20 July 2007

Big Hole River Grayling Quest

Yesterday, I was cicerone to Colorado native Jonathan Stumpf, a journalism grad student at UM-Missoula. Jonathan has a two-fold quest: (1) to catch a native grayling; and (2) to research a story about the Big Hole River grayling.
We had planned to fish the river in the morning and then tour the basin, but when I learned of Quest (1) we shifted plans a bit. I could not recall exactly where the upper river closure began and ended, so we began driving upstream. Sure enough, we found several pods of Big Hole River grayling actively feeding, marked by their splashy rises:

Alas, the three pods of a dozen or so fish each were all in the closed section. Sadly, I can recall that 10 or 15 years ago, one could see many, many such pods of grayling feeding actively on warm summer mornings. Some pools would literally boil from head to tail with feeding fish. But there are not many left.

Grayling biologists such as Jim Magee explain that the warmer it gets, the more actively do river (fluvial) grayling feed. It is a sort of stress-reaction, and it can have negative consequences when the water is warm enough to kill the fish and the dissolved oxygen levels are extremely low. As a species that evolved in and adapted to severe and relatively sterile glacial habitats with short summer seasons in which to feed and grow, this behavior served fluvial grayling very well. They could pack in the insects during the short season when food was available, and put on enough weight to get them through the long winter and the next spring's spawning season. I think of them as ravenous little bears of the aquatic world.

So, unable to put Jonathan's fly over a true fluvial grayling, we completed our tour of the basin and then headed to the last, best lake (adfluvial or lacustrine) grayling fishery. Well, at least it is my favorite grayling lake. The fish wash out from the lake into the outflow creek and -- unable to reenter the lake -- become trapped. Instead of moving downstream and adapting to stream habitat, they stay podded up in a pool near the outflow.

Here's our intrepid angler setting up on a grayling that rose to his fly:

And here are two fish he caught and released:

Was Jonathan's quest realized, or must he yet find and catch the elusive (and practically extinct) Big Hole River grayling? Don't know--you'll have to ask him. Personally, I hope he goes for the fluvial fish. There is a connection formed between an angler and a fish at the end of the line that -- at least with some anglers -- helps the angler appreciate the fragility, beauty, and conservation needs of the fish. To catch them is to know them, to know them is to love them, and to love them is to feel our moral obligation to perpetuate their B/being.

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