Big Game? Don’t Forget Big Grayling



The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


Outdoor adventures in Alaska’s Interior region usually rotate towards shooting sports in fall.

And it makes sense, given that big game animals are the preferred choice for many; moose, caribou and bear hunting take priority when birch leaves turn yellowish-orange and shrubs fade brown. But while most people are busy setting up moose camp or hiking to a remote spot to stalk caribou, my idea of a fall adventure keeps me waist-deep in the water.

Pursuing Arctic grayling with a lightweight fly rod is my passion this time of the year. Since seasonal changes do not affect the iconic resident sailfish of the north, they remain active and willing to bite. It’s the last chance for open water fishing before snow blankets the landscape and the waterways freeze over. Fly fishermen are wise to switch from floating to sink-tip lines and think deep, since the dry fly bite almost disappears with changing seasons.

Sportfishing for grayling just prior to whiteout does bring on certain feeding changes in the fish. Lower temperatures from cooling weather fronts reduce insect activity, a common food source for grayling in summer. But the presence of spawning salmon provides a river load of happy meals for the Arctic species.

arctic-grayling-1 arctic-grayling-2



Like the changing season, your fly box should reflect the changing availibility of forage. Include a varied selection of subsurface presentations, as having a stockpile of certain wet flies will definitely help put more fish in the landing net.

A main staple for most experienced anglers targeting Interior grayling during the short fall is the famous Egg-sucking Leech, commonly called an ESL for short. The fly combines the body features of a Woolly Bugger, while at the same time replicates a salmon egg. The attractiveness of the double feature creates the ultimate enticement for a hungry grayling.

Saddle hackle is used to hold the marabou tail against the shaft of the hook, and then matching-colored chenille is wrapped to form the body. Additional egg-colored chenille is wrapped at the opposing end of the marabou tail, forming what appears to be an “egg” from a salmon. The cylindrical body and pulsating tail gives the fly life in the current as it drifts near the riverbed, imitating a leech latched onto a fish egg perfectly.

Black and purple materials are very popular for tying the body, with the egg portion usually various shades of pink, chartreuse or roe-tinted orange. Dark-purple bodied and orange-egg combos are always plentiful in my grayling fly box.





Good presentation is accomplished by casting upstream and allowing the leech to sink and naturally drift in the current. Occasional stripping of line will assist in moving the fly along a gravel bottom.

Sometimes I find the need to use a small piece of split shot just about 18 inches above the fly in order to get deep in faster water. The key is to have it near the bottom. Using a swinging or stripping technique with an ESL can also be very effective.

Arctic grayling are one of the most unique species of fish found in Alaska. They are beautiful, aggressive and scrappy, fun to catch for any level of angler and easy to target in the late open-water season – especially if you have an Egg-sucking Leech tied on at the end of your tippet. If you’re planning any fishing in order to feed yourself during a big game hunt in the remote bush, make sure to bring a couple of ESLs to increase your odds at catching riverside lunch.



Grayling fishing during the hunting-crazed fall certainly won’t allow me to fill my freezer with moose steaks, nor will it put a trophy set of caribou antlers on my wall. But it’s not like I feel as if I am missing out.

The opportunity to spend quality time in the wilds of Alaska catching and releasing feisty Arctic grayling by the dozens is more than enough to satisfy this angler’s hungry outdoor spirit. With a majority of outdoor enthusiasts trying to harvest Alaska’s big game during the fall, that only makes for less fishing competition for me and my friends on any of our favorite rivers flowing through the Interior of the 49th state. ASJ

Editor’s note: To see more of Dennis Musgraves’ Alaskan adventures, check out