Growing up in western Montana learning to fly fish is a natural passage for many young boys and girls. Even at six years of age, my father insisted my brother and I learn to cast properly. We would spend hours in our front yard practicing the “perfect” cast, with a literature book grasped between my ribs and the inside of my casting arm to ensure the proper vertically oriented 10 to 2 o’clock form. In those younger years, we would primarily target trout, typically on the Missouri River or some drainage of it. Naturally with age, like most things in life, my interests changed, as did my casting technique, straying from the original strict form taught by my father to a kind of sidearm erratic cast with a purpose. Along with casting, my interest in catching different species of fish also changed with age. One of these species being the arctic grayling.
The arctic grayling is an incredibly beautiful and unique fish. Anyone who has caught a grayling, especially a larger one knows what I mean. Their silvery purple aerodynamic body is attached to an overwhelmingly large, brightly colored dorsal fin. The dorsal fin has been described as an iridescent hue of red, purple and aqua especially dramatic on larger grayling illuminated by the sunlight. When the dorsal fin is not supported by water it lays down, curling along the spine like some cool new-age haircut. Catching a larger grayling is something special among anglers and has been a goal of mine for many years.
In Montana, there are limited areas where the native grayling still thrive but there are plenty of mountain lakes where they have been introduced. I’ve found that catching a grayling, whether in a river or lake can be difficult. In many lakes, you can use small wet flies, midges or different nymphs and in streams, I’ve found they will eat streamers. The grayling seem to be less afraid of heavier tippet, shadows and with larger grayling even big sized streamers.
Someone once described the four stages of a fisherman, a description I believe to be true. Personally, being in the third stage of fly-fishing I want to target and catch the bigger fish. I believe whole-heartedly that a big fish whether it is trout, grayling, pike, or salmon, will strike larger flies. The bigger grayling I’ve caught and have seen caught have been on streamers like the sparkle minnow. Targeting grayling in lakes I’ll tie a sparkle minnow onto four feet of tippet with a loop knot to give it the proper dance. I’ll cast from shallow water near a deep drop off to entice bigger grayling to come investigate my fly. As with trout, grayling strike fairly hard but they fight differently. Once on your fly, a grayling will have short quick bursts in different directions giving an angler a different type of fight compared to a trout. I’ve found that larger river grayling will also eat a sparkle minnow or something of comparable size but they typically like overcast days with intermittent sunlight streaming through the clouds. In rivers, because of the current, adding a split shot to your loop knot will allow your fly to get deep while adding a nice swimming effect to the streamer in between strips. Changing between short quick strips and long fast strips might encourage a large grayling to feed on an otherwise bigger than normal prey.
With fly-fishing, I’ve learned many things, half of which have nothing at all to do with fishing. It’s not necessarily the fish we are after. Enjoy the moment; enjoy the time spent with your fishing mates. Remember to keep the fish wet and let them go so they can grow.
Matthew Nottingham is an avid fly fisherman out of western Montana, check him out @matthew_jenner!
Check out this other sweet article about Grayling: