Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Thirty-one


Artic Grayling in Alaska

Grayling Country

Part 1
Text and Photos By Bob Fairchild


Why do Arctic grayling bite so readily?

Alaska Fish & Game Brochure
"Arctic grayling are renowned for their willingness to take a lure, fly, or bait. Some anglers say that Arctic grayling are "stupid" or "gullible", but the life history of these fish offers some clues as to why they bite so well. As far as we can tell, Arctic grayling spend most of the winter in deep pools under the ice. Because the water is so cold during winter, Arctic grayling don't feed very much (that's why they are sometimes hard to catch under the ice). Grayling must store enough energy to make it through the winter and be able to migrate to spawning areas in spring. After spawning, Arctic grayling must feed voraciously during the entire summer. They feed like crazy so that the eggs and sperm for next year's spawning can be developed before freeze-up in the fall. This is why many anglers notice that grayling caught during fall look like they are going to spawn during the next few weeks. Because summer is short in Northern Alaska, Arctic grayling don't have much time to spawn, feed and prepare for spawning next spring. In other words, grayling can't help the fact that they feed on anything (your fly, for example) that happens to float by. This life history, although fast and frenzied, has made Arctic grayling one of the most common fish in northern regions of Alaska. Their life history also makes grayling very susceptible to angling. Their eagerness to feed, however, has led to stock collapse in some instances. For example, the Chena River still supports (much to the concern of fishery managers) a fairly large harvest of Arctic grayling. In 1989, anglers aught and kept more than 13,000 fish over 12 inches long."

Many thanks to the Fairbanks ADF&G for putting together some good information about my favorite fish, the Arctic grayling! Note: This brochure was written in 1992. Since that time, the Chena River has gone to "catch and release" only for grayling and the population has rebounded nicely. Remember that Tony Route listed the Chena on his "dream season" of fishing!

Ice out - one of the best times to fish for grayling.

Why can't grayling populations sustain high levels of harvest?

In addition to the fact that grayling feed like crazy all summer and spawn during spring, we have come to know other aspects of grayling life history. Arctic grayling generally grow very slowly, gaining about one inch in length or less per year. Also, Arctic grayling tend to grow slower in rivers and lakes that are further north.

Bob's wife Jeannette!

Grayling grow very fast in places like Montana and grow very slowly in places like the North Slope of Alaska. Grayling generally take four to six years to mature to adult size in the Tanana drainage, and are between 10 and 13 inches long when they first spawn. Grayling are also not particularly long lived, generally living from 10 to 12 years. If humans shared this life history and lived 60 years, humans would not be able to have children until they were 30 years old!

Mature Grayling
The life of young grayling is also particularly hard. Female grayling generally carry between 2,000 and 5,000 eggs. They build no nest for eggs, as do salmon. The eggs are sticky so they attach to the bottom of the stream. The eggs hatch in 19 to 24 days and the young grayling are only 1/2 inch long. the young grayling have poorly developed fins, so they cannot swim well. We have found that if the rivers are flooding when these young grayling first hatch out, many are displaced from preferred rearing areas and eventually die. As a result, new generations of grayling are highly dependent on the amount of rainfall that occurs during the summer. For example, in 1985 we estimated that there were about 35,000 adult grayling in the Chena River. If one-half of these fish were female and each produced 3,500 eggs, then there would have been potentially 60 million young grayling in the river. Unfortunately, high water during most of the summer of 1985 killed most of these young grayling. By 1988, when these young grayling were catchable size (three years old and about seven to eight inches long), there were only 3,000 fish left out of the original 60 million eggs.

Jeannie holds the rod high These factors, in combination with their willingness to bite, prevent grayling populations from sustaining high levels of harvest by anglers. Since it takes five years for grayling to mature, the number of spawners in a population can be dramatically reduced by anglers who catch and keep small fish. If a grayling does survive to spawn, numbers of eggs per female are small and the young are highly susceptible to flooding events in rivers.

Before I go, just a bit more about grayling. Although the state record is 4lbs, 13oz, very few get to be over 2lbs or 20". Bring your light weight rods and have some fun. The best flies for grayling? Well, I encourage people to fish with their favorite dries or nymphs! But, while grayling aren't known for being real selective, like any other fish, the bigger they get, the pickier they get.

Bob Fairchild
Small clear streams make great grayling habitat

My best grayling flies over the years have been (in no particular order) Adams, Fur Ants, AP Black Nymphs, Bead-head Damsel Nymphs (actually almost any bead-head nymph!), Caddis (several patterns), Black Gnats, Wooly Worm, Tennessee Bee and Gray Hackle Peacock (dry).

In the next couple weeks, I'll share some stories about my trips grayling fishing. I'll even name names! You'll hear about where I've gone and how to get there. Stay tuned!~ Bob Fairchild

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