An Arsenal of Great Grayling Flies

Grayling take lots of different flies. Some that you might not ever expect. So, let’s do a run-down of some of the best traditional and non-traditional patterns to help you build your fly arsenal for these great fish. I’ve listed a few great flies in each of six different categories for you, and added my personal “top three” favorites in each category. Here’s the list.

Category #1 Dry Flies & Emergers

-Elk Hair Caddis                                                -The Humpy

-Parachute Adams                                            -Blue Winged Olive

-Irresistible                                                        -Pale Morning Dun

-Royal Wulff                                                       -Griffith’s Gnat                                       

 There really isn’t a dry fly tied that grayling won’t take-as long as it is properly presented. These are simply the best, I think. Here are my favorites. 

  1. The Elk Hair Caddis is, without question, grayling’s favorite dry fly (mine too), probably because caddis are so prolific in Alaska. Don’t forget, though, these juicy little morsels come in different colors and different sizes. You’ll need #10-16 to cover nearly all the bases.  
  2. Second on my list of grayling flies would be the Parachute Adams in sizes ranging from #10-16. The basic Adams is a great fly, but the Parachute tops it big time for improved visibility.
  3. Hard choice for # 3, but I’d have to say it’s the Royal Wulff in the same size ranges as the others. You’ll have exceptionally good success with the Royal Wulff tied with a white Antron or calf tail post or wings.

More tips: Emergers such as the comparadun and the super-pupa, chronomids, spa rkle pupa and other larvae and pupa imitations are also good bets for grayling at times, as are San-Juan worms.

Category #2 Nymphs (with or without bead/cone heads)

-Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear                                  -Pheasant Tail                  

-Prince Nymph                                                  -Copper John                   

-Brassie (copper, red, green)                           -Black Stonefly                

 Unless fish are feeding just under the surface, I use the bead-head version of these nymphs, especially when the water is faster, or my fly needs to get deeper.  Here’s my top three.

  1. Unquestionably the gold-ribbed hare’s ear, either bead-head or not, is my all-time favorite nymph for grayling. Tied in size 8 and smaller, it is useful on both lakes and rivers, although, when used on lakes, I tie it in olive.
  2. I love Prince Nymphs, and so do the grayling. Don’t leave home without some in size 10 and smaller. I definitely prefer the bead-heads.
  3. Sorry, but it’s a tie here between a pheasant tail nymph (preferably with a bead-head) and a black stonefly, bead-head or not. Sizes here are also #8 and smaller. (But, I also carry a few larger ones too.)

Czech nymphs would definitely be on my list and in my top three nymphs except that not all water is conducive to using them. Where the flow is right, they are fast becoming my preferred way to fish for grayling. (See my article on Czech nymphing  Fish Alaska Magazine.) Don’t forget that you can drop a tiny nymph off the bend of a larger dry fly or nymph for some fun grayling fishing, too, where fishing regulations permit the use of two flies. (See my article on fly fishing with droppers in the April, 2009 issue of Fish Alaska Magazine). 

 Category #3 Terrestrials


-Beetles                                                   -Ants

-Grasshoppers (where they exist)        -Deer Hair Mice

-Bass Poppers                                      

 Here’s where the real fun is. Grayling eat other things that land on the surface of the water besides bugs. Plopping large ant or hopper patterns on the water brings up more grayling that you can imagine. And, doing the quick, short, up-ward little jerks of the rod tip to make bass poppers “pop” on top absolutely sends grayling into ecstasy. Keep your poppers small and use the flat-faced ones. Top three terrestrials?

  1.  Ants are #1.  Be sure to tie or buy flies with a white or florescent post for visibility, though. The fish can see the ant, but without a post, you usually can’t. Anything from a size 4 or smaller will work.
  2.  Definitely, definitely, poppers! Watching grayling play with them makes me giggle. Just wait until you see a determined grayling going after a popper again and again, each time it pops! Use them when smolt fishing, too.
  3. My third choice for big stuff on top is a grasshopper. Alaska doesn’t have nearly enough hoppers to my way of thinking, but don’t let that stop you from using them. Just wait till you see how often grayling will rise for a hopper pattern if you offer one. Try large Stimulators to imitate hoppers, size #4 and smaller.

 Category #4 Spring Smolt

-Thunder Creek                                                 -Woolly buggers (small-white)

-Alevin                                                                -Epoxy smolt

-Marabou Lake Leech                                       -Thorne River Emerger                         

Just like all the other species of fish, grayling chase salmon smolt in the spring as these tiny food bites wend their way down from the waters of their birth to the sea. Watch for disturbances in the water and birds diving on them to show you where the “bait balls” of smolt are. My picks? 

1-2.     This time it’s hard to pick my #1 smolt pattern. It’s a tie between the Thunder Creek, and the Thorne River Emerger. Depending on which species of salmon smolt the grayling are after, one or the other of these flies will nearly always work. Generally just keep them to a #10 if it’s pink salmon smolt, and to a #8 or maybe even a #6 if its silvers, kings, or chum smolt.

3-4.        I’ve also got a tie for #3 choice. That would be either a white or off-white marabou lake leech, or a small, white or off-white woolly bugger. Sometimes I clip the legs short and put eyes on the bugger with a black, waterproof marker. Again, stick with #10 or #8 flies. 

Category #5 Egg Imitations

-Glo-Bug                                                            -Iliamna Pinkie

-Two-egg Marabou                                            -Two-toned yarn flies      

-Plastic Beads

Where salmon exist, grayling bulk-up on salmon eggs just like rainbows and dollies do. Unlike rainbows and dollies, though, grayling will continue to take dry flies when eggs are available. Nevertheless, egg-imitation flies are must-haves in your fly box. If king eggs are present I carry #6 flies, and for every other type of eggs I use #8-#12 in a variety of colors from bright to pale, depending on the length of time the eggs have been in the water. It’s not hard to pick the top 3 here.

  1.  Glo-bugs are still # 1 for me even though I use all the others.
  2.  Plastic beads have to be #2, but the time it takes to rig them, the difficulty in matching the real egg color, and the fact that fish often get smart to them because they are hard, makes it difficult to rate then #1.
  3.  I’d rate the two-toned yarn flies third on my list because they represent an egg/flesh combo, and I can use them alone or with a plastic egg if I prefer.

Category #6  Streamers (with or without bead/cone heads)

-Woolly Buggers                                                         -Muddler Minnow

-Bunny/Flesh Flies or Egg-sucking bunnies                   -Polar Shrimp

-Egg-sucking leeches -Lake Leeches or bead-head  lake leeches

Grayling will take salmon-sized leech patterns at times. Usually, however, I stick to size #8 or #10 in most of my grayling streamers. The top 3?

  1. Muddlers really shine as a grayling catcher. Last summer I caught 36 fish in the same spot with the same little muddler in less than an hour and a half.
  2. Especially when rotting salmon flesh is in the water, I put bunny leeches second on the list. Just vary the color for different times of the year.
  3. Polar shrimp is an often over-looked but very productive grayling streamer. Be sure to have some in your box.

Streamers aren’t what people typically use for grayling fishing. Nevertheless, I’ve been salmon and trophy char fishing when grayling beat the larger fish to our big streamers so often we stopped trying to guess which species of fish we had on the line. Biologists tell of grayling with big mice, bait fish, and frogs in their stomachs. Just because they’re smaller fish, doesn’t mean they have a smaller appetite.

Now, load up your fly boxes and go enjoy the grayling fishing!