Trying to remember the first time I caught a grayling.... I believe the first time I saw the northern fish was in Fish Lake all the way back to 1979. Its June in the Yukon and I have a little time off from my new job in Whitehorse at the welding shop called Jacobs Industries...still operational by the way in 2015. I owned a brand new four wheel drive Ford short-wheel base 3/4 ton truck of which I was quite fond. I hadnt driven all the way to the Yukon just to work in a smokey machine shop after all.! And here it was. A day and a half with which to do whatever I wanted. Money was in short supply but there was fuel in the tank and I decided to take a little drive up the Fish Lake Road to see what I might see. Nearing the lake I noticed a fork in the road and took the left. Soon I found myself climbing higher and higher up the mountainside, not having a clue how the day was going to go. Oh the peaceful rapture of not knowing the trouble you are heading for!
Reaching the top of the mountain wasnt a problem and the road continued on. Why turn around? Soon I found I was travelling down the opposite side of the mountain on a rather steep decline. On the top of a little knoll I felt the front differential pick up an enormous boulder which clunked its way beneath the length of the chassis and out the back. Well. Maybe it was a warning or a portent of some sort because shortly thereafter I came to a brook. It didn't look like all that much trouble and whoever had gone ahead of me had negotiated it all right and I'm in this new four wheel drive baby! After weighing it all out I decided to proceed and learned one of the great advantages of the four wheel drive. This wonderful feature helps you get hopelessly stuck many many miles farther into the bush that you would with a two wheel drive!
I was amazed at the suction-power of Yukon mud! Soon my right front wheel was totally immersed! Undaunted I got out the jack and messed around for a few hours with flat rocks and whatever I could find to no avail. Now those who know me best would not accuse me of being the sort to quickly give up, but clearly I was going to have to find another way. Grabbing the rifle for protection from the ever-present (in my young imagination) charging grizzly I set out on a short-cut down to the lake. Might have been wiser to stay on the road, but this was way more interesting. Now a Saskatchewan farmboy unleashed in the enormity of the Yukon boreal has no clue what he is doing. I was totally out of my element but made the best of it as I tore my way through several miles of spruce thickets, willows and whatever and finally, mercifully came to the lake and felt the gravel crunch beneath my boots. Where was I going? Who would I meet? I really had no clue as I crunched my way along,now and then likely forced off the lake and into the bush, sometimes into the water to get by an overhanging bush. No distance gain comes easily in this country but eventually I heard the howling of what I took to be a pack of wolves! Excitement! And I marched on forward, eager to see my first wolves in the wild. In the end however, they proved to be no more than a pack of around 30 huskies, tethered around a small pond. Dogs owned by Ian and Sylvia Williams, whom I was shortly to meet. And oh yes, I believe I saw my first school of grayling along the shore of Fish Lake as I made my way to the small enclave of human life at the head of Fish Lake. But more on the Arctic Grayling later!
What was foremost on my mind was the problem I had to solve! My means of transportation and my home was mired in a bog on the fair side of mountain! I wondered what it might cost to have it extracted by helicopter but was pretty sure this would be prohibitive. Well, turns out things worked out a little better than that. I met at Ian's camp, a couple of fellows in a very rude shack. One was from the East Coast of Canada and the other from Ontario. They had a little booze and I forget what to eat and they were both kindly folk who were eager enough for the company and to help me out the next day. We drank away the long dimness of the Yukon evening, as it never gets remotely near dark in the Yukon in June. I remember Neufoundland talking at some length of how happy he was going to be to "see the Yukon in my rear-view mirror" And he told me, "You are just beginning to meet the Yukon"
I was totally thrilled then, the next morning as we set out in his effectively two wheel drive truck loaded with wooden beams and a jack. I didnt' know these guys and they didn't know me and they could have much more easily told me to go sweetly on my way, I will always remember them with kindness for the trouble they went to to get me out of that bog-hole from hell that morning. I admired the ease with which he got the planks under the wheels and the truck popped happily back onto solid land! What did I owe them? Ten bucks. Even then, 1979, ten bucks was not all the world! The kindness I was shown will ne'er be forgotten! I was just beginning to meet the Yukon. How right he was he never found out for he followed his hood emblem on out of the Yukon shortly thereafter, leaving me to my various mis and other adventures.
And, actually, the friendly acceptance and ready helpfulness was to become a pattern for me during my time in the territory. Perhaps we all understand the helpless feeling of being stranded way back in the bush. Or we've been helped out and we want to pass it on. Whatever the reason, whenever I've had a problem in the wilds, I've had no trouble acquiring the help I need, even to this day. Its the rare Yukoner who will ignore the plight of a person in deep trouble out in the back country and a very fine and a good thing that is, wouldnt you say?!
Now, then, with all that preamble out of the way, lets move on to the subject of this article, the well, not-so-elusive Arctic Grayling...
He is a wonderful fish, no doubt about it. But perhaps somewhat despised by the resident fisherman because so common in the rivers and streams of the Yukon Territory. The grayling is not particularly difficult to catch, provided you leave your spoons in the box for the pike and the lake trout. It didn't take even me all that long to discover that the grayling will not take a spoon, but are absolute suckers for a mepps or blue fox brass spinner. Some years back, on a moose hunt, maybe due to running out of small spinners I tried a number 3 and found to my delight that they tended to get the bigger ones. Toss the spinner out into the current, for the grayling is normally found in moving water, let it sink awhile, and give a little twitch on the line. That's the trigger to get the grayling to strike. Its been an interesting observation that the grayling strikes when the spinner starts to dart away, the pike will take a spoon as it flutters on down towards the bottom and the lake trout tend to slam the spoon just as it ceases to travel and begins to sink. Personal fish-preference I suppose. At any rate, grayling tend to like to hide under a log or behind a rock in the river where the current is slack. Normally a sandy bottom is preferable to the grayling and if you find a slowly circling eddy of deep green clear water in the river, going round and around on itself and yielding anywhere near six feet of water, you'll probably dine well.
Arctic Grayling is best eaten fresh as the flesh tends to soften rather quickly. Easy to scale, the skin shouldnt be wasted. It is crispy and delicious! My personal favourite is to fry 'em in butter and add a little lemon-pepper. That, and a tin-foil wrapped mess of potatoes, carrots and onion bits, slow-cooked beside an open fire in the evening, should result in a wonderful feeling of well-bean, as you crawl into your sleeping bag and listen to the little night noises of all the nocturnal creatures going about their nocturnal business. Sweet dreams, Yukon fisherpersons!