ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Grayling

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 2/10/21

As readers of this column by an author who is resident of the Hudson Valley and fishes the Catskill region almost exclusively, you might reasonably ask, why a piece about grayling? A good question, …

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ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Grayling

Posted

As readers of this column by an author who is resident of the Hudson Valley and fishes the Catskill region almost exclusively, you might reasonably ask, why a piece about grayling? A good question, especially since the species was never native to New York or even the Eastern United States, for that matter. That being said, grayling are a unique species in that, historically, they were found in only two locations in the lower 48.

Like our eastern brook trout, grayling require cold, clean water; they are susceptible to habitat change and are easily exploited by angling. Grayling, like our brook trout, have been extirpated from almost all their former range in the United States. At one time, there were decent populations on Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas and in portions of Montana. On the world scene, graylings are widely distributed and can be found in several countries including Russia and Great Britain, along with western Canada and Alaska. There are about six species.

Grayling are unique among salmonid fishes in that they look more like whitefish than trout or salmon, with small mouths and large scales. They are distinguished from whitefish, however, by the purple cast of their bodies and beautiful, multicolored, large dorsal fins. In some rivers, grayling have a tendency to shoal (school). Like trout, grayling feed on a variety of insects and small crustaceans. They come readily to the dry fly and can be taken on nymphs and wet flies. Graylings in North America are classified as Thymallus articus. At one time, the Montana grayling was classified as Thymallus transmonta. For some reason, the species name was changed years ago.

In the 1870s, anglers from all over came to Michigan to fish its Au Sable River for grayling. Literature indicates that grayling were taken by the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, during that era. They make a fine meal and so were packed in ice and sent off to market by the ton. In his book “On The History of Trout Planting and Fish Management in Michigan,” F.A. Westerman wrote, “One spring, the grayling were running up the Heresy [River]. We noted they had some difficulty passing an obstruction in the stream, so we placed a canoe crosswise at that point and caught over seven hundred one afternoon.” At the same time, fishermen promoted the slaughter of these beautiful fish, lumbermen came to the uplands, cut much of the timber, denuded the land, built large mills and floated logs down the rivers inhabited by grayling. Spring runoff, from the barren lands, created siltation which covered grayling spawning beds.

By 1885, grayling had disappeared from the Au Sable River. Many years later, attempts at reintroduction from other sources into several Michigan lakes and rivers failed. This sad saga sounds a lot like what occurred with our eastern brook trout here in the Catskills during that exact time period. Same story, different location; habitat degradation, along with overfishing, led to brook trout decimation.

In Montana, the historic, fluvial (river) populations of grayling were found in almost all the rivers in the upper Missouri drainage. That included the Sun, Smith, Gallatin, Jefferson Big Hole, Red Rock, Ruby and Madison rivers. These days, grayling are found in only a few rivers and their tributaries; a 60-mile section of the Big Hole River, a small section of the Madison and a few tributaries of the upper Red Rock Lake. Indigenous populations are also found in Miner Lake and in Mussigbrod Lake in the Big Hole drainage. According to literature, grayling now occupy about 10 percent of their original range in Montana. Grayling populations were impacted by habitat change, the introduction of brown and rainbow trout and overfishing. Flow manipulation for agriculture purposes in the Big Hole River drainage also had an impact on grayling populations. Agreements between farmers and the State of Montana have mitigated that issue.

Montana has listed grayling populations as a “species of concern” due to their decline over the years.

On the plus side, several lakes and ponds in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming have been stocked with hatchery-reared grayling. There are excellent populations in Alaska and the Northwest territories. Grayling also thrive and Great Britain, with good populations in the Chalk streams of the West Country. So it appears that the Brits have done a much better job at protecting and managing grayling than we have. Perhaps that is because most of the grayling fisheries are in private hands, and those rivers have been cherished and protected for centuries.

While at the University of Montana, I had the opportunity and privilege to fish for these beautiful salmonids in Harper’s Lake, a small water body, northeast of Missoula. At that time, Harper’s Lake was stocked with grayling. We caught a few on a variety of lures, including wet flies and nymphs. We kept one or two after the first trip and found grayling to be excellent eating. A review of Montana’s stocking program determined that the species is no longer planted in that lake.

So why write about Grayling in River Reporter? Most anglers love to fish for rare species. It’s a challenge and there is an inner calling for us to try. So if you are in Southwest Montana, Alaska, or even England and plan to fish, make sure you look up these beautiful, fairly rare members of the salmon family.

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