On this frosty, windless day in January Chris Lee’s quarry is the elegant grayling — in his estimation by no means just a mere ‘Lady of the stream. For him, the grayling is the Queen of the rivers. Though she wears a modest crown of colours on her dorsal fin, her real beauty lies in the gallant struggle she displays when hooked.
It’s not practical to arrive too early for grayling fishing in mid-winter, for the early morning cold makes the fish somewhat lethargic and reluctant to feed. For Chris the best time to fish is from 11am to 2pm. ‘Patience is the key,’ he says; ‘the worst thing you can do is to rush up and down the bank looking for fish. If you think there’s fish in the area, keep your fly in the water, and fish the water hard.’
To reach the fish which are shoaled up tightly in deep water, Chris uses a small, heavily leaded fly. Wading isn’t allowed in the Derbyshire Wye, but there’s plenty of room for casting in most places. Chris displays a small grayling before releasing it. Once scorned, the grayling is now gaining acceptance today among many game anglers. Weirs are good places to look for trout and grayling in spring and summer. Chris found most of his winter grayling in the deep, slow-moving parts of the river To reach deep holes, use sinking braided leaders which are effective though it is hard to cast accurately with them.
A way to overcome this is to use a long leader and a fine tippet. The thinner the leader, the quicker the fly sinks because there is less resistance from the water. This is one of the rainbow trout which took his fly. A firm believer in catch-and-release, he returns every fish that he catches as soon as possible. This exquisite rainbow trout with a deep red stripe along its spotted flank was caught on a Killer Bug. The Derbyshire Wye is one of the few waters in Britain where rainbow trout spawn in the wild. His fly rod arched under the weight of a 0.7kg brown trout, Chris prepares to land the quarry before returning it quickly and carefully.
A gold-headed pupa -tumbled over the stony bottom – was too much for the trout to resist in the lean days of winter.
The River Wye
- For information about grayling fishing on the Derbyshire Wye, contact Haddon Hall, tel. (01629) 636255. The season usually runs from November 1 to January 31.
- For more information about rainbow and brown trout fishing on the River Wye, contact the Peacock Hotel, Rowsley, Derbyshire, tel (01629) 733519. Trout fishing is restricted to dry fly only.
Just upstream of the A619 – where a small brook enters the river—he begins warming up by working a shallow stretch with a single size 18 Griffith’s Gnat (an American pattern). ‘If I were pushed to pick one fly that would catch grayling,’ he says, ‘it would be this one.’
Though it doesn’t catch this time his confidence in the pattern is undimmed, but to cover a deeper stretch of the river, Chris decides to switch to a size 14 leaded shrimp. He casts upstream of where he expects to find grayling, gives the shrimp time to drag over the gravel bottom and recasts when
We walk under leafless trees – past exquisite stone houses. Chris studies the water by the Packhorse Bridge near a long, narrow island and then fishes the slow-flowing side of the river with a Sturdy’s Fancy, a popular grayling pattern. the current begins to sweep the fly towards the surface.
His technique is best illustrated by using a clock diagram. As you stand directly facing the opposite bank of the river, imagine there is a fish directly in front of you at 12 o’clock. Cast your weighted pattern at about 10 o’clock, assuming the current flows left to right. The fly has sunk to the bottom by the time it reaches 11 o’clock to 10 ’clock – where you want it and where it is most effective in conditions such as these. After 10 ’clock the fly is on its way up towards the surface again, pulled by the line drag. The less a fish has to work for a meal, the better your chances of catching one.
Bushes and small trees obscure the river bank; Chris can’t carry out the overhead cast comfortably here, so he uses the roll cast with great delicacy. ‘It’s a good technique for small rivers because you don’t have to aerialise line at the back of you. It presents the fly well and can cast a fair distance.’
As he works the water near the point of the island, a grayling races out of a sunken, stony hollow, hits the fly and darts off downstream. Even in the slow current it puts up an admirable fight. Chris manoeuvres it to the bank, and the hook conveniently slips out.
He moves farther up river to deeper, faster water and puts on a Brassy Nymph (an American pattern which has a lot of copper wound on the hook with a sparse fur thorax). Chris uses this pattern because there isn’t much to impair its sinking rate. The larger the surface area of a fly, the more resistance it has in the water, and the slower it sinks. ‘As a general rule of thumb,’ he says, ‘grayling prefer small flies, but they need to sink quickly, and sometimes you can’t get enough lead on the hook.’
He works this fly patiently, so that it imitates a nymph slowly moving in and out of the rocks on the river bed. His patience is rewarded — but not with a grayling. In spite of the cold conditions a VA\b (0.7kg) rainbow trout puts up a good struggle. It’s the work of an instant for Chris to remove the barb-less hook and return the fish.
Small rivers and streams often pose problems when catching and landing fish – especially with shoal fish such as grayling. Any unusual activity in the clear water or on the bank can put fish down and make them stop feeding.
Stalking carefully, Chris spots a small shoal of grayling in the slow water and returns to a Griffith’s Gnat. In clear rivers a fine tippet, such as 2-4lb (0.9-1.8kg) line, is essential. ‘It’s a good policy to try to fish upstream when you can, simply because you’re behind the fish. But I wouldn’t be bound by it; if I had to fish downstream, I would.’
Chris continues, ‘In a situation such as this, an important rule about river fishing is: don’t false cast more than you have to. Every cast counts.’ He places the fly 60cm (2ft) in front of the shoal and then waits. The slow current and clear water help give the grayling a good long look at the fly. Even so, one of the smaller fish succumbs to the fuzzy temptation. Chris brings in a 12oz (0.34kg) grayling which struggles all the way to the bank.
The small grayling spooked the larger ones, so Chris decides to move downstream where the river is about one metre (3ft) deep and where the current is moderate. ‘What I’m checking for are the type of bottom, depth, vegetation (if any) and the speed of the current.’
He casts the fly about 45cm (18in) from the opposite bank, where the river bends slightly, and the current whisks the fly downstream. He repeats the procedure again and again, each time casting the fly a bit closer to himself. ‘Line control on rivers is vital for success, and that includes everything from where the fly is placed to how to strike after hooking the fish.’ After working the area thoroughly, he again moves farther downstream.
Downstream from Bakewell, near a pedestrian bridge, Chris attaches a gold-headed pupa then rubs a bit of mud and debris on the fly and tippet to mask any human scent. Most fly fishermen have their favourite patterns of flies for one reason or another -Chris included. But he stresses that generally fly pattern is less important than the way you present it.
A few casts and a trout hammers the nymph, jumps acrobatically, but in the end shakes the hook. Another cast or so results in another strike, but in the fast current the grayling breaks the line.
The grayling can afford to be a bit picky in the stretch below town because so many people throw bread, corn, cheese and spiced chickpeas for the ducks, and what the birds miss, the trout and grayling do not. As he is fishing, an elderly woman upstream of him tosses in some fish and chips and the remnants of a steak and kidney pie. She seems fully convinced that the ducks and fish enjoy the food, especially the pie. ‘They’ve done so for so many years,’ she says. Chris searches his box for a pie-shaped fly, with- out success though.
Instead he puts on a Killer Bug. He casts upstream a bit and lets the current take the fly about 9m (10yd) downstream. A rainbow trout seizes the fly. Using the current to its advantage, the fish gets dangerously close to a weir before Chris gains control.
After a quick lunch – out of the finger-numbing January cold — we resume our grayling pursuits. Chris changes flies to a heavy gold-headed pupa. Casting to the opposite bank and letting the current take the fly and tumble it over the stony bottom proves too much of a temptation for a good-sized (1/2 lb/0.7kg) brown trout which Chris again releases immediately.
Chris once again makes the decision to move downstream to deeper runs to avoid catching trout.
Fishing in a deep eddy – where the slow-moving water swirls and churns steadily and relentlessly — Chris retrieves along the bottom very slowly and gets a strike. A 12oz (0.34kg) grayling uses its sail-like dorsal fin to create resistance in the slow current. But he soon gains control of the battle and with a wet hand gently lifts the fish long enough for a photo, then releases it.
As the light gradually gets dimmer and the temperature colder, Chris fishes for another hour and then decides to pack up. The day’s session resulted in three grayling, two rainbows and a brown trout – a catch to be proud of in peak season, never mind in the dead of winter.