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  • Writer's pictureshelenboyes

Alpine Unicorns

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

Sometimes we encounter small creatures that make us marvel at nature and her ability to design beauty with gills. For myself, that encounter only occurred this last July and it was a special one at that. The species known as Arctic Grayling (Thymallus articus) are a very unique type of freshwater fish unlike any other. But what is it that makes them so different? Do they have some relation to trout? Do they even go here? Well I hope you’ve come prepared because this article is purely to nerd-out and acknowledge a cold-blooded beauty whose appearance puts others to shame.

Also known as the ‘lady of the stream’, Arctic Grayling belong to the Salmonidae family which consists of fish whose fins are webs of skin supported by bony and horn-like spines. Others to be listed in the family include salmon, trout, chars, and whitefish. This became intriguing to me because like a cutthroat trout, (which is infamous for its distinctive red coloration on the underside of its lower jaw) I noticed that the grayling in my net had a similar ‘cut’ mark, only it was black instead of red. But what truly makes this species so alluring is its strikingly beautiful physical features, for example its sail-like dorsal fin. Almost like the feathers of an exotic bird, the fin radiates beautiful colors that can easily stun any angler, especially when sunlight is reflected off of it. Populations of grayling have been found in various parts of Northern America since the 1800’s and are actually native to the states of Michigan and Montana. When heavy logging began to occur in Michigan in the 1860’s, the rivers where grayling flourished were used to float lumber down to sawmills and over time the native strain became extinct. Although this was an early-era tragedy, the species were already well established around the world and still prosper in both Alaska and Northwest Canada where they are known to reach lengths of up to 30 inches. The history of arctic grayling in the state of Colorado dates back as far as the 1800’s when people first attempted to introduce them. But from the information I gathered it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the species, after being brought over from the state of Montana, began to sustain life naturally in much colder and cleaner waters such as high alpine lakes.

After hearing of a few places as to where these alpine unicorns might be hiding, my buddy Jake, his dog Remy and I decided to pick a day to go scouting for them. It was the middle of July which meant the grayling spawning season was almost over but the lake inlet still remained closed, denying access to all anglers in order to protect the easily exposed fish. Therefore, we walked along the shore towards the middle of the lake and quickly began to see other fly fishermen who were all there for the same purpose. Having arrived in the later afternoon, we took our time rigging up our rods waiting for the evening hatch to begin and the fish to start rising. Tied to the end of my leader was a #12 brown Elk Hair Caddis dry fly that floated on the surface, looking like the perfect snack for the acquired target. The key was to get your fly out as far as possible towards the middle of the lake, that way the fly would be out of reach from the pestering juvenile grayling and there would be a better chance at catching a substantial sized fish.

Before long the fly was gone, leaving behind only ripples in the water. Without much hesitation I lifted my rod, setting the hook on a 7-inch grayling. Although it was smaller than expected, the colors painted into its dorsal fin quickly made up for what it lacked in size. The blues, greens and hues of purple, along with hints of orange were enough for me and I couldn’t help but get a few shots with my camera before releasing it back into the lake. Later that month I ended up taking my cousin Lori and friend Madi (who wanted to learn how to fly fish) to the same location so that they too could have a chance at catching their first grayling but also to marvel and appreciate the sheer beauty of such a captivating aquatic being. As you can see in the pictures above and below, both trips were a success and I’m very thankful for the fish caught and the memories made. These underwater treasures will always hold a special place in my heart and I look forward to any and all future encounters with them.

Javi, Lori & Madi posing with their new fishy friend

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