The chalkstreams of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire provide superb Grayling sport in the autumn and winter months. The River Test is arguably the best winter Grayling fly fishing river in Britain. Even in the coldest frosty weather it is often possible to catch Grayling on dry fly and light nymphs. Some beats close in late-December but it is possible to find inexpensive Grayling fly fishing available on the chalkstreams right up to the end of the season on 14 th March.
I have been fly fishing for Grayling for over 30 years and fishing and guiding on the chalkstreams for the past 17 years. I am a Grayling fanatic and being on the river so often I see with great regularity the successful fly fishing methods, flies, tackle, etc. For example last winter I was out on the chalkstreams guiding Grayling fly fishing clients on about 50 days between mid-September and mid-March.
The Grayling’s diet
The dominant food item of chalkstream Grayling is freshwater shrimps. This is followed in order of importance by the nymphs of the various species of mayflies, caddis larvae and mayfly duns, eg. Blue Winged Olive. Although Grayling are very active surface feeders when there is a good hatch of flies the majority of their feeding is carried out on or near to the bed of the river. Thus unless you are dry fly fishing this is mostly where you should be fishing your flies.
Tactics by season
As the season progresses from late-summer to autumn to winter the best tactics change. In late-summer and early-autumn I find that dry fly accounts for around half the Grayling caught by my guiding clients. Usually we are fishing small flies (size 16 and 18) on light tippets (6X). Successful patterns include Griffiths Gnat, F Fly, Grey Duster, Pale Watery and assorted versions of the Klinkhamer Special. Small unweighted nymphs are also very successful at this time of the year. The fish are happy to rise to mid-water to take small nymphs and my favourite is a size 14 unweighted Sawyers style Pheasant Tail Nymph (PTN). An unweighted Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear (GRHE) being almost as good. At this time of the year the water is usually crystal clear and the fish easily located either from their rises or by sight. Stand on the bank or in the water downstream of the fish and cast upstream in normal chalkstream style. Takes are usually very fast and need to be met by a lightening speed strike to be successful but even I often miss around half the takes. At this time of the year I prefer a light rod and mainly use an 8’ 4-weight (full-flex action). Later in the winter I switch to a slightly heavier 8’ 6’ 5-weight (mid-flex action).
As conditions get colder as we move into late-autumn and early-winter while it is still possible to catch fish on dry fly a higher proportion of fish start to be caught on weighted nymphs. These are rarely large or heavy, usually having a small gold or copper bead. My favourite Grayling bug for this time of the year being a size 14 Gold Nugget GRHE. Other very successful flies for this season are Sawyers Killer Bug, Red Spot Shrimp and Goldhead PTN – usually in sizes 14 and 12. I have also developed my own killer Grayling fly which a client named ‘Dave’s Bug’. It is just two materials – fluorescent pink thread and copper wire. It’s very quick and easy to tie and works very well with the chalkstream Grayling. I tie it in sizes 14, 12 and 10 but prefer the smaller size except where the depth or pace of current requires a heavier fly. I match these flies with 5X tippet and the tactic in fishing all these flies is ideally to sight cast to either individual larger fish or to small shoals of Grayling. A good pair of polarised sunglasses is an essential item of tackle for locating the fish and watching for takes. Watch for the fish moving to take the fly and strike when you see them move. However by far the most consistent method of bite detection when the conditions do not allow sight casting is to fish with a small strike indicator. This might be just a small piece of ginked up wool, a small purpose built strike indicator or, where allowed, a dry fly as an indicator. The dry fly/nymph combination is a great way to fish for Grayling on the chalkstreams all winter long. Sometimes called the ‘Duo’, ‘Klink and Dink’ or ‘Drymph’ it involves the use of the ‘New Zealand Style’ dropper tied to the bend of the hook of a buoyant visible dry fly such as a Klinkhamer. The dry fly serves three roles – a dry fly (often taken by the fish), a bite indicator and a suspender (to stop the nymph snagging the bottom too often). Set the length of the dropper around the depth of the water – and adjust the depth to effectively fish the differing depths of the river as you move upstream. Ideally you want the nymph to be fishing just an inch or so off the bottom – at eye level with the fish.
As winter progresses and the fish start to shoal up more in deeper water and flow rates increase it might be necessary to start to use larger heavier nymphs and bugs. I prefer to keep them as light as possible but if they are not fishing close to the bottom they are not fishing effectively. However even in very cold mid-winter conditions always be alert to the possibility of a hatch around lunchtime – usually Blue Winged Olives. Sometimes the hatch will last a couple of hours but other times just 30 minutes or so. As soon as I see rising fish I switch to a small dry fly on a 6X tippet. Surprisingly my most successful ‘match the hatch’ fly for these mid-winter dry fly sessions is a Coch-y-Bondhu. Theoretically it’s a beetle imitation but the Grayling certainly think it looks like a Blue Winged Olive.
Grayling are a superb fly fishers’ fish. So don’t pack away your fly rods just because the Trout season has ended, carry on fishing. While I agree that May and June provide the cream of the year’s chalkstream fly fishing the autumn is the next best time with the mid-September to mid-November period almost rivalling the spring for fly hatches and high quality fly fishing. Even Frederick Halford used to take an autumn week on the Test after the Grayling!
Dave Martin, Orvis Endorsed Guide
Guiding and tuition: Chalkstreams and lakes of the South of England