Arctic Grayling
By Sam Lungren

Quick Facts


Arctic Grayling, Thymallus arcticus


Six to 20 inches

All-Tackle World Record: 5 pounds 15 ounces, Katseyedie River, Canada, 1967




Large sail-like dorsal fin, vibrant coloration, athletic jumps, non-selectivity toward most flies.


Alaska, Western Canada, Montana


The Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) is a member of the family Salmonidae alongside trout, char, salmon, and whitefish. The genus name Thymallus derives from a reported scent of the herb thyme in these fishes’ flesh. There are 14 documented thymallid species, including the European grayling and a baker’s dozen more found across northern Asia.

While grayling can at times be choosy toward flies, they’re widely considered among the easier fish to tempt. The northern and high elevation waterways they inhabit provide relatively short feeding seasons before ice overtakes the surface and insect availability plummets. In order to beef up for the long winter ahead, grayling will regularly eat just about anything that resembles food. Dry flies, nymphs, and small streamers can be effective as the situation dictates.

But this proclivity toward aggression is only one reason why so many anglers love grayling. The chief factor might just be their stunning elegance. A sailfish in miniature, the grayling’s dorsal flares like the skirt of a Flamenco dancer, flashing red and blue spots and vermicular squiggles. Their flanks vary through their year and range from bright salmonid silver to a deep gunmetal blue-purple, with accents of orange and red on the fins and a sparse selection of spots forward toward the pectorals. It’s as aesthetic a fish as you’ll find.

The final reason, or occasion, to target grayling is when other species are sparse or not biting. Many a trout, pike, or char excursion is saved by these more reliable fish. They’re about as friendly as it gets for a fly fisher.

Various grayling species exist across northern Europe and Asia. The Arctic variety are widespread throughout Canada from Hudson Bay to the Pacific coastal mountains all the way up to the Arctic Ocean, as well as most of interior Alaska. They are native to three of the Lower 48 states—Michigan, Wyoming, and Montana—but natives remain in only two high-elevation headwater basins of the latter: the Red Rock and the Big Hole. A 100-year-old hatchery program in Grayling, Michigan, has failed to reestablish the town’s eponymous fish in a self-sustaining population.

That said, state game agencies have successfully introduced populations in all of the Western states, throughout the Northern Great Lakes states, as well as parts of New England. Grayling thrive in extremely cold, clean waters, making them well suited to the many high alpine lakes and creeks where they’ve been stocked.

Grayling seem most at home in smaller waters, like creeks and ponds, but exist in some of the largest lakes in Canada and Alaska. They may be more available and catchable in places where larger predatory fishes are scarce.

Like most salmonids, grayling exhibit multiple life history strategies. They can live and spawn their whole lives in a stream, live and spawn exclusively in lakes, or live in lakes and spawn in tributary streams. Regardless, most grayling spawn in the spring in shallow areas with fine sand and gravel. Males attempt to impress females by flashing their sail fin and will fight each other for mating rights. Fertilized eggs hatch as alevins two or three weeks later and grow rapidly their first two years of life. Grayling typically become sexually mature by age three and will live to five or six years in most places, but have been documented as old as 30 in Alaska.

Most generalist trout rigs suffice for grayling, so there’s no need to replace your go-to 5 weight. That said, grayling do not regularly run much beyond 18 inches and a pound or two. They also often inhabit small, intimate creeks and ponds more suited to the delicacy and accuracy of a 2 or 3 weight. Grayling fight fiercely and acrobatically for their size, but don’t quite have the brawn of a brown trout. A lighter, shorter rod can really take this experience to the sublime.

Though populations in large lakes and rivers may require big streamers, heavier rods, and even sinking lines, the vast majority of grayling fishing is performed in smaller confines. Most of your basic trout gear can apply. You rarely have to go super small to draw interest from grayling, but it is worth mentioning that their mouths are smaller and daintier than those of trout, so it may be harder to get a positive hookset with larger flies.

Sam Lungren Fishing

Sam Lungren
Sam Lungren grew up in the rainforests of Western Washington and began chasing the steelhead dragon at age 15. That led him on a lifelong journey in pursuit of other challenging fishes, from Costa Rica to Iceland and across the United States. His professional career has been dedicated to fueling that addiction, editing and writing about fishing, hunting, and conservation at RMEF, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, MeatEater, and Outdoor Life.