Species Highlight: Arctic Grayling

Arctic grayling overview

Arctic grayling are some of the coolest looking freshwater fish out there. Although they’re related to trout, they look noticeably different than most other salmonids. Their most defining characteristic is their giant dorsal fin, something that may remind you of a sailfish.

Their coloration is also pretty interesting. At first glance they appear to be mostly a greyish silver, but in the light their bodies, and particularly their dorsal fins, sparkle with blues, pinks, and yellows.

Many anglers forget about grayling thanks to their cousins the trout and salmon, but these beautiful fish will eagerly take a fly and are a ton of fun to catch.

Description

Arctic grayling can grow to be large, around 30 inches or so, but most fall somewhere between 12 and 16 inches. They are elongated like trout, but have rougher scales and a small mouth.

They are typically a grey or silver color, but in the light the body is iridescent and often reflects blue, pink, or yellow. A burnt orange line is often seen near the belly of an Arctic grayling, and they have black spots near the gills and head.

By far their most prominent features are their fins. The caudal fin has a noticeable fork, and the dorsal fin is large and sail-like. The dorsal fin also has large, colorful spots, that can be red, yellow, blue, or somewhere in between.

An Arctic grayling being held partially in the water.

Life History and Habitat

Grayling can have several different life cycles depending on where they live. Fluvial populations live and spawn in streams. Lacustrine populations live and spawn in lakes. Potamodromous populations live in lakes but migrate to streams to spawn.

The majority of grayling live in large, cold streams and lakes, and migrate to spawn in shallow areas of streams. They start to spawn at four to six years old, and spawning takes place during the spring.

Grayling prefer cold, clear water, and aren’t usually found in areas that are warm, silted, or polluted.

Distribution

As their name implies, Arctic grayling are mostly found around the Arctic Circle, although their range does extend south.

Many people associate grayling with Alaska, and that’s one of their most populated regions. Grayling are found throughout most of Alaska, and east through Canada the whole way to Hudson Bay. They also exist in northern Asia and northeastern Europe.

A small population was historically present in Michigan as well, but was eventually wiped out from overharvesting, habitat loss, and introduced fish. There has recently been an effort to repopulate Michigan rivers with Arctic grayling.

Although not native to every place they’re found now, there are small but stable populations of Arctic grayling in Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and other states.

Conservation

Arctic grayling are generally considered a fairly stable species, and aren’t at risk of extinction.

At one point, the southernmost population in the upper Missouri River basin was being considered for coverage under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Adequate protections established before the listing actually boosted the population enough to cause it to never be listed under the ESA.

A more recent conservation mission is the planned reintroduction of grayling to Michigan rivers. They were historically present in several Lower Peninsula streams and one Upper Peninsula stream, but were extirpated due to habitat degradation, overharvesting, and introduced species. Now, biologists are hoping to use eggs brought in from Alaska to reintroduce Arctic grayling to their small native range in Michigan.

An Arctic grayling in the water

Fishing

Fishing for grayling is a treat. They’re known for being happy to eat just about anything they can fit in their mouths, and aren’t usually difficult to entice to bite.

Using flies is even better, since they’ll also frequently take dries. Grayling mostly feed on small crustaceans and insects, so patterns that match those things are a safe bet. At the same time, since grayling aren’t picky, it’s also fun to test out obscure or rarely-used patterns after getting a couple to the net, just to see what they’re willing to eat!

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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.