Fly Fishing For Spring’s Gray Ghosts

The desperate urge strikes every year, sometimes as early as January, and it grows stronger with every warm day. Grayling come from the arctic, but ironically, we have to wait for winter’s grip to ebb before they re-emerge from the ethereal depths of imagination. So the memory of billowing iridescent sails takes hold, and I wait.

We need snow to fill our lakes and reservoirs so we can keep the forests lush and green through summer and to fill streams with cold, clear water for trout, char, and whitefish, and for something else too: Arctic Grayling.

Found only in a few high-alpine lakes and reservoirs, grayling are not the rarest fish in the Mountain West, but they are close and they are probably the prettiest. Their native range, shaped by the last ice age, exists primarily within the arctic circle and extends as far south as Montana. But grayling have been transplanted to lakes and reservoirs across the country by horses and trucks and planes, so there may be some a bit closer to your front door than the Siberian Peninsula, unless you happen to live in Minsk.

Grayling are holdovers from the Ice Age, and you only have to hold one to trace its scaly lineage back to the Pleistocene. Their scales are more like armor than skin, but grayling are a study in contrast: As solid and imposing as their bodies may be, they are capped by impractically large, flowing sails that glow wildly in the sun. The result is an almost magical compromise between delicate beauty and hardy, Nordic stoicism, though I may be anthropomorphising somewhat. I mean to say simply that grayling are tough and pretty at the same time. And they are remarkably fun to catch on the fly.

As winter ice melts and they move toward shores and inlets, grayling become more active, and hungry. At first they stay deep, preferring smallish, brightly colored flies: purple prince nymphs and soft-hackle copper johns, especially. Start small and flashy with your patterns and work your way up, varying depth, and retrieve before you change fly patterns. Early in the year, it’s still cold and you may have to get your fly a bit closer to their mouths to earn those bites. But as grayling become more active and begin to look up for food, you’ll find that they are exceedingly prone to enthusiastically take a dry fly, in spite of their pouty, downturned mouths.

My first grayling trip to the mountains each year is a baptism, a release from frigid tailwaters and picky, pressured trout. It’s also a journey back through time. I go before the ice is fully off the water, trucking mightily through snow-laden banks. Clomping alone through the Ice Age, partly expecting to see a mastodon or a cave bear behind every bend. And on a good day, if I’ve timed it right, I’ll see grayling—large, glowing alien fish—right at home in a wonderland that’s wedged between winter and spring, and perfectly at home in the compromise.

Written by Jeffrey Stutsman

Jeff is a writer, photographer, and editor who lives near the Rocky Mountains. When he was a child, only books, fish, and a couple of old cameras kept him out of trouble. Today, he spends as much time as possible outside, preferably near a stream with a rod in his hand. Follow me on Instagram here!

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Let’s hear some of your thoughts in the comments! Have you ever seen or caught a grayling?

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