In fly fishing circles, the grayling was for many years considered a nuisance fish. Falsely considered to prevent the more ‘noble’ brown trout colonising our rivers and streams, the species was even culled in certain parts of the UK. However, as angling attitudes have become more enlightened, increasingly grayling are viewed as a prize quarry. This is particularly so in the winter months when the trout are busy spawning and ‘the lady of the stream’ (as the grayling is affectionately known) is in peak condition.
My first attempt specifically targeting grayling in winter was on Lancashire’s river Hodder in 2016 (see Banter in Bowland). I hit the jackpot with two lovely fish gracing my net. Inspired by that success, I vowed to devote some more time to chasing this beautiful fish over the winter of 2017/18. Here’s a look back at how the season went.
River Wharfe, Addingham – 19 November 2017
For the season opener I chose the River Wharfe at Addingham where I’d learnt to fish as a kid. I hadn’t fished here for several seasons, indeed I hadn’t fished much at all in recent years, with work and family having taken the priority. However, I could still remember all the pools like the back of my hand and figured that a familiar water would be a good place to get my eye in for the season ahead.
Over the years, I’ve never caught masses of grayling here, but a few good ones have cropped up from time to time whilst fishing for trout in the spring and summer. I remember a brace of 16-inch fish taking a green Czech nymph fished through a shallow run on a baking hot summer’s day in the late nineties, and pound plus grayling that took at the tail of a favourite pool on the opening day of the trout season a few years later.
I’d invested in a new rod specifically for the campaign – a 10 foot 4 weight Orvis Clearwater – that I was itching to try out. From the first cast I loved it, the extra length and sensitivity was ideal for controlling a team of weighted bugs as they tumbled through the first pools I tried. However, despite my best efforts and the new equipment a couple of hours passed without event.
Continuing my way upstream I arrived at a favourite spot – a broad, glassy smooth pool with good depth and plenty of tree cover. No matter what the conditions, there always seems to be some activity here and it rarely fails to produce. The depth and breadth of the river here means a decent cast is required to cover the fish, that experience has taught me, sit just off or under the far bank trees. The heavy bugs were therefore replaced with a team of smaller wet flies that could be more delicately cast the required distance. An olive beadhead nymph was chosen for the point, a partridge and orange for the middle dropper and a black magic spider on the top. The new rod rolled these flies easily across the full width of the pool and managed their drift perfectly.
It was a lovely mild autumn afternoon and there was a pleasing number of flies hatching. Although the odd fish was rising, which was encouraging and made me contemplate switching to a dry fly, they weren’t doing so consistently, so I stuck with my trusty team of wets. I worked my way down the pool to where the river begins to turn from left to right. Just as the flies swung away from a far bank eddy I had a thumping take. However, lack of concentration and practice caused me to strike too soon and miss the fish. I had the rod tip too close to the surface so when the fish took there was no slack for it to turn and set the hook. I cursed under my breath and waded ashore to rest the pool, have a coffee and slice of pork pie, and think again.
For something to do while the pool settled down again, I tied on a fresh leader, but kept the team of flies the same save for changing the olive beadhead for quill-bodied nymph with a pink beadhead. Grayling are known to have a fondness for flies that sport a dash of colour – with pink, red and orange being favourites.
After a suitable break I waded back out and began to fish. Halfway down the run I saw a huge grayling head and tail rise near the far bank. My concentration returned to my own flies just in time as the line tightened and I hooked a decent fish. When fishing with multiple flies, there is always the added intrigue of discovering which fly the fish has taken, which can in turn provide a multitude of helpful clues as to how the fish are feeding on a particular day. In this case, the top and middle droppers emerged with no fish attached. Whatever I had hooked had taken the pink beadhead on the point. A lover of pink … surely it would be a grayling? Alas no, it turned out to be a beautifully marked wild brown trout of around ten inches.
After unhooking and safely returning the out of season trout, unfortunately it was time to pack up and head home, but the first outing had been a success. The new rod had been christened, I’d caught on a hometied fly (always a result!) and most encouragingly I’d seen plenty of fly life and a quality grayling rise.
River Nidd, Dacre Banks – 4 December 2017
Following the success at Addingham, I put in a call to Clark Colman at Orvis in Harrogate to extol the virtues of, and thank him for, the rod I’d purchased. As ever, he was extremely helpful and recommended a stretch of the Nidd to try on my next foray, which he said was fishing well for grayling. It was a couple of weeks before I could get out again, but when I did the stretch didn’t disappoint with a brace of sparkling grayling falling to dry fly tactics in unseasonably mild conditions and handful of trout falling to wets, including the pink beadhead again – I thought grayling were supposed to like pink?! You can read more about that outing here – Festive Flies.
River Wharfe, Collingham – 27 December 2017
With work, travel and the festive period, it was the end of the month before I could get out again. My wife was meeting some old school friends for lunch in Wetherby which meant I could sneak in a couple of hours on the Wetherby AC day ticket stretch at Collingham between dropping her off and picking her up. As with Addingham, I had caught grayling here before (while coarse fishing in the summer months), but had never tried this part of the river in winter.
It was a sunny, but bitterly cold day and the river was carrying plenty of extra water. Tough conditions, made even tougher by leaky waders. They had been leaky for a while, but given that I typically fish in spring and summer meant I’d managed to muddle on regardless. On this day however it was not long before my right leg was numb and fishing was uncomfortable to say the least. Nevertheless, being as obsessed as I am, I persevered.
I was fishing a team of bugs consisting of a newly designed cased caddis pattern on the point, a pink tagged Czech nymph on the middle dropper and a partridge and hare’s ear spider with a gold beadhead on the top dropper. The cased caddis scored in the first half hour at the tail of a lovely pool – again, great to catch on a hometied pattern, but unfortunately another out of season brownie. However, moving downstream I picked up a sprightly little grayling on the partridge and hare’s ear.
Mission accomplished, it was time to pack up with very numb legs and fingers. Lesson learned – you need the right kit for winter grayling fishing – not just rods and flies, but clothing too.
So the first three outings of the 2017/18 grayling season were a minor success (three grayling in three trips and a handful of trout to boot). I’ll be writing about the second half of the season on here soon …