Fly Fishing for Arctic Grayling

Video how to catch arctic grayling

The river’s surface was alive with feeding fish. A mayfly hatch was underway, and hundreds of arctic graylings surfaced on the river section in front of me. A member of the salmon family, there are six grayling species in the northern hemisphere. Still, the arctic grayling, ( Thymallus Arcticus, ) is the only grayling species found in North America.

During the summer months, arctic grayling feed voraciously. Although they will eat small fish and even small rodents, their primary diet consists of drifting insects. Because of their diet, fly fishing for arctic grayling is exceptionally productive.

I was in for something special as I rigged up my flyrod. It’s hard to imagine a fish more suited to flyfishing than the arctic grayling. They have a voracious appetite for dry flies, routinely breakwater, and pound for pound; their fighting ability is second to none.

Arctic Grayling are One of the Most Beautiful Fresh Water Species

Gregarious by nature, it’s common to catch multiple fish at one location. The fact that they are easily one of the most beautiful freshwater species, and are found in some of the wildest regions on the planet, is a bonus. Watching a big arctic grayling dancing across a clear mountain stream is about as good as fishing gets.

The small river I was fishing runs through the southeastern corner of the Yukon Territory. This vast expanse of roadless wilderness is home to some of the best arctic grayling fishing on the planet. Far removed from the famous Klondike goldfields that the Territory is known for, the southeast is one of Canada’s best-kept secrets regarding fishing. Flying over the area, you will see countless streams, lakes, and rivers that have virtually never been fished. Grayling require this type of habitat to flourish. Extremely sensitive to water quality, biologists consider the arctic grayling an indicator species. They thrive in gin-clear, cold water and don’t do well in areas with heavy industry or erosion.

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A beefy 16-inch fish took my fly the second it hit the water. I didn’t count the fish I caught that day, but it had to be over one hundred. The action was non-stop, with most fish in the 12-16-inch range. My dry flies were taking a beating. After lunch, I decided to move downstream into deeper water. While the smaller fish thrive in fast shallow water, the deeper holes where the current isn’t as strong will hold the largest fish.

The elk hair caddis is one of the most productive dry flies for arctic grayling that you can use. We get ours here.

Arctic Grayling Will Move Into Deeper Water After The Spawn

Spring spawner’s adult grayling will immediately move to their summer feeding areas after the spawn. This migration usually takes place in the middle of June. Depending on the geography, arctic grayling may have to move only short distances or many kilometers to reach summer feeding areas. Water that might hold a large grayling early in the season will hold only juveniles by mid-summer. Because of this, knowledge of the area you plan to fish, and a basic understanding of arctic grayling biology will make any outing more successful.

Arctic grayling will spawn once they are at least four years old, and some biologists put the number closer to seven years. With a lifespan of over 30 years, it’s essential to identify the areas adults move to after they spawn. In most streams, they move into deeper holes. The juveniles will stay in the shallow water where the temperatures are more favorable for faster growth.

Mature Arctic Grayling Prefer Deeper Water

Fishing these deeper holes takes some finesse, especially when trees and brush line the banks. Mature arctic grayling will sit suspended right where the shallow water dumps into deep holes. Eddies are created wherever the depth changes abruptly in fast-moving water. Most of the fish will sit poised in a small band of water on the leading edge of this eddy. The way I describe the water you want to fish when I’m guiding is to imagine you’re walking downstream. The exact location where you would plunge into deep water is the band of water where you want to present your fly.

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Depending on the current, this can be easier said than done. Most flyfishers find it easier to get a good drift from the side. I like to place clients alongside the shoreline, slightly above the eddy. Facing upstream, I instruct them to cast 45 degrees across the current on the upstream side of the eddy. This position limits the amount of mending needed, and your pattern will naturally drift over the eddy. Even on larger rivers, the band of productive water in these deep holes can be surprisingly small. Boulders, logs, or anything else that breaks the current will create eddies and often hold fish.

A 3-4WT. Flyrod is Ideal For Arctic Grayling

My feelings differ from many northern lodges and guides that recommend their clients bring a 5/6-weight fly rod when arctic grayling is on the agenda. The idea behind this line of thinking is that a 5/6-weight rod is more versatile. A 5/6-weight rod will work, but there are better choices. Fly fishers will almost always find the 5/6-wt rod a bit light for lake trout and northern pike and too heavy for grayling. A 9-wt or even a 10-wt rod is ideal for the larger species, and a 4-wt rod is perfect for arctic grayling.

Moonshine Rod Company makes high quality flyrods at affordable prices. The Vesper 3wt. is one of our favorite arctic grayling rods. See it here

I prefer a rod in the 10-foot range. A longer rod loads with minimal effort or movement, making roll casts much more effortless. Roll casts are often the best way to reach productive water when you are up against the tight cover that is so common in the southeast Yukon. A natural drift is far more important than matching the hatch perfectly. The elk hair caddis is hands down one of the top dry fly patterns a flyfisher can use for these fish. Other great patterns include the bloody mosquito, royal coachman, black gnat, and bumblebee. Hook sizes #8 through #14 work well.

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Wet Flies and Nymphs are Also Effective When Arctic Grayling are Subsurface Feeding

Casting wet flies can also be highly effective when arctic grayling subsurface feeding. In these situations, my favorite technique is to fish right off the bottom. I like to use a strike indicator whenever I fish nymphs. They make detecting strikes that I can’t see easier, but more importantly, I can use them to control the depth I want to fish. You only need a rough idea of the water depth to set up an indicator properly. Place the indicator above the fly 1-1/2 times the water depth. The closed-cell foam indicators that fold in half over the line are quick and easy to install and adjust. Depending on your pattern, a split shot might be required to get your nymphs down quickly, especially in powerful currents.

Suppose a ravenous appetite for both wet and dry flies, a strong fighting ability, and unequaled beauty are qualities that appeal to you. In that case, the arctic grayling might be your dream fish. Join us for fly fishing for the Arctic Grayling

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>