small fly on a 7-10 foot leader is an outstanding attraction to an Arctic Grayling. Flies between 10-18 in size are ideal. As the summer waters around Alaska begin to teem with aquatic insects that are both emerging and dropping eggs back into the waters, the little Grayling are feasting on mayflies and mosquitoes. Those are all clues as to what kind of fly works best. Pay attention to what is happening around you because the rivers and lakes are full of opportunity. The story unfolds right in front of most fishermen, and many miss it. The food source in one river may not be the same in the next. There is a dance that stretches forth each year between the fish and their environment. This cycle of life is tried and true. Most fish are tied to the salmon spawning and consume poorly buried salmon roe.

Fly the fly that flies the river

There is also a deep connection to the aquatic insect cycle. Trout and Grayling are not picky about what they eat. The insects play a huge role. When you approach a stream to fish look at what is flying around the water. That is the food source the fish are interested in right now. Use the food source that is available as the fish are looking for that. If you see mayflies, use a mayfly fly. If you see caddis flies use a caddis fly fly. If you see the black flies use a black fly fly. If you are not having luck with these little gems then try something more conventional like salmon eggs or unconventional like a mouse fly. That little dance is marked by time and season, and the fish are acutely attuned to it. By watching your environment, you can determine a number of choice fly-types to not only catch Grayling but other fish too. A good tip is also to look at the stream or river. If you are looking a long and narrow corridor use a smaller bobber on a longer lead to float the fly downstream. If you are in a wider stream or river experiment with your fly pattern. These fish can be challenging, or they can be easy targets. Either way you will have an outstanding time fishing for Arctic Grayling.

View Arctic Grayling Flies from Alaska Fly Fishing Goods

View Arctic Grayling Flies from Bristol Bay Flies

How to fish for Arcic Grayling featuring April Behr of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game