As a fly angler I’ve come to feel pretty comfortable with trout. So whilst I still have a long way to go down that bumbling road towards trout nirvana, I do now have some idea about their typical habits and ways of eating (or not eating) my flies. If they’re surface feeding, in particular, things can sometimes be so beautifully obvious. Floating dark olive duns trickling down river runs, trout slurping at the surface, and me flailing a carbon stick with a bit of duck’s arse attached to it.
Regular readers of this blog, however, will know about my minor obsession with grayling. A couple of years back I had a period of concentrated winter grayling fishing where I tried hard to become a competent nymph fisherman. I wanted so dearly to understand the subtleties of fishing nymphs to the silver grayling that I know inhabit many waters close to where I live. I did have some success, particularly when a good pal showed me exactly where to fish. But I was left with the nagging feeling that to reach the same level of comfort I’d attained with spring trout would take much more effort.
Graying spend most of their time close to the bottom of rivers, feeding off the bugs that crawl around down there. This is something I’ve read many times, and have also grown to accept as largely true for many of the rivers I fish here in Scotland. I have caught grayling on dry flies, but never to the same size or with the same consistency as I’ve had on nymphs. This makes it sound like I’ve had consistency with nymphs. Relative consistency, relative.
Recently I find myself most interested in grayling as the trout season is dying. This is partly due to seeing the remarkable success that some of my pals have had at such times. It’s also because I’ve noticed on quite a few occasions recently that there seems to be a distinct increase in the prevalence of grayling relative to trout at that time of the season, particularly on some of the waters I visit. I wonder if it’s a localised thing, or if it’s simply because I tend to fish nymphs and spiders more often as the levels of surface activity decline. Whatever the case, I enjoy spending a sunny September afternoon by the side of a favourite small stream, searching out the deeper pockets of water and hoping for the electric moment when yet another minor snag becomes a bristling bar of silver enthusiasm.
This year I decided to keenly concentrate my September efforts on a small section of a small stream I like to fish. I tried to visit as often as possible, hoping that with time I would develop a better understanding for the moods and architecture of my chosen retreat. I was also hoping that maybe, just maybe I’d get a glimpse at a more comfortable truce with the nervous twitch of a grayling’s tail.
On one of my first visits to the river I arrived and set up a wee 8′ rod and a 3 weight line. I tied on a whopping monster of a dry fly, something like the lovechild of a chernobyl ant and a coch y bonddu. Let’s call it a Tammy’s Terror. I had the bizzare notion that if I couldn’t nymph the grayling out of their secret lies, I’d tempt them up for a gobble at the Terror. So enthused and convinced was I by this wonderful idea that I strode up to the nearest looking bend, planning to survey ‘my territory’ for the most opportune pools, and completely spooked three enormous grayling. The Terror, it seemed, had terrorised.
I caught one fish on that day, to a little peacock herl nymph. It almost stretched from the base of my hand, across the vast expanse of wrinkles and peaks that cover my palm, to the bottom of my fingers. Yes, on the same hand. It was a grayling though, and was caught fairly on a nymph. Five hours of fishing and only one (tiny) fish, but categorical success wasn’t on my mind. Nope, the only thing I could see when I closed my eyes that night was an action replay of three giant Terrorfied grayling making like hay in all directions.
There was only one thing for it, I had to phone that most interesting of gods, the grayling god. Unfortunately I don’t have his phone number any more, as apparently gods, even grayling ones, do sometimes migrate. So I emailed him instead (he is a he). Several long exchanges later and I was feeling ready for the second wave. Small, tungsten-beaded peacock herl nymphs were tied up, and the nearest sheep found itself plundered of some lovely fluffy white wool.
I consider fishing for good-sized trout or grayling in a small stream to be amongst the loveliest of of the many lovely ways to spend a day. The only problem is that with enough anticipation, sweaty palms and enthusiastic optimism, any lovely activity can end up being a little disappointing. I thus tried hard to control my usual fantasies, aiming for a calculated, hunter-gatherer ethos. Hate the fish, hate the damn fish. Must. Kill. Fish. [Political aside: I love grayling too much to kill them, that is what is known in the Isle of Britain as a ‘joke’.]
I arrived at the place of Terror as a beautiful September morning gave way to a beautiful September afternoon. Clouds shuffled across the sky in a nice orderly fashion, occasionally thinning for long enough to allow some golden autumn sun to light up the river banks. I put up the 18′ leader that the grayling god had mentioned, including about 5′ of thin tippet. On the end went a peacock herl nymph, quickly followed 4′ above by a pinch of the stolen white fleece. I crept up.
After watching trout parr dancing in a shallow flat pool for about half an hour, it was clear that the grayling, were they still around, would be in the deeper water upstream. I slid into the water, creating a rapidly traveling wave of parr that I was sure would spook anything this side of Glasgow. I crossed the river in three paces and climbed up the far side. Now on my stomach, I frog-crawled upstream, peering hard into the deeper seams. If only I could spot a fish, and know where to cast, it would have given me supreme confidence. After eying a particularly fish-like shape for ten minutes, I began to grow impatient. More minutes passed, and the debate in my head swung markedly towards the ‘lump of mud’ camp.
The whole escapade seemed to be veering dangerously towards the tourist’s favourite sentence involving weather and ‘last week’. So I debunked downstream, sent off another shockwave of parr on re-entry, and started to creep slowly back up towards the run.
The landscape is particularly interesting at this spot. The river describes a slow, continuous bend, over a distance of about 30 yards. The right hand bank (looking upstream) seems to have collapsed on itself many times, leaving a strange pattern of ridges and islands. The Quiraing in miniature. It means that there are a couple of pronounced ‘grooves’ in the river channel, where the flow has been squeezed between bits of collapsed bank. If a grayling was going to be anywhere, surely one of those deeper runs would be the place.
Hearing the voice of the grayling god in my ears, I set myself up for a false-cast-free flick cast. A 10 yard loop of line hung in the current downstream, my rod pointing at it and the wee nymph pinched between the finger and thumb of my left hand. I slowly swung the rod upstream, quickening and quickening andthenagentleflick. As long as you let go of the nymph at the right time, this cast works remarkably well, and puts no fly line whatsoever above any upstream lying fish. On that first occasion the drifting breeze caught the line and dumped the whole lot too far to the left, in an area of dead water. Two or three times more the same ritual was repeated, with the same result. I finally plucked up the courage to really go for it, and was momentarily delighted to see the cast stretch out beautifully in front of me, and right over the deep run.
I say momentarily, because the cast was too good. The nymph had been grabbed by one of the islands, and the whole cast lay tensioned out in front of me. A quick and precise application of tweakage, along with a not-so-quick-and-not-so-precise application of poor language and the nymph skipped free and plopped into the water. It was at this point that everything started to go slow. Non-fishers will think I’m trying to make this dramatic (I am), but it really does have some truth in it. Perhaps it was all the time-wasting that preceded, but as the cast twisted and drifted down the run I had enough time to remind myself to strike at anything.
The wool behaved perfectly as the current dictated, shifting left, then right as it entered the narrowest part of the channel. I instinctively raised the rod as it came close, ready for the next cast. Then suddenly, with the wool just a couple of metres upstream, it paused. Not a pull, not dive, just a short little think. I twitched the rod up, and within a fraction of a second a beautiful big grayling materialised from the run, gills flared, pectoral fins erect and dorsal at full mast. I have the most vidid image burned into my mind of that moment, when a tumbling stream turned into a tumbling stream containing a fighting grayling. I can see it now, appearing from the deep like a mini-zeppelin suddenly released from its stream bed cage.
One of the funny things about small streams is that there’s only so much water in which to swim. The grayling first headed upstream, before thinking better of it and bolting downstream between my legs, and straight into a waiting net. Seconds from minding his own business above the safety of a gravel run, to being in some buffoon’s landing net. Needless to say, your writer was pretty chuffed.
Despite all my egging and building up, the grayling wasn’t even that big, certainly not by the standards of some that are caught in Scotland. 1.5lb dead on, and 14″. But for a stream that Jonathan Edwards could easily skip over, I think him remarkable nonetheless. Typical trout up in those parts are measured in small numbers of ounces, not pounds.
It’s fascinating that certain fish are able to adapt to the available feeding and grow on so well compared to the more established species. The plentiful evidence of cased caddis and other nymphs seems to back this up. I’ve been told that the general feeding strategy of grayling is quite different to that of trout. Trout of less than a pound or two spend much of their time ‘drift feeding’, holding in the current and waiting to intercept passing nymphs. Grayling on the other hand are more proactive, and use their overhanging mouth to grub around and seek out nymphs on the bottom. I’ve seen this behaviour once or twice, and others I know have seen it much more often than that.
Back on the river I managed to winkle out another lovely grayling, almost a twin brother to the first, from a deep pocket further upstream. It’s a funny way of fishing really. Hours of false takes as the nymph snags on something, interspersed with occasional moments of pure excitement when the snag starts shaking and swimming around. Spring dry fly fishing it ain’t, but there is a strangely elusive charm to it all.
I can’t help but feel that those September days have indeed helped me to get a bit further along the path to grayling comfort. I’m still a good way off being consistent, but I think that by fishing long leaders, small nymphs and by stalking slowing, I’ve improved my approach a lot. A quiet demon, however, is still waving the Terror in front of my polaroids.
Maybe. In Pink.