As a British family living and working in Russia, quality time with our family back home is scarce. Focus on the daily grind, and the trials and tribulations of modern life, means that weeks easily slip into months and even months into years without us seeing our nearest and dearest. With this in mind, my wife and I have resolved to ensure that each year we spend some extra-quality time with our parents. For my part, last year this meant booking a boys’ night away with my brother and Dad for his 65th birthday and, in order that my Mum would not feel left out, my wife arranged – no laughing please – a mother-and-son spa day.
The location for the boys’ night away was to be the Inn at Whitewell – fine food and plenty to drink, a bit of rambling, and a spot of grayling fishing was the plan.
The hotel is situated in the Forest of Bowland, an area of outstanding natural beauty in Lancashire. Whilst only an hour’s drive from where I was brought up in West Yorkshire, it was a place I had never previously visited. As we neared the destination, having passed through Skipton and then Clitheroe, cell phone reception was lost as we climbed a ridge, before descending into a majestic vale cut by the River Hodder. This valley felt a million miles from the great cities of Yorkshire and Lancashire not too far away – a forgotten spot, unadulterated by the modern world.
We arrived just after lunch time. Even from the outside, the hotel had the air of a proper, traditional hunting and fishing lodge – whitewashed walls, enigmatic signage and perched atop of a cliff overlooking the river. We unloaded the car and checked in, and in the process enquired about the fishing. We were referred to the estate manager who informed us that, despite it being late December, he had seen grayling rising the day before. However, he warned us to tackle up with stout leaders as there were plenty of spawning salmon around that would readily intercept flies intended for grayling. He handed us a map of the hotel’s beat – there was plenty to go at, several miles – and pointed out some pools to try and areas where we could wade across the river to fish from the appropriate bank.
We decided to walk the length that afternoon in preparation for the following day. Leaving the hotel and heading upstream, firstly along the road and then descending across a field to the river, we found a deep slow pool where the river turned and ran beneath the aforementioned cliff. This was where the grayling had been said to have been rising and the salmon spawning. We watched and waited expectantly, but did not spot any fishy movements. After a while, we carried on walking up river, bantering as we went, and taking the rare opportunity to get a few photos together. As the keenest angler out of the three of us, I could not help but keep one eye on the river. No rising fish were spotted, but we certainly passed several lovely spots. The river was running at a good height and, reflecting the leaden winter sky, was dark and intriguing.
We walked a good few miles in the end, as far as the road bridge that marks the top of the beat and back. Upon returning to the hotel, it was thankfully an acceptable hour to sample the hostelry. The beer flowed freely and we enjoyed several games of scrabble in the games room where the fire was roaring as the evening drew in. Before things got too merry though we relocated to the restaurant and had an excellent dinner of delicious pork belly that went very well with a bottle of Chilean Chardonnay. However, with all that fresh air, and fine fine food and drink, it was not too long before we were ready to retire – we slept like logs. With sub-zero temperatures forecast for the next day, there would be no rush to get on the river and we could all enjoy a lie in. Any action was likely to be confined to the late morning and early afternoon when there might be just a hint of warmth in the air. That is the good thing about winter fly fishing, you can keep very gentlemanly hours.
We woke the next morning to brilliant blue skies and a heavy frost. Certainly a glorious day to be outside in the great English countryside, but would the grayling oblige? My brother, father and I have fly fished for many years and have caught plenty of grayling while while fishing for trout in the spring and summer. Indeed, we have had some good ones over the seasons, with fish of 17 inches or more taken from the Wharfe and Eden. However, none of us had ever purposely targetted these fish before in the winter and, as we ate breakfast in the lovely restaurant overlooking the river, we discussed tactics for the day ahead. Given the temperatures, our conclusion was that the fish would be tightly shoaled and the key would be presenting our flies hard on the bottom where they would be lying.
As I have written about previously, I had recently returned to fly tying and had filled a box with a selection of weighted nymphs for the trip. Tackling up in the hotel car park, I cracked open the new box for general use – my brother and Dad each chose prince nymph variants sporting pink tungsten beads, whereas I chose to fish two nymphs (a cased caddis pattern with two beads and plenty of lead on the dropper, and a tiny size 18 olive beadhead nymph on the point). The caddis was a sacrificial offering, essentially just ballast to get the more imitative nymph on the point down to the required depth.
We decided to walk all the way back up to the bridge at the top of the stretch to warm ourselves up, then fish back to the hotel for a sandwich, before exploring some of the runs beneath the hotel in the last hour or so of the afternoon. Unlike the previous day, the bright sunshine meant you could see every pebble on the river bed as we started fishing in the pools immediately below the bridge. Any fish were either well camouflaged or elsewhere. Indeed, a small dead brown trout on the bank was the only fish we saw in the first hour.
However, continuing to work our way downstream, a couple of hundred yards below the bridge I found a classic grayling swim. It was a glide with a bit more depth (thigh rather than shin deep), a clean gravelly bottom and some shade afforded by far bank trees. If they were anywhere, the grayling would be holed up in the darker, deeper water beneath the trees, out of the glare of the shining sun. I said to my dad, “I think we’ll get something here”, and began fishing with a renewed sense of purpose.
I was flicking my nymphs upstream and watching the end of the fly line like a hawk for any twitch or quiver that could be a taking fish. My flies were occasionally catching the bottom, which meant, at the very least, that the ballast was working and my little olive nymph was in the right area.
I could not tell you what I struck at, sixth sense or the subtlest of movements in the line, but after numerous drifts I struck at something and felt the nod-nod of a decent fish. It put up a lovely fight – I vividly remember the fish rolling midriver as I looked upstream with the old bridge in the distance and the high fells beyond. After a couple of minutes it was safely netted and on inspection had taken the tiny nymph. It was my first winter grayling, caught by design on one of my own patterns – priceless stuff. She was comfortably a pound, and I was chuffed to bits. After a couple of quick photos, I slipped her back smiling from ear to ear.
After resting the swim for a while I waded back out, though a little further this time, thinking that the commotion of the first fish could have pushed the rest of the shoal closer to the sanctuary of the far bank tree roots. So it proved to be and it was not many drifts later that the line hesitated again and a swift strike met with pleasing resistance – another grayling of over a pound.
Two fish and a couple of hour’s fishing in sub-zero temperatures was more than enough for the three of us, no matter how lovely the sunshine. After returning the second fish, we decided to walk back to the hotel and warm up with a coffee and a sandwich. We were in no rush to get back out on the river, but decided to have one last hour in the pool below the stepping stones just downstream of the hotel. Remarkably, despite the freezing temperatures we spotted a couple of fish rise and my Dad managed to tempt one of them on his prince nymph. Another decent grayling of the better part of a pound was a fantastic way to end the day.
All in all, we could not have hoped for a better night away – some great banter in beautiful surroundings, quality food and drink, fantastic weather and a few fish to boot. On the drive home, we were already making plans for next year’s trip. Moreover, I was well and truly bitten by the grayling bug and vowed to make a more concerted effort to target this wonderful fish next winter (that was the winter of 2016 and I will be writing about the results of winter 2017 soon).
But what about the spa day with your mum I hear you say? Well, this is a blog about fishing, cooking and music, but suffice as to say we had a really nice day chilling out and catching up. However, thinking about it further, a number of my best captures over the years have come when I have been on the bank (my first salmon) or in a boat (a cracking 8lb over-wintered rainbow trout) with my mum, so maybe next year we should have a day’s fishing together instead … ?!