Arctic Grayling Flyfishing in Canada’s Northwest Territories

A wall of mist was moving down the valley, pushing a nearby herd of Muskox away to the north, along with anything with the sense to stay warm and dry.

But, that lack of sense is what had got me here in the first place:

Walking a tiny creek at the bottom of a hundred-foot cliff in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Back up the cliff and down the slope on the other side was the town of Norman Wells, built on the shores of the might MacKenzie River.

The other way led up a gentle slope to a set of peaks in the Franklin Mountains, a sharp drop off the other side and then eight hundred kilometers of tundra.

I’d caught arctic grayling before this – I’d even guided for them further south.

There was something magical about chasing grayling in the arctic in bright sunlight at 11:00 PM.
And getting a little bit wet wasn’t going to change that one bit.

Arctic Grayling Fishing Basics

Arctic Grayling (Thymallus arcticus) are part of the salmon family and endemic to far Northern North America and Siberia, though their range extends south along the Rocky Mountains into the continental United States.

It’s worth noting that there are Grayling in Europe as well (Thymallus thymallus), but they’re a different species.  The Arctic variety is notable for having no dorsal and anal spines and for being a little bigger.

They’re a unique a beautiful species, flashy silver and spotted, with that tall, spotted dorsal fin – bigger and brighter on the males than the females – waving lazily in the current if you can see them in the water.  I’ve heard them called the sailfish of the North and in some respects that seems apt.  They’ve got the sail and they can fight like mad when they’re hooked.

When I guided on the southern reaches of the MacKenzie River, we’d routinely catch Arctic Grayling in the 20 to 22-inch range.  I’ve even heard of fish approaching 30 inches, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite that big.  Back home in Alberta, they’re often a small fish, and a 20-inch fish would be rare, indeed.

On this small creek, I’m not expecting much more than the size of my hand.

Choosing The Right Flies For Arctic Grayling

Despite the mysterious reputation they have, Arctic Grayling are not a finicky or picky fish.  In fact, compared to most trout species that fly anglers encounter, they’re far easier to catch.

On this day, I’ve got just a handful of flies with me. I’m a pretty firm believer in keeping things simple.

  • a few parachute Adams – the parachute variety because I can never seem to see the damn things
  • a few humpies
  • a couple of blue winged olives
  • a black gnat.

I probably miss the odd fish by not having quite the right fly to make a perfect match, but, then again, I spend a lot of time with a fly – any fly – on the water, so maybe that makes up for it.  Either way, I catch enough fish to keep me happy.

The humpies are a favourite back home.  They’re certainly not a match-the-hatch fly.  In fact, I’m not certain what they’re supposed to be at all.  Whatever the case, they work.  I’ve got them in both yellow and red.  I’ve always had a little more success with the red, but I’ve never kept close enough track to know whether that’s just confirmation bias or whether it’s really a trend.

Red Humpy

Ordinarily, I’d have some nymphs, too.  Ticking a nymph or two along the bottom underneath an indicator is a fantastic way to catch grayling.  If you’re not a fly fisherman, the same effect can be had by drifting a very small Mepps spinner along the rocks on the bottom of deep runs.

The truth is, I had a box of nymphs ready to go and I forgot them in my room.  But I’m trying to be gentle with myself.  I’m out here for the experience, after all, and catching a lot of fish isn’t necessarily the point today.  At least, that’s the line I’m going with.


Rod And Reel Choice

I’m carrying a 9-foot 5 weight Echo Carbon XL, paired with an old, battered Redington Crosswater Reel.  It’s a little too much rod for this expedition, but the only other rod I brought is a hefty 7-weight for fishing the MacKenzie itself.  It’s loaded with Rio floating line, though my casts are so short that I barely get past my leader.

This little creek would lend itself well to a short 3-weight.  If I work far enough down the valley, I’ll get back into overhanging timber and the short rod would come in handy.  Up here, it’s all sedges and snowberry, so there’s nothing to hamper my casting and the 5 weight is fine, if a little too much rod for such short casts.

Sunny despite the time of the day

Flyfishing For Arctic Grayling

The mist had closed in around me and it wasn’t long before I was soaking wet.  It kept the bugs down too, which was nice for walking, but didn’t bode so well for my single box of dries.  Still, I pressed on down the valley.

Several hundred meters further on, I found a neat little corner pool – not especially deep, but definitely fishy looking.  My first cast was a little too far out into the current, but the second drifted a size 16 Red Humpy right in.  And, just like that, a little Northern magic happened – a quick splash and the fly went under.

It wasn’t much, no bigger than my hand.  But, then again, I wasn’t out today to flyfish for monsters.  There wouldn’t even be any ridiculous grip-and-grin photo with a tiny fish as the mist was making things wet enough that I didn’t want my phone out.

It didn’t matter much though.  A single tiny Arctic Grayling was a perfect close to a misty, wet subarctic night.

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