Animals -> Fish -> Freshwater Fish -> Arctic Grayling

Arctic Grayling

Arctic grayling are reported to have been eaten by the Stalo, Shuswap, Dene First Nations of Great Slave Lake and Fort Nelson, Hare (Sahtu), Southern Tutchone, Kaska, Tagish, Champagne and Aishihik, Teslin Tlingit, Ingalik of the Yukon and Kuskokwim River basin, Kutchin (Gwich’in) (including Chalkyitsik Kutchin, Peel River Kutchin, Crow River Kutchin, Yukon Flats Kutchin, Vunta Kutchin and Chandalar Kutchin), Tanana including the Upper Tanana, Han, Koyukon, Tanaina, Inupiat (including Kotzebue Sound and Nuiqsut), Inuvialuit, Inuit (including Keewatin and Central), Chipewyan and Wampanoag [1-32].


Arctic grayling were caught in spring and/or fall, usually setting up fishing camps near rivers or lakes [1, 7, 10, 12, 18, 22]. They normally were caught with traps, but gill nets and hook and line were also used [11, 12, 18, 21, 22, 24].

The Koyukon set up fall camps on streams near larger lakes and set traps in these streams to catch them [12]. The Peel River Kutchin journeyed down to the river from the mountain using boats and set up fishing camps in June for various fish including grayling. They caught them with fish spears in summer and with basket traps between September and freeze-up, the trap mouth facing upstream [18]. Ingalik families travelled by canoe to fishing sites on small lakes in spring to catch fish including grayling. At this time, they caught them with side-stream traps placed under the ice. In summer, the entire Ingalik community set up summer fishing camps and caught them by setting traps on tiny side streams [22]. The Teslin band of the Inland Tlingit set up fishing camps near rivers where grayling abounded and caught them with funnel-shaped basket traps made of willow and fastened with spruce roots. In more recent times, they used gill nets [10].

Nuiqsut journeyed on snowmobile to fishing camps located on the Colville River or on Fish Creek around mid-October, where they caught grayling through the ice using hooks. In July, children would catch them using rod and reel in the creeks. At times, children set tiny nets in the streams close to town. In April, the Nuiqsut caught grayling with hook and line [7]. The Vunta Kutchin caught them in the fall along the Old Crow River, where they set up fishing camps in late summer and fall, for many fish including grayling [1]. The Yukon Kaska, Ingalik of the Yukon and Kuskokwim River basin, and the Yukon Indigenous Peoples were other cultures who used traps [8, 11, 24]. The Yukon Kaska caught them with funnel-shaped basket traps/weirs. The funnel-shaped entrance to the weir was made by stitching spruce brush on a willow-pole structure using willow-bark or spruce-root rope and the funnel opened into a square trap which opened onto a fence encompassing both stream banks [8]. The Yukon Indigenous Peoples also used funnel-shaped basket traps, which they placed in a stream between two lakes. They also used cylindrical basket traps with holes at each end, which they put in enclosures made of brush and posts positioned in eddies. The fish swam upstream into the enclosures through the holes and were pushed back into the trap mouth, which faced upstream. The downstream hole of the trap was raised on a ledge where the fish were consequently speared [11]. The Kutchin used gillnets, while the Tanaina caught them with bone fishhooks in earlier times, and metal hooks, in later times [21, 23].

Cultures including Han and Inupiat caught them in spring and summer using hook and line and gill nets [26-28, 31]. The Han used gill nets, while cultures from Hula-hula, Chandalar, Horton and Dease Rivers and Fort Providence likely used these as well [27, 31]. The Han set up fishing camps close to the Mackenzie River to catch them and were only allowed to fish if they had fishing licenses, which had to be renewed annually. They caught them on the Mackenzie River between Fort Good Hope and the start of the Ramparts using 3 or 3.5 inch mesh gill nets, floats, a marker float, stones for weights and a huge stone anchor. They placed the nets in river eddies in swirling water so that when the fish got caught in the swirl, they would get caught in the net. The fishermen checked the nets twice a day: early in the morning and in the evening aboard a hunting canoe or a motor boat, and transported the catch to camp where the women cut them in preparation for drying [27]. The Han and Inupiat of Northwest Alaska used hook and line, the former using them in mountain streams. The latter jigged them with hook and line; the leader was made of baleen and was connected to a hook assembly at one end and to a small piece of caribou sinew rope at the other end. The hook assembly was an iron hook with a seal’s tooth shank [26, 28].

The Fort Nelson Slave First Nations caught grayling using fish weirs set in shallow creeks or rivers. Men and boys usually built weirs during the months of July, August and September. Large quantities of grayling were harvested for later consumption by drying on wood spits held by trestles [32].


Arctic grayling were eaten broiled, roasted, boiled and dried [10, 14, 16, 18]. The roe, head and intestines were also eaten [6, 10, 14, 18]. The Southern Tutchone boiled the flesh while the Chalkyitsik Kutchin of Alaska roasted it, considering it a “good fish to roast” [10, 16]. The Peel River Kutchin considered it a delicacy and ate it broiled, roasted or boiled. They also ate the dried roe [18]. The Chandalar Kutchin prepared the flesh for immediate consumption, and dried it for storage after filleting. They used the heads to make soup and fed the guts to the dogs [14]. The Shuswap prepared the flesh for immediate consumption and stored it for winter use [9]. Besides the flesh, the Tagish ate the raw roe and Inuit ate the intestines; Caribou Inuit also are reported eating the eyes [6, 10].

The Han considered grayling a delicacy. The Hare prepared them by cutting them open, placing them in the sun to dry on a rack for three days, and stringing them in a set of ten or fifteen on a pole suspended over dry wood or driftwood smoke for three or four days in a smoke house or smoke tent [27, 28].


1.         Balikci A: Game Distribution. In: Vunta Kutchin Social Change A Study of the People of Old Crow, Yukon Territory. edn. Ottawa: Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources; 1963.

2.         Birket-Smith K: The Struggle For Food. In: Eskimos. edn. Rhodos: The Greenland Society with the support of The Carlsberg Foundation and The Ministry for Greenland; 1971: 75-113.

3.         Burch ES, Jr.: Kotzebue Sound Eskimo. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5: Arctic. edn. Edited by Damas D. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1984: 303-311.

4.         Crow JR, Obley PR: Han. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 506-509.

5.         Duff W: The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia. Victoria,B.C.: British Columbia Provincial Museum; 1952.

6.         Eidlitz K: Food and Emergency Food in the Circumpolar Area. In.; 1969.

7.         Hoffman D, Libbey D, Spearman G: Nuiqsut: Land Use Values Through Time in the Nuiqsut Area, vol. revised edition. Fairbanks: University of Alaska; 1988.

8.         Honigmann JJ: The Kaska Indians: An Ethnographic Reconstruction. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1954.

9.         Ignace MB: Shuswap. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 12: Plateau. edn. Edited by Walker DE, Jr. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1998: 203-208.

10.       McClellan C: My Old People Say: An Ethnographic Survey of Southern Yukon Territory-Part 1. Ottawa: National Musems of Canada; 1975.

11.       McClellan C: A History of the Yukon Indians; Part of the Land, Part of the Water. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre; 1987.

12.       McFadyen Clark A: Koyukon. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 582-590.

13.       McKennan RA: Economic Life. In: The Upper Tanana Indians. edn. New Haven: Yale University Publications in Anthropology Number 55; 1959.

14.       McKennan RA: Getting a Living. In: The Chandalar Kutchin. edn. New York: Arctic Intitue of North America, Technical Paper No. 17; 1965.

15.       McKennan RA: Tanana. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 562-568.

16.       Nelson RK: Hunters of the Northern Forest: Designs for Survival among the Alaskan Kutchin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 1973.

17.       Nobmann ED, Mamleeva FY, Klachkova EV: A Comparison of the Diets of Siberian Chukotka and Alaska Native Adults and Recommendations for Improved Nutrition, a Survey of Selected Previous Studies. Arct Med Res 1994, 53:123-129.

18.       Osgood C: Material Culture: Food. In: Contributions to the Ethnography of the Kutchin. edn. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1936: 23-39.

19.       Pattimore JH: Toward Inuit Self-Sufficiency in the Keewatin District, N.W.T. In.; 1983.

20.       Raby S, Bone RM, Shannon EN: An Historic and Ethnographic Account to the 1920's. In: The Chipewyan of The Stony Rapids Region; a study of their changing world with special attention focused upon caribou. Volume 1st edition, edn. Edited by Bone RM. Saskatoon: Institute for Northern Studies, University of Saskatchewan; 1973: 12-47.

21.       Slobodin R: Kutchin. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 514-518.

22.       Snow JH: Ingalik. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 602-607.

23.       Townsend JB: Tanaina. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6: Subarctic. edn. Edited by Helm J. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1981: 623-628.

24.       Vanstone JW: Athapaskan Adaptations: Hunters and Fishermen of the Subarctic Forests. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company; 1974.

25.       Wein EE, Freeman MMR: Frequency of Traditional Food Use by Three Yukon First Nations Living in Four Communities. Arctic 1995, Vol. 48, No. 2:161-171.

26.       Bockstoce JR: Eskimos of Northwest Alaska in the Early Nineteenth Century. In: Eskimos of Northwest Alaska in the Early Nineteenth Century. edn. Oxford: University of Oxford; 1977.

27.       Hara HS: The Hare Indians and their World. In. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada; 1980.

28.       Osgood C: The Han Indians: A Compilation of Ethnographic and Historical Data on the Alaska-Yukon Boundary Area, vol. Yale University Publications in Anthropology Number 74. New Haven: Department of Anthropology Yale University; 1971.

29.       Speck FG, Dexter RW: Utilization of marine life by the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 1948, 38(8):257-265.

30.       Kuhnlein HV, Appavoo DM, Morrison N, Soueida R, Pierrot P: Use and nutrient composition of traditional Sahtu (Hareskin) Dene/Metis food. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 1994, 7:144-157.

31.       Stefansson V: My Life with the Eskimo. In: My Life with the Eskimo. edn. New York: The Macmillan Company; 1913.

32.       Honigmann JJ: Ethnography and Acculturation of the Fort Nelson Slave. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1946.

The Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) is a freshwater fish and is the only grayling species in North America. It occurs throughout most of Alaska and northwestern Canada, up to tributaries of northwestern Hudson Bay. More southern native populations of Arctic grayling that have long been isolated from northern ones are either extinct (Michigan grayling of the Great Lakes) or have long been artificially propagated and widely introduced outside their native range (Montana grayling of the upper Missouri River basin).

The Arctic grayling is in the large salmonid family, which also includes salmon, trout, char, and whitefish. The latin name Thymallus comes from European folklore suggesting grayling eat “water thyme” and have a thyme-like odour. Other common names include sailfin grayling, bluefish, and tittimeg. The French common name is omble arctique and also poisson bleu.

The Arctic grayling is larger in more northern populations, attaining up to 61 cm and weighing 1.8 kg, while southern populations are never much more than 38 cm and 0.5 kg. Arctic grayling can be easily differentiated from any salmon, trout, char, and whitefish at first glance because of its obvious sail-like dorsal fin. Arctic grayling are also differentiated from salmon and trout by having a smaller mouth with smaller teeth, larger scales, and a deeper forked tail. Colouration can range from brilliant blue and lavender to blackish blue and the dorsal fin has rows of pink and lavender spots and a red or orange border. Spots on the body are concentrated close to the head and look like large angular blotches.

Arctic grayling, like lake trout, do not tolerate salty water and is constrained to live and travel in freshwater. Arctic grayling spawn in spring over gravel or rocky areas and eggs are half the size of salmon and trout eggs. However, Arctic grayling have a rapid development, hatching in half the time at more than twice the size than salmon and trout, and can reproduce in small streams flowing only for a few weeks in spring. The diet of Arctic grayling is mainly comprised of aquatic and terrestrial insects, but in northern regions, will also include fish and fish eggs. The lifespan in more southern populations is between four and five years, while northern populations live twice as long, up to 18 years.

The Arctic grayling in more southern populations is susceptible to competition with non-native trout, to warming waters, depleting river flows, and increased sediment loads. Michigan grayling disappeared after intense clear-cutting and trout introduction, while Montana grayling are replaced in their own habitat by brown and rainbow trout. In Montana, propagation programs and fishing regulations to restore and preserve the native Arctic grayling population have been on-going for years.


Behnke RJ: Trout and salmon of North America. New York, NY, USA: Free Press; 2002.


Images provided below were obtained from: Encyclopedia of Life. Available from
Arctic grayling
© Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Fishes
Supplier: National Museum of Natural History Collections
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network