With the grayling season soon coming to an end we now only have a few weeks to get out and enjoy some excellent winter river fishing. This season has been one of the worst in years in terms of high water levels, with many competitions and pleasure trips being cancelled due to unfishable and coloured rivers. As a result of this many of us still need to look for our ‘fix’ and so will be looking to get out grayling fishing before the season ends, particularly as the weather appears to have settled in recent weeks.
High water levels following heavy rain are often a problem on freestone rivers but there is one way that you can almost guarantee fishable clarity in any conditions and that is to fish chalkstreams. Whilst the vast majority of my trout and grayling fishing is done on freestone rivers in the north I will try to make a trip to fish a chalkstream each winter, just to give some variety to my fishing whenever possible. In the past I have had some excellent fishing on the Driffield Beck in Yorkshire and the River Test in Hampshire. Winter grayling tickets give anglers the chance to fish exclusive beats and whilst the fishing is expensive in comparison to other rivers it is still a fraction of the cost of fishing these beats in the trout season.
There are several differences between chalkstreams and freestone or urban rivers but for me the biggest difference is simply the water clarity, which in chalkstreams is often stunning. In good light it is possible to see grayling, something that is often impossible in more coloured rivers.
This excellent clarity means that the angler often needs to amend tactics to be successful. Whilst in larger coloured rives such as the Dee the best method is often to fish a team of 3 heavy nymphs at short range ‘czech style’, this is often ineffective in chalkstreams, unless you concentre on the few fast hatch pool areas. Also in my experience the winter grayling often prefer the slower areas of water and therefore a more subtle approach is essential and often with a single, small weighted nymph. Over the years I have usually scored well on chalkstreams with smaller patterns, usually in the 16-18 size range. I think this is due to the majority of natural food items being small nymphs.
Chalkstreams are very rich environments in terms of food so natural patterns often work better than the large bright patterns many associate with grayling in the winter. Using smaller imitative patterns also has another advantage in that they are far less appealing to the large (often stocked) trout in some chalkstream fisheries. Large bright patterns often do little but attract a large number of out of season trout.
Whilst natural patterns are often best I have also caught well with flies with bright triggers such as small pink or orange beads, particularly if conditions are very cold. Whilst these bright colours can trigger takes from inactive grayling, I still find flies need to be small and I would certainly be wary of fishing above a size 16. The only time I would fish bigger is when I am fishing in deep water which dictates a bigger fly to get the weight required to present your nymph close to the bottom.
The main food items for winter grayling are often shrimps, so any pattern which imitates the natural is worth a go. Hares ears with copper or black nickel beads work very well, as does a close copy natural shrimp imitation which will need to be weighted with lead wire or even a small tungsten shrimp for the underbody.
The other main food items which fish will be looking for are small olive nymphs, these are particularly active on warmer days and can be imitated by a small olive quill or pheasant tail nymph.
Simon’s Recommended Fulling Mill Flies:
Single fly is often my preferred method and I often try to fish at a greater distance than normal. Whilst grayling are known for being tolerant of anglers, in some rivers chalkstream grayling can be very spooky so it often pays to stay well back and keep a low profile. Fishing a longer line upstream often works well and my favourite method is to fish classic upstream nymph, watching the tip of the flyline for takes I also find that applying some musclin or other line floatant to the flyline helps take detection as the tip of the line rides high on the surface. Takes are detected by a sudden sop of twitch on the tip which is often subtle, so do for the lightest weight flyline that you can to reduce resistance.
Clear water also gives the angler the chance to sight fish for grayling, this is something that I really enjoy and when the opportunity presents itself I will concentrate on this method. When a grayling is spotted try to cast a lighter weight nymph well above the fish as I have found that they will usually take a naturally drifting pattern in preference to a heavy nymph dropping right in front of them. If the fish does not react to the dead drift try a change of pattern or an induced take by lifting the nymph as it approaches the target. Grayling will often react first cast, particularly of you have already taken a few fish from the shoal.
If you have not yet done so, get out and give a chalkstream a go, they are very different to the rivers most of us fish, give the angler the opportunity to try some different methods and a unique chance to see with your own eyes how grayling react to different flies and presentations.