Just upstream of Joe Wright Reservoir, Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologists, technicians, researchers and hatchery personnel conducted its annual spawning operation for a fish that most Coloradans might be surprised to find here in the Rocky Mountains.
Arctic grayling were first stocked in Colorado in the late 1890s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that CPW had success with a self-sustaining population.
This year’s arctic grayling spawning operation was conducted June 24 on Joe Wright Creek. Aquatic biologists from Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Northeast Region have been coming to this spot every year since 1994 to collect and fertilize grayling eggs to deliver to the Glenwood Springs and Mt. Shavano State Fish Hatcheries. The annual egg request has ranged from 100,000 to 275,00 grayling eggs over the last decade, with 140,000 eggs needed for 2021.
The Glenwood Springs Hatchery will receive 100,000 of the eggs, which they will grow to a fingerling size to stock out in late September or early October. The bodies of water scheduled to receive the grayling they rear are Lower Big Creek Lake, Bonham Reservoir and Silver Lake.
Mt. Shavano will receive the other 40,000 eggs, which will be stocked out at Echo Lake Little, Heart Lake, Hermit Lake, North Fork Reservoir, Pomeroy Lake, Rainbow Lake and Silverking Lake.
The goal of the 2021 spawn was to catch around 140 ripe females via electroshocking near the creek’s inlet to the reservoir to meet the established egg quota. However, the spawning operation entails far greater numbers of fish.
“In the quarter-mile of stream we shocked today, we caught almost 1,000 grayling,” Battige said. “Arctic grayling are not native to Colorado, the fish here in Joe Wright Reservoir originally came from Montana. They’ve been in Joe Wright Reservoir for about 30 years, we have been spawning them for over two decades now and there is an annual spawning run that is just a spectacle to see.”
If you came up to Joe Wright Creek during any other time of the year than during the spawning run, you likely would not find a single grayling in the creek. Joe Wright Reservoir and Creek provide a unique habitat for them. The arctic grayling population in Joe Wright Reservoir is not stocked and is maintained solely through natural reproduction from fish spawning naturally in the creek.
“Grayling do really well in Joe Wright Reservoir and Creek because it is crystal clear, great mountain water with appropriately-sized spawning gravel,” Battige said. “They run up the creek out of the reservoir towards the end of June every year, spawn, and then migrate back downstream to the reservoir where they spend the other 11 months of the year.”
The fish that are caught via electrofishing are sorted by males and females into holding nets on the creek. The females are massaged and stripped of their roe, or eggs, and the males of their milt, or semen, which are then carefully mixed in plastic tubs with filtered creek water. Once fertilized, the eggs are sent directly to the hatcheries that afternoon.
The fertilized eggs will be hatched and raised at the hatchery then stocked out in the fall as one to two inch fish.
Grayling are in the salmonid family – they are related to trout – and have tasty white meat. CPW has always made an effort to offer anglers a wide variety of fishing opportunities when it comes to sport fish, and the arctic grayling is rather extraordinary.
“They are really pretty fish, but don’t get that big in Colorado,” Battige said. “A really big grayling in Colorado would be around 16 inches, but they just provide a unique angling opportunity. They are a lot different than a rainbow or a brown trout. The males this time of year have an elongated dorsal fin that gets really colorful.”
The state record for biggest grayling was caught in Jackson County on Lower Big Creek Lake in 2002. Derik Drinnen caught a 17 ¼-inch grayling weighing one pound, 10 ounces.
Where to Fish for Grayling
Other grayling waters across Colorado include Pearl Lake north of Steamboat Springs, Silver Lake and Bonham Reservoir in Mesa County and Pomeroy Lake near Salida.
The Colorado Fishing Atlas, the latest interactive mapping tool offered by CPW, allows users to search for fishing opportunities by species, specific interest or proximity to your home or destination.
Aquatic biologist Kyle Battige walks us through the process of spawning arctic grayling in Colorado. The northeast aquatics team spawned and fertilized 140,000 eggs on this June 2021 day to send off to the Glenwood Springs (100,000 eggs) and Mt. Shavano (40,000 eggs) state fish hatcheries. Battige also discusses the fish management in Joe Wright Reservoir near Cameron Pass in north-central Colorado.
Fish Survey and Management Data: Joe Wright Reservoir