Arctic Grayling

by Jeff Johnson

Let's face it. Arctic Grayling are one of the most cherished of all cold water fish species, but also one of the most unobtainable unless you spend thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles. The vast majority of Michigan fly fishers have never had the privilege to catch and behold a Grayling in their hands.

Like most native sons of Michigan, I grew up with the stories of the hoards of Grayling that used to fill our favorite rivers, back in the days when Michigan was accurately called the “wild mid west.” Other than one of Voelker's legendary mermaids, I can't imagine a more graceful fish. Their colors remind me of a peacock in full plume. Their transparent coloration of violet, silver and red are truly a sight to witness. Their bodies feel almost rock hard to the touch, not soft like a brook trout. Keep in mind that most Grayling are not big fish. The natives in Michigan average between 8 to 12.” However, for what they lacked in size, they more than made up for it in their beauty.

It is believed that Grayling possess keener eyesight than trout. Often they will come up through 4 feet of water to ambush a size 20 dry fly in the middle of a sunny day. Their rise forms are faster, more violent, and leave more air bubbles than that of a brook trout.  Often they miss the fly as their mouths are much smaller. (Note: if you are missing a lot of grayling strikes, you are striking too fast)

Another unusual trait of the Grayling is that sometimes it will jump out of the water before taking the fly, performing an airial attack, snatching the fly on its way down!  They also like to strike flys that are behind their position! For their size Grayling are exceptionally strong fighters, using their massive dorsal fin. Often they will go airborne two or three times, then they just bull dog under water going from side to side while trying to back away during the exchange.

Males have the larger dorsal fins and during spawning, males will become darker in color. Some of the females most become white. If you happen to be casting a bamboo fly rod while casting to a Grayling, you can, for a brief moment, pretend you have stepped back in time a hundred years. As a side note, Grayling are not night feeders.

It's interesting to note that originally the Au Sable River had no trout in it, only native Grayling. With lack of foresight, trees that had taken hundreds of years to grow and shade the rivers from the summer sun, were mowed down like wheat over a short 30 year time span. Rivers were used as commercial highways for lumber, destroying habitat and causing the rivers to fill in with sand, covering the gravel that the grayling eggs needed to stick to during spawning. Grayling don't make redds as their small 3 mm eggs are sticky like glue. Their eggs actually stick to the rocks! Spawning in spring, their eggs hatch in just two weeks. Their fry are very small, approximately 1/4” in size and they are not good swimmers at this stage, making them very venerable to springtime flooding conditions.

The very time they were the most vulnerable, coincided with the spring time high water log flotillas. Add to that, the introduction of non-native competitive species, i.e. rainbow and brown trout and combine that with no concept of catch and release fishing and the fate of our true native “Crawford County Trout” was sealed, or as my father used to say, “even God cannot change the past”, reminding me that fly fishermen, more than most folks, dabbled in the stoic art of philosophy.

According to my father, the fish gods had smiled upon our family by placing my then 10 year old dad within biking distance of Detroit near a certain Paul and Martha Young's place of business. Sometimes he used to hang out there after school. Mr. Young, a kind man, would let my dad loiter there for hours, never once sushing him out of his store. No doubt Mr. Young was just trying to help keep my dad off the streets and from becoming a future member of Detroit's Purple Gang. It was there that he started to learn about becoming a fly fisherman, after sweeping the bamboo trimmings off of the floors first, of course, (ten o'clock- two o'clock ) life turned out pretty good for my dad.  Instead of becoming a gangster, he became a police officer, no doubt to the human nature changing ways of fly fishing. (Thank you, Paul Young)

As a kid my dad used to take me up north to fish the AuSable River. Like most fishermen, we had a ʻgood luck' ritual. Before starting our adventure we would always stop in a small Mom and Pop restaurant in downtown Grayling. We would always try and sit under the “stuffed Grayling Trout” that was proudly displayed on the wall. Like clock work my fisherman father would turn philosopher and say these words of wisdom each and every time we visited that establishment, “It's a sad state of affairs when the only place a guy can go see a Grayling in Michigan is to see a stuffed one hanging on a restaurant wall.” In those words, told to a son and later to a grandson, the seeds were planted to what has become the most recent attempts at the re-introduction of Arctic Grayling back into Michigan.

One of the major obstacles of reestablishing Grayling was finding a small lake that would stay cold even on hot summer days. (Grayling are stressed at a temperature of 63 degrees and die at 73 degrees) Most lakes have a shallow, sandy shoreline that gradually gets deeper, these conditions warm up the water quickly.

One realtor summed it up best, saying you'll never find such a place. “You're not looking for a lake, you're looking for a crater filled with ice water.” For over a year and a half we drove all over the U.P. and northern Michigan looking for such a lake. Finding a natural cold water lake was no easy task. Every one involved was sworn to secrecy as we were afraid the price would go up if the lake owners discovered our plans. To complicate matters, we had managed to get the cart before the horse, as we had already funded the building of a private Arctic Grayling fish hatchery and had, in fact raised from eggs, thousands of small Grayling. Fish that would soon need a home!

Searching for a small glacial kettle lake to hold several thousand Arctic Grayling had now become almost a full time occupation. We were trying to find a miniature version of the big spring called Kitchi-iti-kipi by Manistique. Since these fish are so temperature sensitive, we were concentrating on small lakes in the U.P. as summer temperatures up there averaged 8 to 10 degrees cooler.

There were just two small problems:

  1. None of our group lived in the upper peninsula to keep an eye on the place.
  2. One of the main reasons we were doing this project was to have a place where nonprofit young people’s groups such as the Boy Scouts could come and fish the lake for free, thereby earning their fly fishing merit badges. Just imagine being a 10 year old kid and the first fish you ever catch on a fly rod is a high spirited jumping Arctic Grayling!

However, for most Michigan kids the U.P. would be too far away. The handful of fishermen involved in this project had all come to the same conclusion, that....for a long time we had not been seeing a lot of young people on the rivers. Plus, when we started to look at the average age of the members of the conservation fishing groups, they were like most of us .....OLD! We made it our main goal to invite and encourage up to 400 kids a year to try fly fishing, hoping to hook them for life.

I had just gotten off the phone with a realtor, who claimed to have found a 40 acre parcel of land that had a small multi-spring fed, natural body of water that looked like a giant beaver pond. He said the water was gin clear, full of sunken logs and 20 feet deep, and, by the way, the water felt ice cold in the middle of June.

Not wanting to appear over anxious, I made an appointment to see the place the next weekend. In all honesty, I didn’t get too excited by the call, as every piece of property that we visited came with almost the same glowing reports. I arrived and after five minutes of small talk, donned my waders and walked through a cedar swamp to go take water samples sinking up to my knees with each approaching step. About half way there, I noticed a 6 foot wide hole in the ground filled with water. On my third step towards it, I hit a spot of Michigan quicksand. Falling down in slow motion, I mumbled several words not found in the Bible as I landed next to it. Just like a kid I had to stick my hand in the water when I saw the air bubbles flowing up from the bottom. I shoved in the thermometer and held it there until my hand started to cramp up. 48 degrees.

Hmm.....the air temperature was in the high 80’s that day. Walking downhill I approached the main body of water. I could hear water gurgling underground as it flowed over and under the roots of the cedar trees, making a natural aireation system. Standing in the middle of the cedar forest I checked the position of the sun in the sky, noting the way back.

The glaciers had sculpted it out. It was beautiful water, shaped like a perfect crater. It was full of fish...just the wrong kind. The bottom was totally covered in a green, grassy meadow. Underwater logs were everywhere. The shoreline was surrounded by giant, wild, Blue Irises that....I kid you not, were well over 6 feet tall. Every 30 feet or so it had a flowing spring seeping into it from the shoreline! Twenty in all. Each spring tested at 48 degrees, giving the surface temperature of the large pond a cool 58 degrees reading.  At a depth of 3 feet it registered 53 degrees. At 20 feet, 51 degrees. The depths at the shoreline started at 6 feet. It took a lot of talking to buy the place, but we did.

The first order of business was to remove all the other species of fish that inhabited the water. Traditionally, lakes are chemically treated to do that, but in doing so most of the insect life is destroyed in the process, taking years to recover. Plus we didn’t want to lose the good population of minnows, leaches and crayfish. Grayling are big time insect eaters so needing to keep the food chain in tact we decided that we were going to hand fish and hand net every last fish out of there. Half the guys in our group lacked one thing...basic fishing skills so we used out sourcing...hiring two college students, an endeavor that kept them gainfully employed the whole summer. (some of the pike approached 3 feet in size)

One of the nice things about owning your own lake is that you get to name the thing. All of the good names like Lake Michigan and Lake Superior had already been taken, so we had to chose from the “B” list. Picking the name for a lake is a lot more important than picking the name for other things... like your kid’s names for instance. Again after a lot of talking, the name Brookhaven was chosen.

Our research had shown us that historically Brook Trout and Arctic Grayling had peacefully coexisted together in the black river. Being original thinkers, it had always been our intension to introduce both species into our waters. The Brook Trout, also raised from eggs, were a Lake Nipigon strain from Ontario and were a full 2 years ahead of the Grayling par. After spending an ungodly amount of money on a boardwalk through the swamp, we planted over a thousand Brook Trout. With such a large natural food supply, our Brook Trout started to grow at an alarming rate. Many of them were now in the high teens.

Every Monday a call came in from the hatchery updating the progress of our Grayling. We had started with approximately 30,000 eggs and we were now down to 3,000 fish.  “There is a problem. We’re losing 6 to 8 Grayling per day and we don’t know why.” For two frantic weeks out of state calls were made to everyone who knew anything about Grayling mortality and I am pleased to report that, as of this date, we are not losing any more fish and they are now approaching the 4 to 5 inch range.

We recently took a few Grayling to Brookhaven to see how they would like the place, abducting them like aliens into a five gallon bucket. It’s true, when you hold one out of the water that they have the faint aroma of fresh cut wild thyme. After buckling up the bucket in the front seat of the car, we went forth. One hour later we found ourselves rowing out to the center of the pond and I tried to think of some meaningful words to say before baptizing them, full immersion into the water.

Being completely educated by the public school system and apparently lacking my father’s philosophizing D.N.A. genes, the best I could come up with on this historical occasion was “ta da” and with that, a handful of 4 inch Grayling were given their freedom.

For the next few minutes we just stared into the water. The fish just rested there, motionless, suspended 3 feet below the surface. Suddenly a brief flash of orange was seen. “Did you see that?” One of the Grayling had just vanished. I responded, “this is not good” after witnessing the homicide first hand.

So now the question of the day what size can we safely stock the Grayling with the Brook Trout? I consulted with Eric Sharp of the Detroit Free Press and he recommended “waiting until they reach the size of 8 or 9 inches...possibly larger.”  Advice we are taking.  As for me...I’m anticipating catching my first Michigan Arctic Grayling this summer, on a dry fly of course!