As the trout season draws to an end, river fly anglers turn their eyes to the Grayling. Chris Ogborne offers some top tips on how to tackle this enigmatic and beautiful fish.
“Grayling were probably designed to keep fanatical anglers like me sane in the winter months. The trout season seems a fading memory as we head for winter, but with winter fly fishing for grayling available all over the UK there’s absolutely no need to put the river gear into mothballs just yet.
Contrary to popular belief, the prolific grayling is also far from being confined to the aristocratic chalk-streams of Hampshire and Wiltshire. They abound in rivers as diverse as the Tamar in Cornwall, the Welsh Dee, and as far away as the most Northerly waters of Yorkshire and over the border into Scotland. It’s also far from being expensive and it’s easy to find a days fishing at a good less than you’d pay for a bank ticket on many stillwaters.
So let’s dispel some more of the myth and mystique. Here are my top tips on how to get started and for getting the best out of winter Grayling:
1. Don’t write off dry flies
Start with dry flies for grayling, simply for the pleasure of it! Grayling will respond to the sparsest of hatches and are always looking ‘up’ for their food. They will rise even in appalling conditions and there are a host of stories of them coming up for snowflakes in mid winter. If nothing is showing, try a bit of general prospecting with a Black Gnat, Red Tag or any dark up-wing pattern, but otherwise it’s a case of match the hatch with your nearest imitation.
2. Try the deadly suspended nymph
This method is an absolute banker. Use a big dry fly almost as a float, and suspend your nymph beneath it. The leader length obviously depends on the depth of water you’re fishing, but this method works even in very deep runs and holes. Crucially, it sharpens up your reaction time and turns plucks into takes!
3. Watch the water
It goes without saying that if you want to suss out how to catch grayling consistently, watercraft is as vital as with any fish. But it also pays to be aware of how and where they feed. Grayling are shoal fish, so where you find one you’ll almost certainly find another Walk the banks with caution and ALWAYS have your eyes on the water. Polarising glasses are essential
4. Pecking order
Within the pools and runs you can usually find the bigger fish at the front of the shoal, at which point they have first choice on food items brought down in the flow. There’s a very obvious pecking order! So make sure you have a good look in the pool rather than just casting blind, as this could give you a shot at a specimen fish
5. Weighted nymphs
Grayling will often hold in deep water so you’ll need some heavyweight nymphs to reach them. In basic terms, you need to get the fly down to the fish so plenty of upstream ‘forward lead’ is called for. A good tip to remember is that in clear water the fish are almost ALWAYS deeper than they look. If you’re struggling it can often pay to change the depth rather than changing your flies.
6. Leader materials.
I use fluorocarbon for 90% of my grayling fishing. On occasion you may need to go fine if they’re being fussy, but for most of the time I’m happy on 5X for dries and most light nymph work, and maybe 4X for deep nymphs. In many of our smaller West Country rivers, you would struggle to work with much more than 10 feet of leader. On larger waters, however, French leaders are well worth trying in order to achieve greater depths and finer presentations.
7. Downstream spiders
For some strange reason, spider fishing seems to have gone out of fashion these days (although we have an exclusive blog on tying and fishing these classic flies on the way in the coming weeks!). This is a shame because it’s a fascinating and absorbing method.
Downstream spider fishing is delicate, non-intrusive, and can help you reach pools that are unavailable with a more conventional cast. Don’t be afraid to fish a team of spiders; it’s not uncommon for me to use three or even four on a cast, with the heaviest fly on point.
8. Wading is a must
As a general rule, I like to wade when I’m grayling fishing. This avoids any skylining, because while not always the case they can be the ultimate in spooky fish on some days. But the real essence is that it puts you right down in the angling environment with them.
9. Don’t be a drag
Talking of wading, it can be hugely advantageous to position yourself so that flies track true and fairly straight between angler and fish. By this, we mean giving the flies a natural drift in the current, with plenty of time to sink to the optimum depth. The more awkward the cast and the more the flies are inclined to drag across the flow, the more reluctant the grayling will be to take.
10. Never fear the cold
Don’t let the weather put you off! Some of the best grayling fishing I’ve had has been on days when most sensible anglers have stayed at home! They don’t mind the cold, they can positively relish rainy days, and I’ve taken loads of them when the snow has been lying on the ground.
Turrall have a superb range of flies for all the methods outlined above, whether you pick and choose individual flies or go for a superb FlyPod or boxed collection of grayling specials (find them at quality fly stockists or order from one of our recommended online retailers)
One last thing I’d stress is to take care of your catch, because grayling deserve respect. Crimping down your barbs and going barbless if at all possible makes total sense, as you’ll be releasing all the fish you catch. Do also release them carefully, especially where they have fought hard. Support them in the water and be patient if they need a few seconds to recover and swim off. Do also note that while they provide great sport right through the winter, the grayling fishing season ends on March 16 in most areas; should you accidentally catch a fish in the spring when trout fishing, do release it quickly and carefully because it could be quite close to spawning.
For anyone who misses river fishing in the cooler months though, these fish are a godsend. If you haven’t yet been tempted to try the grayling, make a resolution to have a go this year. Once you’ve caught one of theses lovely fish I guarantee that you’ll be hooked and it will re-define your thinking on what constitutes the closed season!”
(Additional images: Dominic Garnett)