As trout season ends, fishermen of all skill levels are looking for the next big fly-fishing adventure. The arctic grayling can fill the void, but they can pose a challenge to beginners. They are difficult to spot as you can only catch them in remote almost inaccessible water, but they are easy to catch.
So, how to catch a grayling on the fly? You can catch arctic grayling with the proper equipment, the right sense of adventure, and a fly rod in hand. Despite their reputation, grayling are not difficult to catch, provided you are prepared for them.
With the right equipment and tactics, grayling fly fishing can be as calm and relaxing as trout fishing. You will need to understand how the fish operates, but you can have a great time as a sport or as a mean for your family.
How to Fish for Arctic Grayling
As trout season comes to a close, many fishermen of all skill levels venture around the world for their chance to take part in the latest trend in fly fishing. Alaska’s premier freshwater fish, the Arctic grayling, can challenge even the most experienced, wordily, and seasoned anglers. Though, beginners can have fun with them as well.
Anglers love grayling because they look ready to fly and chase any lure, but they are not an easy catch. You will find it difficult to catch them if you are new to fly fishing, or prefer to surf cast or noddle. Despite the challenge, anyone can catch a flying grayling by understanding the fish.
Fortunately, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game releases annual tips and strategies for fishing the arctic grayling. This article will compile most of the important ones for you, but any annual fishing adventure should start with their watching the latest video.
Proper Location and Time for Grayling
Grayling love clean, neutral or slightly alkaline, well-oxygenated water. Because of this, you can find grayling in any limestone or chalk streams throughout Canada, the northern United States, and Northern Europe. Just remember that the fish hate acidic waters or any sign of pollution.
If you need help finding a good grayling location near you, you can always ask your local angler club. They will show you where you can find a recognized and fishable population you can legally fish. You can also check out our recommendations of the best places to find grayling in this article.
Your local club will also tell you when the local grayling season begins and ends.
Grayling is a winter fish. They reach adulthood during the Autumn and Winter months but are Spring spawners. Thus, the grayling season can vary from stream to stream or at different locations along the same stream. A good guide is to look at the local trout as grayling season tends to start as trout season ends.
Grayling Habits and Habitats
Grayling shoal longer than trout. Therefore, you need to use a different strategy if you are used to trout fishing. While trout scatter when one is caught, grayling tend to linger. The fish tend to return quickly to their feeding point once the water calms down as well. They will even rise to the surface if enough food is available. The fish will do this on even the coldest winter days.
Therefore, you will want to reset the urge to move around after each catch. On a good day, you may be able to take several out of a pool just by standing still.
Grayling Tackle and Equipment
If you already fly fish trout, you already have all the gear you need to catch grayling.
For instance, for Czech nymphing, you want a long rod with soft action so you can search in the deeper water. Tip action rods will bump the fish off your hook when you reel them in., especially from a short-range. Fortunately, a good standard, tapered trout leader will work most of the time.
Standard nymphing, you want something flexible and durable like fluorocarbon which can get your flies down without snagging against rocks
Here are some of the more popular grayling fishing equipment
- Nymph, wet and dry fly: 9-foot, #4 weight with a 5x tapered leader.
- Czech nymphing: 10-foot, #5 weight with a soft action and 5x fluorocarbon
- Neoprene Waders
- Neoprene Gloves
- Thermal Socks
- Good thermal fleece
- Thermos flask with a warm drink or food
Grayling Fly Fishing Methods and Tactics
Once you gather all your equipment and reach your fishing spot, you still might not be ready for the grayling. You must be as adaptable and cunning as the fish itself to catch it. If you continue to just fish upstream with a dry fly, as common with trout fishing, you will miss every grayling that swims past you.
While you will have your good days and your bad ones, you must always be ready to think differently when dealing with the grayling. Grayling demand a more open fishing style if you want to increase your chances as the weather gets colder.
The right method will also let you pick your fishing days. Do you want to go out on a cold but dry frosty day or when it is wet and windy? You can catch grayling under any weather or daylight, but you may have your preferred fishing conditions.
That means you should choose your preferred time and day for grayling fishing, and choose the method that best matches the needs of the situation.
Grayling Dry Fly Fishing
Grayling love the fly as much as trout, especially when a hatch opens up and there are only a few terrestrials on the surface, making them perfect for dry fly fishing. As winter hatches come and go quickly, you must move quickly if you want to take advantage of the situation.
The best time to dry fly fish is when you see the fish rising upstream from your location. You can dry fly fish without rising fish, but you would get better results using one of the other methods.
Grayling Wet Fly Fishing
When the graylings are feeding, wet fly fishing becomes very effective. You can only use the method while the fish are moving upward to grab food, but you must present your flies moving along with the current as if it was natural food. You will get nothing if you cast your wet fly across the stream and swing it around.
Fortunately, you are free to orientate your cast to your preference. You do not need to fit your cast according to the direction. You can just use the same reach cast for both upstream and downstream casting, provided you let your flies to naturally drift down the river.
Grayling Nymph Fishing
As they are natural bottom feeders, grayling respond well to deep, near the stream bed, nymph fishing. you can use any caddis larvae, tungsten-beaded nymphs, freshwater shrimp, or upwind nymphs as your lure, as long as you cast your line upstream and let the nymph drift back to you. You can grease the fly line to help the nymph sit up in the water as well.
You know you got a bite if you notice any unnatural movements from the nymph. So, you want to be prepared to reel the line in quickly as the fish bite fast.
Note that nymph fishing only works with the lure near the bottom of the stream. If you do not have a heavy enough nymph to stay put, you may want to try Czech nymph fishing instead.
Grayling Czech Nymph Fishing
When all other fly-fishing styles fail, your last resort is Czech nymph fishing. Chech fishing devastates the stream. It uses heavy nymphs, lobbed upstream, to ensure you can cast your line near the stream bed regardless of the water condition.
The heavyweight of the nymphs let them sink to the bottom quickly as they move downstream. With a bit of grease to keep them steady, the lures fly gracefully through the water. You must watch it like a hawk so you can jump and reel it back at the moment you notice any deviation, pause, or stop in the motion, as that is the sign of a fish bite.
Choosing the Right Flies for Grayling Fishing
The last and most important equipment for any fly-fishing venture is the flies themselves, and grayling flies are no different. Grayling will bite several types of flies, including some you may not expect. However, you must choose the right fly for your preferred fishing method.
Below, we compiled a list of traditional and non-traditional flies that people have reported to work with grayling. We hope this list will help you decide what will go into your fly arsenal on your next trip to the water. To make things easier, we split this list into the six common fly types.
Dry Flies and Emergers
Grayling will bite any dry fly on the market. You just have to present them properly. They do have their favorites though. For instance, elk hair attracts grayling like a magnet as they tend to look like a native Alaskan caddis. Regardless of the fly, you can get them in all sizes from #10-16.
Some popular grayling dry flies include:
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Parachute Adams
- Royal Wulff
- The Humpy
- Blue Winged Olive
- Pale Morning Dun
- Griffith’s Gnat
You can substitute these flies with emergers if needed. Anglers report having great luck using San-Juan worms. coronoids, comparadun fly, sparkle pupa, super-pupa, and other larvae and pupa imitations.
Grayling will bite anything that moves, which makes nymph lures work as great as they do. You can use non-beaded nymphs if the fish feed just under the surface, but a good beaded head works great in fast-moving water when they are deep feeding. Either way, nymph lures work great on their own or paired up with a good dry fly.
Popular grayling nymph lures include:
- Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear
- Prince Nymph
- Brassie (copper, red, green)
- Pheasant Tail
- Copper John
- Black Stonefly
While grayling will bite any nymph, please note that these flies only work for normal nymph fishing. Czech nymph fishing requires special heavy lures that only work under the right conditions.
Bugs may be their staple, but grayling will eat anything that lands on the water. They will nab anything that looks easy to catch, such as large grasshoppers and ants. Thus, you can use any terrestrial creature as your fly lure. You just want to make little up and down jerks that simulate how the creatures would naturally move across the water.
Popular terrestrial grayling fly lures include:
- Bass Poppers
- Deer Hair Mice
You can catch them, or simply buy them from a store, but you generally want to use creatures that are natural to your fishing location. When buying them, make sure your lures have a white or fluorescent post so you can easily see them in the water. Either way, you want your terrestrial lures size #4 or smaller.
Like any other fish, grayling feast on salmon smolt in the spring. Because the small fish meander down the stream from the birthplaces to the sea, they are also an easy live bait to catch. They even come with their own “bait” bait, birds which like to eat them too. You will always find ample smolt where you see birds and disturbances in the water.
Popular Spring Smolt used in Grayling Fishing
- Thunder Creek
- Thorne River Emerger
- Marabou Lake Leech
- Small White Woolly Buggers
- Epoxy smolt
Similar to rainbows and dollies, grayling dine on salmon eggs when available, but they will not restrict their diet to them. Thus, you can pair an egg lure with a dry fly to increase your chances for a catch. If you have king eggs, you should ensure they are size #6. Otherwise, you want to carry #8 to #12 sized egg flies.
Popular Egg Imitation Flies
- Plastic Beads
- Two-toned yarn flies
- Two-egg Marabou
- Iliamna Pinkie
Grayling will take anything that looks like a salmon, including leeches and mice, but they prefer other types of food instead. You can get a few catches with these salmon-like streamers, but most anglers avoid using them due to the low bite rate. If you go with them, you want your streamers sized with #8 and #10.
Popular Grayling Streamers
- Muddler Minnow
- Bunny, Flesh Flies, or Egg-sucking bunnies
- Polar Shrimp
- Woolly Buggers –
- egg-sucking leeches
- Lake or bead-head lake leeches
What Kind of Fish is a Grayling?
The arctic grayling is a fun challenge for fly fishing, and the above tips will give you an advantage once you get to the water. However, if you want to take your grayling fishing to the next level, you need to truly understand the fish.
How to Spot a Grayling?
The arctic grayling, also known as Thymallus arcticus, is one of the many beautiful freshwater fish found in northern climates. While their main habitats are in Alaska and Canada, you can find them as far south as Oregon and Wyoming. They are larger than their cousins, such as the trout, salmon, and char with a unique scalloped edge.
The fish’s defining features are their large, sail-like dorsal fins and colorful bodies. You will find the fish adorned in a variety of colors, with each stream population having its distinct color. The fin is typically red with large aqua, red, or purple dots and markings.
While all graylings have markings, they are more noticeable on the larger fish with either gold, silver, black, or blue sides of their dark gray backs. A gold band separates their sides from their bellies, forming a nice contrast to their iridescent pink, red, or orange pelvic fins.
They have gold eyes along with black lower jaws and can have black freckles all over.
Growth and Reproduction
Arctic grayling can live up to 32 years, often spawning several times during their lifetime. They begin spawning at age 4 and can reach 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 centimeters) long. The largest reported grayling came in around 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms) and 24 inches (61 centimeters) long.
Their tenth-of-a-pound (2.5-millimeter), heavier –than-water eggs sink to the bottom of the stream. A female grayling can lay between 1,500 and 30,000 eggs in a single season, which will hatch within three weeks after spawning.
The hatchlings immediately move towards the calm and warm shoreline waters. There they grow quickly from their initial length of about a half an inch (12 millimeters) reaching 2 to 4 inches ()5 to 10 centimeters) by the end of the summer. They can take anywhere from an additional 3 to 6 years to mature.
Once mature, they stop growing as quickly, focusing their efforts on spawning. This is the moment where they become easy to catch without threatening the population.
Graylings feed continuously during the short northern summers. They will eat anything that moves but prefer drifting aquatic insects. Their typical diet consists of mayflies, black flies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. Though, they will feast on the eggs of smaller fish and spawning salmon.
They will even feed on land insects and their eggs if they fall into the water, snaking on the occasional shrew or vole.
They can tolerate low dissolved oxygen levels, letting them survive long winters where other fish would die. To do this, their feeding frenzy slows down during the winter to conserve energy. They also tend to remain in lakes or deeper, slow-current pools of rivers.
Every population of grayling is different. Some populations will migrate between streams, having dedicated spawning, growing, feeding, and wintering locations. Other grayling may live their entire life in a small section of a lake, stream, or pond.
Either way, graylings will head to their spawning areas during the spring, only to turn around and go back to the summer habitat after laying their eggs. During the Fall, they return to their winter feeding grounds, just downstream from their feeding area,
The entire journey between spawning and feeding zones can range from just one mile up to 100 miles apart. Some populations will make this journey faithfully every year.
Along the entire route of any river system, you will find graylings of every age and size, though the much larger and older adults tend to stay in the cooler headwaters. The juveniles prefer to stay near the warmer, lower river water with the sub-adults keeping to the middle.
Range and Habitat
Grayling comes in six different species through the northern hemisphere, but you will only find the arctic grayling in North America.
While you can occasionally find them as far south as Michigan, most arctic graylings stick to the Arctic, ranging Kara River in Russia to the western shores of Hudson Bay in Canada. Their largest range is in Alaska, where you can find grayling in any and every stream in the state. The exceptions are the Aleutians, Kodiak Island, and Southeast Alaska, outside any stocked lakes.
Overfishing killed off most of the natural populations in the northern United States, but some states such as Arizona and California stock grayling in their lakes. Of the natural ranges that remain, grayling fishing in the upper Missouri River requires an ESA license. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also list the Montanan population as a “species of concern.”
Status, Trends, and Threats
In Alaska, the fish are mostly protected from environmental hazards. The stocks and natural populations are mostly healthy. There are a few spots where local development has impacted the local grayling population, but the treats are diligently managed and minimal.
Do People Eat Grayling?
Like most spot fish, people do eat grayling. Their taste comes from how you store them after you catch them until you clean and prepare them, but they do make great meals. While you’d want to ensure that there are enough of them to maintain the population, you can fish grayling for any reason, including food.
You just want to keep them as fresh as possible. That means that you need to store them in cool and well-aerated water, preferably the water from their home stream. Their home water is usually cool enough, provided you catch them with a long stringer rather than a livewell so the fish can easily move around.
If you cannot keep them alive, you need to kill them cleanly and quickly. You should use a club or a pith to kill them immediately as you catch them, and then place them on ice to keep them cold enough for the ride home. Please note, you want to clean the fish as soon as you can.
If you do everything right, you will have a nice delicious fish you can prepare the way you want. Most of the time, fish go bad because people do not adequately care for them.
How to Clean Arctic Grayling?
Whether you want to eat them right away or tomorrow, you need to properly clean and gut the grayling you catch before you prepare and eat them. The process ensures you do not eat any unnecessary guts or bacteria.
The cleaning process does not take that long though. It is a simple exercise, especially if you cleaned and prepared any type of fish before. You just need a small disposable container, a sharp knife, and freshwater.
Once ready, you can follow the following steps to prepare the fish:
- Use an old newspaper to cover your prep area
- Sharpen the knife if needed
- Wash off any slime off the fish
- Cut off and dispose of the fins
- Remove the scales by running the spine of the blade across the body
- Cut open the fish and remove the internal organs
- Rinse out the inside of the fish
- Separate the parts into your container
Once fully cleaned, your fish will be free of any pollutants from water, including any mercury, plastic, and trash. Grayling will eat anything that looks like food, including anything man-made. While this makes catching them easy, it is also easy for the fish to swallow small pieces of plastic and trash thrown into the water.
Because of this, the only real optional step is removing the scales.
Many chefs and fishermen recommend removing the scales to remove any pungent flavors from penetrating the meat during cooking. Others insist that you leave the scale on the fish when cooking a filet because cooking makes the skin and scales easier to remove.
Therefore, you have some leeway there, but you must follow the rest of the steps as they are. You do not know what was in the water the fish swam through throughout its life. By cleaning, you can assure yourself that everything in the fish is edible for you and your family.
The process will also make the fish easier and quicker to cook, allowing the heat to reach all the meat. Arctic graylings are best eaten fresh. So, you want to remove as much time between your catch and your table as much as possible.
Best of luck!
“My Biggest worry is that when I’m dead and gone, my wife will sell my fishing gear for what I said I paid for it.” – Koos Brandt