Chasing Grayling

By Randy Scholfield

I was recently in Ennis, Montana, attending a TU staff retreat, and after a day of meetings, everyone was ready to get on the Madison River.  I was eagerly anticipating joining the river rush, chucking streamers at the Madison’s famous wild browns and rainbows.

Then my colleague Tim leaned over and confided that he was told about a lake up in the mountains that had grayling. He’d never caught a grayling—neither had I. Did I want to go along and try to get one? He had directions. . .

Thirty minutes later, we were bouncing and weaving along a rocky road in a rental car (don’t tell them), straddling deep-gouged ruts and dodging oil-pan-killing rocks. Tim glanced at me and observed in his understated way, “This is a bit sketchy.”

But he kept driving. There was no going back. It was grayling or death.

I was the navigator. That was Tim’s first mistake.  “We take a left, a left, and then a right” I said, squinting at a not-to-scale map scribbled on the back of a repurposed meeting agenda.  We apparently took the wrong right, because the road got rougher and finally petered out out in a high rocky meadow.

“We missed the turn somewhere. This isn’t right,” I said, mastering the obvious. A sense of doom settled over our mission.

The color was slowly draining out of our grayling dream.

We retraced our path down the mountain, treated to spectacular views of the Madison Valley below, and eventually figured out the right right turn—and then the road got really nasty. I had to get out and play the tarmac-guide, waving him through a gauntlet of ruts and mud holes.

We drove a few more miles, and then we were there--a glimpse of blue water told us we had arrived. A short hike took us to a cluster of lakes that, we were told, held distinct fish populations—one offered cutthroats, another big rainbows, and a third grayling. We headed straight for grayling. It was time to check this off our life list.

Tying on a small nymph, I saw a dozen or more sleek forms cruise by in the shallows right in front of me.

Arctic grayling are a fascinating species--a native of North America, they are found mainly in Alaska and Northwest Canada. They once were native to Michigan and Montana in the lower 48. They've gone extinct in Michigan, but Montana still has lake and river populations in several watersheds, and the state wildlife agency is working to bring them back. Lewis and Clark discovered grayling on their expedition West in 1805, remarking on the "new kind of white or silvery trout."

They're best known for their outlandishly large, winglike dorsal fin, which during spawning can take on brilliant hues and make them look like a magical creature you'd expect to pull out of a lake in Tolkien's Middle Earth.

“Got one!” Tim call outed, down the bank. Within minutes, Tim had caught several. It took me longer to get one. I was beginning to worry that I would be cruelly denied by the Grayling Gods. Finally, my indicator jerked downward.  While the grayling we caught were not large, it was a thrill to bring one of these beauties to hand. These fish were grayish white and not particularly colorful, but Tim did capture in a photo some of the flash in the dorsal fin:

Yes, fishing for wild trout in the Madison is a thrill, too—but that was for another day. Chasing grayling was something we couldn’t do just anywhere.

The chance to catch a rare, exotic fish, in a spectacular mountain setting, off the beaten track, and experience a unique angling adventure—isn’t that what we love about natives?


Randy Scholfield is TU’s communications director for the Southwest region.


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