- By Alex Hathorn with images by Stuart Minnikin.
My article is prompted by the insert from Andrew Apsley in the July 2016 edition about grayling caught in the River Avon in southern England. Some years ago, while living and working in London, I made the acquaintance of a Yorkshire Dales guide, Stuart Minnikin; he has England rivers international fly-fishing colours, and when he's not guiding, is a professional fireman! Fortunately, his shift roster allows him plenty of time to fish, guide and indulge his love of photography. Stuart grew up fishing the chalk streams of Yorkshire and has an intimate knowledge of the seasons, wildlife and topography of the Dales. Over the years, Stuart has also turned me into a grayling addict, so when my wife and I planned a recent trip back to the UK to see friends and family, I negotiated a few days of fishing time to coincide with the October peak of the grayling season (trout officially closing down at the end of September).
Andrew referred to grayling as "smelling like lavender". On reading that comment, I thought I'd keep my leader dry, so to speak, and give you a report on my return home. European grayling have the Greek-derived zoological name thymallus thymallus, which attests to the fact that they actually smell of wild thyme! The first grayling of my fishing day provokes a ritualistic sniffing of my hands after releasing it - redolent of peat stained, foam flecked water, beautiful surroundings and autumn colours. Grayling, in high season, willingly come up for a dry fly - normally a tiny #18 - 20 "pale watery" CDC Paradun - but will also fall to nymphs fished Czech style, upstream or under a larger dry in a duo. Fishing the dry for grayling also requires split second reactions; unlike trout where a pause after the rise, before striking, is normal practice, grayling will take the artificial, taste it, and spit it out in a heartbeat. One should also not dismiss a team of North Country spiders fished wet, quartered down and swung across the current; something of a lost art these days. Those great classic names - snipe and purple, partridge and orange, and water hen bloa!
I fished the River Eden at the Eden Lacy Estate beat with Geoff Johnson (see http://www.theedenangler.co.uk ) on one day, and the Rivers Ribble (below Settle), Wharfe (at Bolton Abbey) and Ure (at Masham) on further days with Stuart. Sadly, the day with Geoff was marred by a prior heavy overnight rain, and the river was rising rapidly, bringing down lots of colour, tree branches and leaves; only trout came to the net, but a number of hefty salmon were seen leaping upstream on the fresh spate. The weather subsequently improved, water levels dropped back and cleared, allowing me to get about twelve grayling and a similar number of incidental out-of-season brown trout over the three days with Stuart - obviously all safely returned to the water. I managed my personal best grayling of close to 2 1/2 lbs on the Ribble. Grayling seldom seem to get to the 3 lb mark, those that do are normally in Scottish rivers like the Teviot and Annan, so a 2 lb Dales fish really is one to be celebrated.
Click in images to enlarge them
Autumn light on the Ribble
One very pleased angler - dorsal fin on display - as Stuart Minnikin would say, "Pressure off!"
Up close and personal... Like bonefish, grayling blend in superbly with the river bed viewed from above, and lighten against the sky.
The release... lovely markings on the pelvic fin. The "Lady of the Stream".
A good specimen, which stopped squirming for a brief moment for the photo. Grayling fight to the bitter end.
A brownie comes to hand under the ruins of Bolton Abbey on the Wharfe - an interested group of spectators looking on in the sun. "Are you going to eat it? Oh, no - you've put it back!"
The River Ure at Masham in Wensleydale - tannin and peat stained, foam flecked with fallen leaves. Hard to pick out the fly!
Iconic Dales - steam engine, limestone crags, stone walls and sheep.
A note on grayling - the "Lady of the Stream": The truly wild and threatened fish of the British Isles and Europe, only one still water is presently known to hold them, Gouthwaite Water; unlike trout, they don't attract commercial attention for hatchery rearing, and I'm only aware of one stream in England being stocked successfully by translocation - the Cherwell near Oxford - although Scottish rivers were evidently successfully stocked in the 19th Century. Maybe other readers of your newsletter would know more about this? For many years, grayling were treated as vermin and eradicated by river keepers trying to improve their trout and salmon stocks. The Grayling Society has done a lot to change perceptions - all the various freshwater species have co-existed for millennia and, no doubt, also predate to some extent on each others' eggs and off-spring. Grayling have suffered most where artificial stocking of trout takes place, upsetting the natural balance; the stocked trout over-populate the water, depleting food sources and are generally introduced as adults just as the grayling are spawning and hatching in winter and spring. Artificial stocking also attracts massive flocks of cormorants, which decimate grayling just as they shoal up into pods during their breeding season.
I'm indebted to Stuart Minnikin for the photos, and strongly recommend him (www.yorkshire-dales-flyfishing.com) and Geoff Johnson (www.theedenangler.com) for guiding in the Dales and the Lake District, respectively. Those fisher folk fortunate enough to be interested in a guided session should be sure to book early, as these guides' diaries fill up months in advance, particularly in the summer months.