The Haunts of the Grayling (1881)

The Haunts of the Grayling

Maurice Thompson 

Lippincott’s Magazine, September 1881, pp. 268-272. 

Since the completion of several lines of railway through Northern Michigan, a gamefish new to most American anglers has been added to the list of “brook beauties” formerly headed by the speckled trout.  The grayling (Thymallus tricolor) must have precedence, for vigorous rising, for boldness in taking the artificial fly and for fighting qualities, over all the smaller fish of our waters.  Up to about the time of the beginning of the Southern war, scarcely a hint of the existence of this grayling has reached the ears of sportsmen or naturalists, though all the brooks falling into Grand Traverse Bay were known to be well stocked with trout of unusual size and most excellent flavor.  Mosseau’s Creek and some small streams entering the bay from the Leelanau Peninsula had been fished for trout ever since the settlement of the old town of Northport, and even the Jordan and Boardman Rivers, in which the grayling is found, had been explored by enthusiastic anglers with no report of anything but trout.  Of course, many grayling were caught, but they were indefinitely mentioned by resident anglers and unscientific explorers as “white trout.”  Since the describing and naming of this fish in 1865 by Professor [Edward Drinker] Cope, attention has been called to it and some evidence of its existence in other parts of the United States has been offered. 

I think it formerly lived in some of the cold-spring streams of Northern Georgia, and that possibly it may be found there now along with an occasional trout, though those streams were never profitable stocked with the latter fish.  I remember once, when a mere boy, taking from a spring-stream called Cranetah a brilliant silvery fish with prominent eyes and a large dorsal fin which at the time was considered quite a curiosity by the Georgian fishermen.  At this distance of time I cannot, of course, be sure, but I believe it to have been a Thymallus tricolor, the so-called Michigan grayling.  This fish differs so widely from the trout as regards both its habits and its appearance that it is a matter of wonder how it ever came to be called a trout even by men ignorant of the scientific methods of description and classification.  The trout is a basking fish, so to speak, lying in shady spots and under projecting banks, stones, roots, logs and drift wood, whence it darts upon its prey. 

The grayling glides about in the pools, eddies and currents of its native streams, after the manner of the bass, and rises to any floating object it deems proper for food by an almost perpendicular leap.  The trout, if it fails to seize its prey, is almost certain to retire again to its retreat; but the grayling, perseveres and will struggle at the surface of the water to make sure of its coveted morsel.  The grayling is the stronger and fiercer fish in its fighting, but it exhausts itself more completely than the trout does before submitting to capture: consequently, the trout may fight a trifle the longer and struggle more dangerously while being lifted out. 

Another distinctive difference between these fishes is that the trout makes every effort to reach the fountain head of a steam to spawn, while the grayling is content to deposit its eggs in the sand of the pool where it lives, a favorite spot being the mouth of some small tributary stream of spring water.  Again, the trout delights in the boiling and tumbling water at the foot of a cascade, and is often found in swift, shallow sluices.  Not so the grayling, which haunts the cool depths of the quiet pools or slowly moving currents where the bottom of the stream is covered with clean sand. 

The grayling rarely preys upon other fish, preferring aquatic insects and larvae for its food: hence those streams in Michigan not stocked with trout are, if at all suitable to its habits, teeming with this fish.  The angler takes all sizes, from mere fingerlings up to those of a pound and a half in weight, from six to ten ounces being considered a fair average.  When first taken, the fish has a peculiar odor, not unlike the fragrance of thyme.  The meat is quite white and exquisitely flavored, reminding the epicure of pompano, bass and trout all at once.  Seen in clear water, the grayling is a beautiful fish.  His eyes are large and prominent, his gills finely pencilled and his broad dorsal fin peculiarly tinted; in fact, his tout ensemble is strikingly graceful and attractive.  His mouth, something smaller than that of the trout, is not unlike the common shiner’s in shape, rendering a rather small hook desirable. 

It is but a poor idea of the delights of grayling-fishing one can embody in mere description.  After all, the gentle art varies much with the accidents of weather, local surroundings, the physical and mental condition of the angler, and many undescribable things.  But the mere matter of how a grayling takes the fly may have a pretty fair practical illustration in the “biting” of a common brook “shiner” or “silverside.”  The shiner takes a worm or natural fly in almost exactly the same way that a grayling takes the artificial lure.  There is the same lithe and, so to speak, airy motion, with the same iridescent flash at the moment at the moment of striking. 

The season for grayling-fishing in Michigan begins in June and ends with December, so that after one has fished through the trouting-season, which is from June to September, one may go to the Manistee or Au Sable and find the grayling in fine condition, ready to leap furiously at almost every fly offered.  Most of the streams in which this fish abounds have their source in warm, rather dull ponds, but, after flowing some distance, are swelled by cold spring streams, which give to their currents that dash of chilliness and winter sparkle which seem requisite to the happiness of our grayling. 

Wherever the streams have a gravelly or sandy bottom, and are sufficiently cooled by the springs, great schools of this beautiful fish may be seen wandering about in the clear sheeny water, their fins changing color as they glide from sun to shade.  These streams flow through solemn, dreamful woods, where the meditative angler has little to distract him from his best-loved fancies.  Occasionally he may get a glimpse of a flitting deer, or may see a bear ambling across some aisle of the forest; but for days together nothing living, larger than a nuthatch or a downy woodpecker, will cross his vision, save for thew fish he catches. 

Grayling-streams are nearly always bordered with cedars of considerable size, which, being underwashed, often fall into the water from either side, effectually blocking the passage of a boat.  Cutting away these “sweepers,” as they are called, is a slow and laboriously painful proceeding.  The better thing is to have a portable boat and carry it around such obstructions.  Happily for the angler, there are miles and miles together on the Au Sable, Manistee, and other grayling-rivulets with nothing to prevent his drifting down with the current and having his fill of the gentlest and rarest of sport.  Here he quietly lets fall his anchor and skillfully whips a pool where the shining fish dart across the tall inverted shadows of the cedars.  Perhaps at the very first cast leader and droppers are, all at once, attacked by vigorous fish weighing from eight ounces to a pound each.  Now begins a lively fight, equal to that made by a four-pound bass.  This way and that flies your line, cutting the water like a knife.  Leap!  Leap!  Leap!  Out they spring, those three lithe beauties, their broad fins whizzing and their tails beating the air as they throw somersets and fall back into their native element to rush across the current and strain your slender tackle to its utmost.  Perhaps one breaks away, and you finally lift two into the boat.  You may cast again and again with similar results, until you have caught and killed all the larger fish of a school.  When the smaller fry begin to rise, you may move on to another pool. 

Grayling-streams, as a rule, run swiftly, but evenly, with nothing but occasional rafts of cedar logs to cause a ripple on the surface or to indicate the strength of the current.  But turn your boat up stream, and immediately the rowing or poling is extremely laborious.  Riparian weeds, water-grasses, and aquatic plants generally are not common in those streams where the fish most abound, there being very little vegetable debris or mould at the bottom of the water.  The bluffs are sometimes bold and high, but as a rule the banks are low and a landing may be had at any point desirable.  The water is cold, pure, and sweet, and the mosquitoes and gnats are less plentiful than about the warmer ponds. 

In company with a number of friends, I fished the Manistee and Au Sable, camping on the former and running down the latter, killing a large number of grayling and thoroughly testing the game qualities of the fish.  At times they rose so promptly at every cast that the sport was exhilarating beyond anything I have ever experienced in trout-fishing.  But grayling are peculiarly stubborn sometimes, and when one refuses the fly all refuse it.  The angler may then whip away to his heart’s content, only to see great schools of the indifferent beauties moving deliberately about, directly below his most tempting lure, without deigning to recognize it.  Sometimes they will not rise if your cast is down stream; at other times they seem to prefer such a cast.  One day you will find them in the sunny spots, where the water shines like plate-glass; the next, it may be, they will all be found rising in the shadows of the cedars and among the scattered drifts.  Usually, however, they are eager to rise wherever they may be, and do it with such aplomb and boldness as would have made gentle old Izaak’s heart leap to his throat. 

Once, while drifting down the Au Sable, a grayling weighing full one pound and a quarter struck my fly when not five feet from my boat, and in perfectly clear water, not over four feet deep.  At times, in fact, they seemed to have no fear of anything, even leaping out of the water after a fly as I drew out my line to recast it.  One morning I caught nine good fish at three successive casts.  Standing upon a large cedar log, about three o’clock one afternoon, one of my companions took from the Manistee twenty-nine brace of grayling with scarcely a change of position.  The fish may have averaged eight ounces.  He was using a strong bamboo rod and a rather heavy line.  As soon as his fish had been played till they gave up, he would boldly lift them out without the use of a landing-net. 

I am convinced that our crew was the merriest that ever floated down the Au Sable, and perhaps the only one which ever dared to indulge in a musical instrument.  One of us, a jolly fellow whose voice was a tenor of great sweetness and power, bore a banjo through the entire voyage, sometimes actually indulging in a ringing song and accompaniment right in the midst of the most furious onslaught of the grayling.  But his music seemed not to disturb the fish at all.  It was strange, almost weird, in its effect, this floating down a silent stream between the walls of virgin forests, far away from any habitation of man, and listening to gusts of song and deftly-rendered accompaniments whilst our lines were whirling and the grayling constantly coming up.  A belted kingfisher, the only one seen during our passage, sat upon a dead cedar bough at some distance from us, eyeing us comically as we drew past him with our banjo gayly tinkling and our singer doing his best.  It is possible that we were the first human beings this bird’s brilliant eyes had ever fallen upon.  No doubt we impressed him powerfully, for he erected his crest and chattered in a way which evidenced great perturbation. 

The scenery along the grayling-streams has just enough of monotony to render one for most of the time unconscious of any scenery at all.  The boat of the angler glides on, now in deep shade, now in brilliant sunshine, always with the same steady motion.  There are no rapids worth the name, no cascades, no towering cliffs of rock, no canyons.  The breezes steal over you from the woods, bearing the musty odors of fungi and the sharp, resinous exhalations of the pines and cedars.  You hear the low, ceaseless swash of the stream, and feel the cooling influence of the thousands of springs bubbling out of the sand and gravel which overlie the impenetrable subsoil-clay of the region.  Every element of surrounding nature is soothing and invites meditation.  You soon recognize that you are in the true paradise of the angler. 

From the middle of August to the last of September will be found the pleasantest season for grayling-fishing, and the catch will be in the very choicest condition for eating or keeping.  In some places grouse are quite numerous.  I saw several flocks of them in the woods bordering the Manistee.  Bear and deer seemed plentiful, too, in the heavier timber. 

It is well, perhaps, for the lovers of the gentle art to be told that in all probability grayling-fishing will within a few years become a thing of the past.  The way is now open by railroad to the very banks of those fine Michigan streams, and every season will increase the number of tourist-anglers who seek the health-giving recreation there offered.  Grayling, it seems, are difficult to propagate by artificial means—a fact which suggests their early annihilation.  If sportsmen could be induced to return to the water all the fish caught weighing less than half a pound, the supply might remain equal to the demand for some years.  But the pot-fishermen, those who angle and net and seine for the markets, are, despite the stringent laws of Michigan, carrying on their despicable poaching to the extent of sweeping clean whole miles of well-stocked grayling-water. 

Two methods of proceeding in fishing for grayling can be recommended.  Each has its defects and advantages.  One is to convey your boats, provisions, and tackle to the upper waters of a stream, whence you float with the current down to the mouth, fishing the pools as you pass.  The other is to establish a camp on the stream, within reach of railway communication, and from this as headquarters make your excursions on foot or in your boat to such pools as you may desire to fish.  Upon the whole, the latter plan is much better for a party of three or four whose time is limited and who wish to ship supplies of freshly-killed grayling to their less fortunate friends at home.  It is better, too, for purposes of mere sport, being much less laborious and hurried.  Some of the most pleasing sport imaginable may be had on the Manistee by a well-equipped party taking proper precautions in establishing a camp where good fishing is both above and below them. 

A fly rod, ten to twelve feet long, six to nine ounces in weight, and small brook-trout hooks, set with almost any fly, will be found serviceable tackle.  I found a small tuft of scarlet ibis, winged with grey feathers and set with black hackle, a most killing fly.  Once I baited a No. 7 hook with a small brown cricket, and caught a three-quarter-pound grayling at the first cast.  Sometimes, when the fish altogether refused every fly I tried, they rose ravenously to bits of meat and to small natural insects scattered on the surface of the water. 

The authorities of the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad have shown great energy and tact to sportsmen-tourists and their families every facility for reaching the many fishing-regions between the lakes, most attractive of which are the grayling-streams running both to the east and to the west of the central ridge of the Michigan peninsula, and the trout-brooks running into Grand Traverse Bay from the east and also from the Leelanau.  No trouble is now experienced in reaching even the most remote and unfrequented streams. 

At Walton, where the railroad divides into two lines, one running around the east side of Grand Traverse Bay to Little Traverse City, and one going westward to Traverse City proper, at the southernmost point of the bay, one is near the Manistee, where its volume is that of a real river, and wherein grayling abound.  Our party left its ladies and children at the elegant hotel at Elk Rapids, whence they could reach by steamer all the beautiful shorelands of the bay, or by the Elk River route could make the tour of Torch Lake, while we sought the joys of angling for our Thymallus tricolor in the lonely stream. 

About ten miles from Walton, by land, we pitched our tent for a few days, ranging the river in our boats and getting many fish.  Our camping-place was one of much picturesque beauty.  A clump of gnarled old cedars grew behind it, and in front, like a green fountain-jet, rose a tuft of giant fern.  Near by was a briery wilderness of red raspberry vines, loaded with late ripe scarlet fruit.  On the breezy ridges the fireweed shown like flame, and deep in a twilight gulch murmured the river.  We were with the grayling until late in September, flying away at last before a cold north wind and a sleet-like drizzle of rain.   

To close this brief paper, it may be said that there is not in America another region which for the purposes of the angler is at all comparable to Northern Michigan, and especially are the grayling brooks and rivulets too delightful to have any, or, at best, more than a mere modicum, of their subtle charm caught in the sketches of pen or pencil.  They offer recreative sport at once unique and exceptionally certain.