Fishing for the Arctic Grayling by Lisa Densmore
Location: Delta Clearwater River, Alaska
As I savored another fork-full of the succulent silver salmon at the Black Rapids Lodge south of Delta Junction, Alaska, the innkeepers, Michael and Annie Hopper, nodded knowingly as I recalled my first encounter the day before with a different salmonid, native Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus).
“Did you taste any of the grayling you caught?” they asked.
“No. Reiny, my guide, mentioned possibly keeping a small one as an appetizer while we camped, but he never did,” I said. Reinhard Neuhauser, an Austrian racer who came to the University of Alaska to compete then never left, revered Arctic grayling for their look and their fight. He fished only with barbless hooks and immediately released whatever anyone on his raft landed.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website calls Arctic grayling, “one of the most beautiful freshwater fishes of Alaska.” While grayling are certainly intriguing for their oversized dorsal fin, I personally find spawning brook trout the Miss America of the inland piscine world. It’s hard to peg “most beautiful” on a species that has such a wide range of colorations from location to location. The ones in the Delta Clearwater River were silver and gold with pale speckles between the golden strips on their telltale “sail”, but others might have red, aqua and purple markings on their dorsal fin, and their sides might be black, silver, gold or blue. They might have black freckles or not on their sides and head, but they all have that huge dorsal fin.
I wondered why Artic grayling developed such a large appendage on their back compared to other salmonids, so I took a number of underwater shots of this North American native, so rare in the Lower 48 yet so popular among anglers in Alaska. It appears that grayling use their dorsal fin as a stabilizer which they can raise or contract as needed. The fin also flexes with the current, rarely completely straight up, but that’s the limit of my observations. The dorsal fin on other coldwater fish species also acts as a stabilizer but they aren’t nearly as large or showy. Do you know why an Artic grayling’s dorsal fin is so large?