Fishing for Grayling

Grayling fishing links the disciplines of coarse and game angling.

The varied techniques possible and the fight a hooked fish puts up make the grayling a really interesting proposition.

The Grayling (Thymallus thymallus) is a member of the salmon family, but it has never really been accepted by the purists as a true game fish. The ‘Lady of the Stream’ is held in considerable esteem, however, by many who fish the clear, fast run-ning waters of Yorkshire, though it does display characteristics more in keeping with coarse fish. The gray-ling will readily accept the fly, but has an equal liking for maggots, worms, insects and many varied forms of aquatic life.

The grayling is more dependant on a good supply of oxygen than the trout whose waters it shares. A handsome fish, it never gives up without an excellent fight, and the capture of any fish over 2 lb is a catch to remember. Those found in cold water are particularly lively.

Although the grayling almost cer-tainly reaches a maximum weight of 8 lb and a length in excess of 22in, any fish over 2 lb can be called a specimen. In years past, a magnifi-cent fish of 7 lb 2oz was the accepted British Record catch but, for a reason that is unclear, the Rod-Caught Fish Committee deleted it from their list during a purge which erased several other records. A fish of 2 lb 13oz, taken from the River Test in February 1981, replaced the former record holder – a Northumberland grayling of 2 lb l0oz – and became recognized as the best grayling caught in British waters.

Because of their varied diet, gray-ling can be caught in a variety of ways: float fishing, ledgering and fly fishing. To catch them on float tackle, fish exactly as you would for roach or dace.

Contrary to what is often stated, no special tackle is needed. A light 12 or 13ft rod, a small fixed-spool reel loaded with 3 lb b.s. Monofila-ment line, a No 12 round bend hook, and a simple float capable of carrying such a shot as may be needed to suit your chosen swim will do well enough. The author has caught thousands of grayling all over the British Isles with this tackle, using either maggots, small redworms or bread for bait.

Many anglers advise a special type of float, a much finer line, and a much smaller hook to catch grayling. These can be used but you will catch no more grayling by doing so. Nor is there any advantage in complicated shotting arrangements. If the shots are pinched on the line close together, about 15in from the hook, this is fine.

In a smooth, even swim, a porcupine quill float carrying about three BB shot is usually right; while for water full of swirls and eddies, choose a goose quill or a simple balsa float carrying four or five BB shot with a good inch of its top above the surface. Set the float so that the hook goes down the swim about 2in above the bottom and simply let it go down in the ordinary way, keeping the line reasonably straight between rod tip and float as you do so.


Maggots will usually catch plenty of grayling, but sometimes small red-worms will do better. The kind you want are those you find at the bottom of compost heaps, very old manure heaps or well-rotted lawn mowings. They are called cockspur worms and are usually about l -2in long. It does not matter how you put them on the hook. Throw a couple of loose worms or, if you are using them, a dozen or more maggots into the swim every few minutes. Pieces of breadcrust or pinched-on new crumb will also often catch grayling, especially in the chalkstreams of Hampshire and Wiltshire. They seem less effective in the rain-fed rivers of the North or West Midlands, but they will catch grayling anywhere at times.

An alternative, when you are float fishing, is to use an artificial nymph or shrimp instead of a baited hook. Both are weighted, and the shrimp, in particular, has a lot of lead built into it, which must be allowed for when shotting the float. The technique when using nymph or shrimp is a little different from normal float tactics. Allow the tackle to travel a few yards down the swim, then check it firmly, which will cause the shrimp or nymph to swing up and away from the bottom. Hold the float for two or three seconds, then let it resume its normal position and go a couple of yards down the swim, then check it again, and so on till the downstream end of the swim is reached. The bite comes while the float is being checked and the artificial nymph or shrimp is rising in the water; it is usually a sudden and positive take.


Ledgering is a much neglected method of catching grayling. Try it in very cold conditions, or when fishing a deep short swim or a very swirly place where controlling float tackle would be difficult. Use an Arlesey bomb of suitable size, or a string of closely spaced shot on a nylon link. There are various bite indicators which can be used, but perhaps the best is to hold the rod and feel for bites by holding the line between butt-ring and reel in the fingers. The ledger stop should be about 12in from the hook.

In some rivers, a kind of cross bet-ween coarse fishing and fly fishing catches grayling. This is the so-called grasshopper method, in which a strange device called a grasshopper is used. As that eminent Victorian angler, Francis Francis, said, it looks more like a gooseberry than a grasshopper, consisting of a heavily leaded No 6 hook with alternative turns of green and yellow wool bound on over the lead base, the whole being shaped rather like a maggot, only much bigger. It is usually fished with two or three real maggots on the hook as well, and the technique is to use a long rod and bump it about the bottom of deep places. The author cannot succeed with it despite repeated tries in Hampshire, catching only unwanted large trout. But it has a great reputation in some districts.

Flies for grayling

Grayling eat many insects and are thus very vulnerable to fly fishing. A curious folklore has grown up about fly fishing for them, involving the use of tiny fancy fly patterns, mostly garish and tied on tiny hooks and usually fished on an ultra-fine leader point. Such flies as Red Tag, Rolts Witch and Green Insect will certainly catch grayling, but when these fish are clearly to be seen tak-ing real insects at the surface, the author feels that the best flies to use are imitations of those insects. Fish, in fact, exactly as you would for trout, with fly patterns imitating the hatching insects.

The only difference between trout and grayling is that if you strike at a take by a trout and miss, you will seldom obtain a second take from the same fish to the same fly. A grayling, on the other hand, will often give you a second and even a third chance.

Copying the fly on the water is equally sensible whether you use dry flies or conventional wet flies, but often grayling lie deep and will not come up to either sort of artificial. You should then have recourse to leaded patterns such as nymphs and shrimps, and, generally speaking, it is a matter of choosing by weight rather than by appearance. In shallow runs you can use nymphs or small shrimps on size 14 and 16 hooks; deeper water requires shrimps on size 8 or 10 hooks, which carry more lead.

To fly fish for grayling, use a floating fly line and position yourself a few yards upstream from where you judge the fish to be. Cast square across, and a yard or two beyond the line of the current that leads to the fish; then, directly the line is on the water, bend it into an upstream curve which will pull the fly back into the correct line of cur-rent. The fly will now sink and continue to do so until the current changes the upstream curve which will pull the fly towards the surface again. This is when the grayling will take, and you will know that it has happened when you see the end of the line stop. All you need do then is to tighten the line, and the grayling will be hooked.

The grayling’s rubbery mouth

There is a legend that grayling have very tender mouths. Certainly, hooked fish quite often come adrift, but this is most often because the hook has failed to penetrate. Gray-ling have hard rubbery mouths – so make sure your hook is sharp, touching it up with a sharpening stone, if necessary, from time to time. And always hold a hooked grayling very firmly for a second or two after hooking it, to pull the hook in over its barb.

Grayling fight quite briskly, and a big one needs careful handling. They will hang in a strong current, downstream from where you are sitting or standing, and positively defy you to pull them up. You may easily pull the hook out if you try too hard, despite their tough mouths – there is a limit to what a small hookhole can stand. So go down the banks and get a sideways pull on the fish.

Alternative tackle

It is a good idea when grayling fishing to take both a long rod with a fixed-spool reel and also fly fishing tackle, a light 9ft trout fly rod with a No 5 or No 6 line. Sometimes one outfit is called for, sometimes the other, and it is then possible to change from one to the other, and if necessary back again, in the course of a day’s fishing, as the behaviour of the grayling changes. The only time to despair is when a chalk-stream is running dirty; then grayling are nearly impossible to catch on any bait or by any method.

What is a specimen zander? Life is too short to live in terms of record fish, so any fish over 10 lb can probably be considered a specimen. Probably no other fish gives the angler such a good chance of getting close to the British Record of 17lb. Until July 1978, 59 over 12 lb had been recorded, and the record was broken – although not always of-ficially – 10 times between 1968 and 1978. That is an average of once a year – although Bill Chillingworth’s record of 15lb 5oz stood from 1971 until 1977.

Some earlier records have, of course, been beaten several times. I broke the British record twice myself, the second time with a fish of 12 lb 5oz, but my best fish is now 13 lb. I have had five myself, and my friends Neville Fickling and Bill Chillingworth have had, respectively, 8 and 18 over 10 lb. It takes a lot of fishing to consistently catch ten-pounders, but even the less-devoted specimen hunter might expect fish over 5 lb fairly regularly.

In 1978, the Anglian Water Authority changed its byelaws. Zander fishing now opens on June 16 and closes on March 14, the same as for all other coarse fish. Most of my successful zandering is done after October 1.

Whatever the time of year, there is little doubt that the best times for zander are dusk and dawn. Zander can see better in twilight and in the dark than in daylight, and low light is necessary before they feed. On all the waters I have fished, dawn – from about an hour before first light to about an hour after – is best. Most consistently, you get runs when it is not quite light enough to see what you are doing.

Silent nights

Next to dawn and dusk, night is the best time. Summer nights produce few runs, but runs come in short bursts every few hours in winter. Nevertheless, you still have to be patient through the inevitable long periods of inactivity.

During the day, the chances of fish are even less, particularly if it is calm, bright and sunny. Factors, such as strong colour, which decrease visibility, increase the chances of runs, and for this reason drains or rivers are always more likely to produce fish during the day than are rarely coloured stillwaters. Handling tackle may be difficult when drains and rivers are in flood or lightly coloured, but at these times there is not only more chance of zander, but of big zander too.


Specimen sizes

Few waters which have held zander for any length of time will be unable to give zander of 10 lb. Fish of over this figure can be considered to have attained a specimen size.

Tackle, baits, techniques Rod 10-12ft (test curve of li-2£lb)




7-12 lb b.s.


Size 8-12 trebles Size 2-20 singles


Livedead fish to 8oz. Small spoons, spinners, running plugs, flies


Ledgered and freelined livedeadbaits, float-fished livebaits – free-swimming or on a paternoster; wobbled deadbaits, spinning, plugging.

Brown floodwater; a 10 lb 6oz fish fell at dusk on a dull day with a strong wind and big waves; and all the other good ones came around dawn or from coloured water during the day. I admit that there are exceptions, but the specimen hunter needs optimum conditions, tackle and locality for a good chance of big fish.