You never know exactly what to expect when you’re fishing in Alaska. Not long after my father-in-law and I got off the bush plane and onto a boat that would carry us up the Alagnak River to Alaska Trophy Adventures, an Orvis-approved expeditionary camp, we began to spot bears. Most were solitary brown bears, but we did catch a glimpse of a blonde sow with a pair of adolescent cubs. Not quite sure what to make of us, she stood up on her hind legs and stared as we puttered along upstream. Her cubs circled behind her for safety, and I’ll admit that she did look awfully soft and cuddly—from a safe distance. We also watched eagles, ospreys—and of course, we delighted in the occasional salmon breaking the surface on its way upstream to spawn.
Even in Alaska, fishing can sometimes be slow. As luck would have it, the rainbows weren’t impressed with my sculpin pattern on this particular day. Undaunted, my guide Justin suggested changing locations and using an elk hair caddis. This struck me as odd, but I’ve fished with guides long enough to know that the smart angler does what his guide tells him to do.
I cast my pattern and it played downstream just past a dead tree and entered slack water. Just when I was about to recast a large swirl appeared under my fly and my line went tight. Convinced that I had cornered a hefty trout, I let out a war cry as my rod bowed over and line peeled off. I eventually gained the upper hand and was stunned to bring in not a big rainbow but a hefty grayling instead.
“Grayling are nice sporting fish, but most folks seem to forget that in their quest for big rainbows and salmon,” Justin said as he deftly released my fish.
Grayling, sometimes referred to as the “Lady of the Stream”, range from northern Europe to Alaska and some parts of the Lower 48 like Montana. They can grow as large as 24 inches but generally average about one to two pounds, but don’t let their size fool you. These fish are terrific fighters and eagerly take flies. You can spot grayling by their large dorsal fin that can be two to three inches tall and often appear pale blue-green and occasionally purple.
Grayling prefer soft, sandy river bottoms or high mountain lakes with clear cold water. These places are in stark contrast to the rocky bottoms of many of the Alaskan and West Coast salmon rivers in which they sometimes live. Grayling often hold at the end of long pools; trout anglers dead drifting nymphs or streamers often hook a few. These pools often have large flat sand deposits created by the silt pushed downstream. As the rainbows move out, the grayling move in and take over.
Fly anglers can pursue grayling with 4- to 6-weight rods in the 9-foot range. Though your reel needn’t be heavy duty, a cheap fly reel and a motivated grayling will soon part company. Fly lines can be weight-forward floating; a sink tip may not go amiss, however, if the fish don’t seem to be in a rising mood. In my experience grayling are eager to feed on top if flies are hatching—though I have had to resort to subsurface flies as well. Effective patterns include the usual suspects: elk hair caddis in a variety of colors, Adams, Wulff, and other traditional dry fly trout patterns. Subsurface patterns include Clouser minnows, woolly buggers, sculpins, and leech patterns.
The Rodney Dangerfield of Alaskan species, anglers often overlook the grayling, but only because in Alaska, fish are measured in feet rather than inches. Now that I have fished for and caught grayling from a float tube as well as by wading, I can attest to the fact that these are indeed great sport fish. So if you find yourself in company with grayling, don’t miss out on the opportunity to catch this feisty river dweller.
Alaska Trophy Adventures: www.alaskatrophyadventures.com
Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is the author of Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Watersand is a proud member of Local 2086. When not fishing he works fulltime as a Captain on Engine 431 in Fairfax County, Virginia.