Bridging the gulf between coarse and game angling, the grayling—the ‘lady of the stream’—has come to be appreciated only since pollution has made it a rarity in most waters.
The grayling (Thymallus thymallus), a member of the salmon family, is widely distributed throughout the British Isles, except in Ireland. Its enormous dorsal fin, with the tiny adipose fin characteristic of members of the Salmonidae, enables it to be readily distinguished from any other species.
Arguably, the grayling when alive is the most beautiful of all British fishes. The metallic scales show tinges of gold, green, pink and magenta, while the fins show bars, spots and lines of brown, crimson and purple. Sadly all these glorious colours fade within a few minutes of the death of the fish, and the angler returns home with a rather plain silvery-grey fish.
The grayling spawns between late March and early May, the eggs being shed in a hollow scooped in gravel by the female fish, after which they are covered in the same way as are the ova of salmon, sea trout and brown trout. When in breeding condition, the male fish are much darker in colour than the females, and are usually larger. The eggs are much smaller than those of trout, and the female grayling produces twice to three times as many eggs per pound of body weight than the female trout does.
That all important food supply
As with every other species, growth rates depend very much upon the food supply. In the Hampshire chalkstreams, a grayling may reach a weight of 2lb in six or seven years. The largest grayling ever taken on rod and line was one of 4£lb caught by Dr T Sanctuary from the River Wylye at Brimerton in 1885. One of 4f lb was netted from the Hampshire Avon in the same year; but nowadays it is far from common to catch a grayling as large as 2lb from these chalkstreams.
Proprietors of Wiltshire, Hamp-shire and Dorset fisheries continue to wage unrelenting war upon the grayling on the grounds that it competes with trout for food. As all these waters are now artificially stocked with trout raised in stewponds to takeable size or big-ger; as most of these trout are rain-bows, and as most of them are caught before they have been more than two or three months in the river, it is hard to see how grayling can affect their size or numbers.
It is true that grayling eat much the same food as trout, namely in-sects, molluscs and Crustacea, but they usually occupy different areas of river and it is doubtful if they offer very severe competition. Unlike trout, they form shoals and where the angler finds one, he will usually find several.
The grayling is intolerant of pollution, and will disappear from a water in which the degree of pollution is not such as to destroy trout or even seriously to inhibit their growth. If grayling find water to their liking, they will proliferate amazingly, but there are numerous instances of their introduction having failed. For example, they were introduced into the rivers Ivel and Ousel, in Bed-fordshire, and the Beane in Hert-fordshire. The two latter rivers sup-ported a breeding population of trout, but the grayling failed to breed, though the original stock sur-vived and put on weight, until they died of old age or capture.
The grayling is the subject of some very curious notions; one is that it smells of thyme, though some describe its smell as resembling cucumber. It certainly has a characteristic smell.
It has also been alleged that, by raising its large dorsal fin, it can in-stantly inflate its swimbladder and thus raise rapidly to the surface. In fact, nothing of the sort happens, though a grayling can and often does shoot up to the surface from a considerable depth. Then, so too can numerous other species.
The grayling’s big dorsal fin
The big dorsal fin does, however, enable a hooked grayling to resist the angler’s efforts to bring the fish to the landing net. In a brisk current, playing a big grayling is reminiscent of flying an underwater kite. In clear water, the fish can be seen with its dorsal fin fully erect, moving at an angle to the current, and, unless the angle of pull is changed, the fish may take a long time to subdue.
Yet another fallacy about grayling is that they cannot be caught when there is mist on the river. I have caught far too many in mist and fog to believe this; but they do not like its equivalent in the water, namely, a muddy flow, and seldom bite when a river is coloured with suspended particles after rain.
Primarily fish of running water, grayling thrive in clean lakes, though they seldom if ever breed in such waters. The reason for this is probably due to lack of suitable spawning areas, as with trout.
One of the points in favour of grayling is that, unlike most other fish, they will continue to feed freely when water temperature has fallen below that critical figure of 4°C (39.2°F), the temperature at which water is at its heaviest and below which no other British freshwater species will feed very actively. The grayling is the exception, and good catches can be made when the river is fringed with ice and the line is freezing to the rod-rings.
To many modern anglers, the other great attraction which the grayling provides is that it is coming into its best condition just when the trout season is ending. As it can be caught readily by fly-fishing, it thus extends the period during which this method can be used right through the winter, until the middle of March. Most anglers, however, prefer to stop fishing for grayling a month earlier. The fish becomes gravid—pregnant—in February.
Grayling tend to wander, and what proves a good spot one day will not necessarily be so on other occasions. I have spotted a shoal of good- sized fish in a particular area, and ar-riving the next day full of hope, have found the fish gone. I also remember sitting watching a vacant gravel-bottomed run, which had remained devoid of grayling for a week, when suddenly seven good fish came drop-ping back from somewhere farther upstream, and took possession. Not for long; within half an hour six—all between 1£ and l|lb were in my bag; the survivor took fright and left.
Very large catches of grayling are sometimes possible. A few years ago I secured 50 fish weighing 56lb in one day. On the other hand, there have been days on excellent grayling waters when, try as I would, I could not catch a single fish, usually when rain had muddied the water.
The grayling, treated properly, is an excellent fish to eat, but a grayling that spends the day dead in a bag and the night in a larder, especially if in a plastic bag, will be tasteless or worse, however cooked.
Where the angler is catching several grayling from one spot, the fish can be kept alive in a keepnet until it is time to stop fishing. If they are then killed and put directly into an insulated box with some icepacks, and on arrival home placed in a refrigerator or a deep-freeze, the flavour when they are cooked will be found excellent. Scales are easily removed before cooking, and the bones after.
Where fishing is conditional upon all grayling being killed, as is regrettably the case on some fisheries, it is worth remembering that a grayling makes an excellent deadbait for pike, whether fished static or on wobbler tackle. It is a very firm fish, and will cast long distances. It is also much more resistant to attack by eels, so if you are a pike fisher, deep freeze any grayling you don’t eat.