Winter Fly-Fishing for Grayling

by Ted Eadie

The grayling is a member of the salmonid family, and acts in a similar manner to trout as far as the angler is concerned. It is in its prime when the trout are spawning in the autumn and winter.

Sometimes referred to as 'the grey shadow of the stream', Silver Lady, or Lady of the Stream, the Latin name is Thymallus thymallus, allegedly named because a fresh-caught grayling smells faintly of thyme.

The true value of the grayling to the angler is that it  is in its best condition at the times when the trout are out of action, i.e. during their spawning period. Grayling themselves spawn in the spring, around March and April.

Apart from the variation in spawning times, the chief distinction between trout and grayling is that the latter do not, even when food-conscious, lie poised high in the water. The grayling is distinguished by a huge, powerful dorsal fin and by a singularly large air bladder. This equipment, plus remarkable eye sight enables the grayling to lie on the bed of the stream and to rise almost vertically to take a fly from the surface.

This arrangement makes fly fishing for grayling quite different from fly fishing for trout. Not in respect of tackle – or indeed flies, though of that, more later – but in the manner in which you approach the fish. When you know or suspect that grayling are present you can fish a dry fly on the stillest dead water, even fairly deep water which would be pretty hopeless for trout, in the expectation that at any moment a grey shadow will lunge up from the depths at lightning speed, seize your fly, and plunge down again all in one movement.

This makes dry fly fishing for grayling enormously exciting, and since you have to use very fine nylon, and since grayling usually hook themselves in that downward plunge, you have to have 'good hands' to avoid breaks if the fish run fairly large.

This is the chief peculiarity of the grayling – this odd habit of rising almost vertically from bottom to surface and immediately plunging down again. But there  is another point, more or less implicit in the first. It is obvious that the grayling has very fine vision at long range – it is in fact a long-sighted fish. But it becomes equally obvious that the excellence of long range vision is balanced by a corresponding deficiency in close range sight.

In fact the grayling is a fish that needs bi-focals. Time and again a grayling will miss your fly completely. It can be annoying. However, you never need to strike a grayling when dry fly fishing. If it does get your fly it will surely hook itself on the downward plunge before you are awake to what is going on.

Grayling tend to go in shoals. If you take one, you can profitably fish that spot in the hope and expectation of taking others. A run which might yield you one or two trout, may well produce half a dozen grayling. Once you have found the fish, stick at it, for the shoals are apt to be fairly widely distributed, with much grayling-free water between them.

In autumn grayling come out from the deep holes on to the shallows and provide tremendous sport in fast shallow water. Winter generally finds grayling  in the deeps, especially in still, deep runs over clean gravelly bottoms. This is the time for the speculative floating fly.

It is fairly widely believed that grayling are susceptible to a touch of red in the fly – the famous Red Tag is the grayling fly par excellence. Other good grayling flies include: Red Spinner, Red Ant, Red or Soldier Palmer, Red-tipped black Zulu. One thing to remember is that grayling like their dry flies small. Small flies, therefore very fine leader points. It makes grayling fishing a delicate and satisfying pastime.

Wet fly fishing for grayling differs from trout in another important respect. Grayling are not fish-eating carnivores,  and  are rarely  taken on the spinner. It follows that flashier flies that imitate small fish are not much used in grayling fishing. You have to stick to fly imitations and nymph imitations.

There is never any need to sink your wet flies deeply, the grayling's obliging habit of rising a great way sees to that, although it can pay to deeply sink small nymphs or shrimp imitations.

By and large , the grayling can be counted on to provide good sport. A crisp winter's day, with bright cold sunshine, sparkling on the water, after a cold night, is often memorable to the grayling fisher. All in all, the grayling is a great  fish for the fly fisherman, his stand-by in winter and ever his delight.