As a student, I got into HT Sheringham so deep I wanted to be fishing editor of The Field, the job he held from 1903. Then, gobsmacked, I read a piece of his on grayling, read of his “Unconquerable hope… of being able to stamp on the grayling a yard long when he has been netted onto the bank”. But perhaps even heroes have their blips. Best to concentrate on the greats from the past who loved grayling, Halford especially, Carter Platt, John Roberts, Reg Righyni, Terry Thomas, TK Wilson. Dick Walker, Fred Buller, Hugh Falkus. And those with a brain who fish today, maestros such as Charles Rangeley-Wilson and Howard Croston. The list of lovers is endless. Join it.
Grayling are, of course, exclusively river fish and exclusive to rivers that are beautiful. They just don’t do mediocre. I can’t think of a grayling swim where I haven’t been gobsmacked by the view. Seems God liked grayling; he only put them in the most wondrous of homes, so, obviously, grayling aren’t everywhere; they’re clustered here and there a bit like Labour MPs after the next election. Hotspots are the freestone-type rivers such as Tweed and the Tay up north. The Yorkshire Dales are great, as are parts of the Lake District. The Dove is exquisite, though more tranquil. The Wye and its tributaries are magnificent. Then you’ve got the south, the chalkstreams, the waters where Sheringham and Skues would have liked to do their grayling dance. There are other places where you might meet up with grayling but, within these shores, those are where I’d advise you to look first.
While we’re on location, I’ll give you a quick Bailey’s Guide to Foreign Fish. Scandinavia – even Finland – I’d give only seven out of 10; a lot of small fish and a lot of big mozzies. Canada ditto, though the fish are bigger. Siberia – one out of 10; appalling food, appalling accommodation, more mos-quitoes than fish and most good fish fished out. Austria and the Balkans, nine out of 10; a point withheld because, sometimes, of cost but massive fish in crystal rivers that run through paradise. Mongolia, 10 out of 10; grayling to blow you away – huge, multicoloured, not quite Thymallus thymallus but with a dorsal fin so magnificent they couldn’t be part of any other family.
START ON THE TOP
Set yourself a little target. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a grayling man through and through or a complete novice. It’s achievable. I think I’m going to do it myself. The plan is to catch three 2lb grayling. You catch one on a nymph, one on a dry fly, and one long-trotting. It’s got to be long-trotting, mind, preferably with a centrepin; not sprinkling the water with maggots but just a hook tipped with a little red worm. We can call this a Macgrayling if you like… all the more glorious if you got the three fish from three different rivers.
Let’s begin where we should, on the top, with the dries. I’m with Jeremy Lucas, the England International on the San River in southern Poland. It’s evening and a thunderstorm
is brewing in the heavy, sultry air. There are big grayling close to us in 5ft or 6ft of water, taking tiny dries, gnats and smuts off the top, just out from Lucas’s rod tip. He is fishing really, really light, minute black imitations on 18s, even 20s. He has to fish flies as tiny as this, even in the failing light. Everywhere we see the sail fins of the fish. We’re close enough to hear the suck as they sip in the naturals. Even Lucas misses five rises to each one hooked. They’re just so quick, so difficult to time. A brace of two-pounders, though, suggests he’s doing something right.
Lucas isn’t afraid to cast long during the day. I’ve been watching him wading upriver, covering the shallows, often casting anything up to 25yd off to a rising fish. The grayling aren’t aware of his presence or, because of the 14ft leader, the lay of the line. This technique would work well on all our shallower rivers: the long, shallow gravels of the Tummel, perhaps, or reaches of the Upper Wye, well into Wales.
Lucas says grayling don’t rise in quite the same way as trout. A trout will take up station mid-level of the stream when feeding whereas grayling soar up from a much deeper level, often from the river-bed itself. And grayling are quick, much quicker than trout. You strike early, you strike fast. You don’t get discouraged if you fail to hook the fish – in their haste grayling will often miss the fly themselves. But, luckily, they’re persistent, regularly rising three or four times to the same fly until hooked. On dry days, keep it simple and keep it small: Olives, Adams, Black Gnats, Klinkhamers and Sedges.
Though the technique of nymphing is now embedded in our culture, if you’re not a disciple yet, you’ll find the basics easy. In a nutshell, the angler is fishing a team of nymphs near the bottom and attempting to imitate the natural insects upon which the grayling feed. You’ve got to get as close as possible to the fish so you can control those nymphs with absolute accuracy. Wading is essential, not long-casting.
A 10ft rod gives a great measure of control and it has to be light and delicate, a quick tip action helping an instant strike. Leaders are generally 10ft to 12ft long with a heavy fly on the end and one or two imitations tied to droppers a foot or so apart. A strike indicator is a vital piece of kit. This must be large enough to support the weight of the flies and set close to the depth of the water being fished so that it can hold the flies fractionally off the bottom. The indicator is a float then, es-sential for setting the depth, essential for seeing the take. Your flies are imitating, above all, caddis-like insects, shrimps, snails and the like. Kick off with a Pheasant Tail with Saw-yer’s Killer Bug and shrimp patterns as supporting acts.
Choose water 3ft to 7ft deep that is easily approached by wading. The main run of water to be attacked should be no more than two rod-lengths away from you. The current should be not be too fast or too slow; the nymphs need to ride serenely down with it. A bed of gravel or sand, comparatively level and with few boulders or obstructions, is ideal.
KEEP A TIGHT LINE
So how do you do it? You wade out gently to where you can see the fish are lying. Some 4yd or 5yd of line are stripped from the reel and the strike indicator and team of nymphs are flicked a little way upstream. The flies sink quickly and you must be ready for an immediate take. Hold the rod high as the strike indicator floats down the current past you and then away beneath. You’ve got to keep a tight line and respond instantly to any movement on the indicator. As the nymphs move downriver, lower your rod until you can let them travel no farther. Then simply lift them out, roll the line back upstream and repeat the process. If there’s no action and no fish are seen after five or six casts, move down the run a few yards and begin the process all over again.
TRAVEL LIGHT, MOVE OFTEN
Watch like a hawk. Think how the flies are working. Con-centrate till your eyeballs scream. Never for a moment think it’s robotic, boring or undemanding. With grayling, every little thing, every tiny shred of knowledge makes a difference. The best Czech nymphers are magicians. One of their greatest gifts is the delicacy of their induced take, a lift of no more than 2in, often less than half that. It’s a flick of the fly and the Czechs have mastered it to perfection.
It is said that Reg Righyni once hooked a grayling at a measured 100yd on the float. I like to think I’m pretty good at long-trotting for them but I guess my own record is the 87yd I once paced out on Tweed. Your two-pounder at 100yd range – that’s something to aim for. Of course, the distances long-trotting covers mean that you thoroughly explore the river in a session. By travelling light and moving frequently, even a mile of river can be fished thoroughly in a morning. A 13ft rod, a centrepin reel, 3lb or 4lb line straight through, an Avon-style float and a size 14 hook are about all you need.
The line must be mended continually so that you’re controlling the float every inch of its trot. If the current creates bows in the line, strikes will be missed, the float will be pulled off course and the bait will behave unnaturally. You have to control the float, guide it towards promising areas and inch it around snags; you can’t let it go with the flow and trust to luck. You’ve got to hold the float up occasionally so that the bait rises enticingly off the bottom, often prompting a fish into an induced take. When the float eventually goes under at long distance, the strike needs to be instant and powerful and must continue until the pull of a hooked fish is felt. Keep the rod low to the water surface to avoid splashing, which would alarm the rest of the shoal and make a hook slip more likely.
Ideal days for long-trotting are dull and overcast with little wind to ruffle the surface. Bright sunlight leads to a lot of surface glare which makes seeing the float a long way off a headache-inducing job. Wind-chop on the river is at least as bad, especially when combined with glinting sunlight.
Grayling fit perfectly into the game angler’s calendar. They spawn in the spring, so some of the best grayling fishing takes place through the autumn and winter. Crisp mornings with crystal skies when there is cat ice on the river margins won’t deter grayling. Fish for them with the nymph or the float but watch for a brief rise around the middle of the day. Look for them particularly up top, though, in the high summer when the trout are having none of it. That’s the wonder of grayling. Not only are they beautiful, fascinating, compelling even. They are also obliging to a fault.
GREAT GRAYLING CONTACTS
The River Dove Izaac Walton Hotel, Dovedale, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, tel 01335 350555. Three miles of fishing on one of the most picturesque sections of the river. Do get out early and late to avoid the crowds.
For the Yorkshire Dales Steve Rhodes, tel 01756 748378, is the ideal first contact. A lot of the fishing is done on the River Ure and even long-trotting is covered.
In Scotland the Pitlochry Angling Club has wonderful grayling fishing on the Tummel. Ticket prices are as little as £10 a day. Call Ron Harriman on 01796 472484.
In Wales the Wye and Usk Foundation and its Wye and Usk Passport Scheme open up some wonderful fishing previously unguessed at.
On the southern chalkstreams you can’t do better than contact Simon Cooper.
In the Lake District Cumbria’s River Eden is as fine a grayling river as exists. Contact the Eden Rivers Trust for details.
TOP TIPS FROM THE MAESTROS
■ “Avoid fishing at the shoals. It’s tempting to think that drifting it over the pack means they will compete for the fly. However, the greater likelihood is that you will spook a grayling which, in turn ,will spook the others. Go for the outriders of the pack instead.” Simon Cooper, Fishing Breaks, www.fishingbreaks.co.uk
■ “On chalkstreams, especially, fish as light as practicable, particularly for pressured fish. Even when you are nymphing this is important. Take two fish from a shoal and then move. Or change flies. You will pick up more fish from the same pod if you do that. Above all, get deep to where the fish are.” Howard Croston, England International and Hardy product development manager
■ “Concentrate for grayling in November and early December when the colours of the valleys are absolutely spellbinding. The most underrated grayling river in the country is the River Lug from Leominster upstream. It’s a small-to-medium-sized river in a steep-sided, heavily wooded, meandering valley. It’s very remote and very peaceful with fish to 21⁄2lb and probably more.” Seth Johnson-Marshall, Wye and Usk Foundation