If I were a boy grayling I might take exception to this, but no-one says that lifeís always fair. Anyway, the feminine name is somehow right, because grayling are all remarkably beautiful, rather than handsome.
It must have been about thirty years ago when I was introduced to grayling by the late Frank Sawyer. Now thereís a thing to be able to claim. A bit like saying that one has been introduced to carp fishing by Dick Walker. Iíd gone to meet him as tackle carrier and photographer for Brian Harris, when he was editor of International Flyfisher. The great old man asked me whether Iíd ever caught a grayling, and when I told him I hadnít, he spent the afternoon teaching me to snick grayling out of the deep pools of the upper Avon, using his own Sawyer nymph flies.
Grayling fishing is a great joy, but they are sadly thin in their distribution. They like clean, clear water. Here in the deep south we have the pellucid chalk-streams: the Itchen, Test, and Avon. There are grayling in other rivers, but in these crystal streams the grayling thrives among waving trails of manicured rununculus. In the north there are grayling in the Derbyshire rivers, and some excellent opportunities on the Yorkshire waters. Iím not sure, but I suppose the clear waters of the Wensum may be home to grayling. Slow moving rivers that hold matter in suspension are a poor bet, but even they may have a head of grayling in their upper reaches.
There is no doubt that the grayling is a proper game fish, with its pronounced adipose (fatty) fin. Even now though, there are trout fishers who despise the grayling, preferring, for some reason, to hook artificially bred trout. To each his own, of course, but I simply cannot understand their distain for the beautiful sporting grayling. It is perhaps less inclined to rise consistently like a trout on station, but it is nevertheless a glorious wild thing that fights with a furious corkscrewing gyration, every yard to the net, and it deserves due respect.
Despite that early lesson from the great Sawyer with a fly rod, my own grayling fishing is generally practiced with trotting tackle. Itís an utterly delicious way of spending time.
The tackle required is simplicity itself. I use a 10_í Allcocks Eclipse rod, 3_" Aerial, 4lb line, two or three swan shot float, and a size ten hook tied direct. For very long range trotting I prefer a big lump of float above the water. Drennanís Long Loafer is good, although I tend to make my own comprising a porcupine quill or cane (satť stick) stem, balsa body, and goose quill tip. Home-made floats are an additional pleasure, and the natural materials coexist more happily with my cane rods. Baits are simple too. The classic grayling bait is a small redworm: grayling just love them. Being a lazy blighter I tend to make do with a tin of sweetcorn, but a small loaf, or a small bag of cooked macaroni do equally well.
Whatever the bait, itís essential not to over-feed a grayling shoal. When Iím using sweetcorn I toss in two or three grains, perhaps after every four or five trots through the swim. This is particularly important very cold days, when the fish may not be feeding with gusto. I find that two grains of corn on the size 10 work well, but sometimes a single grain on a 12 or 14 is accepted more enthusiastically.
In a swim with consistent depth I aim to run the bait through about 6" off the bottom, although on really cold day when the fish are sluggish, I find that the bait needs to be slowed right down by dragging bottom. At such times itís important to strike at the first indication of a bite, otherwise it is common to find that the grayling had inhaled the baited hook too far for its own good.
Grayling can be caught in any depth of water. There are times when they can be found in streamy water just 18" deep. At other times they are in deep pools. It pays to be open minded when grayling fishing, and to search every part of the swim. They love sitting under bushes, a trait that has cost me many a carefully made grayling float.
The great thing about grayling is that they are prepared to look at a bait in water temperatures that put off almost every other fish. The other week Bill Hill, Kevin Howard, Kelvin Rutledge and I set off for a morningís fishing on a morning when ungloved hands were a risk to life, and ice formed in the rod-rings. The only possibilities were chub and grayling.
Having said that, my first trot through my favourite swim above the weir produced a five pound rainbow which took me all over the river for a while. It didnít do much for the swim. Itís a lovely long trot, and manyís the time Iíve hooked fish there at seventy or eighty yards range. Alright if itís a pound grayling, but less easy when itís a ruddy great trout or chub, when itís a case of getting down to it as quickly as possible, before it decides to run downstream through the sluice-gates.
Bill chose a glide that often produces large bags of fish to his favourite macaroni bait. Bill is not the roving angler type, preferring to set up home then build a swim. It harks back to his pegged-down match days I think. Iíve seen him take some very good mixed bags by such tactics, and itís always a pleasure to see that 1950ís seated-on-basket stance, as he wields his long cane rod and centre-pin.
Kelvin and I went aíroamin, in part to see what might be done, and certainly to ward off frost-bite as best we could.
The main river had that cold, grey, oily look which I hate. We found a few small grayling on the shallows, but the bigger chaps evaded us through the morning. At our communal lunch (always a great part of the joy of the day) weíd managed only a dozen or so grayling between us, but with the air temperature hovering around freezing, and a water temperature of not much more, we all thought weíd done rather well to find anything at all feeding.
With some of my wifeís disgustingly wonderful chocolate cake, and a slug or three of sloe gin to bolster our frozen extremities, we set off with perhaps a tad more spring in our steps.
After a rather lean time of it we arrived at the little weir to the carrier, and it was here that we found some fish. It occurred to me that the little hatch-pool was the ideal place to show a typical grayling spot.
The hatch pool is about four feet deep in the middle, with gravel shallows on the far bank. Overhanging the shallows a bush offers just the sort of twiggy cover that grayling love.
Even on this bitterly cold day the grayling were at home on the gravel. The depth here was about 2í and although we could easily see the yellow of the bottom, we couldnít see the fish. All the same we took about thirty fish from the shoal before they became too cross with us to feed on.
Itís often the way on bitter days. You can wander through all your favourite swims thinking that the fish are just off the feed, when what has happened is that they have simply shoaled up somewhere, and you have to find them.
Grayling hate keepnets. Although Iím occasionally selfish enough to want a picture of a nice mixed bag of fish at the end of the day, I never put grayling into a keepnet. A couple of other things on caring for grayling. These fish seem to get themselves rather flustered, and often belly-up if they are slipped back carefully. What they need is a short sharp shock to bring them back to life, so rather than being too gentle, itís better to toss the fish back with a bit of a splash. Even then youíre likely to have rescue the odd belly-upper with the landing net to offer it a second chance. It may be that fish floating off downstream come to their senses eventually, but Iím not at all sure, and theyíd certainly be an easy target for a passing gull or cormorant. The other thing is on unhooking. In this matter grayling are their own worst enemies. Apart from eels, nothing but nothing wriggles like a grayling when itís being held for unhooking. It can help to hold them upside down, which sometimes seems to cause them to pause their gyrations for long enough to slip the hook out. Itís essential to use barbless hooks, because any delay just upsets the fish more and more. They have delicate mouthparts, so itís really unkind to use barbed hooks on the poor things. Deeply hooked fish should be clipped off in the hope that the offending thing will just rust away. Everyone says thatís what happens, but when I send a fish back with a hook in it, I always feel horribly guilty.