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Grayling in the South West

December 8 2008

A cool wind was blowing down the River Barle on that March day a quarter of a century ago. Around midday the trout had come to the surface and several good fish had taken my dry fly but by mid afternoon the surface activity had ceased and I was ready to call it a day. Then, as my fly drifted down a smooth run, I saw a shadow move up beneath it and drift back with the current for several feet before delicately taking the fly. My strike met a solid resistance and, as I saw the large upright dorsal fin holding the current, I realised that I was into my first grayling since coming to live in Devon. Two more casts produced two more grayling, both close to a pound, and I was reminded of something that I had learned on many other waters - grayling are shoal fish and like the company of other grayling.

Before moving to Devon some 30 years ago I had fished regularly for grayling on the rivers of the Welsh Marches and the chalk streams of Wessex, so I was pleased to re-establish my acquaintance with this lovely fish on the Barle. Grayling are not indigenous to the south west, but arrived as part of the fashion for extending the range of the species through artificial stocking that started in the late nineteenth century. In Devon and Cornwall the grayling is found in two river systems, the Exe and the Tamar, but its distribution is often patchy and unpredictable so locating the grayling hot spots can depend heavily on luck.

I recall an early spring day on the Ottery in Cornwall when I was fishing for trout on the topmost of the Arundell Arms beats. Conditions looked ideal for trout and fish were soon coming to my dry fly - a size 16 Adams. However, those rising fish were grayling with the trout strangely absent and when I called it a day I had caught 15 grayling and just one solitary trout. Since then I have fished that beat many times but failed to catch another grayling, though I have taken plenty further down the Ottery.

A similar experience occurred on another Arundell Arms beat, this time on the Lew. Once again it was spring and with nothing rising I was steadily catching trout on a weighted Hare's Ear Nymph. As I approached a small pool, I saw a swirl in the shallows at the tail and when my nymph dropped into the steam near the fish it was taken instantly and I had soon netted a lovely grayling of 14 inches. Two more grayling of the same size quickly followed, but I have never taken a grayling from the Lew since that spring day.

My most consistent sport with grayling on the Tamar system has been on the main river itself, especially in the Polson Bridge area. There I have often found shoals of rising grayling and settled down to picking them off with a small dry fly.

My most consistent sport on a Devon river has been on the lower Exe, where the grayling are of good average size and rise well on the right day - and the ideal day is when there is hardly a breath of wind. This is an exposed stretch of river and the surface is easily whipped up by the wind, making it difficult to spot the delicate rises of the grayling. On a calm day, however, you can locate big shoals of grayling sipping on the smooth stretches and enjoy first-rate dry fly fishing.

It is in Wessex, on the River Avon in the Woodford Valley between Amesbury and Salisbury, that I have taken some of my biggest catches of grayling, especially when nymphing in October and November. On a sunny autumn day when it has been possible to spot the fish in the clear water, stalking the grayling can be both productive and exciting. The trick is to locate a shoal against a patch of light-coloured gravel, which makes it possible to spot each fish and see it take your weighted nymph. By starting with the fish at the downstream end of the shoal and pulling each fish quickly downstream as soon as it is hooked, it is possible to take several grayling before the shoal is spooked. Those Avon grayling may not be the biggest, but there are plenty of them.

For big grayling, there are few better places than the Frome below Dorchester, where fish of well over two pounds are common. Permits for the Dorchester Fishing Club are restricted to the trout season but that gives you plenty of opportunity to catch the big grayling on this fishery. I recall fishing a clear pool where a big shoal of grayling up to over three pounds could be seen lying in about four feet of water. A heavily-weighted shrimp pattern was cast well upstream and allowed to drift through the shoal, with spectacular results. The first cast produced a "tiddler" of little more than a pound, but it was quickly followed by two fish of 2¾ pounds each, and another of the same size for my companion. It is in the winter, when club members fish with bait, that some of the really big Frome grayling of well over three pounds are caught.

In the south west, grayling are also present in the Bristol Avon, Tone, Brue and Stour, but I have yet to fish for them on these rivers.

Tackle and techniques for grayling fishing are really the same as those for river trout fishing. When the fish are rising I sometimes use the traditional grayling patterns like a Red Tag, Bradshaw's Fancy or Grayling Witch, with their brightly-coloured tags, but the more imitative flies that are normally used for trout are just as effective. On the chalk streams, where sight fishing with a weighted nymph is very effective, a size 12 or 14 leaded shrimp or a goldhead Hare's Ear Nymph will usually do the trick.

In the past, the grayling has often been loathed by those who manage our more famous trout streams and great efforts made to remove what has been seen as an unwelcome interloper. Fortunately, such efforts were always doomed to fail, as the grayling is a great survivor, and in recent years more and more anglers have come to realise its true value as worthy adversary for the fly fisherman. If you have yet to catch one of these beautiful fish, you have a treat in store.