A Mecca for Arctic Grayling

Grayling have soft mouths. I didn’t want to rip the fly from the fish’s lips or tear its mouth. So I followed the heavy fish downstream instead of muscling it upstream. I really wanted to see this fish, so I kept moderate pressure on it.

A minute into the fight, the fish jumped. It was the largest grayling I’d ever seen.

A break from fishing on a warm summer day gives you time to closely observe
the tundra’s tiny plants such as these bright orangey-red, edible cloudberries.

At the time, the decades-old state record grayling, caught at Ugashik Narrows, was 23 inches long and just under five pounds. With that reference point, I doubted this fish was much longer than 20 inches.

I found a section of slow water and brought the fish in. I wet my hands, grabbed my tape measure, and took the barbless fly out of its mouth. It was a big, fat, beautiful grayling, and clearly the largest I’d ever caught: 23 ½ inches long. I couldn’t remember then, but thought that might be as long as the state record, later realizing it was a half inch longer. On the other hand, it was also way skinnier than that Ugashik Narrows grayling, and probably a pound and a half lighter. This was no state record.

With one hand, I held the fish in the water facing upstream for 20 seconds or so and with the other hand snapped a few phone camera shots I hoped would include the fish. Once when it’s gills pulsed strongly, it bolted away.

This large grayling was pretty, with teal on its dorsal fin and pink on its pectoral fins, though it wouldn’t win any beauty contests. Grayling in this region can live for 30 years and likely longer, and although a thrilling sight for me, this individual showed its age. It had an open wound towards its tail, and its dorsal fin had either been bitten or was starting to retreat from its prior rounded form. Still, the sight of this once-in-a-lifetime fish made my head buzz with adrenaline.

Grayling aren’t all there is to catch in the waters around Nome. Les Gara with a Nome-area Dolly Varden.

I spent another four hours on this stream, wading farther up, and fishing back down to the car. Sometimes the skittering foam fly would catch a fish every cast, and sometimes fish dismissed it with disinterest. I didn’t hook another grayling close to the size of that first one, but caught a few heavy ones, with big, floppier dorsal fins, all adorned with beautiful teal and pink on their fins, and all in the 12- to 20-inch range.

As I absorbed the mountain scenery surrounding me all day, I felt fortunate I could fish with no one else around on a sunny, warm afternoon. It was a good call to skip the rivers where I’d seen cars.

On the way back, as I drove by tundra-carpeted peaks and hills, and could see the Bering Sea in the distance, I thought about whether to tell Fred about the big grayling. I’d known Fred a little at the time, as a biologist I’d call with questions about fishing the Arctic, and about grayling and char biology. But we didn’t know each other well enough that I’d be certain he’d believe the unlikely story that the first fish I caught was longer than the state record.

Fred and I have since become friends. To his credit, he enthusiastically said, “If you came during a pink year that fish might have been the new state record.” Nome, like many places, gets alternating years of bigger and smaller pink runs. At the time, the bigger runs came in even-numbered years. When they run, grayling, like trout and Dolly Varden, gorge on nutrient-rich salmon eggs during spawning season. Just like the football-shaped trout on rivers like the Kenai during the fall, grayling that gorge on salmon eggs get fat.

I didn’t pause long before responding. “If I came during a pink year, I wouldn’t have hooked this fish.” I was right. I’ve probably fished 25 days on the Nome road system since that one. I’ve never caught another as big. Fred, on the other hand, has since guided a client to the new five-pound, one-ounce state record grayling on a fly-out trip to a remote Seward Peninsula stream.

Grayling can be wiped out from a stream easily. They often take many decades to repopulate. The Nome River provides a good cautionary tale. It was fished out by the 1990s and has been closed to grayling fishing since. With roughly 20 miles of highway access, those often easily caught fish couldn’t hide. The nearby Solomon River has also been closed for many years. Fred and I leave grayling to be kept by locals, and many locals release these fish too, targeting salmon for food instead.

Three roads lead in different directions out of Nome: Teller, Kougarok, and Council.

The reasons repopulation takes so long aren’t definite, according to Fred. Grayling fry are small and can easily wash downstream into the ocean during high water. He thinks that’s a challenge on the Nome River, which drains straight into the Bering Sea, with no lakes where struggling fry can find a place to rest.

But overall, Nome’s clear waters still teem with grayling. Area residents have kept these waters healthy. Whether you fish, explore other activities like hiking or birding, or just like to see new places and meet new people, I’d recommend you hop on a plane and find your way to Nome.

Les Gara has been Assistant Attorney General, representing Alaska in its case against Exxon after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill; served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 2003-2019; and writes on Alaska fishing and the outdoors. He and his wife, Kelly, have lived in Fairbanks and then Anchorage since 1988

2 of 2

← Previous