Finally, after years of trying, I have completed my Quest for the Holy Grayling.
Catching the elusive arctic grayling has long been near the top of my life list of “Things to Do Before I Die.”
People from Alaska will snicker at this. Arctic grayling are as common as mosquitoes in the Far North.
But fly-fishers in the Lower 48 might understand. In the Rocky Mountains, the arctic grayling is an uncommon and “at-risk” fish, evoking cold, crystal-clear alpine waters. You will find the species only in high and remote places.
It’s in the salmonid family (along with trout and salmon) and it looks and acts a little like a cutthroat trout, and even more like a mountain whitefish, except it has a showy, iridescent “sail” – a giant dorsal fin.
Think of it as a miniature sailfish.
Besides the Far North, grayling were originally native to streams high in Montana – the upper Missouri River drainages, including the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers. Lewis and Clark called them “white or silvery trout.”
Today, some native river-dwelling grayling are hanging on in the Big Hole, due to a recent restoration effort. Meanwhile, hatchery grayling have been stocked in a few high lakes, where they thrive in the absence of competition from rainbow trout, brook trout and brown trout.
I never realized how much I wanted to catch one until, several years ago, my wife and I hiked into a lake in Yellowstone National Park. I had, appallingly, left my fishing pole behind because I didn’t think the lake would have any piscine attractions. So I remember standing there, jaw agape, watching another hiker catch grayling after grayling on a fly. It looked like fun and the fish were beautiful. It also seemed exotic, with a whiff of the high Yukon.
Then, a year or two later, I went to Alaska. My goals were to catch a salmon and grayling. I caught neither. The reasons are both complicated and humiliating. All that matters is this: It just fueled my grayling obsession.
Then I found out that there was an alpine lake, Fuse Lake, in the Sapphire Mountains near the top of Skalkaho Pass (directly east of Hamilton, Mont.) that was supposedly loaded with arctic grayling. I called the nearest ranger station and asked if it was true. The reply was a semi-encouraging, “I think so.”
I started making plans for an expedition.
Like most grayling lakes, it’s high and hard to get to. But not as hard as most. Montana’s Highway 38 takes you all the way to the top of Skalkaho Pass. It’s steep, narrow, closed in the winter – and well into spring. But in high summer, the average passenger car can handle it. From Highway 38, just a few miles east of the summit, you can hike in on a trail 2½ miles to Fuse Lake.
The first time, I had to scuttle the trip because it was June and the trail was still snow-drifted. The second time, I had to scuttle the trip because of forest fires.
This most recent time, I should have scuttled the trip. It was the middle of August, yet windy, rainy with a snow level of 8,000 feet. Fuse Lake is at 7,659 feet.
And did I say that the trail was “easy”? I suppose it was, by comparison to most alpine trails, but it was uphill the entire way – and rocky, wet and slippery on the day I backpacked in.
When I arrived at the lake, another squall was screaming through. The beautiful, blue-green 10-acre lake was wind-whipped into waves. Casting for grayling was out of the question.
The low point came the next morning when I was morosely trying to start a campfire in the 35-degree dawn. Then I looked up and saw it: A dimple on the suddenly still and rainless lake.
I stood up and stared some more. Another dimple. Then a fish came all the way out of the water, attacking a bug. More jumpers followed.
With freezing fingers I tied on a Griffith’s Gnat, a tiny black fly that, I hoped, would look like whatever the fish were eating. I lofted it out into the lake, where it sat for two seconds until – BAM – a fish rocketed up from the bottom and grabbed it.
I had hooked my first arctic grayling.
It zipped to the left, zipped to the right, and then jumped out of the water and did a tailwalk. I began to understand why people think grayling are so much fun to fish – they’re hungry for dry flies and they fight like rainbows.
It was probably a 10-incher. I pulled it in, fanned out its showy sail for a moment and then released it.
Then I tossed out the Griffith’s Gnat again and another fish came racing upward through the clear water. Grayling don’t seem to approach the fly on a slant like trout; they seem to rocket straight up from the bottom. Occasionally, I’ve heard, they’ll grab the fly on the way down.
This one was a bigger, probably over 12 inches, solid and muscular.
I caught fish after fish in the next two hours, one even bigger and fatter (in Montana they normally max out at about 15 inches). To my surprise, the Fuse Lake grayling are healthy, thriving and quite amenable to dry flies. Apparently, they taste good, too, although I didn’t test that theory. I could have if I had wanted to – Fuse Lake grayling are hatchery stocked and not protected by catch-and-release regulations.
But I wasn’t there for meat. I was there to admire their pretty sails, release them back into the lake, and check off one more experience on my life list.
Suddenly, that 35-degree weather felt all warm and toasty.