As part of his occasional series of seasonal blogs, Chris Ogborne takes a look at winter Grayling fishing with some great tips on how to get the best out of this fascinating branch of the sport.
It wasn’t so very long ago that Grayling were regarded as little more than a pest on some British chalk streams, but in the last twenty years they have thoroughly established themselves as a truly great sporting fish in their own right. They are stunningly beautiful, genuinely wild, and they belong in our rivers. Above all they present the thinking angler with a unique challenge, never more so than in the cold months of January and February when they can provide sport of the very highest calibre against all the odds of winter weather.
Far from being confined to the fabled streams of Wiltshire and Hampshire, Grayling can be found pretty much right across the UK. We even have them down here in Cornwall where they are slowly becoming a part of the river fishing scene. Whilst they thrive in good numbers in clear water, they are also surprisingly tolerant of varying water conditions and this, coupled with the natural cunning of the species, means that they are generally flourishing.
I’ve been lucky enough to fish for Grayling all over the world and some of my most memorable catches are inevitably linked to World Championships. I’ve caught specimens in Norway, Swedish Lapland, in rivers large and small but probably some of the classic moments in the memory are linked to the river Dee in North Wales. One particularly notable fish was a 51cm beauty, made all the more special because I fished the beat immediately after a member of the Polish team, and we all know how good THEY are on Grayling!
Above all, Grayling are fickle. Some days you can ignore leader diameter, presentation, fly choice and everything else as well – they can be almost suicidal! Yet on other days they are the most demanding , fussy, spooky and downright frustrating fish that swim! I guess that’s what makes them such a challenge!
So here are my top ten tips on how to catch them in winter, based on thirty years and several continents of experience. I hope you find them useful!
Fly choice – the top consideration: Hatches are mostly sparse at this time of year and whilst the fish are generally quick to react to them it will often pay to exaggerate, rather than try to match the hatch. Grayling are tolerant of this and will often respond to a fly that bears little or no resemblance to anything in the river, let alone anything hatching.
Suspended nymph: Probably my favourite winter method. Use a viable dry fly both as an indicator and almost as a control float, varying the depth you fish by the length of leader down to the suspended nymph. This is particularly effective in fast riffles and the dry fly acts as a strike indicator, shaving off a good deal of reaction time.
Try Dry! Winter fishing is emphatically NOT all about nymphing! Grayling will rise to even the sparsest hatch and are notorious for coming up to investigate something as unlikely as a falling snowflake! So whilst the first line of attach is normally nymph, especially in very cold conditions, don’t be afraid to try dry fly. It’s even worth prospecting with a general suggestive dry when nothing is showing on the surface as the fish can, and often will, respond.
Leader choice: don’t be tempted to go too fine in winter. Deep holes can hold some very large Grayling and water conditions at this time of year normally have a degree of colour, so fine leaders just aren’t necessary. 5X fluorocarbon is plenty for dry fly, but I generally settle on 4X for nymphs, unless the fish are being really fussy.
Weighted nymph: You simply cannot consider going out in colder weather without some heavy nymphs in the box, and often you’ll need some VERY heavy ones. Remember that in faster water you’ll need some weight just to get the fly to a fishable depth, whilst in the really deep pools you’ll need a lot of lead in the underbody. When you’re searching out the deeps, a slim tightly-tied fly will get down far quicker that a fluffy pattern with the same weight in it – the air gets trapped in the fibre of the fly and adds too much buoyancy.
Deeper pools: Deep pools mean big fish. If you’re specimen hunting then this is the place to look. Grayling operate a ‘pecking order’ in most swims, with the bigger fish at the front where they can monopolise the best of the feeding. In deeper water this isn’t so obvious, although you’ll often have the luxury of being able to peer into the depths to assess your fishing options.
Changing conditions: Be ready to respond to the slightest change in conditions as the fish can and will react to them. We anglers might feel that near zero temperatures and horizontal rain are impossible, but the Grayling don’t seem to mind at all! I’ve been out when hail and sleet were lashing the water, and STILL saw fish rising in the midst of it all!
Catch one, catch another! Grayling like to live in shoals so chances are that if you catch one in a spot you’re likely to catch another. Unlike trout, where you’d tend to move on to the next spot, it’s better to fish through the shoal. Unless you’ve really spooked them you’ve got a good chance of one or even several more.
Short casting: You don’t have to be supremely confident in the art of Czech nymph or Polish style to enjoy short casting. The truth is that Grayling are surprisingly tolerant of anglers and you can, on occasions, catch them literally under your feet. The most important part of this cast (indeed any nymphing cast) is the end part, where the fly is given that attractive trajectory as you lift the rod for the next cast. Always try to imagine the fly lifting enticingly from near the stream bed – that’s the moment when the takes will come. To make your short line nymphing even easier Airflo have recently released a special line – The SLN Euro nymph. It’s a ‘Must have’ for this technique!
Go barbless: Yes, PLEASE go barbless! In over twenty years of fishing at International level I reckon I can count the number of fish lost due to barbless hooks on the fingers of one hand. However, if you’re barbless it WILL make the release process so much quicker and easier. Grayling have an ‘under slung’ mouth and like to take a nymph just as it swims upwards at the end of a drift, all of which means that most will be well hooked.
Grayling fishing tackle check list:
- Breathable waders.
- Thermal underwear suit.
- Wading boots with felt soles and studs.
- Warm head and neck wear.
- Slower action fly rod e.g Airflo Streamtec nano 10 #3/4
- Fly reel to balance rod.
- Line suitable for short line nymphing – e.g French leader, SLN Euro, or shooting head running line.
- Standard fly line on spare spool for dry fly/duo.
- Selection of nymphs tied with various tungsten bead heads & leaded under-body.
- Strong enough tippet material for winter flows and snags.
- Hook sharpener.
- Set of strike indicators. e.g Air-lok
- Split shot.
- Waterproof phone case.
As luck would have it river levels are finally looking fishable thanks to the recent cold snap – so get out there and enjoy while you can!