The marvel of grayling

A fish like no other
grayling fin
Photo: Earl Harper

It was muggy and hot in Fairbanks when Lander Crook and I left his apartment and started driving north. I was in Alaska for a few weeks; Lander was there working the entire summer. We’d timed the trip so we could spend a couple of days fishing together. I’d just come back from chasing halibut out of Valdez and sockeye all through the Copper River drainage. Lander strung together a few days off from driving tour buses so we’d have time to properly explore the roadside fisheries around Fairbanks.

Early July isn’t the ideal time to fish interior Alaska, as the salmon largely aren’t up that far in the river systems yet, and trout fishing doesn’t really exist north of the Alaska Range, save for a few lakes the state stocks.

This was my first trip to Alaska, and the first time Lander had fished the interior. We didn’t realize the rivers that sumptuously winked their way through the lush green landscape were largely devoid of fish, and would be for at least another month. Sure, a few streams probably had a few nearly-dead early-run kings, or pike. But we hadn’t come all the way to Alaska to fish for a maybe.

So, on a whim, we pulled off the Elliot Highway and looked downstream at a tributary of the Yukon River. Our guidebook said it was home to king salmon, pike, burbot, and grayling.

“Maybe there’s grayling here,” Lander said while we strung up our fly rods.

I shrugged. “Maybe.” I wasn’t excited at the prospect. I’d caught grayling back in the Rockies, but they weren’t big. They didn’t fight well, and I knew my 6-weight would be overkill.

What I overlooked – a common theme in this story – was the Alaskan tendency for wildlife to exist on a scale an order of magnitude larger than most anything we have in the Lower 48.

Within ten minutes of casting a size 12 Adams upstream, I watched a dark shape shoot off the river bottom. It followed my dry fly for a few seconds, then promptly ate it. I set the hook, surprised by the bend in the rod. The fish ran upstream, darting through branches and around rocks before I brought it to the net.

It was an 18-inch grayling, all purple and green in the rare glare of a full afternoon sun. Its enormous dorsal fin flexed, catching the light and casting a menagerie of colors throughout the water.

That fish was the prettiest I’ve ever caught. As it slipped through my fingers back into the river, I had a suspicion we’d lucked into something great.

A few moments later, Lander hollered from downstream. He’d just netted his first grayling.

For the next three hours, we fished far upstream, catching fish from every good-looking pool, run, and riffle. The grayling varied in size, but not in beauty. They jumped clean out of the water a few times, performing acrobatics that’d shame any well-to-do rainbow trout. By the time we left the river, I’d completely forgotten about the salmon we’d originally set out for.

Lander and I spent two more days fishing for grayling, finding stream after stream chock-full of the native marvels. We even found a few lunkers, including one Lander caught that was 22 inches long and close to three pounds. It wasn’t until I got home and started researching grayling that I realized what a special fish that one was.

The price you pay for grayling (photo: Earl Harper).

Of course, when I went back home to the Rockies, I was on the hunt for great grayling fishing. I was living in Utah at the time, which actually has a few fantastic grayling fisheries. Nothing like Alaksa, of course, but they’re waters capable of growing 20-inch grayling.

I found a few good grayling on the south slope of the Uinta Mountains, in northeastern Utah. I found others in central Utah, a few hours north of Zion National Park. The best ones, though, were tucked into a tiny pond at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, far back in the thick timber of the Uintas. Thanks to a tip from a friend, I had the GPS coordinates for a lake that supposedly had the biggest grayling in the state.

It took the better part of two hours to make the 3.5 mile hike from my truck to the lake. Most of the hike was flat, but the last half-mile was across downed timber and up a slope steep enough I almost lost my footing and tumbled arse-over-teakettle back down the mountain.

When I finally cleared the summit, the pond lay right there at the top. Not in a bowl, or beneath a cirque, like most lakes. No, this pond sits right on the peak, its crystal-clear water always choppy from the ever-present wind.

I hadn’t even put my fly rod together when I saw the first rise. Then another. Then two more. All over the lake, popping up so frequently I wondered just how many fish were swimming in the lake. I hurried to finish rigging my rod, then waded in up to my waist. A few casts later and my fly – another size 12 Adams – perched on the surface, bobbing in the soft wakes.

Then the fly disappeared, and I set the hook into a 15-inch grayling. Of all the grayling I’d caught since my first trip to Alaska, this one looked the most like its far north cousins.

remote lake utah mountains
Rings from rising grayling speckle a remote Utah lake (photo: Earl Harper).

For the next three hours I caught as many grayling as I wanted. The fishing was too good to be true. It felt like being back in Alaska, on streams that spend more time buried beneath snow, ice, and endless night than sunlight and the symphony of a live, vibrant forest, where fish have to eat with reckless abandon if they want to survive.

Maybe that’s why I developed such a love for grayling. They’re the most cooperative fish I’ve ever chased. A well-presented fly lures them to the surface with more regularity than any cutthroat I’ve met. If I could pick one fish to start new anglers on, it’d be fishing dries to grayling.

Grayling are a special enough fish now that Lander and I make trips specifically to catch them. Last year we spent a week on the Kenai Peninsula, chasing salmon and dolly varden until we’d packed our carry-on fish boxes full. Then we hopped on a plane to fly a few hours north, where we borrowed a car from one of Lander’s work friends. It took another 90 minutes before we made it to a lonely spring creek, deep in the interior. In less than 24 hours we’d gone from the sprawling mass of the glacial grey-blue of the Kenai River, to something that wouldn’t have looked out-of-place in Montana.

And, if we’d timed it just right, we’d arrived alongside the migration of that little river’s biggest grayling.

In Alaska, grayling have to be 18 inches long to be considered a trophy fish for catch-and-release fishing. For the six hours we spent fishing that afternoon, every fish we caught fit those trophy guidelines.

We only had a day on that spring creek. We’d both caught personal best sockeye, kings, and dolly varden down on the Kenai. We’d even managed a great day of deep-sea fishing for halibut and coho. We’d seen killer whales, grizzly bear tracks, seals, moose, and more fish than we could comprehend.

And the only thing we talked about with gusto on the flight home was the grayling.


Beautiful fish would love to net one