While the aforementioned Thymallus arcticus, or Arctic Grayling, clearlybears no resemblance to a salmon whatsoever, these scrappy little guys are members of the salmon, or for you fishing geeks, Salmonidae family. For the "ultra geeky", I am certain that you are just dying to know that they are also native to the Nearctic and Palearctic ecozones - so there - now you know. I remember reading an article once which explained why the word Thymallus was included in their scientific name as a descriptor. It went on to say that if you pressed your nose against a fresh caught Grayling, it smelled very much like the herb thyme. Although I have caught more than my share of Grayling, as for how they smell, I will be more than happy to take the author's word for it.
Their range once included much of central and western Canada and parts of the northern United States, but the good old Thymallus is now, for the most part, restricted to the far north. The main reason being that they are great barometers of water quality, so if you have clean, cold water you might find a Grayling or two; mess it up and they will leave town.
For a fresh water fish they can be stunning in both appearance and colour. Many have long flowing dorsal fins, which explains why some refer to them as the "Sailfish of the North" and they boast such colours as gold, azure, electric blue, silver and iridescent pink.
They also tend to be rather sociable, so if you see or catch one, it's a very good bet that several hundred of his or her closest friends will not be too far away. Grayling love cool, well oxygenated water which is why you will find good size populations in many northern rivers. In lakes they tend to hang close to shore where there is a bit of cover. Otherwise, they might just as well have a big bull's-eye painted on them, because you can take it to the bank that a hungry Lake Trout or big Northern will be lurking nearby, as a two or three pound thyme flavoured Grayling makes an excellent afternoon snack. This probably explains why they always appear to have an anxious, worried look on their faces.
I recall watching a rather impatient twenty plus pound trout run so hard and fast at a pod of Grayling, that it overshot its mark and found itself high and dry, well up on the shore. It was truly a sight to see as Grayling were shooting out of the water in every direction as the trout made its charge. Fortunately the big grey managed to flip itself back into the water without our assistance.
My first of many encounters with this unique fish took place on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, but I have also caught them throughout Alaska and Nunavut. Fishing for Thymallus can be very frustrating at times because they have this annoying habit of either being overly compliant - they will at times attack a soggy old cigar butt with great enthusiasm - or developing an advanced case of lock jaw and will only hit one very obscure fly pattern - which you can bet you will not have - and only if presented in a very particular way.
I have fished in places where there were so many - hundreds if not thousands of them - rising after floating bugs, that it looked like rain dimpling the surface of the water and, true to their nature, I could not catch a single fish. At other times no matter what I tossed at them, flies, small spoons or spinners, they would attack it with a vengeance. Because they will try - and at times succeed - to outwit you, if you want to get the better of them, you are going to have to be very patient. Don't let it get you down that your first two or three thousand casts, right into the middle of a large school, went completely unnoticed, just keep trying because eventually they will get over being finicky and begin to feed like a school of hungry Piranha. That's when the old cigar butt will come in handy if you either run out of lures, or just want to see if I was pulling your leg.
Life can present some real challenges if you happen to fall into the category of prey. Being prey is not something Thymallus is likely all that enthusiastic about, but when prey transitions into bait, it can be very entertaining for the angler.I know of at least two instances where a very large Lake Trout was landed after it tried to swallow a Grayling that was being reeled in on ultra-lite tackle. Those battles went on for well over an hour because the big trout was unwilling to relinquish its prize.
There are also other surprises waiting for you when you get onto a school of Grayling. While a big trout will occasionally jump into the fray, there are also numerous small trout in the three to twelve pound range that like to swim along in the midst of the schools. Although some of these interlopers will snack on a Grayling or two, most are just content to hang out, as there is safety in numbers, because even a twelve pound trout is prey on many large northern lakes. These trout tend to bully the Grayling out of the way when you drop your lure into the water, with the result that you are in for a much longer fight than would likely have been the case had the Grayling arrived there first.
To illustrate the point, early one afternoon I was using my ultra-lite rig and tossing a small jig into the shallows in the hope of catching a few Grayling before lunch. I got a light hit on my second cast, set the hook and began to reel in. It didn't seem like much of a fish, and at that point I was not sure if it was a small Trout or a Grayling. My guide leaned over for a look and, with a broad grin covering his entire face said, "We are going to be here for a while." Taking a look for myself, I saw a very large Trout casually swimming past the boat with my jig just visible in its mouth. An hour and three quarters later we landed and released a twenty three pound laker.
During the entire time, I was on the receiving end of all manner of abuse and uncomplimentary remarks from both my fishing partner and the guys in another boat who we had planned to have lunch with. They made it very clear that they wanted their lunch now, and were not all that enamoured with having to wait around forever for me to land my fish. If I heard someone yell, "Cut the line" once, I heard it fifty times.
Now, I don't want to leave you with the impression that Thymallus Arcticus doesn't give a good account of itself when it comes to putting up a fight. On the contrary, pound for pound they can hold their own with anything that swims in those waters, and they are capable of long runs and spectacular aerobatics. If you happen to catch them in fast water, they use their long dorsal fin much to their advantage. While a two pound Grayling is considered a large fish in most waters, if you happen to be fishing them on Great Bear Lake, it doesn't even warrant a second glance. It's not uncommon to find yourself casting into a school of fish where the average size is three pounds or better.
Catching fish of that size on virtually every cast, using light tackle, should be enough for even the most voracious angler. Throw in half a dozen ten pound trout and you're going to need some heat rub to soothe your tired old worn out arm at the end of the day.
For those of you who think that it's not that big of a deal to catch a mess of three pound fish that are merely the runts of the salmon family, just remember one thing. At least one Sturgeon Class attack submarine has carried the name USS Grayling. Have you ever heard tell of a submarine named the USS King Salmon?
Harold BallThis story and many more like it can be found by reading Harold's book More Tales from Cabin 14 and several other exotic places.