Graceful Grayling

Arctic grayling are a beautiful fish. Graced with a large colorful dorsal fin—which gets even more brilliant during the spring spawning period—this silvery, bluish member of the trout family can be quite dramatic to see, and even more dramatic to fish.

Living in cold mountain streams, arctic grayling spend warmer months packing on the energy to make it through the winter. Often aggressive feeders, they prefer small crustaceans and insects, and can be quite easy to catch on flies and with small lures. Once hooked, they’re known for a good fight.

Historically, in the contiguous United States, arctic grayling existed solely in Michigan and Montana. The Michigan population has been extinct for well over 70 years, and Montana’s population has been severely affected by habitat alteration, water-loss, overfishing, and competition from introduced exotic fish.

Once common in the upper drainages of the Missouri River, a remnant population tenuously held on in the Big Hole River. When the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatened to list the grayling as an endangered species, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks began restoring the fluvial (river dwelling) grayling. In the upper Madison, and the Forks of the Sun, tens of thousands of grayling of various sizes were painstakingly deposited. In all cases, the fish seemed to simply head downstream. “Bucket biology” just didn’t work.

In recent years, however, land owners, state and federal land managers and biologists, and conservation organizations have made great strides in cooperating to save this species in its wild habitat. With a focus on habitat, bank vegetation, stream-flow maintenance, minimizing fish loss through diversions, and removal of obstacles to fish movement and migration, a foundation has been laid. Using a technique known as Remote Site Incubators (RSIs), eggs have been introduced into appropriate sites. Once born into these sites, the fish seem to stay.

Today, viable populations exist on the Ruby and Big Hole rivers, as well as Rock Creek, a tributary of the Big Hole. This is an impressive example of agency collaboration. Meanwhile, further work is being done to expand fluvial grayling in Montana, and one possible site is Grayling Creek in Yellowstone National Park.

Ken Sinay is the director of Yellowstone Safari Company in Bozeman.