The most classic and pure form of fly fishing is casting dry flies to rising fish. Arctic grayling fly fishing embodies this purity better than any other species. The elegance of a grayling disappearing a dry fly from the waters surface has kept the species in vogue for generations. Not to mention, the pursuit of these handsome fish usually take anglers to beautiful destinations!
Aside from colorful dorsal fins, the arctic grayling is an incredibly opportunistic species – they hardly ever refuse a well presented fly. This makes them fairly easy to catch with any fly fishing tactic. Without question, dry fly fishing remains the most interactive and best technique in most grayling fishing situations.
All About Grayling
As a species, arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) are well distributed across North America’s arctic and northern Pacific drainages and across Siberia. Grayling are well-known for their large sail-like dorsal fin that varies in color from brilliant hues of blue (in North America) to red (in Siberia). There’s thought to be 13 other subspecies in the grayling family, but Alaska is home to only the arctic variety. Alaska Is also home to two of the arctic grayling’s cousins, the whitefish and the Sheefish.
In Alaska, native grayling populations are found throughout most of the state except for Southeast, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. There are a handful of lakes in Southeast and Kodiak that grayling have since been stocked, so you can now catch them across most of AK!
Grayling spawn in the spring and first begin reproducing at ages of 4 to 6 years. For the angler, this typically converts to around 11 – 12 inches in length. These gorgeous fish are often seen in greater abundance in the higher reaches of their respective watersheds and it’s theorized that it is also where the biggest grayling can be found.
A fairly uncommon fact about the Arctic grayling is the extended age they can live to. Biologists in Alaska have recorded Grayling living up to 30 years! It is likely these symbolic fish are able to live so long because they occupy such cold water sources that slow their growth and metabolism.
What to Expect when Fishing for Grayling
Whether you find yourself in pursuit of grayling on remote headwaters of an Alaskan watershed or an alpine lake in the Rocky Mountains, there is little doubt you are chasing a worthwhile species. Provided that you are using the right grayling fishing techniques and go at the right time of year, these elegant fish can be some of the easiest fish to trick with a fly.
- Expect a pristine backdrop: Grayling are notorious for their habitat requirements to be pure and from clean, unpolluted sources. They thrive in alpine environments and high in watersheds because this typically provides the coldest and cleanest water. So, when you find yourself chasing grayling, chances are good that you are in a pristine watershed.
- Expect multiple fish: When you’ve found one arctic grayling, you’ve probably found a few. Unlike trout, grayling are well known for schooling up in streams and rivers and sharing a prime lie. Sometimes after you’ve hooked one the pool needs to be rested, but chances are there are a few more waiting for you.
- Don’t expect picky fish: Grayling are opportunistic eaters. Largely due to the short summer seasons in their native habitats, this species does not pass up a chance to eat! Anatomically, they have small mouths, but that does not stop them from attacking mouse patterns or large streamers – and occasionally a large enough fish might just find the hook.
- Expect to handle with care: We know these fish grow old, so practice catch and release and let them keep aging! Keep ‘em wet standards are best practice. (Fun Fact: After releasing a grayling smell your hand – it might smell like thyme. That smell is why zoologists named the species Thymallus)
Where to Find Grayling
These gorgeous fish are often seen in greater abundance in the headwaters of their respective watersheds. It’s commonly theorized that upper reaches hold the largest grayling as well. In lake systems, grayling tend to congregate near in-flows where the water is coldest.
Alaska, Montana and Michigan are the only states with native populations of arctic grayling. Below we’ve included a down and dirty list of the states with the best grayling fisheries and where to find them.
Alaska: Native grayling populations are found throughout most of the state except for Southeast, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. There are a handful of lakes in Southeast and Kodiak that grayling have since been stocked, so you can now go grayling fishing across AK!
Colorado: Introduced to Zimmerman Reservoir, Joe Wright Reservoir and a few subsequent lakes and streams on the Grand Mesa.
Montana: Native populations can be found in Montana! The best grayling fishing can be found south of Butte on the Big Hole River. Less abundant populations are in the Ruby and Madison rivers as well.
Utah: Stocked in a handful of lakes located in the Uinta Mountains. Perhaps the largest concentration is accessed at the Dry Fork Trailhead (Round Lake, Fish Lake, and Sand Lake).
Other States: California,Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming
When to Fish for Grayling
Understanding the migration cycles of grayling in dynamic watersheds is key for higher catch rates. They can be caught from springtime until winter sets in, but midsummer is typically when most anglers target these elegant fish.
Grayling spawn in the spring shortly after ice out, and if possible its best to leave them alone at this time. In early summer, as water temperatures warm up, grayling migrate towards cooler water. This often means that fishing is best near headwaters of rivers and streams or confluence of tributaries into larger rivers during summer months. Later in the fall, grayling migrate back to larger bodies to prepare for winter.
What Fly Fishing Setup to Use for Grayling
When fly fishing for grayling, whether you are fishing pocket water of small streams, dry fly fishing mountain lakes, or nymphing large rivers, it is important to show up with the correct gear. Fortunately for grayling anglers, your typical western trout setup will work great for grayling from Alaska to Montana, Utah and even Colorado! The biggest factor in dialing in a grayling rig is weather conditions and fly fishing methods.
While grayling can reach 22” in length your typical size class will be 10-15” depending where you are. Any 3-5 weight fly rod is great! If wind conditions are calm, a fiberglass 3 weight is our go-to for dry flies. For windy days or dredging nymph rigs we bump up to a graphite 5 weight. Another method that is gaining popularity is euro-nymphing.
FlyTramp recommendation: Echo River Glass (3-5 wt)
Matching the weight of the reel with the rod goes a long way to balance your setup and make it more enjoyable to cast. Learning to palm traditional click & pawl reels can be fun on grayling. However, most of the time grayling will not make long runs or take you to your backing.
FlyTramp recommendation: Orris Battenkill II (3-5 weight)
There is nothing better than dry fly fishing for grayling but nymphing is quite productive too. Since we bounce back and forth between these two methods we like fly lines that are well suited for both tactics. The most important factor is matching your line weight to your rod weight here.
FlyTramp recommendation: Rio Mainstream Trout WF (3-5 wt)
Leader & Tippet
Unlike spooky trout, standard 9 foot tapered leaders are not truly needed for grayling fishing most of the time. In most fisheries grayling are about as opportunistic as resident fish can get and will rise to most dry flies. 9 foot leaders work just as great as shorter 7 foot leaders (a little easier to turnover). We like our leaders tapered down to 2-4x. If you need to go smaller to tippet for a picky grayling you can too!
FlyTramp recommendation: Orvis Superstrong Plus leader 7.5 ft 4x
What Flies to Use for Grayling
We have a whole other post about our favorite grayling flies where we break them down into categories from dry flies and nymphs to mouse patterns that work for Alaska grayling. If we could only have 5 flies we would stick to this list.
- Adam’s Fly
- Caddis (try skating the fly)
- Chernobyl Ant (size 12 -14)
- Pheasant Tail (tungsten bead head)
- San Juan Worm
Sailfish of the North
The arctic grayling will always take back seat to some of the big name species of they share their water with. However, we think grayling should not be overlooked by any angler! For what these elegant, old fish lack in size, they make up for it with over-zealous dry fly eats. The pursuit of arctic grayling leads to remote fishing spots in stunning areas. So what are you waiting for?