Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Home of the Grayling

The rare Montana version of the Arctic grayling.
I've often said brook trout have an unparalleled life force, a desire for survival that might not be matched, at least in the trout realm. I still hold that to be true, but I've acquired a new respect for what is likely the rarest of the coldwater fishes here in the contiguous United States.

Arctic grayling still persist in the extreme headwaters of the Missouri River drainage–the only Lower 48 basin where the grayling is native. That they can still be occasionally caught in the Big Hole River or in the lakes and creeks of Montana's Centennial Valley is nothing short of a miracle. Considering the West's record with water and how it's channeled, tunneled, diverted, fouled by livestock and sprayed over crops, it's easier to imagine a Montana without grayling than the one we have today, where this amazing fish hangs on by a thread.

Delicate? No. Imperiled? Yes.
Some call them fragile ... delicate. I disagree. Granted, they're not the most adaptable fish, but their evolution explains their desire for the coldest, cleanest water and the need to swim alongside the salmonid cousins with which they developed. In waters that have been degraded in one fashion or another, or where non-native trout have been introduced, the grayling is in real trouble. But in waters that are in good shape, and where they can share the pools and riffles with native west slope cutthroat trout, grayling are doing quite well.

The last, best ... home of the grayling.
Earlier this week, I got the chance to chase grayling–an opportunity almost as rare as the fish themselves. I got to stand in the cold, clear water of a southern Montana stream and cast to a fish that managed to find a place to swim once the glaciers from the last ice age retreated north. Here, in the Last, Best Place, I managed to catch a handful of the last native grayling in the Lower 48.

Contrary to their slim and feminine exterior, grayling are solid fish. Their thick, silvery skin feels like a coat of chain mail, and they fight well when hooked. What's more, they struggle and yearn for freedom when they finally come to hand. They twitch and writhe and squirm like no other, desperate to be back in the depths of a green pool, where they'll look up again for a meal that, hopefully, won't bite back.

They may not possess the multiplication skills that earned brookies such a bad rap, but grayling do have an admirable desire to swim free in western waters where they evolved as the last of their kind.

Appreciate the grayling for it's life force. It's admirable and strong. Remember, too, that these rarest of the rare are in real trouble in their native range. If you have the chance to visit the Missouri River headwaters tucked into the remote corners of southwest Montana, fish lightly and with a purpose. Give the grayling its due, and be sure to release them alive and well in the cold, clean water from which they came.


  1. Sure is one amazing fish that I have yet to chase. Nice write up, glad you had the opportunity.

  2. On my "yet to" list too. Beautiful, beautiful fish and country...

  3. There used to be grayling in Michigan as well, but, alas, they are no more...

  4. What a great time for all last week. I enjoyed everyone's posts...Those grayling are on my list to catch one day!