Guide Confessions: Thoughts on the Lady of the River

Izaak Walton’s “Observations of the Umber or Grayling, and directions how to fish for them”:

PISC. The Umber and Grayling are thought by some to differ as the Herring and Pilcher do: But though they may do so in other Nations, I think those in England differ nothing but in their names. Aldrovandas sayes, they be of a Trout kind: and Gesner sayes, that in his Countrey (which is Swisserland) he is accounted the choicest Fish. And in Italy, he is in the month of May so highly valued, that he is sold then at a much higher rate than any other Fish. The French (which call the Chub Un Villain) call the Umber of the Lake Lemon, Un Umble Chevaliere; and they value the Umber or Grayling so highly, that they say he feeds on Gold, and that many have been caught out of their famous River of Loyre, out of whose bellies grains of gold have been often taken. And some think that he feeds on Water-time, and smells so at his first taking out of the water; and they may think so with as good reason as we do, that our Smelts smell like Violets at their being first caught; which I think is a truth. Aldrovandus sayes, the Salmon, the Grayling, and Trout, and all Fish that live in clear and sharp streams, are made by their mother Nature of such exact shape and pleasant colours, purposely to invite us to a joy and contentednesse in feasting with her. Whether this is a truth or not, is not my purpose to dispute; but ’tis certain, all that write of the Umber declare him to be very medicinable. And Gesner sayes, that the fat of a Grayling being set with a little Honey a day or two in the Sun in a little glass, is very excellent against redness, or any thing that breeds in the eyes. Salvian takes him to be called Umber from his swift swimming or gliding out of sight, more like a shadow or a ghost than a fish. Much more might be said both of the smell and taste, but I shall only tell you, that S. Ambrose the glorious Bishop of Milan (who liv’d when the Church kept Fasting days) calls him the flowre fish, or flowre of fishes, and that he was so far in love with him, that he would not let him pass without the honour of a long Discourse; but I must; and pass on to tell you how to take this dainty fish.

First, Note, That he grows not to the bigness of a Trout; for the biggest of them do not usually exceed eighteen inches, he lives in such Rivers as the Trout does, and is usually taken with the same baits as the Trout is, and after the same manner; for he will bite both at the Minnow, or Worm, or Fly, (though he bites not often at the Minnow) and is very gamesome at the Fly, and much simpler, and therefore bolder than a Trout; for he will rise twenty times at a fly, if you miss him, and yet rise again. He has been taken with a fly made of the red feathers of a Parraketa, a strange outlandish bird, and he will rise at a fly not unlike a gnat or a small moth, or indeed, at most flies that are not too big. He is a Fish that lurks close all winter, but is very pleasant and jolly after mid-April, and in May, and in the hot months: he is of a fine shape, his flesh is white, his teeth, those little ones that he has are in his throat, yet he has so tender a mouth, that he is oftner lost after an Angler has hooked him than any other Fish. Though there be many of these Fishes in Trent, and some other smaller rivers, as that which runs by Salisbury, yet he is not so general a Fish as the Trout, nor to me so good to eat or to Angle for. And so I shall take my leave of him, and come to some Observations of the Salmon, and how to catch him.

– From Chapter 6 of “The Compleat Angler, Or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation” by Izaak Walton.

The above script is an excerpt from the writings of Izaak Walton, the father of fresh water fishing in the UK. It is about the grayling, as I am sure you have already surmised. As far as the salmon and how to catch him, you will have to read The Compleat Angler.

But anyway, I digress.

The grayling is a much-sought-after fish in European circles, and in some countries, like Poland, prized more than the brown trout! Although the Arctic Grayling is not as revered in North America as I and a few other anglers would like, the fact is that Alaska has the largest grayling in the world — and plenty of them!

They are a very forgiving fish and take the dry fly and nymph enthusiastically. Mind you, on some days and some rivers they will be as challenging as the rainbow trout that you all seek on your visits to the Northwest. Many a guiding day has been saved with their appearance and eagerness to take a fly when the trout are hard to find. For the novice fly caster or for the complete neophyte, she is the perfect quarry to introduce you to the joys of dry fly fishing.

I call the grayling a “she” because in the old country we call her the “Lady of the River”.
If one looks at the myriad of colours on her dorsal fin, you will understand. To see the mating dance of a pair circling one another down the river like a couple of sailfish rounding up bait fish is a sight to see and remember!

Grayling are found in just about all the rivers that Alaska Rainbow Lodge fishes, one, in particular, is the Featherly, which flows into Lake Becharof about a one-hour flight from the lodge. Here there be monsters!!! I have seen grayling that I thought were char! And the char get up to 28 inches.

This river is one of my favorites. I have never taken a client fishing there that has not loved it. The terrain is flat, so no uphill hikes and the plane is always on hand. The fish are not easy!! The best way to fish for them is to walk the river watching for a rise. If you can get an accurate cast into its feeding lane she will take readily. Miss that opportunity and you will have to wait for a few more minutes for another show.

Some years ago we spotted a very large fish steadily rising. The client cast and cast but never got his fly into the feeding lane. Got it into the trees a few times, bushes behind him, back of his head!!!! I was filming the whole episode and the rest of the group were in hysterics!

Finally, he got his fly into the lane, the fish took and at that exact moment the memory on my SD card ran out! AAAARRHHGG!!! So no record of the piscatorial finale was recorded. But at least we had great footage to that final moment. When the fish was landed it measured out to 20 inches.

My biggest fish caught by a client from the Featherly was 22 inches: a monster by any standards. But the fish was so distressed after measuring we needed to get her back into the water, and any photos would have distressed her more.

Sometimes the grayling are so aggressive they have taken a large Thingamebobber indicator while we were fishing beads for the char!

One time casting a mouse pattern for the char we took a very nice fish.

Grayling might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some of my colleague guides like to mock my passion for this lady, but Alaska is the only place in the world—and especially the Featherly, Ugashik river systems—you could confidently try to break all the fly line tackle records in one day. If you could land them, that is. Incidentally, the world record comes from the Ugashik river: 23 inches and 4 pounds, 13 ounces! The grayling is protected here so all fish are returned.

I am sure that if we took you grayling fishing you would be surprised and amazed at the sport they can give.

Rest my case your honour!!!