It's pretty hard to find any decent fishing in the UK without being a member of at least one club, unless you are fortunate enough to own your own waters or are a member of the royal family, and it's been like that for many years, all of my lifetime anyway. Joining a club usually gives you access to good local fishing and sometimes enables you to access some different types of fishing that you can't find locally. That became evident to me at a very early age. Growing up in the river-deprived county of Essex meant that barbel, dace and chub were as rare as hen's teeth, though these were available from the river Lea or Thames if you could suffer, and afford, the two hour journey through London by public transport. River trout fishing, and grayling especially, were another story altogether. These were rarer than an invite to Redmire Pool, so a special place was carved out for them in my imagination, slotted in just below Scottish salmon and blue marlin.
Grayling are a rare, strange and beautiful fish which are generally only found in the upper reaches of a few clean, fast flowing rivers. Because these locations are usually a long way from the cities, where most people tend to live, not an awful lot of anglers have ever seen one, let alone caught one; yet where they occur they can shoal in their hundreds, their sheer weight of numbers making it difficult to catch anything else.
My first sight of a grayling was when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, fishing with club members on a winter Sunday club coach outing to the River Wey at Ripley. At that time roach were the target species for most anglers, so roach tackle and methods were generally all that anyone used. This was fortunate as the simple trotting tactics always produced a lot more than just roach.
On this day, I had taken an absolutely enormous perch of 1lb 12oz from a weedy swim under a willow tree. Having no landing net I had swung it in, my rod-tip bent around rather more than perhaps it was designed to, though the word 'designed' is probably inappropriate. Two piece cane, with a solid fibreglass tip that weighed more than the other two sections together doesn't exactly scream 'design'!
The perch was huge, easily a 'goer', which meant it was long enough to pass the club's length restrictions and so, for the first time ever, I could weigh it in at the end of the day - assuming I had a keepnet, which I didn't. The fish was duly unhooked and rushed down the bank 100 yards to where the club secretary was fishing. He already had his keepnet in the water and allowed me to put my perch in with his fish. As he did so he told me he had caught a few dace and three 'ladies'.
Ours was an Essex club, now long extinct, the Romford Anglers, it's membership made up of a few dozen cockney dockers and labourers. Rhyming slang and profane yet poetic expressions were in general use. Then, as now, budding teenagers knew everything. Especially about sex and 'ladies'. And if they didn't, they would pretend to. I wandered back to my swim proud that my perch might put me in the frame for a trophy at the AGM but a little perplexed. I was at that age where my voice was breaking and my groin kept making weird movements, puzzling over what the club sec's 'ladies' might be put a distinct sheen on the rest of the day. (The perch actually won me 3rd prize in the juniors section. There were only three juniors in the club.)
At the weigh-in that evening I found out about the Ladies. Beautiful grayling, the Ladies of the Stream, with dorsal fins reminiscent of the legendary tropical sailfish I had read about. These ones were not beautiful for long however. The fish were carried to the weigh-in via folding canvas buckets and were sometimes imprisoned in them for half an hour or more. Those poor fish the club sec had caught were badly damaged, firstly by the undersized, rough knotted keepnet which was the norm in those days, then by the under-oxygenated bucket and finally by the barbaric metal cage used under the club scales as a weigh sling. I remember with dismay the shower of scales as each new catch went into that wicked lidded wire basket, it was like something from a medieval torture chamber.
When the weigh-in was over the fish were tipped back into the river. All the bream, chub, dace and roach, and my perch, swam off strongly despite their ordeal. The three grayling, so graceful in life, floated belly-up. As we watched, they were caught by the current and disappeared around the bend in the river. The older club members slapped me on the shoulder and laughed at my concerned expression, telling me 'not to worry' and that 'they'll be alright'. I knew, and they knew, they were lying.
After watching the ordeal of the wire basket I never again weighed-in another fish on a club outing, nor did I bother obtaining a keep-net for many years after. My lesson was complete, grayling are a fragile fish and need to be returned, or thrown back, as soon as possible. Yes, "thrown back". I thought that might get your attention. Dave Steuart once taught me that if a grayling is unhooked and gently lobbed underarm back into the water, landing with a bit of a splash, it seems to recover instantly, shooting off quickly to join it's buddies in the flow. Whereas placing it back gently and nursing it in the current can sometimes take a long while to achieve exactly the same result. I've been following Dave's doctrine for a couple of years now and never seen any detrimental effects. (I now await the flaming emails!)
In recent years I have fished the rivers Frome, Kennet, Itchen and Test for grayling, with much greater success than I can remember achieving as a kid. Of course the few rivers we fished in those days were usually dirty and quite heavily polluted, with perhaps the exception of the Dorset Stour and the Hampshire Avon. The lower Thames, Lea and Gt Ouse are not noted as grayling fisheries and these were our usual club-trip haunts. Only on the Wey did I ever manage to catch a few of the ladies.
Years passed. Fishing was sidelined whilst hormonal interests took precedence for a while, before common sense prevailed and my priorities became re-established. Across the country, club memberships waned as personal transport became more freely available - coach outings were no longer essential for finding good fishing. What went missing with the decline of the coach trips was the spirit of comradeship, something that has only recently been reborn via internet chat-rooms and virtual clubs.
The Internet Angling Club was the very first British on-line chat group for anglers and it continues to this day, hidden away in a little fold in cyberspace; a gemstone in a bucketful of pebbles. Through the IAC I have made many good friends and enjoyed fishing as an invited guest with several of it's members on different waters, venues I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to fish. I guess we are the new Millennium's equivalent to the 1960's Romford Anglers. We even manage to raise the odd few quid for charity; the Second Chance charity for children with special needs is our favourite.
Several days each year are IAC 'fish-in' days where we get together and fish for a particular species and we've even had a few trips abroad; to France for carp and Spain for catfish, even to the USA and Canada for salmon and sturgeon. These trips are always fun but the regular grayling trips each winter are the mainstay. The guys in the northern part of the country favour the River Teviot whilst the southerners on the 'list' as we call the club, fish the Kennet, Itchen and Test. Whilst these trips are highly social occasions we do get some serious fishing in as well, and so it was this winter.
Our first trip of the winter started with a bang. Tuesday November 27th was a staggering day in respect of the size and numbers of the fish we caught. I turned up at the river with Richard in tow - his first day holding a fishing rod. Naturally I took every opportunity to say "Don't do it like that. Do it like this" and despite him listening to me, he started to catch fish. Which was good. In fact it was very good, his first fish went 2lb 8oz. I had to fish for over 40 years before I'd managed to catch a grayling that big! Mind you, I wasn't too disappointed either, my first cast produced another monster of 2lb 6ozs and subsequent fish were of a similar stamp.
I'd set Richard up with a float rod equipped with a fixed spool reel, thinking it would be a better option than a centre-pin until he became proficient at casting, after which he used my rod with a 'pin. The end tackle was pretty basic too; a bodied crow-quill float bulk-shotted halfway down the line with a single bb shot six inches above the hook, which was barbless, and the depth set at just enough to trip the bottom. Grayling rarely seem to feed freely anywhere other than right on the bottom, though I remember one time on the river Frome when I could only catch them in mid-water, which only proves that there are no hard and fast rules in fishing. I don't usually use barbless hooks for grayling; the fish twist about too much when you are playing them and throw the hook quite easily compared to most fish, but on this occasion I thought it prudent. Just as well really as Richard did manage to stick his finger at one point during the day. Bait was a mixture of red and white maggot, a cocktail that seems to be universally accepted as the 'best' bait.
We were travelling light. One rod each, a plastic carrier bag containing bait and spare end-tackle, and a folding trout net. The carrier bag doubled as a weigh sling. No chairs or rod-rests or any paraphernalia that could slow us down when we decided we wanted to switch swims, which we did frequently.
Wandering downstream we found Peter Henton, who was demonstrating how effective a bait-dropper can be. Feeding his swim with the bait dropper and trotting red maggots just off the centre of the flow produced fish after fish for him. Every other cast seemed to produce a rod bending, twisting fish, mostly grayling but with the odd brown trout thrown in for good measure. In fact, a few of them were fresh-run sea trout, still with the lice on them. By 3.30pm when the rain started to fall in earnest, Pete packed up because "my arm hurts". He had lost count of the fish he'd caught, but it was far more than I'd managed and I'd taken getting on for 30. Interestingly, the fish had packed on a lot of weight during the past twelve months; at least fifty percent of our catch were estimated at being over 2lb each with a few fish even reaching 3lb. My best weighed grayling went 2lb 14ozs but I had a couple of others which might have tripped the magic mark, if only I had bothered to weigh them.
All in all it was a wonderful day, made especially pleasurable for me as I was turning a novice on to fishing, which always gives me a bit of a buzz. I guess it worked anyway. As we drove out of the fishery Richard wanted to know when were going again!