Fly fishing on a chalk stream can be extremely rewarding, and one of my favourite ways of fishing on a chalk stream is sight fishing for grayling. Chalk streams give us the opportunity to stalk trout and grayling through their perfectly clear waters and allow us to not only target specific fish we see but watch their reactions to our flies.
I was lucky enough to be invited to fish a stretch of the River Anton called the Fullerton Beat, a tributary of the upper Test which joins directly below the famous Mayfly Pub. Throughout my younger days, I spent a lot of time fishing the section of the Test just above the confluence of these two rivers – a place which taught me a lot about grayling fishing and the way the feed, and how they react to bright colours in particular.
The very first thing you notice about a chalk stream is that it’s extremely flat unless you’re lucky enough to have a hatch pool in your stretch. The second thing is the amount of weed on the bottom. Much of the Anton is carpeted in weed, tantalisingly flowing in the current just a few feet below the surface. Between each section of weed the clear patches of chalk can be littered with fish, giving you a great indication on where to start. The grayling on the Anton are generally easy to find and coupled with gin clear water, easy to spot from the bank too! The only downside is that they can also see you.
Being stealthy while fishing for grayling on a chalk stream is a must, keeping low and walking slowly along open sections of the river can make a huge difference in catch rate. A long leader provides the best presentation and keeps you well away from the fish, concealing your presence giving them the confidence to take your offerings.
My go-to method on a chalk stream has to be the French Leader, fishing European nymphing style. This is where you fish a long tapered leader, a short piece of indicator nylon or braid at long distances. The key when fishing chalk streams is to stay well away from the fish as well as maintain full control of your flies. Once mastered, (see how to fish the French Leader here) you could be presenting a tiny nymph at 7 meters or more away without the need of a fly line. As for tippet material, I find that a fine diameter Fluorocarbon is essential – not only is it almost invisible in the super-clear water, it’s also stronger than co-polymer (BS vs Diameter) to help maneuver the fish through the weed… My preferred tippet material for the past year has been the 6X Fulling Mill Masterclass Fluorocarbon.
I soon found a likely looking pool with a depth of around three feet and, surprisingly, completely clear of weed. Sitting close to the waters edge contemplating what fly to fish, a shoal of four or five grayling appeared against the dark shadowed water on the opposite bank. With the intentions of picking off each fish one at a time, I chose a 3mm sighting nymph – this pattern has been tied with a bright orange bead to aid visibility when falling through the water. The long CDC hackle also slows it’s sink rate so can be easily tracked while it sinks.
With a short lob above the shoal of fish, I let the fly sink with the French Leader indicator flat on the surface – this lets the fly fall naturally, rather than ‘hang’ as it would below a dry fly, duo style. The first few casts proved fruitless, so I cast slightly further up-stream to let the fly sink deeper, instantly the lead grayling of the bunch took a fancy to the hot orange nymph.
Sight fishing for grayling can be great fun, they are less spooky than trout and will tolerate a lot more wading and casting… allowing you to get basically on top of them in the right surroundings. I gently waded along the edge of the river, close to the reed line, giving myself just enough space to flick the leader if needed. There was a defined hole close to the far bank which took my fancy, and I spotted the unmistakable elongated dorsal fin standing proudly in the current… This was a good fish for sure, so I took my time getting into the perfect position making sure I gave myself the ‘money shot’. I dropped the fly directly above the fish and held the leader high as the current slowly brought it down downstream. The fly promptly disappeared and a quick flick of the rod tip saw the hook set, with all hell breaking loose in the tight overgrown pool. I managed to weave the rod tip through the branches and get the fish to the surface; quickly slipping the net beneath it. A beautifully dark Anton fish.
One thing I’ve noticed when sight fishing for grayling is that there is hardly any indication on the leader of the take. The only indication is actually seeing the fish turn and open its mouth or the fly disappearing, if you don’t strike then, you’ll miss the fish. It’s quite technical to get it right, but once you’ve got the hang of watching the fish instead of the indicator, you’re going to land much more fish! The hothead patterns are also extremely effective in coloured/high water all around the country.
Here are a number of recommended hothead nymphs to use when sight fishing for grayling;
Quite often, however, these hothead nymphs can be too intrusive and grayling tend to turn away from them. Other patterns such as the Grayling Pinky or Hot Collar Hares Ear from the Fulling Mill Tactical Range can be deadly. The water dampens the ‘brightness’ of the flies but give them that attraction that grayling absolutely love…
As much as it is still the trout season, grayling are very much in season and provide excellent sport. If you’re a regular on the chalk streams, I’d definitely suggest giving sight fishing for grayling a go. (make sure to check the rules on your beat regarding nymph fishing)
Here’s a great video from Ben Bangham on fishing the French leader, the ideal method at any time of the year, especially early Autumn through to the end of Spring.