Grayling are one of the cruellest mistresses in the fishy world. Whilst they can be one of the easiest fish in the river to catch they can also be incredibly finicky. The trick to catching them in the winter is perseverance despite the conditions. The river in the winter can be a stunningly beautiful place with crisp crunchy grasses, hoar frost crystallising out of trees and dark misty seductive water. Be aware though, perseverance in these conditions requires considerable attention to your own comfort. Breathable waders are de rigueur these days, and fine pieces of clothing they are, but on their own they will not keep you warm when wading in water as low as 2-3°c. Several thin layers of clothing underneath are the trick with some thermal long johns at the base. The upper body should also be looked after with a similar layering system topped by a windproof top and a decent hat. Equally if you take a dunk in water at this temperature, no matter how strong a swimmer you are, you can be in deep trouble so wearing a self inflating life vest should be considered essential.
Once comfortable if you want to catch these fish some knowledge of the environment that they prefer and there feeding habits are essential. Grayling can live in surprisingly strong currents but they are not keen on turbulence. The classic line for grayling is the crease. This is the part of the river where a strong flow passes and area of slack water, it can actually be seen on the
surface of the water as a line. Fish lie along this line, darting into the faster water and returning to the easy lie afterwards. This crease is often more apparent in places like the neck of a pool or where there is an underwater shelf or some significant protuberance from the river bank. Grayling will rise up the water and even take food of the surface but in the winter this is a rarity and will only happen at the warmest part of the day when there may be a hatch of midge or very hardy olives. On the Annan the most common food item that we find in grayling is various forms of caddis, complete with their stony cases, shrimps and salmon and trout ova. The latter may surprise some but on a productive river like the Annan large numbers of salmon and trout are redding from late October through to February. They are not always successful in getting all of their eggs into the redd and many end up in the water column providing a brilliant little nutrient ball for all types of fish. The vast majority of this food will either be rolling or crawling along the bottom.
There are two main approaches used to catch these fish on the river, long trotting or deeply fished nymphs. Both methods have their advocates but the most successful anglers will be equally competent at both. One of the delights of grayling fishing, and grayling fishermen, is that there is rarely the same amount of division between bait and fly anglers unlike the case in some trout and salmon fishing circles.
Whilst a seemingly simple method, a high degree of skill is required to be successful at this. The rods should be at least 12’ long with a tippy action and many prefer a longer rod as there is more line control. Reels can be centre pin or fixed spool. The main line should be mono of around 4lb or braid of about 6lb, generally there will be a weaker hook length of 30cm or so. The floats should be able to carry a reasonable amount of weight to cock, 4AAA would be about standard although some may be significantly heavier. The best type of float for most situations is the Crowquill Avon. This float has a elongated balsa or cork body with a crow quill through the middle with about 2cm protruding out of the top. Synthetic versions are also made out of plastic and they can be very good as well. There is a type of old fashioned float called a grayling bobber, in general these are best ignored, the Avon style will beat them hands down every time. These floats are attached to the line with a silicone tube at either end. When you start fishing it is essential to ensure that your bait is near the bottom. To do this bulk all of the shot in a string about 40cm from the hook. When doing this make sure all the slots in the shot line up as this will keep everything in a neat line and reduce spinning on the retrieve which weakens the line. Before you start fishing properly set the depth at what you think is appropriate and run the float through the fishing line with no bait attached. If the float goes through without snagging it may be running too shallow. Keep increasing the depth until the float disappears due to the weight touching the bottom then reduce the depth by a few cm. When you bait the hook the bait should be tumbling along the bottom, where the grayling expect to find it. The bait can be any of a number of things but in general the best is maggot, a small redworm or sweetcorn each angler has his favourite but maggot is probably the most consistent. Hook size is dependent on the size of the bait but normally between 18 and 14, many anglers bait a small spider type fly such as a snipe and purple or partridge and orange and do so with great success. When trotting the float through a swim it is important to keep the line as true as possible and following a natural line. Occasional checking of the float will cause the bait to lift seductively of the bottom and can induce aggressive takes. As soon as the float sails under, strike to set the hook. The beauty of long trotting is that vast areas of water can be covered and the shoals of fish found.
Grayling can and are caught on dries on the coldest of days in mid winter but in the main they will be reluctant to come off the bottom. Fly anglers will do better when they keep their flies close to the bottom, whilst being ready for a quick change should fish start taking midges of the surface. In recent years variants of Czech nymphing have dominated winter fly fishing, the take up of this method, brought in by the competition scene, by UK anglers has revolutionised our approach. The basis of this method is weight and short lines. This type of deep nymphing often requires deep wading in swift currents so care must be taken. The nymphs are fished of a very short line, perhaps as little as 30cm or so hanging out of the rod tip. They are thrown upstream and tracked back under the rod. The weight of the nymphs should be enough so that you can feel them ‘ticking’ along the bottom (and occasionally catching up on debris!). Takes vary and if anything happens outside of the norm you should lift into the fish. One of the most common places for fish to takes is at the end of the short drift when the fly leaves the bottom, it is a form of induced take. Variations of this method with slightly longer leaders (French style) have been recently developed. In this instance a long brightly coloured leader is attached to the fly line and the drift is longer. The brightly coloured leader shows up takes very well and as with the shorter line method anything which looks out of the norm should be tightened into. Very good anglers who use these methods seem to develop a sixth sense when they know a fish has taken, even though there does not appear to be any significant movement, something as little as a feel of a wee bit extra weight may be all that is required.
On longer glydes with a slower flow an alternative method is to pitch flies a bit further upstream and across with the flies hanging under an indicator. Lighter flies again can be used for this as the flies have sufficient time to reach the bottom.
Overall grayling fishing can be great fun and will reward patent anglers. If you want to give it a go one way of gaining a bit of experience would be to join a number of other like minded anglers. Each year the River Annan Trust runs a number of days where the river is given to the trust and anglers make a donation to fish and keep a record of what is caught. Almost all of the anglers that turn up on these days are gregarious and willing to help so for an inexperienced grayling angler it is an ideal opportunity to pick up some tips. Check out the reports page on www.fishannan for more details.