Shades of Grayling

By Tom Gruenwald

Few things can be compared with the excitement of fishing new water, especially when the occasion involves a chance to tangle with an unfamiliar species.

Such was the case on a recent trip to Kalispell, Montana, where I met up with my good friend and outfitter, Mike Howe of Howe’s Fishing/A-Able Charters. Being a Midwestern ice angler, my time is typically filled with the hot pursuit of bluegills, walleye or pike, while Mike spends the majority of his fishing hours pursuing trout in deep, cold mountain waters.

But our differences aside, one trait we share is a penchant for new challenges. A number of suggestions were pitched in passing conversation, but when Mike brought up arctic grayling, my heart skipped a beat. This unique representative of the mountain west was somewhat of a mystery to me, a rare gem, one I’d only heard about, mostly within fly fishing realms and adventure stories appearing in outdoor magazines consisting of incredible trips to remote places.

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He had my full attention. In fact, he had to slow me down as I suddenly began unloading a barrage of questions: How many lakes actually offer fishable populations, and how difficult are they to access? Are they widely sought in winter? What is their average size? How deep do you generally find them? Do they school? What special equipment, if any, is required to catch them?

All these questions and more were addressed as we considered our options. Mike went on to review some of the opportunities available in the Kalispell area, and that yes, grayling remain active throughout the winter. The longer we spoke, the more engrossed I became. Before our conversation closed we had formulated a plan: We would try ice fishing for grayling.

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Since neither of us would contend to be acclaimed grayling anglers, we arranged to meet a mutual friend from Kalispell, Tony Anderson, an accomplished ice angler well-versed with fishing grayling, and Jim Vashro, a retired Montana fisheries biologist extremely knowledgeable about Thymallus arcticus.

Both are already on the ice when we arrive at the lake. No fish yet we’re told, but they’re cautiously optimistic. As I begin unpacking my gear, Tony speaks passionately about his admiration for grayling, and the stout resistance one provides on light fly tackle. “I’ve had days in the spring where I’ve had to leave the lake early,” he grins, “simply because my wrists were so sore from catching fish!”

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He details how hooked grayling turn broadside, raise their elongated dorsal fins and stubbornly oppose even the staunchest pressure applied by even the most accomplished anglers skillfully using elite fly rods. “And,” he adds wryly, “they’re kind of fun when hooked on a light action ice rod, too.”

I’m looking forward to finding out, but before dropping a line I walk over by Jim, who has wasted no time hunkering down over a hole, intently focused on his presentation. He also possesses a hearty fascination with grayling—but his passion stems from a very different perspective. During his tenure as a biologist for the state of Montana, his Magnum Opus was the restoration of what was once a thriving native grayling fishery on a system negatively affected by an ill-advised introduction of yellow perch. It was upon these very waters we now stood–and the resonant success of his project quickly became obvious.

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Jim has barely lowered a jig to explore a new hole when his rod suddenly registers a bite. It’s a light one, and continuing effort doesn’t convince the fish to come back. However, like any good angler, Jim stays on task, and moments later he’s rewarded with the day’s first grayling. His light action ice rod bows deeply to the powerful, thrashing fish, but he skillfully battles back, and soon a flopping, darkly speckled, grayish-bronze streaked fish featuring a broad, heightened turquoise spotted dorsal fin appears, splashing at the hole.

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Grand! The extra large dorsal fin indicates this foot long beauty is a male, our biologist reveals, as he begins outlining a number of interesting facts about arctic grayling, followed by a brief moment of silent adoration before gently easing the fish back into the water.

Its tail has barely disappeared from sight when Tony suddenly drops his rod, springs to his feet, and hollering, dashes toward his Jaw Jacker. This unique, crow-footed rod holder allows users to place rods within them in a “loaded” position by hooking the tip-top within a trigger mechanism. Whenever a fish bites, the trigger is released, causing the rod tip to snap up sharply and set the hook, and this system works nearly to perfection. Picking up his deeply lunging rod, Tony begins fighting another fish.

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Allowed two lines, Tony and Jim each have one Jaw Jacker set while independently jigging with a second rod, their efforts focused within holes concentrated alongside a branchy, downfallen spruce stretching out from shore into about ten feet of water. Both are using dark colored, hand tied jig-flies of Jim’s personal design, crafted to represent one of two common and preferred forms of forage on this particular body of water: Leeches or insect larvae. To add flavor, scent and subtle movement, their hooks are each graced with a juicy, writhing maggot, and they’re fishing relatively close to bottom, using gentle, methodic finesse movements.

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Jim offers both Mike and I one of his hand-tied creations, and graciously, we each accept. They don’t take long to prove their worth, either, as Mike promptly hooks a nice grayling, and shortly thereafter, I latch into one, too—sequences repeated several times throughout a highly successful afternoon.

I’ve found few things compare with the full color excitement of a new ice fishing challenge; such experiences are always held in high regard–and yes, in this case, these colors appear in various shades of grayling.

Be sure to watch this all-new episode of TGO, Tom Gruenwald Outdoors, coming soon on Sportsman Channel! Check local listings for specific air dates and times.