The elegant grayling

The elegant grayling

Grayling appear to be an enigma for anglers to classify. They possess an adipose fin, a characteristic of the salmon family, but they spawn at the same time as coarse fish, and the grayling season corresponds to the coarse fishing season. Most anglers, however, agree that they are game fish.

Distinctively beautiful, grayling have silvery sides which are dappled with irregular dark spots and mixed with a riot of purple, green and copper hues. A noticeable feature is the huge sail-like dorsal fin, mottled with black and red bars, which is raised at times of stress. A grayling hooked downstream uses this fin to battle against the angler, often in a gyrating or figure of eight motion; the erect fin increases its resistance in the current as the angler draws the fish upstream.

Clean, clear waters

Of all the native British fish, grayling are the most sensitive to pollution, disappearing long before trout or chub. Less than half a dozen lakes hold grayling. They thrive in chalk and limestone streams but are also found in neutral waters like the Tay and Tweed and their tributaries. Most of the time you can find them over gravel, small stones, weeds or sand. They do not seem to like lying over silty, muddy bottoms.

Grayling are sensitive to temperature change, and for this reason their favoured sheltering places vary within rivers and streams as the seasons change. In summer they prefer fast, well-oxygenated water and live near the heads of pools and in riffles where they actively seek insects caught in the fast current. In early autumn they move into moderately paced runs of even depth. In winter when the frosts come, grayling form shoals and move to deeper water such as pools.

Holding positions close to the river bed, they are rarely found above mid-water and almost never remain stationary near the surface for long periods of time.

Top and bottom feeders

Grayling are well equipped for feeding off the bottom because their top lip extends beyond their lower. Nymphs, caddis larvae, shrimps, midges and small crustaceans are some of their main food items. It is also thought that grayling eat trout eggs. Fly fishermen can represent many of their food items with dry or wet flies, and anglers using maggots or brandlings are also successful. The most important thing to remember is to present the bait at the correct level where the fish are. Grayling rise from lower levels to feed on natural and artificial flies. Whether they take the fly or miss it, they usually return to the bottom.


Grayling usually spawn between March and May. Females dig small pits (called redds) in gravel or sand and then lay their eggs. Several males may fertilize the eggs of a single female. About a month later the eggs hatch. The yolk sacs of the larvae don’t last long, so the fry begin feeding on plankton at once.

When the fry are a year old, they are about 4-5in (10-13cm) long and tend to form shoals. After about three years they begin to spawn.