Although grayling regularly appear at the surface in autumn, sooner or later winter eventually takes hold, bringing high water levels, or icy conditions. Both of which have us delving into boxes for weighted bugs and nymphs in a bid to scour the streambed for retreating grayling.
Known for their nomadic tendencies, grayling are relatively free-ranging under normal flow rates. However, confronted by a big spate, or freeze their movements are often restricted to only handful of key places. For example; the inside bend of a river offers perfect protection from a raging flood. Equally, a streambed depression/hole provides sanctuary in either a spate or freezing conditions. With this and the fact that insect hatches generally ebb away during colder months, grayling initially seek food close to the streambed.
Developing invertebrates help keep grayling ticking over through harsh winter months. Larvae and nymphs like caseless caddis, cased caddis, shrimps and stonefly nymphs all provide welcome nourishment for watchful fish. These nymphs spend much of their time ambling about in the comparative safety of a riverbed. Whilst many small nymphs can be imitated on hooks ranging from size 12-16, some stonefly species and cased caddis easily reach an inch or more in length, when it's possible to copy them with hooks as large as size 8 or even a 6. This might sound large, especially when you consider the grayling's fairly petite mouth. However, even small grayling are capable of engulfing large food morsels.
Key species to imitate include caseless or free-swimming caddis larvae, cased caddis and shrimps. To all intent and purpose the first two are a grub like creatures. The only difference being, one type prefers to build a shelter (cased caddis) whilst others (caseless caddis) take their chances seeking cover beneath rocks. The critical thing to remember is that the above mentioned never venture far from the streambed. And thinking about it, even when they're dislodged, many river currents act like downdrafts, pinning larvae to the streambed where they helplessly drift along until gaining a secure foothold once more. So, be it flood or freeze, with such bugs never intentional stray far from the streambed, it pays then to constantly bombard this section of water with our flies. No doubt many fly fishers will be familiar with the phrase "Czech Nymphing" which seems to have become a generic term for presenting heavy bugs. However, a more accurate description for this technique is "short line nymphing" coined by master nymph-fisher Oliver Edwards.
Longer rods facilitate superior line control and one of 10' should be considered when nymphing is the order of the day. Where snags are rife, leaders of 5lb (5X) or even 6lb (4X) breaking strain give some hope of claiming flies back from sunken obstructions. Whatever style of nymphing you chose a straight through leader of a given diameter will suffice as the combined weight of the flies delivers enough impetus to aid leader turn over. Possessing a large surface area, tapered leaders only impede your flies' descent through the water column. Far slimmer, a straight through leader section--made from tippet material--readily slices through the water. Whether you opt for fluorocarbon or copolymer is up to you. Limp and supple, copolymer is my preference.
With a leader of approximately 9-10ft, three weighted flies are positioned approx 18 inches apart (that's 3 flies over 3ft of leader). Initially the heaviest bug occupies the middle dropper to fish deeper thus allowing the point fly some freedom with the top dropper acting as a sweeper. If you aim to explore more of the water column then consider attaching the heaviest fly to the point. Whilst this set-up is widely recognised, you're not bound by rules here, so if you're more comfortable with just two flies or even one, then use them. Though do remember that all things being equally, there's more ballast in a team of three flies that helps infiltrate deep or fast moving water. If fishing a team of two, the same weighting arrangements can be employed with either the heaviest fly on the point or dropper. That said, single or lightweight patterns can still penetrate inky depths by attaching tungsten putty or lead shot to the business end.
What Colour Nymph:
Regardless of river height and state, grayling often respond to flies of varying colours.
Patterns containing pink or orange shades are known favourites in murky flood water. Yet, dark flies like black, give a definite outline and although not an obvious choice, can be lethal too.
A trio of three bright flies might well startle fish in the low, clear conditions. So your team should include one or possibly two drab looking grubs. Try breaking it up a little with a sombre fly separating the flashy ones, maybe then they won't appear too suspicious? Obviously there are many connotations here and despite water clarity, sometimes grayling want nothing except a bright pink, sparkly fly in sunny conditions!
Where to Start?
Strong flows make casting and negotiating the flies downstream hectic to say the least. It's advantageous then to fish a shorter, more controlled line, when a team of heavy flies sink quickly. Short line nymphing involves pitching the flies, leader and a short section of fly line upstream. With the rod tip holding fly line clear of the water, track the steeply angled leader downstream. Remember to guide your rod at a slower pace than that of the surface current. Down on the streambed, friction between water and substrate reduces flow rate. As a guide, good results are often achieved in streamy water from knee to waist deep. Though, I've seen grayling taken in water of only a foot deep and equally from deep, dark pools whose depths remain a mystery?
Remember to fish into a situation and not just plumb for favourite areas. Extend approx 2-3 feet of the fly line and begin in shallow water by swinging the nymphs broadside on, exposing the entire leader to the flow sweeps them round higher in the water. In knee depth water, short lobs are now made upstream at 45 degrees and once at waist depth, aiming casts more directly upstream reduces the currents tell on leaders, allowing the flies to plunge deeper still. Once they pass downstream of you, your flies will naturally lift in the water on a tensioning line-a deadly moment. Careful wading is paramount, as clambering about only serves to warn fish. Try to search water methodically and focus on the fly line off the rod tip. With such a short line, it's easy to assume that fish intercept flies with thumping takes, and sometimes they do. However, on occasions, delicate takes register as a mere hesitation of the fly line.
Hurtling heavy bugs into slow pools or shallow runs sees the flies "bottom-out" shortly after casting. A more subtle approach can be adopted here with lighter flies and finer tippets. Two nymphs 3ft apart, on a 9-12ft leader is a recognised rig though a third can be added, or even a single fly might be considered. In shallow water, or away from boisterous flows, grayling are nervous creatures. Likened to fishing spiders up-and-across this method of upstream nymphing ideally suits such circumstances. Casting slightly longer lines now not only avoids spooking fish; it helps work the flies too.
Deliver a cast of 3-4 rod lengths up and across the flow. If the current is quite strong an upstream mend might be necessary. The rod tip is then held high, sometimes with an out-stretched arm, in an effort to keep as much fly line as possible off the water the thus, preventing swirling currents from grabbing any line and spoiling a natural drift. Now, track the rod downstream, level with the fly line tip. Watch the fly line where it enters the water, any faltering should be answered with a deft lift. Deep or fast water can be searched with such a rig, by simply casting more directly upstream. This way, less current influence enables flies to plunge deep.
Occasionally, complex currents and eddies wreak havoc with presentation. Equally, there may be a tempting seam of water that looks certain to hold fish. Searching these demanding areas usually results in swirling water dragging your fly line sub surface, possibly registering as a take. To avoiding such phantom takes, some form of strike indicator should be considered. Whilst I rarely use them these days, they have worth in confidence building for those wanting to progress with river nymphing. Addressing awkward riffles, more slack line can easily be introduced into the drift, with knowledge that the subtlest of takes can still be detected.
Because fish don't betray their presence by dimpling rise forms and that take detection is demanding, arguably, river nymphing is one of the more challenging disciplines to master. As fish holding areas aren't always obvious, it's important then to keep searching water until success is found. Once you're familiar with the above techniques it's amazing how quickly and accurately the water is combed. And any success, regardless of how modest, should be deemed a major achievement.
Grayling Society Factfile
The grayling season ends on the 14th March. Anyone interested in supporting or understanding grayling better may consider joining the Grayling Society.
Orvis Fly-Fishing Consultant and Writer