While the aforementioned Thymallus arcticus, or Arctic Grayling, clearly bears no resemblance to a salmon whatsoever, these scrappy little guys are actually members of the salmon, or Salmonidae family.
In my quest to find out more about this unique freshwater fish, I came across an article explaining 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 Thymallus arcticus is now, for the most part, restricted to the far north. The primary reason being, that they are great barometers of water quality. In those areas that have cold, well-oxygenated, pollutant free water, you will find them in abundance, otherwise they will simply disappear.
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, iridescent pink and mauve.
Grayling are found in both lakes and fast running streams, and being rather sociable in nature, tend to travel in schools. Therefore, if you see or catch one, it’s a very good bet there will be others close by.
In lakes, they usually stay close to shore, in relatively shallow water where there is likely to be some cover. Otherwise, they might just as well have a big bull’s-eye painted on them, because you can bet that a hungry Lake Trout, or big Northern will be lurking nearby, as a two or three pound, thyme flavored Grayling makes an excellent snack. This probably explains why they always appear to have an anxious, worried look on their faces.
I recall watching a rather impatient twenty-pound lake 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 sandy 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 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 excessively 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. In the unlikely event you do have the correct fly, they will only “rise to the occasion,” if it’s presented in a very particular way.
I have fished in places where there were so many – hundreds, if not thousands - rising after floating insects, 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, regardless of what I tossed at them, flies, small spoons or spinners, they would attack it with a vengeance.
Life can present some real challenges if you happen to fall into the category of prey, but when prey transitions into bait, it can be very entertaining for the angler. I know of several instances where a large Lake Trout was landed, after it tried to swallow a Grayling that was being reeled in on light tackle. Those battles went on for well over an hour, because the big trout was unwilling to relinquish its prize.
While they may be relatively small in stature, when it comes to their fighting qualities, pound for pound, they can hold their own with anything that swims in our Arctic waters. Grayling are capable of long runs and spectacular aerobatics, and if you happen to catch them in fast water, they use their long dorsal fin much to their advantage.
For those of you who may think that it’s not that big a deal to catch a mess of two to 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 of an attack submarine named after the King Salmon?