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Fishing Whiskey Island for Grayling

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By Aaron Webb

I'm a much better hiker than I am a fisherman. I love trekking up through the mountains with a heavy backpack, but I'm not so great with a fishing pole, trying to tie all of those tiny knots and cast without tangling my line in the trees on the other side of the creek or the rocks in the deep end of the lake. I still go fishing quite often, knowing I need the experience. I am still able to enjoy the sport despite my lack of skill. I recently had an enjoyable time at a small lake in the Uinta Mountains, trying to polish my skills by casting to elusive arctic grayling.

Following a dirt road away from Hwy. 150, we crested the top of a steep and rocky hill, parked the truck, and grabbed our gear. From there the lake was only about a mile and a half away, but it was all up and down steep, forested ridges where there is no trail, providing a good workout and great scenery. Tall pines shaded us from the bright sun as we ascended towards the 10,340-foot elevation lake beneath a steep, talus slope. Many fallen trees littered the ground, having grown too large for their shallow roots in the sparse soil. The deadwood has become dry and brittle in the current drought, making it very important to obey all fire restrictions in the area.

The hike was short and soon we were picking our way across the boulder piles of the lake's shore. The lake is small and relatively shallow, especially this summer, but there are some deeper spots along the southern shore where the arctic grayling were hiding. A group of Boy Scouts was already there, fishing for the lesser-known fish. They seemed to be having a good time on their foray to the lake that morning, their base camp somewhere north of us. They caught their share of the 6-8 inch graylings, so we figured we would see some success as well. And with all of the noise they made, we hoped they would scare all of the fish over to our side of the lake.

I have never fished for arctic grayling before. They are pretty, though somewhat on the small and delicate side. They are a slight, silver fish with bright purple dorsal sails, soft jaws and tiny teeth. They are small and aren't going to give you a drawn out battle once hooked, and their fearless curiosity can lead them dangerously close to their predators. They are nonetheless challenging to catch; the are wily and lightning fast when they hit your lure or fly. They chased my lures as if it were a game, stopping at just the last moment, never actually touching the spinner unless it was deep enough that I couldn't see them. They did that over and over again, playing with me. They didn't seem interested in fast lures. I kept slowing down my retrieval until the blade on my black and orange Panther Marten didn't even spin. That was when I started getting hits. Of course, that was also when I started dragging along the rocky bottom and getting snagged every other cast.

I only managed to hook one grayling that day, a little 6-incher that tired quickly after fighting me in the shallow water of the north shore. I had to watch him after his release to make sure he had the energy to swim away. For nearly a minute he just drifted around the rocks where I'd set him back in the water. I was worrying that I shouldn't have let him go. Then suddenly he took off back into the deeper water of the lake and that was the last I saw him. I caught him on that small Panther Marten after giving up on a larger Rooster Tail and a tiny green fly.

The trip was definitely worth the one 6-inch grayling. I generally don't consider myself a fisherman unless I'm hitting striper boils at lake Powell. I usually don't have the patience for it, or the luck. I still lacked the luck that day, but I got to fish for a species new to me, trying to guess at how to catch them, playing cat and mouse with them. I even managed to get through the day without breaking my rod (a first for me…).

Lakes with grayling

Grayling (Thymallus arcticus) are related to trout and can be caught using familiar techniques. Small lures and small, dark flies are usually effective. The fish can live and reproduce in high, cold lakes that are marginal for trout because of low winter oxygen levels. Fisheries managers use grayling to provide additional fishing opportunity and diversity in Utah’s High Uintas. Some of our better grayling waters include:

Weber River Drainage
Fish Reservoir
Round Lake
Sand Reservoir

Provo River Drainage
Blue Lake
Marjorie Lake
Weir Lake

Bear River Drainage
Whiskey Island

Duchesne River Drainage
Carolyn Lake