In his essay, Jeremy Betham, the Pietà, and a Precious Few Grayling, Bozeman author David Quammen wrote that when caught, a grayling will leap “…the way a Victorian matron would faint in someone’s arms…(and will) simply lie in your hand, pliant and fatalistic, beautiful, placing itself at your mercy.” When my nephew, Josh, recently sent me this shot of him with his first grayling, it brought to Quammen to mind. And while my nephew might need to work a bit on his pose, the way he’s playing with the extravagant dorsal fin seems typical of anyone who’s brought one of these beauties ashore. It turns out no one quite knows why the grayling has such an appendage, nor why it hasn’t figured out how to use it to put up a better fight.
The picture also brought to mind the summer when Greg Keeler and I pulled them out of Grayling Lake up Hell Roaring Creek off the Gallatin, where I realized how right Quammen was. While grayling are always a hoot, you catch them for different expectations and rewards. As Quammen wrote, “You catch them to visit them: to hold one carefully in the water, hook freed, dorsal flaring, and gape at the colors, and then watch as it dashes away.”
The ones Greg and I gaped at that day on Grayling Lake seemed more like they were being tickled than being caught, wafting up to the bank like they might prefer the land to water, greeting us from the deep with dorsal folded like a palm across the forehead, but obliged to squirm here and there because, well, they were after all fish. With the entire lake to ourselves, we made the most of it. Each time either of us had one on, our best Monte Python falsettos echoed across the alpine cirque, “Oh, woes me! WOES ME! I’ve been kissed on the lips by a deceptive wire… AGAIN! Please, please, won’t you pet my extravagant dorsal.”