Arctic grayling are often described as one of, if not the most beautiful freshwater sportfish in North America, and with good reason. There are six species of grayling worldwide, but Arctic grayling are the only ones found in North America. Their bodies exhibit hues of silver and purple that transition from a dark upper body to a white and golden underbelly.
What sets Arctic grayling apart from their salmonid relatives (such as species of char, trout, and whitefish is their elongated, flowing dorsal fin. It’s unmistakable. Grayling dorsal fins sport an iridescent, polychromic palette of blue, teal, purple, emerald, and silver, with red-orange spots and a stark red edge. This extraordinary morphological feature earned grayling an iconic nickname, “the sailfish of the north.”
But, just as the prismatic colors on a grayling change based on your angle of view, an angler’s perception of Arctic grayling may change based on their location. Grayling are native and generally abundant across much of Alaska and Canada. In those waters they can provide nonstop action for anglers of all ages, as well as a formidable opponent for those seeking a trophy “freshwater sailfish.” On the other hand, in native ranges of the Lower 48, most populations are struggling or extinct. Those remaining today are subject to typical issues of conservation concern—invasive species, habitat alteration, overfishing, and a changing climate.
However, regardless of your location, Arctic grayling are worthy of your attention. They’re stocked in mountain lakes throughout the Rockies and northern tier of the contiguous U.S. Even if you don’t have grayling nearby, I’d argue that their aesthetic and sporting qualities should place these fish high on your angling bucket list. If you choose to seek out these beauties, there’s a few things you should know for success in the field and the kitchen.
Where to Find Arctic Grayling: Upper Limits As their name suggests, Arctic grayling require cold water, usually below about 58°F. Given this thermal preference, stronghold populations are found throughout boreal, alpine, and Arctic ecosystems of Alaska and Canada. To thrive in these systems, grayling are highly mobile—they winter in deeper rivers and lakes that don’t freeze solid during the long, cold winter. In summer, they disperse to spawn and grow in smaller tributaries or networks of shallow lakes and sloughs where temperatures and productivity are more favorable for growth and survival.
These seasonal movements are integral to population longevity. However, even northern populations can be susceptible to rapidly changing conditions—for example, in recent years researchers in Arctic Alaska have witnessed increased instances of seasonal stream drying, thereby impeding critical grayling life history movements. The result? Hundreds of grayling stranded in disconnected pools and an all-you-can-eat buffet for local bears.
Where to Find Arctic Grayling: Lower Limits While plentiful in their northern range, remnant grayling populations also lingered in Michigan and Montana following the last glacial period. However, largely due to overfishing and the introduction of non-native trout, grayling populations in Michigan went extinct by the 1930s. Managers have been working to reestablish those fish ever since in native Michigan waters, but true “Michigan grayling” are a thing of that past. In Montana, natural populations are at high risk of extinction—in fact, the only natural, native remnant population in the continental United States is found in the Big Hole River. In recent years, Montana, as well as many other states, including Colorado, California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming have established stocked grayling fisheries with variable success.
Fortunately for anglers, despite ongoing ecological and political complexities toward conserving and reestablishing grayling populations, getting to healthy grayling populations might be the biggest hurdle to catching them. That is, once you find or access healthy, fishable grayling populations, you shouldn’t have trouble sticking a few with the business end of a fishing hook. Simply put in the effort and you’re likely to be rewarded with beautiful fish, which are equally tasty.
How to Catch Arctic Grayling Arctic grayling are almost exclusively drift feeders and, due to relatively short growing seasons where they live, grayling can’t afford to be picky. Once they reach their summer habitat, many individuals don’t move from far or often from their holding location.
So, if you can see fish that aren’t cooperating, they’ll likely stay close. They’re territorial and the largest, healthiest fish are usually found at the head of a pool or other feeding zones. For grayling, open water means strap on the feed bag. Researchers have even encountered individuals with over 100 sticklebacks in their stomach. That equates to about 20% of their body weight!
Typically, grayling will readily, almost feverously, hit dry flies. Dark patterns, such as a Griffith’s Gnat or mosquito variants, are almost irresistible. Catch your first glimpse of a porpoising grayling dorsal on a dry fly surface strike and, well, you’re hooked. A 5-weight rod has plenty of firepower for these dainty fish, but a 3-weight feels like the perfect match. Stripping streamers and buggers are viable options for fly anglers and nymphs work too. As generally indiscriminate feeders, grayling eat what is there—and even what is not.
Spin fishers can readily catch grayling on inline spinners, such as a size 0 or 2 Panther Martins, or on a jig and twister tail combo. For spinners, I prefer silver blades with black or white bodies depending on light conditions and water color. Cloudy skies and/or stained water? Go white and bright. When swimming a jig, I target deeper holes and almost always tie on a white twister tail coupled with a dark or bright jig head, again, depending on conditions.
All told, grayling catching might come easy. In many locations, a respectable grayling might be 10 to 14 inches. In Alaska, 16-inch fish pushing a couple pounds are not uncommon. That said, hooking into a trophy grayling that breaks the 18-inch mark is no easy task. A 20-inch fish is the Holy Grail. Alaska’s state record stands at 24 inches and just over 5 pounds. In recent years I’ve handled thousands of grayling and, while a few have come close, I’ve yet to see one tickle the 20-inch mark on a tape.
Want an extra fun challenge? Go mousing for trophy grayling. One study from an Alaska river basin reported about one in four grayling sampled larger than 12 inches consumed small mammals. Much like the commonly recognized relationship between lynx and hare populations, this was especially true for grayling in years when small mammal populations, such as shrews and voles, were at the upper end of their three- to five-year population cycles.
Given the swath of grayling populations in North America—native, introduced, reintroduced, thriving, struggling, stocked—it’s important to take each population into account. Like many fish that live in cold environments, they are slow to grow and mature. Some have been recorded at over 30 years old, and they usually don’t mature until at least 6 years of age. This means many populations, as their history suggests, are susceptible to overfishing. However, from healthy populations there’s no reason not to keep a couple 12- to 16-inch fish for the table. They often make for an easy and tasty meal in the backcountry or back home.
How to Cook Arctic Grayling With flaky, white meat, Arctic grayling from a cold river are hard to beat over a riverside fire. Overall, they are a versatile food fish. That said, they are best prepared fresh, (read: never frozen). Grayling take well to traditional baking with butter and seasoning in a foil packet, just like you would with trout. In fact, the Latin name (Thymallus arcticus) is an ode to the aroma of fresh thyme that fresh-caught grayling exude when cooked—how could they not taste great? Similarly, like closely-related trout and whitefish, smoked grayling is a tasty treat. Scaling and cooking whole in a fry pan works well too, and finished fish also flake nicely for fish tacos. I am presently experimenting with a preparation of grayling nachos, which utilizes fried grayling dorsal fins as a tortilla chip substitute, topped with chunky flakes of grayling meat. Stay tuned!
That’s the hidden beauty of grayling. They’re versatile. They’re fun, even adventurous, and pretty damn tasty. In this case, judge a book by its cover and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Arctic grayling, the iridescent “sailfish of the north,” and a worthy bucket list fish.