Well. You can net them, dynamite them, train grizzly bears to snatch them, use spear-guns and tritons etc…. or you can angle for them with rod and line. This is conducted either by fly-fishing or via bait fishing. They’ll take artificial fly quite freely and a method known as Czech-nymphing has evolved especially for them.
This piece however is about bait fishing. The way I like to catch them.
Before I get ahead of myself, there’s a few things you should know about the fish itself, if you don’t already. Firstly, they are a species which love fast-flowing, clean water. You’ll find them in lots of river systems but rarely on the middle and lower, slower stretches of the bigger rivers. Usually, the further upstream you travel, the more likely you are to encounter them and they’ll often be found in the same water as trout and salmon. I’ve caught them in depths of ten foot and ten centimetres, slow glides and fast ripples. The two biggest grayling I ever caught were in consecutive casts from a floodwater ditch, a foot deep, the colour of chocolate – so don’t ignore coloured water.
I live in the Southeast of the country near London. My nearest grayling can be found in the rivers Wey, Kennet, and Loddon. Bigger fish and more prolific fisheries are the southern chalk streams with the Itchen and Test being the best known of these. Due to the grayling’s limited distribution, there are huge numbers of highly experienced anglers who live some way from these rivers, who have never even seen a grayling despite having been fishing for a lifetime. If you ever get a chance to fish for them, don’t let it pass you by because it is great fun and, often, quite easy fishing.
The grayling is a beautiful fish, perhaps the prettiest of all our river species. It has the well-known huge sail of a dorsal fin, which when hooked, helps it fight out of all proportion to its size, with a corkscrew motion. This corkscrew-fight continues when you have the fish on the bank, often making it tricky to unhook and a nightmare to get a trophy photograph. I’m sure there are more photos of anglers juggling and wrestling with grayling than have been taken with all other species combined!
Have a look at the head of a grayling and you will notice that unlike it’s trouty cousins, it has an under-slung mouth. This is usually taken as the classic sign of a bottom feeder, and larger grayling are almost always taken hard on the bottom – though smaller ones will hit a floating dry-fly accurately with stunning speed too. (Perhaps big ones too, though I’ve never yet caught a big one on a fly).
So, as they are bottom feeders, why not ledger a swimfeeder for them? Easy! And, it’s true, this is probably the most effective method for catching grayling – but it’s also soulless in comparison to the more traditional method of trotting a float. As most of my grayling fishing is on small rivers and streams, there are no long casts required so you can up the pleasure quotient by fishing with a centre-pin reel coupled to your float rod. Add an old fashioned avon-style cork bodied float and you can step back in time. Though some prefer Drennan crystal Avons or Loafers or chubbers. Your choice. A heavy float is better, generally speaking.
It is quite simply magic! No matter how old you are, a small boy will emerge from deep inside within minutes of mastering the technique, which is a doodle to pick up anyway. Hook choice is controversial. Barbless ones will help in the unhooking process – but if you are fishing a water with big grayling, that corkscrew-fighting action I mentioned could cost you the fish of a lifetime. Barbed hooks are perhaps more secure but have a downside when you try to unhook them. I will sometimes fish with a small swivel a few inches from the hook to counter line twist from the corkscrewing when playing a fish.
Be careful when returning a grayling, especially a good sized one; they have a reputation for being a bit fragile. Some people like to nurse the fish in the margins until it is ready to go, as one would a barbel or pike, but there is another method. Angling legend Dave Steuart taught me a trick I’m happy to pass on. Throw the fish back into the water from waist height so it lands with a splash. This seems to send an adrenaline-type reaction throughout the fish, shocking it into action; 99 out of 100 fish will shoot straight off into the current at full speed when returned like this but have the landing net handy to scoop out the odd one which didn’t read the rule book.
Keepnets are a no-no. Never, ever keep a grayling in a keepnet. You won’t need any rod rests either. Just a rod, net and a small bag of bait and bits. You’ll be moving a lot so travelling light is essential.
Bait: Maggots, maggots and more maggots. Use a bait dropper in deeper water and a bait-apron is a great help. Use red maggots preferably. You can also catch them on worms, bread and sweetcorn but, for me, these baits are only for when the fish are playing hard to get. That’s usually only in the severest weather and/or conditions. Grayling are quite easy fish to catch and will feed in the coldest of weather – but you will catch a lot more when it’s mild!
Trout as a by-catch are common. This doesn’t worry me, I love catching trout on float tackle but some people think a great big 5lb trout crashing about in their grayling swim is not a good idea. Never did understand that.
Set the float deep enough to allow the bait to scrape the bottom and away you go. The fish are not usually very tackle-shy and you can sometimes catch and release dozens of fish from the same swim. You don’t need to be all high-tech and in touch with all the latest baits, methods and theories – it’s all very basic, and that’s part of the charm of it.
There’s two schools of thought, and both work. You can hold the float back and trot it through the swim slowly, trying to make the bait progress through the swim ahead of the float, preferably at the speed you think the water is moving at on the river-bed, which is usually a lot slower than the surface. This is using your brain.
Or you can do it my way, no brain required, and just let it run through the swim at the same speed as the surface water. As long as the bait is pulled through on the bottom the fish seem to grab it whatever speed it goes at; though always remember Richard Walkers statement, that ‘always’ and ‘never’ are two words you shouldn’t use when talking about fishing. It could be the fish don’t have time to inspect a bait presented at speed, so have to make a snap decision to either eat it or not, so cruder tackle and presentation don’t get much inspection from the fish. That could be why I seem to catch just as many as my ‘thinking angler’ friends, with their much better considered presentations. I don’t know.
Fish a swim until it dies, then move on to the next one. It’s common to fish ten or even more swims in a day like this so you don’t need a chair. Many grayling fisheries are also trout fisheries, so often have convenient sheds and shelters here and there where you can have a break and a chat with your fishing buddies – because this is social fishing. My buddies and I will usually take a cooker and have a fry-up, a cup of tea, a cigar and a chat in the middle of the session. A welcome break on a cold day.
Using this travelling method is probably far less efficient than how a matchman would approach the water , perhaps by building a swim etc – but in my opinion there there is no finer way to catch a grayling, or twenty, or fifty, than wandering the banks like this.
If the fishery manager and rules allow it, you can even take one or two home for dinner. Some say this is the finest eating fish which swims. Find that out for yourself!