How to Fish for Grayling
Alaska is home to many species and there has been much written about them and the ways to catch them. One species has escaped stardom. The Sailfish of the North or Arctic grayling. Grayling thrive in the many free-flowing rivers and creeks as well as many still waters throughout Alaska. The grayling tends to escape anglers attention as their focus is on larger and more famous species such as Salmon, Halibut and Rainbows. This lack of attention leaves the grayling free to roam, feeding relentlessly on bugs, eggs and fry that reside in those rivers, creeks and lakes and with essentially no pressure from anglers. It is this lack of pressure that entices anglers that enjoy solitude and beauty during their angling adventures, something of the past, some might say, of the more famous species and locations that harbor them.
AVOID CROWDS FOR BIG GRAYLING FISHING
There are many opportunities to pursue grayling in Alaska and that pursuit is a great way to get away from it all. Grayling can take you away from the coastal watersheds and into some remarkable parts of the Last Frontier of Alaska. You can find grayling in most any free flowing stream and in many lakes throughout interior Alaska. Many rivers are silted by melting glaciers in the summer but run clearer in the winter and become wintering grounds for big grayling. In the summer the grayling move up the many tributaries, that feed these larger rivers, to feed and spawn. Locate a good size Alaska tributary dumping into one of these rivers and you should find plenty of action for grayling on the fly rod.
There are also plenty of clear Alaska rivers that are both winter as well as summer haunts for the grayling. These rivers can be a bit tough to fish but can provide excellent results and big Alaska grayling. Spin fisherman can handle the larger rivers a little better than fly anglers just because of the weight of the spinner getting the hook down through swift current and deep pools but, with sinking line and weighted flies, these Alaska rivers are fishable with fly rod and fly.
GRAYLING ARE AGGRESSIVE FEEDERS
Grayling are ferocious feeders and can keep you busy if you find a good spot which isn’t real hard to do in Alaska. Spinners work great on light spinning rod and reel with light line of four to six pound test. Grayling really strike a lure and engulf it so if catch and release is your intentions then you might want to think about single hook spinners. You should check Alaska regulations for the area you plan to fish as some have single hook use only. If you do not have any or can’t locate any for your trip you can cut two of the hooks from the treble and make a single hook spinner. You can install a single hook onto your spinner but make sure to match the size hook to the size spinner in order to keep it proportional.
Normally one would wade upstream but with a spinner I prefer to wade downstream and take advantage of the current. I have noticed, in the past, that as you wade downstream many morsels tend to be dislodged from the gravels underfoot providing larvae for the grayling waiting downstream causing a feeding frenzy by the time you arrive. This tactic would be argued on some famous trout streams but it has been my experience that in Alaska the grayling are not easily spooked like many of the rivers in the lower 48 as many of the fish you catch, in Alaska, have never seen a hook.
THE SURPRISE ALASKA RAINBOW TROUT WHILE FISHING FOR GRAYLING
If you plan to use spinning gear you should think light, but not too light. There are some big Alaska grayling out there that can give you a fit on an ultra-light outfit. More importantly there are rainbows in many streams that hold grayling. The last thing you want is a 24 inch rainbow to get off because your gear was too light. Personally, unless you know the water you’ll be fishing is small, I would go with medium light or even a medium weight rod.
Many of these rivers and lakes that are primarily targeted for grayling often times hold some monster rainbow’s, so be prepared. Small spinners of any make should work fine pulled through likely spots with a steady retrieve. Remember; grayling feed aggressively and their mouths are a bit fragile when filled with a treble hook. Please think about spinners with single hooks and don’t worry about hook ups because with their aggressive takes they pretty much hook themselves.
FLY FISHING FOR GRAYLING
If you plan to pursue this member of the Char family with a fly rod, a 3 to 5 weight works great. Depending on the size of river you are fishing casting distance can vary greatly from ten feet to sixty. I prefer floating line as an all around fly line except on the larger, deeper rivers. A sink tip is needed to thoroughly cover a large stream and its many grayling haunts from top to bottom. In this case you may want to bring along a separate spool. Load them with the two different lines in order to quickly change to the desired application for the waters your fishing.
Leaders are usually simple in Alaska. The fish here tend to be less line shy due to lack of experience. A single piece of monofilament is the usual choice. Some might find that a tapered or hand tied graduated leader turns the fly over better. It probably does but the simple mono leader works fine. I used a twenty dollar fly reel for years in Alaska for everything including salmon. I have since moved up to something with a smoother drag system which is a necessity for serious salmon fishing but for the grayling as long as it turns and holds line you should be all right as most of your catches will probably never reach the reel.
BEST DRY FLY FOR GRAYLING
Fly anglers will love the willingness of the grayling to attack just about any fly they choose to tie on. Of course there are certain patterns at certain times that produce better than others. For Catching grayling on dry fly, the Elk Hair Caddis is hard to beat. Grayling on dry fly is especially exciting early in the seasons or on rivers without a salmon run. Rivers without a salmon run are void of eggs. The egg pattern, while still effective to some extent, will go unnoticed when compared to the more traditional trout flies when fishing for grayling in Alaska. These flies include the Elk Hair Caddis, the Humpy, Sculpin, Alevin and of course the Woolly Bugger. Sometimes very small midge patterns work well.
One pattern you should have in your box is the Griffith’s Gnat and the Mosquito Emerger. These patterns work well throughout the season. Fish a dry on a dead drift but then let it swing at the end and even strip the fly in before making the next cast. grayling will often follow your fly as it drifts and smack it on the swing or the strip. If there are Salmon present in the river then the egg pattern is hard to beat. The Egg-Sucking Leech is a great pattern as it simulates an egg on the drift and a sculpin or fry on the strip.
There is one thing to look out for when fishing a dry fly for Arctic grayling and that is the grayling roll. So often when a grayling comes up for a dry fly they will roll over the top of the fly. I’m not sure if they’re missing the dry fly on the initial rise or if they are attempting to kill the insect before eating it. It doesn’t happen on every rise but often enough to keep it in mind.
As hard as it may be allow the dry fly to stay still by not setting the hook. In doing so the grayling might come back to eat the bug it thinks it killed. It is hard to master because when a grayling rises it is usually very visual in that grayling rarely slurp their prey. Instead they will display an aerial assault even on that initial roll and can cause a reaction on the fly anglers part that is fairly instantaneous. Be patient and wait to see the dry fly beneath the surface before setting the hook and you will catch more grayling.
SIGHT FISHING FOR GRAYLING IN ALASKA
My two favorite ways to fly fish for grayling in Alaska is dry fly and sight fishing in crystal clear waters. My absolute favorite way bar none has to be the combination of the two. Alaska has more streams, creeks, and drainages than you can ever think of fishing in a lifetime. Most of these waters are clean but not always so clear. They are nutrient rich and some have glacial runoff as well. In all the years fly fishing in Alaska for arctic grayling I managed to find only a couple streams that contained the three ingredients for sight fishing for grayling with a dry fly. Those are clear water, grayling and grayling willing to rise to a dry fly.
Grayling are aggressive and normally getting one to strike a fly isn’t a problem. However, I have ran across certain streams where the grayling just would not rise to a dry fly. I’ve found a couple places that the grayling seemed to prefer the dry fly and those are my favorite. I never knew why those grayling in some of the streams would not rise. I could see them, I knew they were there. They just would not rise.
The only thing that I could think of was that the prey in that stream was predominantly sub-surface. Surface insect just wasn’t prevalent enough in that stream to get a grayling to rise. I’m not sure but I can assure you the couple streams that do offer sight fishing for grayling on a dry fly are marked on my map for easy return. It has been many years since I was there but I hope to return soon.
WHERE TO FIND ALASKA GRAYLING
Alaska grayling are territorial and there is one thing I’ve noticed. The presence of lots of small grayling is a sign that there are no big ones in the area. If you’re seeking big grayling fishing you’ll want to consider a streamer pattern and deep pools. Big Alaska grayling will occupy the same hole year after year. That is as long as it hasn’t been altered by changes over the winter. They choose these deep holes and remain as motionless as possible to maintain their energy. They will move a short distance to eat. These grayling protect their area aggressively. They chase away any intruders and gobble up any sign of protein that drifts by.
When you find a run that seems fishless, even though you were just catching fish the run before, stay put and fish that hole thoroughly. Use different patterns and different techniques. There’s a good chance a big grayling is lurking somewhere below. One good way to entice a stubborn fish is to cast downstream and very slowly strip the streamer pattern upstream. This allows the current to keep the fly suspended. This works with spinners too. As you pause the fly move your rod tip from side to side. Watch as the fly follows the rod tip. By doing this you’re able to cover a large section of water. This gives a big grayling the chance to make a meal of your fly.
NOTE: This technique is slow and without the excitement of a swirling take on the surface. However, if it’s a trophy Alaska grayling you’re after then this technique works great.
THE LAST FRONTIER OF ANGLING
Alaska grayling is the last frontier of angling. With so much emphasis on other species the grayling continues to go unnoticed by many anglers. When I tell about the great trips to remote places and the great fun catching grayling, people listen. You can see their eyes light up. Then they say. “You know I’ve been meaning to try out grayling fishing, but I never got around to it”. If you enjoy pristine waters with spectacular views without the crowds then you should give the Alaska grayling a try. It’s a great way to experience the last frontier of angling.
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