Fishing For Grayling: Chasing Alaska's Sailfish on the Fly

Here in Alaska, a good riverboat is almost as important for fishing as a rod or reel. Without one, access to some of the best spots is all but impossible in this vast, roadless land. Streams like this call for a certain type of boat, and I would venture to say that there are few places with as high a per-capita number of shallow-running jet boats as there are here in Fairbanks. These rivers are completely undammed and wild, and present quite a few navigational challenges.
Most rivers in Alaska are full of riffles only inches deep, submerged trees that are capable of skewering the toughest boat, and overhanging trees (we call them sweepers) that will scrape everything, including you, off the boat. My boat is just about perfect for running skinny water. It's a 16-foot flat bottom with a jet motor. When it is up on step (fast enough for the boat to plane out), it will run in 6 inches of water, and I need every inch I can get. There was one spot in this river we had to jump a spruce tree that had fallen on a tight bend. Running a river in Alaska is anything but a leisurely joyride.
In no time, he was pulling them out left and right. With salmon getting most of the attention here in Alaska, flyfishing for grayling is probably the most underrated fishing experience available.
The Arctic grayling is a unique and pretty fish. They are probably Alaska's most widespread fish, populating just about every livable river in the last frontier. Except for some streams near the ocean, they typically don't get any bigger than about 17 3/4 inches. My Uncle Jerry (who has caught a railroad car full of them in his life) has a standing bet with me that if I catch an 18-inch grayling anywhere in the interior, he will pay to get it mounted. He made the offer years ago, and I have yet to make him pay up. They are a beautiful fish, though, with larger scales than trout and a unique coloration. They have large, gold-colored eyes, and gold streaks along the sides of their bellies. They also have orange-striped pectoral fins, and some are quite colorful.
Unlike trout, grayling tend to hole up in schools (one school we drove the boat over held more than 100 fish). In a few areas it's possible to catch hundreds of fish in a day. On my best day, my cousin Clint, Uncle Jerry, and I caught more than 800 grayling in a 200-yard stretch of river. We caught them on nearly every cast for 10 hours, just as fast as we could get them unhooked and get the fly back in the water. It got to the point where we would be relieved when they spit the hook just so we didn't have to unhook them ourselves.
This river doesn't produce numbers like that, but we were catching them left and right. This was a nice fish just shy of 17 inches, which is a really nice grayling for anywhere in interior Alaska. We fished this spot for the better part of two hours and never stopped catching fish.
It was a great day of fishing. Here is my buddy Grimes with an awesome fish that measured 17 ½ inches, showing the large dorsal fin. It did take us a while to figure out the right fly patterns. Grayling up here will usually eat any fly you put in the water, but every once in awhile they decide to be extremely picky. Grimes noticed a certain color of mayfly was hatching and the grayling were gobbling them up as soon as they hit the water. We quickly dug into our fly boxes and were on it in no time.
Unlike most trout, which seem to hold in the fast water and riffles, grayling prefer the slower water at the end of pools, and the slack water just below drop-offs where they can wait and zoom up to take flies floating by. Often, if you stand in one spot for a few minutes, grayling will school up sometimes only feet downstream of you, taking advantage of the break in the current. This 17 ½-inch hog was doing just that. In fact, I saw at least 10 grayling only 15 feet downstream from me after I had been fishing there for 20 minutes.
These are a few of my go-to grayling flies. Generally, if you have a decent assortment of large, dark dry flies like black gnats, caddis and mayflies, you can't go wrong. But sometimes you'll have much better luck with small mayfly patterns, and I caught a pile of them on that small mosquito (second from bottom).
This huge grayling fell for the mosquito. He was 17 ¾-inches, and as big as any grayling I have ever caught. These fish are pretty amazing. Studies show that because of the cold water and short summer feeding periods, grayling grow very slowly, but live for a long time. An Arctic grayling this size is likely to be between 18 and 30 years old!
Another day gone by, and more to do than we have time for, but that's how it is when the midnight sun is at its peak in Alaska. If you're a fly fisherman and you make it up here, be sure not to overlook the grayling, one of the most underrated fish in Alaska!

It's summer in the Last Frontier. That means long days of grayling fishing on the fly. Check out photos from Live Hunt Alaska Host Tyler Freel's latest adventure.