Like favoured pools after the rain, the mystery has deepened. And like many anglers before me, I'm perilously close to addiction - addiction for a fish that comes with its own folklore, for hard facts are not always so easy to come by.
In France l'ombre - the shadow - and the French know a thing or deux about grayling. They are my winter fish and for better or worse I choose to chase them with a tenkara rod and weighted nymph.
It's flies tied frenchman Stan at Nymph Évolution that fill the top and bottom rows of my fly box today - heavy ceramic larva at one end of my nymph spectrum and tiny size 20 nano patterns at the other. Courtesy of one of my favourite confectioners, Barbless Flies (yes, a dealer does come in handy when you don't have time to grow your own).
Exotic flies to catch an exotic fish. Well it does look so.. different, doesn't it, the grayling? A big grayling to me seems as if it's imagined from the pages of C S Lewis, a Narnian fish and not of this realm. The techniques for catching them are at times equally exotic. 'Them' not 'her'. I dislike intensely the 'lady of the stream' sobriquet. It's ridiculous, sorry. But this is my blog so I can say what I like.
Ridiculous of course because this gender specific epithet is an ecological impossibility. In fact, (a bit like holidays in Thailand) many anglers clutching a 'lady of the stream' have no idea of its gender at all. I understand that the physicality of the grayling has a certain grace and refinement, delicacy even, but this is mostly top-show. But more of that later. And I've seen the deep, muscular, male grayling that swim the Derbyshire Wye. They're coal black and as hard as nails - swaggering cock fish that will reset your compass if you see one.
Speaking of compasses reset, let me share with you a story from last season that reset my notions of what grayling are and are not..
It's mid winter and I'm fishing the deep potholes, looking for the bigger grayling - but so far they elude me. The river has some depth and flow after the recent rains but the weather is mild. I suspect the better fish are more confident now to leave the deeper runs in search of opportunity, making them more difficult to locate. Tight lining the nymph rig, I'm picking up a fair few out of season brownies and salmon parr on the dropper, but so far no grayling.
Time is getting on so I'm fishing my way back home when I come to a run-out at the foot of a weir pool. I'd passed by this spot earlier on, planning to fish it later on my way back. It's a lovely little section with a variety of pace and flow. The run-out emerges from the choke point of a small foot bridge and carves a bay out from the far bank. Here the slower eddies will take your fly under the overhanging brush, but in front, in mid-channel, the river runs lively and bright over clean gravels. Too deep to be a riffle but not quite a scour.
From the slower current under the far bank a hatch of midges swarm a foot above the water. As I rig up a different team, I see from the corner of my eye, a fish launch vertically through the swarm, landing with the slap that belies a good fish. Pretty big I'm thinking and probably a stockie trout, but a moment later it launches into the air again and this time there's no mistaking that dorsal fin - it's a grayling and it's massive.
Not a deep fish but very long. My hands are shaking. Now I'm rigged up and drifting the run. My vertical line pauses when it reaches the point where the fish leapt. I lift into a solid resistance and then my grayling takes off, leaping clear of the surface. Not the monster fish I saw earlier but still the biggest I've yet to be connected to. It shoots a few meters downstream then glues itself to the river bed. There it sits shaking its head and I can't budge it. I'm worried the hook won't hold but I can't soften the pressure for fear that those head shakes will win enough slack for the hook to fall free. The grayling is using the downforce of the current to hold its position and it feels, I imagine, like being attached to a powerful magnet clamped to sheet metal. A new respect is won - this fish knows exactly what it's up to. I try to exert just enough pressure to get the grayling's head up - et voilá! The fly pings free, the line is slack and only now my fish detaches from the river bed and drifts downstream, quickly fading from view in the turbulent water. Just then, on the same spot as before, the monster grayling launches skyward again. It's as if its putting two fins up at me.
I'm disappointed to have lost the fish, but on the other hand happy in the knowledge that I'm now on the right track and in the right spot. And the leaping fish tells me I haven't yet spooked the entire pod, so I fish on. All that come are jaunty little salmon parr.
One last drift I tell myself. One last drift from this angle, but let's try a drift on a slightly different line.. ok one more drift but the next one is definitely the last.. but all I manage is to hook a stone again on the river bed. It's time to go, I can try again another day but I don't want to leave my fly stuck in that stone, so I pull from this angle, pull from that angle to try to dislodge the snagged hook. I wade out into deeper water - perhaps my net can push it free. The river is a chaos of random patterns, but for a few seconds the current braids conspire to create a smooth sheet of glassy water. A clear window briefly passes over my snagged fly to reveal not a rock, not a rock at all but an immense grayling. Did I imagine this? I am answered by a slow movement, a shifting of the weight on my line as it picks up and settles again a short distance downstream.
This time I'm not going to lose the fish, I tell myself. I not going to make the schoolboy error of trying to horse a big grayling upstream. So I pick my way around and downstream and make ready to apply some side strain, but I'm answered by a stubborn resistance then a swift run downstream of my new position. And then the fish clamps down to the bed again. We dance like this a couple more times and now I'm no longer sure whom is playing whom. I have gained no advantage, except that now I have a clear view of the grayling as it finally shakes free my fly.
The light has faded as if a switch has been thrown and the air now is heavy and still. Across and upstream a large fish jumps skyward and lands with a slap.