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Who Needs Grayling?

A special fish struggles to hang on in the Lower 48
Fly Rod & Reel    Nov./Dec. 2007
Fluvial grayling
Fluvial grayling are abundant in Alaska and Canada, but in the Lower 48, they are nearly wiped out.
Brian O'Keefe

On a fine summer morning in 1991 my son and I were wet-wading up the Gibbon River in Yellowstone National Park, exercising brown trout on puffy dry flies. We were about to turn back when I hooked and landed a fish of a lifetime.

It was a grayling--all of nine inches in length. Its flanks glowed with the silver and pink of a Montana pre-dawn. Its enormous dorsal fin was trimmed with orange and splashed with spots and streaks of red, white, green, turquoise and neon blue. Clearly God had made it last, after he'd practiced on all the other fishes.

In the Lower 48 states Arctic grayling are a Pleistocene relict, left in northern Michigan and the upper Missouri River system by glacial meltwater. Most were river-dwelling (fluvial), but there was a rare, lake-dwelling, river-spawning (adfluvial) form. Ironically, adfluvial grayling are easily transplanted outside their natural range; and, after years of stocking, are now far more common in high-mountain lakes than they were originally.

Fluvial grayling, on the other hand, are very different beasts that can't be replaced with the adfluvial form. Introduce grayling from a lake into a river and they'll die out. Fluvial grayling were extirpated from Michigan about 75 years ago; and they've been extirpated from 96 percent of their range in the West. Once super-abundant in the main stems and tributaries of the Smith, Sun, Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson rivers, they're now barely making it only in the upper Big Hole River. Limiting factors to their survival include dewatering by stockmen, habitat damage by cattle, introduction of non-native competitors and predators, such as brown and rainbow trout, and dam construction.

Grayling require clean, free-flowing, medium-gradient streams with sand or gravel beds. They hold in schools in open water and take flies with an abandon that makes cutthroats look selective--not because they're "stupid" but because they evolved in sterile water where they couldn't afford to pass up any possible food item.

For 16 years I delighted in the belief that I had encountered one of the West's last fluvial grayling outside the Big Hole. But what for me was the equivalent of seeing an Eastern cougar turned out to have been an illusion. Amber Steed, a graduate student at Montana State University, will shortly publish data revealing that the grayling occasionally seen in the Gibbon are adfluvial fish that drop down from Grebe and Wolf lakes, stocked in 1920.

As a species fluvial grayling are anything but endangered. In Alaska I have caught them until I cut the hook off my fly and just watched the seductive, tail-waggling rise forms. Throughout most of the continent, down to a latitude of about 250 miles north of Montana, they're a common fish, often the dominant fish. There are people who believe that if fluvial grayling are doing well in Alaska and Canada, it's OK to let them expire in the Lower 48. But the Endangered Species act makes it illegal for federal agencies to stand by and watch such "distinct population segments" flicker out.

On October 9, 1991--two months after I caught what, until this past June, I'd fancied was my best and most important fish of my life--Montana fishing guide George Wuerthner and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the state's fluvial grayling as endangered throughout their historic range. This was at the behest of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists.


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