Game Fishing > Grayling Familiy, Thymallidae > Montana grayling

Montana grayling

Montana graylingThe Montana grayling was collected by Professor James W. Milner, of the United States Fish Commission, in 1872, from a tributary of the Missouri River, at Camp Baker, in Montana. He named it montanus, from the name of the state. Lewis and Clark, however, during their wonderful journey that blazed the western course of empire, described, but did not name it, seventy years before, from fish taken near the head waters of the Jefferson River. Knowing that Lewis and Clark ascended the Jefferson nearly to its source in the Rocky Mountains, in 1805, I thought it extremely probable that those remarkably close observers had mentioned the existence of this beautiful and well-marked species. Upon investigation I found my surmise to be correct. On page 545 of Dr. Elliott Coues's edition of "The Lewis and Clark Expedition," I found the following:

"Toward evening we formed a drag of bushes, and in about two hours caught 528 very good fish, most of them large trout. Among them we observed for the first time ten or twelve trout of a white or silvery color, except on the back and head, where they are of a bluish cast; in appearance and shape they resemble exactly the speckled trout, except they are not so large, though the scales are much larger; the flavor is equally good." (In a foot-note Dr. Coues stated that this fish remained unidentified.)

The locality where these fish were taken was near the head waters of the Jefferson River, where Lewis and Clark abandoned their canoes and crossed the Continental Divide on horses purchased from the Indians. At this point the grayling is abundant, as I knew from personal observation, and coexists with the red-throat trout almost to the exclusion of all other species. Lewis and Clark were both remarkable for clear and correct descriptions of the animals and plants met with during their journey, many of which were new to science; but as they neglected to give them scientific names, others have reaped the honors of many of their discoveries.

The Montana grayling is found only in the tributaries of the Missouri River above the Great Falls. In Sheep and Tenderfoot creeks, tributaries of Smith River, in the Little Belt Mountains, it is fairly abundant, as it is likewise in the three forks of the Missouri, the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson rivers. Its ideal home is in several tributaries at the head of Red Rock Lake, swift gravelly streams, and especially in the upper reaches of the Madison above the upper canon, where the water is rapid, though unbroken, the bottom being dark obsidian sand, with a succession of pools and shallows. I have taken fish weighing two pounds in Beaver Creek, in the upper canon, which is also an ideal stream. Such situations are peculiarly adapted to the grayling, being preferred to the broken water of rocky streams so much favored by trout.

The Montana grayling is a trimmer-built fish than its Michigan cousin, being not quite so deep, proportionally, and with larger scales. Its dorsal fin is about the same height, but with one or two less rays. Its back is gray, with purplish reflections; sides lighter, with lilac, pink, and silvery reflections; belly pearly white. It has a few irregularly­shaped black spots on the anterior part of the body, but none posteriorly as sometimes on the Michigan grayling. It has two oblong dark blotches in the cleft of the lower jaw, and a heavy dark line running from the ventrals to the pectoral fin; these markings are more pronounced in the male, being quite faint or wanting in the female. The dorsal fin has a rosy-red border, six or seven rows of roseate, roundish spots, ocellated with white, and gray blotches form lines between the rows of red spots; in the upper, posterior angle of the dorsal fin are several larger oblong rosy spots; the ventral fins have three rose-colored stripes along the rays; the pectoral and anal fins are plain; the caudal fin is forked.

As a game-fish the grayling is fully the equal of the trout, though its way of taking the artificial fly is quite different, and the old hand at trout fishing must pay court to "the lady of the streams" with the greatest assiduity before he is successful in winning her attention to his lures. And even then he must become fully conversant with her coy and coquettish way of accepting his offer, though it be cast never so deftly. There is a rush and snap and vim in the rise of a trout to the fly that is lacking with the grayling. The trout often leaps above the water to seize the fly, while it is taken more quietly and deliberately, though just as eagerly, by the grayling from below. In other words, it is "sucked in," as English anglers term it, though that hardly expresses it, as the act is not so tame as might be inferred. On the contrary, the grayling rises from the bottom of a pool arid darts upward like an arrow to seize the fly, though as a rule it does not break water, and is not so demonstrative as the trout; but it seldom misses the mark, if the fly is small enough, which the trout often does.

Sometimes the grayling will rise a dozen times to a fly, and for some reason refuse it, but will take it at the very next cast. Just why this is so is one of the unanswerable problems that often vexes or confounds the angler. Presumably the fly is too large, or is not presented in just the right way to please her ladyship. But the angler should not despair under such circumstances, but remember the old couplet, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Moreover, he must remember that he is fishing for grayling, not for trout. He must not cast on a riffle, or at its head, but below, in the eddy or still water, where it is deepest. There lie the large fish, though small ones may be in the shallower water, and it is the latter that perplex one by their antics, oftentimes leaping over one's flies in play.

Trout generally lie in ambush beneath the bank, shelving rocks, or roots, usually in shallow water, from whence they rush with tigerlike ferocity upon the fly, often leaping over it in their eagerness for the fancied prey. On the contrary, grayling lie on the bottom of pools, in swift water, entirely in the open. They are also gregarious, assembling in schools, while the trout is a lone watcher from his hidden lair.

Some dry fly-fishers of England, echoing the opinion of Charles Cotton, term the grayling a "dead-hearted fish" that must be taken with a wet or sunken fly. This idea of its lack of gameness is implied in Tennyson's lines: "Here and there a lusty trout, And here and there a grayling."

It must not be supposed that the grayling is not a leaping fish because it takes the fly from beneath the surface of the water. On the contrary, in its playful moods it may be seen leaping above the surface the same as a trout, and more­over it breaks water repeatedly after being hooked, which the trout seldom does. It puts up a stiff fight also beneath the surface, being much aided in its resistance by its tall dorsal fin. It is no disparagement, then, to the gamesome trout, to declare the grayling its equal when of similar size and weight.

Grayling fishing has been practised in England for centuries. In addition to fly-fishing, swimming the maggot, where a tiny float is used, is a common method. An artificial bait, called the grasshopper, is likewise employed. While grayling are taken during the trout season, in spring and summer, the most successful season seems to be from September to December, when they are at their best, both as to gameness and condition.

With English anglers the universal practice is to fish up-stream, as the fish are not so apt to see the angler, and that plan undoubtedly has its advantages in the clear and shallow streams of England. In fishing for grayling, however, it is advised by some of their best anglers to cast across the stream, instead of above, and allow the flies to float down. No reason is given for this deviation from the generally accepted method with trout; but I imagine that as grayling lie on the bottom of deep pools, it has been found by experience that they are not so apt to see the angler as other species in mid-water or near the surface, especially in the clear chalk streams.

In America, the streams being deeper, the necessity for fishing up-stream is not so apparent. Fishing down-stream is by far the best plan, for obvious reasons, if the angler wades slowly and cautiously, so as not to roil the water. The principal reason is that one's line is always straight and taut in swift water, and the flies can be more easily controlled and floated down over the fish, which always heads up-stream. Upon hooking the fish it can be drawn to one side, whereby the other fish in the pool are not much more alarmed than in the case of casting up or across. Casting across seems to be really a concession to the advantage of fishing down-stream.

The fly-rod, reel, line, and leader ordinarily employed for trout-fishing may be used also for grayling, though I would advise some modifications. While a first-class split rod of three and a half or four ounces may be advantageously used by an angler who knows how to handle a very light rod, I prefer one of five or six ounces. Such a rod is certainly light enough to be used all day without fatigue, and it is well to have the resourceful reserve of an ounce or two for emergencies. In any case it should not exceed ten and one-half feet in length, if built on the modern plan, where most of the pliancy is in its upper two-thirds, the lower third being stiffish and springy, constituting its backbone. A very good rod can be constructed with ash butt, and lance­wood, greenheart, or bethabara upper pieces, and one that will be almost as light as split-bamboo, and certainly more serviceable in the long run.

I would also advise flush, non-dowelled joints, and reel-bands instead of a solid reel-seat, the latter being of no advantage and only adding to the weight of the rod; moreover, it is now put on the cheapest rods to make them sell. A plain groove for the reel, with bands, is very much better. As a matter of course the line should be of braided silk, enamelled, and suited to the weight of the rod, as small as size G, but not larger than size E. It may be level, but a tapered line is better for casting, and is also better adapted for the delicate leader that must be employed. A tapered leader six feet long is best, but should not be shorter than four feet. It must be made of the very best silkworm gut fibre, round, clear, and unstained. The distal end should be made of the finest drawn gut, known as gossamer, and taper to the larger or proximal end, which should be the smallest undrawn gut.