Arctic Grayling Therapy
Arctic Grayling – An Indifferent Fish for an Indifferent Fisherman
By Mike Rogers
I’ll begin this story with an admission—I’m an indifferent sort of fisherman. I know that’s an odd introduction to a piece solely about fishing, but it’s best to start with the facts. I’ve fished off and on since I was a little bitty kid, and I mostly enjoy it. But I’m forced to admit fishing usually isn’t something I enjoy a whole lot. Like many Alaskans, I like to dipnet my limit of salmon and occasionally hit a halibut charter to stock up the pantry for the winter. However, dipnetting bears almost no resemblance to fishing at all; it’s a primal activity associated more with harvesting than with recreation. Come to think if it, I’ve never been halfway through packing 40 reds up the cliffs at the mosquito and silt infested Copper River and thought, “Man…this is fun!”
Taking a halibut charter is almost the same. It involves a very long boat ride out to Montague or Hinchinbrook and then sitting around waiting on a big flatfish to pull the heavy rod downward. After that, the experience is mostly like reeling a sheet of plywood up the side of a 15 story building on a breezy day. Most of my fishing friends like fish that “fight” and go acrobatically airborne. If you’ve watched any fishing television you know the exact scene in slow motion; a big bass, tarpon or whatever breaks the water shaking furiously as water flies from its back. Yeah, halibut don’t do that. They mostly get tired and come alongside the boat to get popped in the head with a bang stick or gaffed and pulled over the rail. I love catching halibut, but if they tasted like carp, I wouldn’t bother.
All of this sounds like heresy to my fishing fanatic friends, and I’ve got a few of them. I just didn’t grow up passionate about fishing. It probably has something to do with my lack of patience and the fact that growing up most of the fish I caught lived downstream from a giant chemical plant or in a farmer’s cow pond. I never brought myself to eat something that could have had three eyes or lived in a mud hole that smelled like cow urine. I was “catch and release” before it was even cool.
Fly fishing was something I didn’t understand either at the time and although today I’ve got friends who own fly rods that cost what a good used car does, I still have a hard time with it. While I appreciate the art form that it is, an occupation that requires a tackle box that looks like one of those giant crayon assortments with 128 shades of pink or brown is probably a little more tedious than my attention span allows. While I’d like to think of myself as Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It,” standing midstream throwing long, graceful, gorgeous curls… I am not. I’m a bearded, chubbier, less handsome version in neoprene duck waders flogging the water right in front of me. I’ll inevitably fall in the water at some point too.
I’m also not really a fan of ice fishing. Most of the folks I know who ice fish could just as easily substitute the words “sit in a shack drinking beer” for “fishing.” I must admit, I find ice fishing interesting for about 15 minutes; but it’s more of a social activity than anything else. Without good company to help pass the time, it’s something I tire of pretty quickly. Although in the South we didn’t have ice fishing, we had “night fishing,” which was pretty much the same thing. It is most accurately described as a bunch of guys chugging beer on a riverbank pretending to do something useful.
This is turning out to be a bummer of a piece about fishing—particularly if you’re a fisherman—so here’s the hook so to speak. Enter: the Arctic grayling.
The Arctic grayling is the fish that saved recreational fishing for me. Thymallus Arcticus was so named at roughly the same time Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence by a German zoologist named Peter Simon Pallas. The 1758 edition of Systema Naturae assigned the name of the genus as Thymallus due to the faint smell of thyme that’s present in a fresh filet. I’ve got to admit, that’s not a feature I’ve ever noticed. They live in cold-water streams in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. The farthest south they naturally extend is an Ice Age remnant population in the Missouri drainage of Montana. Apart from their distinct dorsal fin and iridescence, the most notable behavior of the Arctic grayling is the aggressiveness with which it feeds.
Grayling are omnivorous and will eat crustaceans, insects, insect larvae, fish eggs and larger members of the species will even eat smaller fish. It’s not only the variety of the diet that’s astounding, but the vigor they display—there’s no mouthing, nibbling or otherwise fooling around. When an Arctic grayling hits something, they do it full force. I can only surmise that with such a short feeding and breeding season, being selective about diet isn’t a winning strategy. It’s like they think they are baby Mako sharks, they’ll rocket off the bottom to nail just about anything in the water. It is that trait that endears them to me.
While my fly fishing friends talk about the pickiness of rainbow trout and how a poorly tied hackle will make the fish reject a fly, grayling will pretty much hit whatever goes in front of its face. I’ve caught grayling on just about everything I have—spoons, spinners, pixies, flies, jigs, a bare hook with a piece of thread wound around it; I’ve yet to find a lure a grayling won’t hit. For that matter a friend of mine on a float trip caught over a dozen using a tent pole, the innards of some 550 cord, a strategically bent paper clip and a gummy bear. Yeah, picky they are not.
As a slob fisherman, I can take my $20 “Wally World special” spinning reel and a handful of whatever—something with a hook—I can find and have a productive afternoon of fishing. I can stride to the bank amidst the Orvis clad, bamboo rod wielding purists and keep up with them. As a general rule, if you’re throwing lures for grayling and not catching them, it’s because they aren’t there. On a good afternoon I can catch 20 or so in an hour. Some friends of mine at the cutting edge of American Tenkara style fishing came up last year and caught well over a hundred apiece each day. For guys that hike miles and primarily fish golden trout in Colorado, it was a revelation. For them, a dozen fish in a day is a major event worthy of a new tattoo or a gravestone memorial.
Grayling fishing goes beyond food subsistence, it’s a form of therapy. I’ll flatten the barbs on my hooks to prevent injuries to the fish since I rarely keep one and a limit of five might take as little as ten minutes. An afternoon of catching grayling is a joy that’s difficult to describe, especially on a warm day at caribou camp or on a summer camping trip. Gorgeous scenery, pristine water and thousands of voracious fish. For the folks in the south, the closest I can describe is sitting on a really hot bluegill pond with some ultralight tackle while reading a travel magazine. Almost each cast results in a strike and the thin rod makes landing a 12” fish feel like a fight worthy of the name. If the battle gets too pitched, with a barbless hook you can simply let the line go slack so the grayling can escape unharmed. For the aspiring fisherman who lacks patience and technique but still wants to catch plenty of fish, the grayling is where the action is.
As a completely indifferent fisherman, a completely indifferent fish is a match made in heaven.
Michael Rogers is an Alaskan outdoorsman, a fishing slob, and a big fan of the Arctic grayling. Summer afternoons can often find him flogging the water for Thymallus Arcticus and smiling ear to ear.