Following on from the previous week’s post, this second instalment of my look back through last winter’s grayling fishing recalls a great day on the river Ure, followed by two disastorous sessions on the Wharfe. Nonetheless, despite finishing the season on somewhat of a low, there were plenty of positives and good lessons learnt to take into winter 2018/19.
River Ure, Bainbridge – 29 December 2017
My wife and I had a booked a couple of nights away at Bainbridge in upper Wensleydale between Christmas and New Year. We were staying at Yorebridge House where the gardens of the hotel run down to the banks of the River Ure.
As we drove from Leeds to Ripon, then through Masham and on to Aysgarth in beautiful winter sunshine, the landscape just kept getting better and better. Whilst the Wharfe and Nidd valleys are undoubtedly beautiful in their own way, and, having grown up there, Wharfedale will always have a special place in my heart, they are both very close to the big cities of Leeds and Bradford. Every year there seem to be more and more walkers, swimmers, canoeists and the rest. It’s selfish I know, but when I’m fishing I don’t want to see or hear anyone else, I don’t want to tell anyone not to throw stones or put their dog back on a lead or tell them what I’ve caught for ‘dinner’. The valley of the river Ure on the other hand feels more remote. Whether I’m piking on a favourite stretch near Ripon or, as I found out on this trip, fly fishing for grayling in upper Wensleydale, you rarely see another soul or hear anything other than the bleating of sheep, peal of a curlew or call of a pheasant in the distance.
Indeed, after a great meal and a good night’s sleep at Yorebridge, we woke to even more silence with a thick layer of snow blanketing the valley. What a difference from the brilliant blue skies of the day before, but if ever there was a day for putting a grayling – the quintessential winter fish – in the net, it was this one.
With a full English breakfast under our belts and flasks full of hot coffee we set out. We crossed the river over the ancient bridge by the hotel and walked down the far bank, before stopping to tackle up in a small wood that provided some shelter from the big flakes of snow that continued to fall.
I decided to start with the two flies that had served me well at Collingham earlier that week – the cased caddis was placed on the dropper and the partridge and hare’s ear on the point.
The wood stood on the banks of a lovely looking pool, where shallow pocket water (that looked like it would provide interesting fishing in the warmer months) gave way to a deep, steady glide. I waded in at the top end and threw a few casts to find my rhythm. On the third drift the line drew slowly forward. Though I fully expected the flies to have caught on a rock in such shallow water, the text books tell you to strike at any unexpected movement of the line when drifting bugs in this manner, so I duly raised the rod tip. To my surprise I felt the judder of a fish. Next question, which fly had it taken and would it be a grayling or trout?
I played the fish for a few moments – the caddis on the dropper emerged first with no fish attached, whatever it was must have taken the tiny partridge and hare’s ear on the point. Then the fish splashed – a flash of silver and wave of a magenta dorsal fin on the surface of the icy water – incredibly, it was a grayling on my third cast. The fish was quickly bundled into the net and I waded ashore to unhook it and get a quick snap. As it turned out, my wife had caught it all on film (see below)!
The fish was returned to the pool and, after a quick coffee, I followed suit. I fished well, but couldn’t tempt any more. The wading was pretty treacherous with some huge boulders and troughs, and it was very snaggy (I lost several flies). Moreover, by this point I’d still failed to invest in some new waders so about another hour was all I could muster.
River Wharfe, Collingham – 2 January 2018
Returning to Collingham early in the new year, finally suited and booted with some new waders I felt ready to face the elements. It was a good job as when I met my friend Andy for a short afternoon session we were greeted with high water, howling winds and heavy snow flurries. We gave it our best shot with Andy trotting worms and myself trundling my heaviest bugs as best I could. We fished for a couple of hours trying several swims, including those where I had caught back in December, but apart from a couple of nibbles on Andy’s worms we drew a blank and retired early to the nearest pub. On the plus side, at least my legs were dry.
River Wharfe, Pool-in-Wharfedale – 18 February 2018
The last session of the winter was a few miles further upstream from Collingham at Pool-in-Wharfedale. There was a feature in Trout and Salmon magazine on this stretch not too long ago, which focused on the good grayling fishing to be had here, and indeed I’d caught a few here in my youth. However, this trip was to be the low ebb of the season.
Having tackled up in the layby I turned to walk towards the river. I hadn’t taken more than three steps from the car before I heard a crack. I knew instantly what had happened. In my hurry to get to the river I was carrying my rod with the tip out in front of me. A momentary lapse in concentration resulted in the tip tilting down and catching the ground – another step forward and the rod bent to breaking point and snapped. My brand-new rod had lasted but five sessions!
As I stood by the car contemplating the situation, a fellow angler returning from a morning session asked if I wanted his leftover maggots. I had my coarse fishing rod in the car and, knowing this would be my last session of the season, took him up on his kind offer. I cobbled together a few bits of tackle from the car boot and headed to the river. I had just enough coarse fishing gear, some hooks and shot, to ledger the maggots and at least get a line in the water.
I found a swim where a fallen tree created some slack water and a nice crease where the obstacle diverted the main current. I cast my maggots so that they would settle on the bottom just where the main flow met the slack and sat back to give Orvis in Harrogate a ring to see if the ‘lifetime guarantee’ that came with the rod would cover self-inflicted damage. Thankfully it did – I returned the rod that afternoon and two weeks later was able to pick up the rod with a new tip section, as good as new – great service!
Returning my concentration to the ledgered maggots I had a few tentative knocks before I was able to connect with something, which turned out to be a small grayling. At least I hadn’t blanked and the little lady brightened up an otherwise bad day. Although I fished on for a couple of hours and tried a few other swims, my heart wasn’t really in it and I packed up early.
Conclusions, next season and a nice surprise
So, my first winter targeting grayling saw me catch five (with the biggest about 10 inches) over six trips. Whilst clearly not breaking any records, I’m putting it down as a minor success. I caught on all but three of the trips and most of the fish came to flies I had tied myself, which is always hugely satisfying.
Whilst it’s impossible to draw firm conclusions from such a limited number of trips and fish, I’ll take away the following points from this first season:
- There are some good-sized grayling in the Wharfe. Despite not managing to connect with any of them last winter, the fish I saw ‘head and tail’ rise on the first session at Addingham proved they are there.*
- Winter grayling fishing is not all about plumbing the depths with heavy bugs or flies with pink, orange or red ‘tags’ or ‘hot spots’. Interestingly, I didn’t catch any of my fish on heavy Czech nymph style patterns that are so popular for grayling in the winter months, nor did I catch on any flies incorporating those bright colours synonymous with the species. All my fish came to small drab patterns – both wet and dry – fished in some surprisingly shallow swims. Granted, I wouldn’t profess to having mastered the technique of deep drifting weighted bugs, so my lack of success with those larger / more gaudy patterns may have more to do with my own ability rather than their effectiveness. However, from a confidence perspective going forward I’ll certainly hedge my bets by including a smaller innocuous pattern in a team of heavier or more more brightly coloured flies. Moreover, I won’t ignore shallower locations even in the coldest weather.
- Short winter days mean fishing time is limited. To optimise your time on the bank you need to be warm and comfortable. On the northern rivers I fish wading is inevitable and a good pair of waders together with thermal clothes is essential.
- When walking with any rod always carry it with the tip behind you!
*Post script – as it turns out I didn’t have long to wait to connect with a big Wharfe grayling as I’ll be writing about on here soon.