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Grayling in the South West
By David Pilkington
Originally published in the Guide to Angling in South West England 1998.
The grayling, in the past often maligned as vermin on trout rivers, is at last being recognised as a truly sporting and wild fish.
The fact that their season continues after the close of trout fishing, and that they take a fly readily, reinforces their attraction to the thinking, sporting angler.
A surge of interest has taken place in recent years, starting slowly back in the 1970's with the publication of Reg Righyni's classic book `Grayling', and the formation of the Grayling Society, and continues to gather momentum today, as ever more fishermen pursue this most attractive and elegant fish.
Distribution in the South West
The Wessex region is home to some fine grayling, with the Wiltshire/Hampshire Avon system probably having the densest population in Britain. The Frome holds some very large fish, certainly in the 31b class, mostly downstream of Dorchester. I believe there are grayling in the Tone, then moving west into Devon and Cornwall we have two isolated but thriving populations in the Exe and Tamar systems. On the Exe they can be found all the way up from Exeter to the Barle junction and into the lowest pools on the Barle. On the Tamar they are well distributed throughout the main river and most of the tributaries, particularly the Inny, Lyd and Ottery. In was on the upper reaches of the Inny, on a cold, grey day in March 1967, that I saw my very first grayling, and I have been fascinated ever since by "The lady of the stream".
A light, crisp actioned fly rod of around 9 feet, matched with a floating line no heavier than AFTM 5, is perfect for most waters. I prefer a double tapered line, it allows a more
delicate presentation and is more suited to roll casting, often essential on small streams. The reel should be a light nononsense job, well filled with line and backing, not for playing the fish but to minimise line coil and memory. I needle knot a 9ft knotless tapered leader (31b of 5x) and add 3 feet of 21b nylon as a tippett, attached with a three turn water knot. Waders are useful, with chest waders preferred. You will need all the other accessories you would normally carry when trouting, floatant, sinkant etc. Most essential though is a pair of long nosed forceps of similar to facilitate unhooking and returning your fish. Hooks should be barbless, I often catch salmon parr, unseasonable trout and even sea trout whilst fishing for grayling.
First, find your fish! On the clear waters of the Wessex trout streams careful observation with polaroids will soon reveal the fish. Grey shadows on the river bed, ever on the move to intercept a drifting nymph or lumbering caddis. Rising fish are on obvious give away, but are they grayling? or perhaps brown trout or salmon parr. The rise of a grayling can be seen to be slightly different to other game fish, due to the grayling's unique habit of lying hard on the river bed and rising almost vertically to the surface to engulf it's prey, and returning at once to the gravel. This causes the fish to make an oily, kidney shaped whorl on the surface of the water, often accompanied by a bubble as it turns a sort of somersault on it's way back to the river bed. In clear water the fish can often be seen emerging from the depths like a missile a split second before breaking the surface. In the absence of fly hatches and rising fish the only way to find your grayling is to fish all the likely looking areas and, once a fish has been landed, cover the area thoroughly as grayling often shoal. As the trout season ends and the water temperature drops this shoaling behaviour becomes more apparent, with some parts of the river completely devoid of fish, so it pays to know the sort of water the grayling prefer. Local advice and information can be invaluable, but if none is available look for steady, even flowing water of between 18 inches and 6 feet in depth, the colder the water the deeper the fish will be.
Wet and Dry Fly
Small wet trout flies, fished either up or downstream will take grayling in summer and early autumn, but are indiscriminate and far less efficient than dry fly or nymph.
A hatch of naturals, in any month of the year will bring grayling to the surface and provide superlative sport on a dry fly. The grayling is a fussy feeder and any untidy presentation will result in the fly being refused. From it's position on the river bed the grayling has a wide field of view, so the fly should land without disturbing the water and drift for several feet without dragging, in order to deceive her ladyship.
Fly patterns are less important than presentation, though if the insect on the water can be identified and matched by a suitable artificial, so much the better. Grayling will often feed on tiny flies and your box should contain a selection from size 12 down to 18 or 20. Despite taking tiny flies it is not unusual to catch grayling while spinning for salmon with a small Mepps and my biggest grayling, a two pounder, took a large lure at night while I was after sea trout! Many of the traditional grayling flies are still highly successful today. Fancy patterns such as Red Tag, Treacle Parkin and Bradshaw's Fancy are excellent. The modern range of cul-de-canard flies, with their highly imitative properties, are very hard to beat. The flies visibility to the angler is also very important, particularly in the fading light of and October or November afternoon. I like parachute style flies with a highly visible wing post of white calf tail or synthetic wool, the American elk hair caddis is also highly visible and can be very effective, even when caddis flies are absent. Grayling take a fly very quickly and your strike must be equally rapid if you are to hook your fish.
There will, of course, be times when there are no naturals hatching and the surface of the river slides past unbroken by the rings of rising fish. Now is the time for the nymph, without doubt the most effective way of catching grayling. The late Frank Sawyer, river keeper on the officer's club water on the Wiltshire Avon at Netheravon, invented his famous killer bug purely as a way of catching and removing unwanted grayling from a trout fishery. On the chalk streams where the clear water allows fish to be stalked and targeted, cast your weighted nymph upstream of the fish and allow it to drift downstream, keeping an eagle eye on the point where your leader penetrates the surface film. It pays to grease the leader down to the tippet knot and sink the tippet with fullers earth. When the fish takes the knot will twitch or be pulled under and your strike must be instantaneous. If a fish keeps refusing your fly try the `induced take' by lifting the rod just before the nymph reaches the fish. This lifts the nymph enticingly just in front of the fish's nose and few grayling can resist it.
When the fish are not visible I use an indicator on the leader, either a tuft of wool treated with floatant or a pea-sized lump of Float-do or similar material. The position of the indicator determines the depth at which the nymph will fish and, crucially, indicates the take. Obviously a heavy nymph is needed to fish deep water and I am a great fan of the bead headed types. Gold and copper heads work well on most patterns such as hare's ear, pheasant tail and even the original killer bug.
Caution and Conservation
Grayling share their habitat with trout and salmon which spawn during the autumn months. CHECK with the owners of the fishery to see whether fishing for grayling is allowed after the close of the salmon and trout seasons. More importantly, if you can fish, DO NOT WADE anywhere near the pool tails between October and March. Fertile trout and salmon eggs will be buried in the gravel shallows and walking on them will damage our fish stocks for future years.
I would like to close with a word on conservation. At one time grayling were ruthlessly culled from trout streams by any means possible. This has been proven an ineffective as a way of reducing numbers and just reduces the average size of fish. Today most fisheries value the presence of grayling, they are an excellent indication of good water quality and happily co-exist with other game fish. In early autumn, when in their prime, grayling make excellent eating, but only take what you need (they are protected by law through the coarse fish close season, 16 March to 15 June inclusive and other bylaws may apply).
All out truly wild fish stocks are under threat these days and it would be nice to see anglers actively caring for the grayling and the rivers they inhabit.