With its elegant, sail-like dorsal fin the Arctic grayling is considered by many to be the most attractive game fish in British Columbia. Yet many anglers have yet to seek out the species – not because they are a difficult fish to catch, but because of the remote locations, rough roads, and long travelling times required to reach them. But, as those who conquer the challenges raised by grayling fishing will understand, there is a lot more to this spectacular salmonid than just good looks.

Distribution of Arctic grayling

There are as many as 12 grayling species worldwide inhabiting rivers and streams in the northern parts of Europe, Asia and North America. Here in North America there is only one species – the Arctic grayling – but it can be found in Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and all the way from British Columbia to Manitoba, with a small, isolated population in northwestern Montana. In BC the fish is found in the more remote northern half of the province. They are primarily in the streams, rivers and lakes of the Peace, Liard and Yukon River – all drainages of the Arctic watershed. But a few Pacific Ocean tributaries, such as the Stikine, Taku and Alsek Rivers in northwestern BC, are also home to Arctic grayling.

Fishing North Central BC

The furthest south that Arctic grayling can be found in BC is just north of Prince George in the large, milky-coloured Parsnip River, which flows north out of Arctic Lake into Williston Lake. Nearly all of the Parsnip's tributaries start in the Misinchinka Ranges and the most well-known for good Arctic grayling fishing are the Anzac, Misinchinka and the Table Rivers. To reach the Anzac and Table Rivers take the Chuchinka Red Rocky Forest Service Road east off of Highway 97 about 90 km north of Prince George. This rough road is a scenic drive between the Tacheeda Lakes and eventually crosses the Parsnip River. Once on the other side of the Parsnip the road forks to the left for the Anzac River and to the right for the Table River. The Anzac is easily accessed at two bridges, but to get to the Table requires more determination. That road has been deactivated, so you need to be prepared for a hike or mountain bike to access the upper reaches of the river. On the plus side this means less fishing pressure. The Misinchinka River can be accessed using forest service roads off of Highway 97 between the Highway 39 junction to Mackenzie and the Pine Pass further north.

As you travel through the Pine Pass, you also meet up with the Pine River, another well-known Arctic grayling fishery. Highway 97 parallels the Pine River as it flows east towards the town of Chetwynd and there are numerous access points for fishing along the way. Due to this relatively easy access, the river receives more angling pressure than the Parsnip and its tributaries. Fishing the Pine is still good but the Arctic grayling tend to be smaller than those of the Parsnip. The Pine has also only recently recovered from an oil spill in August 2000 that had a devastating effect on the fish populations and the town of Chetwynd further downstream.

After passing Chetwynd and its famous chainsaw carvings, take Highway 29 south towards Tumbler Ridge to fish the Burnt and Sukunka Rivers. While the Parsnip drains the western slope of the Misinchinka Ranges, the Burnt and Sukunka Rivers drain the eastern slope. Take the Sukunka Forest Service Road off of Highway 29 and explore the many pools and runs for lurking Arctic grayling.

Biology, habitat and feeding of Arctic grayling

Adult Arctic grayling migrate from lakes and larger unsilted rivers into smaller tributaries to spawn from May until June. The males are easily distinguished from the females by the bright orange bands on their pelvic fins. The sail-like dorsal fin is also much larger in males, with the fin rays extending almost to the adipose fin. Spawning Arctic grayling do not build a redd but, like mountain whitefish, the female scatters between 3,000 to 14,000 eggs over coarse gravel to be fertilized by the male. After about two to four weeks the eggs hatch. The emergent fry grow rapidly during the first two years, reach sexual maturity by five years and can live up to nine years.

Although Arctic grayling is primarily a riverine fish it has three life histories. Some fish will spend their entire lives in rivers and streams, while others will migrate between lakes and rivers and some will stay their entire lives in lakes. Fly-fishers mainly target the riverine Arctic grayling as they are the most widely available, but the biggest challenge with this fish is locating them. Arctic grayling have complex migrations and move long distances between summer feeding, over-winter and spawning sites. A run filled with Arctic grayling in July may be completely devoid of fish by October. During winter they spend time in side channels, backwaters of larger rivers, and spring-fed areas. As summer approaches they migrate to the middle and upper reaches of rivers with cold, clean water.

Arctic grayling are primarily insectivores, feeding mostly on aquatic insects like mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies. On occasion they will also feed on eggs and small baitfish. The biggest shift in their diet occurs between winter and summer, as food availability changes. During winter a large part of their diet is bottom dwelling or benthic insect larvae. In summer their diet gradually changes to insects drifting higher up in the water column. This can lead to fish feeding on adult mayflies, caddisfies, stoneflies and various terrestrials such as wasps, bees, grasshoppers and ants.

Feeding in summer occurs in pools and runs just below steep, fast-moving riffle water. In this water Arctic grayling mingle with mountain whitefish, with the grayling hold higher up in the water column, closer to the surface, and the  whitefish closer to the bottom. Naturally, the Arctic grayling feed more on the drifting insects and the mountain whitefish more on benthic organisms. Larger, older Arctic grayling can dominate smaller fish and establish themselves in the best position through a series of intimidation rituals. The best position, called the prime lie, provides easy access to food with well-oxygenated water, and provides protection from predators and current. For Arctic grayling the prime lie is usually located in deep depressions near the centre of the run.

Equipment, Tactics and Flies

The average size of Arctic grayling is in the 11 to 13-inch range. A typical setup for these fish is a four-weight fly rod that is nine feet in length. This, paired with a weight-forward floating fly line, will cover nearly any situation, but a sink-tip fly line can also be valuable as it can provide you with options when the fishing is tough.

Arctic grayling are not leader-shy, so monofilament leaders tapering down to 4X or six-pound break strength are a good all-round choice. When fishing with dry flies add two to three feet of 4X tippet to your nine-foot leader. This will allow for an adequate drag-free drift. When switching to nymphs or wet flies the same leader setup can be used, but you may need to add a bit more tippet to ensure that the fly reaches the required depth.

Arctic grayling have garnered a reputation for being relatively easy to catch, but before setting out make sure you have realistic expectations. Many first-time grayling anglers have visions of ten fish jumping at their dry fly on the first cast, and that they'll be reeling in catch all day long. Sometimes you may have to do a bit of exploring to find the good fishing, but that is part of the fun. Other times you may have to change flies a few times to have success.

The best time to fish for Arctic grayling is during the summer, from late July to early September. During this time the species does its reputation justice, readily rising to dry flies even if it seems like no insects are hatching or flying around. A good strategy is to start with larger dry flies tied with foam or deer hair. Flies like Stimulators, Elk Hair Caddis, and Chernoble Ants in sizes eight to ten come to mind. If you have no success with bigger flies, switch to smaller dry flies such as an Adams or Pale Morning Dun in sizes 14 to 16. If dry-fly fishing fails altogether, turn to either swinging soft hackle wet flies like a Partridge and Orange or small, weighted nymph imitations. The Pheasant Tail Nymph, the Gold Ribbed Hare Ear, the Prince Nymph and the Copper John in sizes 12 to 16 are all good choices. Obviously if there are insects hatching, focus on 'matching the hatch' as you will the best results.

Arctic grayling often share waters with bull trout who display predatory behaviour towards grayling. If these two species occupy the same pool a bull trout may even chase a grayling that you have on the hook. Fishing a prime grayling pool or run can also be unsuccessful if a big bull trout is close by. Target the bull trout first with large streamers and a heavier weight fly rod. After the bull trout is caught and released the Arctic grayling will be more likely to begin to rise to dry flies. This strategy has worked countless times, and sometimes while trying to fish for the bull trout you will catch the odd Arctic grayling. Grayling that take streamers intended for bull trout are often large males of 16 inches or more, generally considered to be large fish.

With a little know-how and experience Arctic grayling can live up to their reputation as being easy to catch on a dry fly. However, being easy to catch is also their biggest downfall and makes Arctic grayling vulnerable to over fishing. The BC populations mentioned here are doing well, but they still only make up a small percentage of what they used to be. Changes in the environment, such as the creation of Williston Reservoir, eliminated much of the Arctic grayling's original habitat. Also oil spills, easy fishing access and increased fishing pressure have made life difficult for the species. Hopefully the current provincial catch and release regulations will ensure that the southern range of Arctic grayling continue to be a viable recreational fishery.

Sail Fin of the North:

Fly-Fishing for Arctic Grayling

by Danie Erasmus

First published in           March/April 2011