The Grayling Factory – Signs and Wonders in the Arctic

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Crouching, I cast into the sort of clear, eddying pool in deep, mountain-edged wilderness that might bend any devout angler’s knee. My marabou jig swept off a gravel ledge and tumbled along the bottom, past a snag, and downstream, its movement telegraphed through my light rod and thin line.

Tap. Tap-tap. I lowered my rod tip, paused and set the hook. A pulsing weight radiated through my arm as a good fish bulled deep into the current. Then it reversed direction, a burst of power that caught me by surprise and stripped more line. Three runs, then a series of dives. When the fish finally surrendered and turned on its side, my jaw dropped.

I was expecting an Arctic grayling, but this was a behemoth of the species: nearly two feet long and two ounces shy of four pounds, the biggest I’d ever seen in more than three decades of fishing Brooks Range rivers. Sure, some grayling get bigger than that in a few select areas of Alaska (the state record is more than five pounds) but seldom this far north, where rivers remain frozen up to eight months a year.

Painted shades of metallic deep blue, with that trademark sail of a dorsal fin and flanks speckled with delicate, iridescent spots, the big male glowed like a living piece of jewelry. Carefully, I removed the hook, cradled the fish and sent him back to the river. He swam from my hands and vanished, a shadow among others at the bottom of the pool.

The very next day, several river miles downstream, I caught his near twin—a hair smaller, but still the second-largest grayling of my life. And in several spots on the same river over a two-day trip, I caught dozens of outsized grayling—big, bull-shouldered fish that left me shaking my head.

Just a great trip, right? Well, sure—but more than that. It marked a culmination of changes I’d been noticing on that particular river, which I know better than any single body of water on earth. There were always lots of grayling there; I sometimes caught 50 without moving. But back in the early 1980s, the average weight was far less than today. I look back at old snapshots and there’s no doubt: What used to be an exceptional fish in this neck of the woods is now just above average.

Monster grayling have to be good news, right? Sure, if they didn’t come attached to worrying portents. Just as significant as what I did catch was what I didn’t. Twenty years ago, that same river was seasonally filled with great pods of sea-run Dolly Varden char—fish that both overwintered and spawned in certain pools. You could look down and see them, some more than a yard long and more than 15 pounds.

A decade ago, I started noticing a decline of Dollies in the river—just as I started noting an increase in grayling size. It coincided with a new weather pattern: hotter, drier, longer summers. That meant shallower, warmer water, fewer temporary floods that scoured the stream bed and dark algae coating the bottom in areas that were once clean gravel. I and others began to notice living Dollies with fungal growths on their fins and tails—something we’d never seen before. Grayling obviously liked the new conditions; Dollies didn’t.

None of this happened at once, or everywhere; but it was noticeable in that particular Kobuk tributary, which I’d say is a bit warmer than some. I’m not a fisheries biologist, and I’m not suggesting a regional die-off of sea-run Dollies, nor the general rise of monster grayling (though reports from fishing guides on the Noatak, 150 miles to the north, indicate they, too, are encountering huge grayling in unprecedented numbers). I’m just saying that over the course of 35 years, something has changed in that one river that I know and love—and I suspect it’s directly related to scientifically documented, widespread warming in the western Arctic that far exceeds the worldwide pace. I can’t help but squint to the horizon and wonder what lies over it—not just for a species or two, but all of us.