Grayling on the Fly: Patterns and Tactics for Autumn Fishing

With busy lives, not to mention a summer of weird weather, it’s not always easy to get as much time on the river as you’d like. What a godsend grayling are, therefore, to take fly fishing into “extra time” on running waters everywhere! Dominic Garnett reports on a session of contrasting flies and tactics, with the Turrall gang and the Westcountry Angling Passport‘s Bruno Vincent.

River Tamar fly fishing grayling

“Although Devon and Cornwall are not exactly synonymous with grayling, there’s a surprisingly good selection of rivers where you can find the species. Nor is it all private, “members only” water. In fact, the excellent Westcountry Angling Passport scheme provides excellent fishing from as little as £6 a day.

Perhaps the first priority for our trip, given unusual current conditions (still very low water, after the bizarre summer of 2018), was to get some local advice. So I was quickly in touch with Bruno Vincent, who is a fellow writer for Fallon’s Angler as well as the current manager of the scheme, for some up to date information. Not only was he incredibly helpful, but we managed to tempt him out for a couple of hours on the water. Also joining me were Simon Jefferies and Gary Pearson.

Instant grayling fishing with the FishPass App…

Fish Pass App fly fishing day ticket Devon Cornwall

In an angling world that isn’t always tech savvy, it’s great to see day ticket fly fishing  moving with the times under the Westcountry Angling Passport. Today, I’m able to download the app, pay for tokens and digitally deposit these within minutes. Job done!

With water levels still low, Bruno’s advice is to fish Beat 22 (Ham Mill), near Launceston, which has a stretch of the Tamar, along with water on the Ottery, a lovely tributary.

“The Tamar always has a bit of colour, as do it’s main feeder streams the Ottery, Cary and Kensey” he advises. The Launceston area in general is excellent, with a cluster of beats all quite nearby (20, 21 and 25), for anyone in East Cornwall or West Devon.

“If the rivers are filling with rain, though, the Rivers Lyd and Inny are moorland fed and tend to colour up less- although that seems wishful thinking at present!” adds Bruno. “For those nearer Exeter, Tiverton and Barnstaple,  Westons (beat 1) offers lovely grayling fishing too, on a tributary of the River Exe on Exmoor, and is well worth a visit.”

Install the free app for yourself or find out more at westcountryangling.com and there are stacks of waters to go at, with several open well into the colder months for grayling fishing.

Grayling leaders and flies for small river fishing

While long rods and even longer leaders are all the rage these days for grayling, I must admit that I’m a relative latecomer to such antics. Part of it is the fishing on my typical home patch; Devon and Cornwall have lots of diddy little streams with clear, shallow water. Beanpole anglers, such as yours truly, scare fish easily at short range here, while beanpole rods can be more of a danger to trees than trout and grayling! Nor have I done too badly with shorter rods and the classic New Zealand duo or nymph plus indicator route.

Today though, there’s a definite argument for mixing and matching. Like several beats, we have the welcome choice of a narrow, bushy tributary along with a larger more open river at Ham Mill. The 7.5ft 4 weight wand I’m rigging up should do for the former, while Gary, Simon and Bruno’s long rods are ideal for the latter. With lots of room to play with, we should all have space to do our thing (well, let’s hope some whipping match doesn’t break out because I’ve got the shortest rod).

Best grayling flies nymphs off bead jigs
Regardless of rods and leaders, though, we’ll all be starting fishing with off-bead nymphs today. Not long released by Turrall, these flies give a jig-style presentation, to get them right down to the take zone without snagging up every other cast (you can find them in a set of six here).

Long leaders and location issues

With Cornwall’s rivers still so low, our initial challenge today is simply locating fish. The shallows are looking bare and often bereft of current, so it seems a safe bet that the fish are less evenly spread out than usual. It quickly becomes apparent that the deeper, faster water is the place to be.

Bruno misses some small early fish in a nice looking steady run with three feet or so of depth, which is encouraging at least. As with so many beats that contain both a main river artery and a smaller tributary, however, the confluence of the two looks especially tempting. In this case, there’s a lovey seam where coloured main river and clearer stream water meet.

Gary is straight in with the long rod. It’s a bit deeper here, but with reduced flows, one of the lighter off-bead nymphs is his pick, coupled with a soft hackle fly on a dropper. With weaker flows, heavier flies just wouldn’t move  through the swim freely enough.

Indeed, the weight of flies you use is important; in deep rushing water you might find two dense bead heads best, but today’s low flows require less mass. Gary uses a 10ft 2wt Cortland Competition series, with an extra long leader (around 20ft) with a section of indicator mono to help spot bites.

Just watching an experienced nymph angler “high sticking” is instructive. I always feel like casting more line out, but this isn’t the right idea. Instead, the fly line stays in the guides and a short, curt flip forward delivers the flies. By holding the rod up and out, with the tip high and the angler really pivoting and reaching (the sequence below gives a better sense), you can cover a surprising amount of water with each cast. You can see why he likes a very light reel for the job, too. My cheapies would give you arm ache:

How to fish french leader czech nymph fly fishing
Getting this right is about good habits and watching an expert always helps. I tend to want to lift the flies out too quickly when they’re heading downstream; whereas if you leave them for longer you’ll be surprised how close to your waders you can catch fish- and how many fish come across the current or even a bit below you. Obviously careful wading helps- and grayling tend not to be as spooky as trout.

Sometimes the bites happen right at the end of a delivery, as the flies start to lift. Again, holding on that extra second, when the flies have passed us, takes a bit of reprograming for those taught the logic of “upstream good, downstream bad”. It’s not rocket science, but it takes poise and control. Watch Gary and it looks easy!

Nor is it all posturing or techny knowlegd, as he shows by striking into something pretty solid early on, a fish that really thumps the light rod. Size of fish is always relative in any angling, but this looks a belting Cornish grayling. Anything of over a pound can be considered an excellent Westcountry specimen. It’s absolutely beautiful and around 15″ long:

Big grayling cornwall Devon fly fishing

Hide and seek

Short fly rods jungle fishing
While some of the more cramped spots on the Ottery look ideal for my short rod approach, it seems that the low water is the killer today. Spots that would usually be nice glides of water have shrunk to scrawny little pockets and at first can only graze a single accidental trout, which is quickly released.

So far, so not going to plan then. Until I join Simon in a slightly deeper, more susbtantial flow on the Ottery. Rather than argue over it we share a rod, which is always a nice way to fish. Here, a longer cast is useful- and the combination of a pink-tailed off bead nymph and an indicator set at around three feet seem to be just right.

River Ottery Cornwall fly fishing trout grayling
In no time, we’re winning some takes. These are quite gentle, but we each manage to connect with fish, including a lovely half-pounder. That’s a bit more like it!

Other than that, the main challenge is not getting your leader ravaged by biting winds or getting hit in the head by acorns. Yes, it sounds harmless but in the bigger gusts they really smash down into the water and could do a man’s face some mischief. Perhaps there’s something unlucky about this stretch for me? One of the few other times I fished it was with a stinking, self-inflicted headache, as recounted in the Crooked Lines story “Hangover Blues”.

Late dry fly fishing

Spurred on by our change of fortunes, we decide to explore further up the tributary after lunch. Bruno takes his leave, although not before kindly earmarking a couple of deeper runs and pools. Again, the low levels have rendered some of the sections between these areas a bit thin. Gary keeps saying just what I’m thinking: “If only there were another six inches of water, this run would be perfect.”

It’s still utterly beautiful though. Well, apart from a dead sheep. Those always give me the heebie jeebies. This is perhaps the price of watching too many low budget horror films.

Baby grayling

As much fun as the afternoon is, we don’t manage to improve on Gary’s earlier net-filler. In fact, Simon’s next grayling is one of the smallest we’ve ever laid eyes on. However, as the afternoon gets milder things pick up nicely. In fact, contrary to expectations, there are odd rises forming in the slower flowing waters.

Casting a dry fly on a 10ft Czech Nymph type rod and ultra long, fine leader isn’t exactly cricket, but is exactly what Gary resorts to. It’s not the most elegant way to fish, but with pretty much no fly line at all on the water, he achieves a very subtle presentation.

The grayling are not window shopping, but buying, anyway. CDC dries down to 18s and 20s get delicate-yet-positive rises, bringing the grayling tally higher still, although no one spot seems to produce bite-a-cast sport. If you do intend to try for some dry fly fishing, though, it certainly seems that afternoon is the time to try, as this is the only time we spot any rises.

I stick to the nymph fishing for grayling. Just out of interest, I compare some of the other, more conventional flies in my box at intervals; there is a definite difference between “point up” designs on jig hooks or off-bead styles, compared to old fashioned nymphs.

How to avoid flies snagging

It’s no rigid survey, but there’s definitely a marked difference, especially with all the autumn debris in the water. With the modern nymphs, I spend more time fishing rather than unhooking twigs and branches.

With summer already feeling like a distant memory, I’m just grateful to have caught grayling as well as unwanted bits and pieces. After all, conditions have been hard: a stiff wind, along with very low water. In fact, the fishing has been just balance of challenge and reward by the time we decide to call it a day.

Further information

Turrall flies are available across many UK retailers, both in stores and online. To order our new Off Bead Nymphs, as used in this feature, CLICK HERE.

Turrall Off Bead Nymphs grayling flies

The Westcountry Angling Passport offers amazing value fly fishing across South West England, for locals and visitors alike. With their excellent new Fish Pass App, you can now buy fishing tokens and get cracking at the touch of your smartphone! Trout season might be done and dusted for now (October 2018), but grayling fishing is still available across several beats to extend the season further. For full details and a list of fishing beats, see: westcountryangling.com

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