Grayling

Collecting the Aire

Chris McCully enjoys a remedial outing to the one well-known Yorkshire river from which he had so far failed to extract a grayling

We haven't been strangers, the Yorkshire Aire and I. For all of childhood and part of adolescence I lived at Cottingley Bridge near Bingley, a well-cast 5-weight away from the river as it meanders towards Saltaire. Here a seven-year-old self netted minnows and poked about under stones with a nylon crabbing net stuffed into a greenhouse cane. I inspected caddis and puzzled about flat-bodied nymphs.

Later, as a young member of Bradford City Angling Association, I fished the Aire at Kildwick, Steeton and Cononley, imagining I was that great Yorkshire angler T. K. (Tim) Wilson, whose classic Trout by All Means was published in 1966. I borrowed that book so many times from Bingley Public Library that even the librarians thought of it as mine. Quite apart from its wisdom and clarity I had another reason for revering Tim Wilson's work: as the title of his book suggests, he fished with worms, stonefly nymphs (creepers) and wasp grubs as well as with dryand wet-flies.

His angling experiences, therefore, were much more consonant, back then, with my own than were those of Skues, Sawyer or Kingsmill Moore ' those authors came later ' and I relished his sensible catholicism.

For all the trout I caught on the Aire in the late 1960s and 1970s, I never caught a grayling there. I knew that the river above Skipton held a stock of these fish, and in Righyni's great Grayling (1968) there's a brace of photos of Tim Wilson netting and admiring Aire grayling. Yet as autumn turned to winter I'd be busy on the middle reaches of the River Ure (Yore) at Aysgarth or the Wharfe at Addingham ' waters where the grayling were relatively abundant. Through the years to come I was lucky enough to land grayling on each of the well-known Yorkshire streams...but never on the Aire. Belatedly I realised that the Aire was one grayling river I really had to 'collect'.

I couldn't have chosen more expert company for such a remedial outing. Steve Rhodes, chairman of the Grayling Society and one of the founding fathers of Go Fly Fishing UK (www. goflyfishinguk.com), lives by the Aire above Skipton at Coniston Cold, and the length of river from Gargrave downstream towards Skipton ' fishing still run by Bradford City AA ' is his home water. 'I suppose,' I said to Steve as he, Rod Calbrade and I were tackling up at Gargrave, 'that you know this reach of the Aire as well as you know your own front room.' Steve, who fishes with clients on the Dales rivers and stillwaters for more than 200 days each year, thought for a moment. 'No,' he said. 'Better.'

The Aire at Gargrave is an altogether unexpected grayling gem, a two-and-a-half-mile succession of streams, glides and pools. There's gravel on the bottom, and floods scour the stones bright with winter. The stones themselves are composed of limebased rock, and here and there are clumps of weed which harbour the nymphs of upwinged flies. It's true that the Aire, in these upper reaches, is a small river ' small enough to be covered more than adequately with an 8 ft 4-weight ' but it's still a river, as opposed to a stream, and its ecology is rich.

At the time of our visit there had been no appreciable rain for six weeks, and despite a small overnight rise and an equally rapid fall in level, the Aire ran low. A film of algae lay across the gravels, though here and there, where a rapid current cut into the head of a pool, cream-coloured pebbles crunched under the felts of waders and everywhere the water was pellucid. The weather was mild (15 deg C), the surface temperature of the water was 10 deg C, there was a light SSE wind and the barometer was 1006 and rising. We were set fair.

Ten-thirty found us in a long pool just below Gargrave where small grayling could clearly be seen smutting. Steve began his day in the head of the pool; I started below him, in the body of the pool and in thin water. One cast with a size 18 dry-fly over such water and the little grayling briefly stopped rising. I wasn't unduly concerned: how often it happens on these Yorkshire streams that grayling spotted smutting early on an October day can be revisited later when they're responding to any hatch of autumn fly and are so avid that they're less hyper-aware of the presence of the angler. As I was musing, I looked up to see Steve's rod bent into a grayling of around 1 lb which had taken a well-placed bug ' something in day-glo pink, I noticed ' at the head of the pool. It was a wonderfully expert beginning.

As we walked downstream I asked Steve about the head of grayling to be found in the Gargrave length of the Aire. What constituted a good day? A brace of fish? Two brace? 'Well,' said Steve, 'half-a-dozen grayling would be a very good day. Three or four would be'reasonable. Then again, you can come here and catch just the one grayling, but it might be a very big fish.' I thought of the Ure and the Wharfe, where a fish of 1 lb 8 oz would be a good one. How big was a big grayling on the Aire? 'I've had some pretty heavy fish over the years,' Steve said, 'with one very good one well over 2 lb. I got that years ago, longtrotting in winter. But today there are still biggish grayling about. Plenty of shots, too.'

I've never been a Yorkshire dialect speaker, but whenever I do go home I slip into Yorkshire as easily as I'd pull on an old pair of fishing trousers. The word 'Aye' again becomes part of my vocabulary (though I pronounce it as of old ' 'Aah'). Rubbish miraculously becomes ket. An upland farm and its pastures are a sett, a stream's a beck, and reet is a universal word of assent. For all that, I had no idea what Steve was talking about with his 'shot'. A diver with a 12-bore? A man with a waggler and a string of BB? Huh? 'Shot,' Steve explained, very kindly and slowly, as if speaking to a specially challenged child. 'Shot. Little grayling.' 'Aah,' I said. 'Reet.'

As we walked further downstream among what were now fitful gleams of autumn sunshine I wondered whether the Oxford English Dictionary had recorded 'shot' in the sense of 'little grayling'. I checked. It has not, or at least, has not precisely, though it does cross-reference 'shot' to 'shoat', which is a nowobsolete word for trout deriving from Old English 'sceotan' (to shoot). The 'shoat', therefore, was a shooter and darter of currents long before it became a Frenchified trout ' and perhaps only in Yorkshire could that ancient word 'shoat' also be applied to the grayling.

It was late morning, and I'd have been grateful to connect even with a shot. Steve, who'd caught and returned two more lovely grayling, had given up fishing and was generously guiding me. He suggested I change flies, too, replacing a smaller Klinkh'mer with a much larger one (size 10) to which was suspended a Goldhead (size 14) which looked like a Treacle Parkin without the hackle. After that it was a question of working from pool to pool, following Steve's advice' and still failing to catch grayling. Towards lunchtime there was also a trickle hatch of needle-flies and small sedges together with some very few olives. These would, I thought, concentrate the fish's little minds wonderfully ' but I stayed blank.

It was interesting that Steve directed me to pay particular attention to the heads of pools. Normally, like many other grayling fishers, I tend to encounter grayling in glides and pool-tails on these Dales rivers ' quieter reaches of flow well away from the more rapid water favoured by trout, which at this time of year still tenant the best-placed lies in the stream-heads. Righyni, too, stressed the importance of glides to the grayling fisher, and his opinion is never to be ignored. On the Aire, though, things seemed slightly different. As autumn wears into November and winter the trout tend to drop back into slower flows. 'That means,' explained Steve 'that you can sometimes pick up grayling ' big, feeding grayling ' right in the stream heads. It's not that the classic grayling glides don't hold fish ' they do ' but you shouldn't ignore the faster water.'

The day broke into sunshine as I cast the Klink towards the head of a long run. Slowly, with as much care as I could muster, I worked the Klink and its attached Goldhead down the near-bank crease of the stream. Suddenly, the Klink pulled away and I was attached to something which gyrated strongly across the current, then moved quickly towards me just below the white water. As I raised the rod and took in slack line I caught a flare of red-mottled dorsal fin and was elated. An Aire grayling ' and it was no small fish. When netted, it also turned out to have the most remarkably marked ventral fins I'd ever seen. They were mottled with a strange and lovely tortoiseshell pattern. I slipped the Goldhead out of the grayling's upper jaw, cradled the fish briefly at the edge of the current and then away she'shot.

Steve was all smiles and handshakes. 'Your first Aire grayling,' he said ' as delighted as I was. 'Well done. We'll give it 1 lb 6 oz. Now let's get a bigger one'' 'Aah,' I said. 'Reet.'

We didn't get a bigger one, though Steve, resuming fishing with size 18 dry-flies exquisitely tied, raised or picked up small grayling at almost every point, while I caught one tiny grayling on the Goldhead and moved more to the Klink. What had been a trickle hatch of fly died away. The air turned purple and then burst into a short-lived rainstorm. What grayling were still moving had resumed their smutting, and though they weren't impossible, they were difficult ' too difficult for me, though with size 20 (or smaller) dry-flies and a 1.7 lb point you might and probably will do better.

What pleased me so much about the day wasn't so much the fact that I'd 'collected' the Aire and learned a valuable angling (and lexicographic) lesson. It was knowing that on these reaches of the Aire, as on the reaches of the river that stretch downstream through my boyhood haunts, the stock of grayling seems to be at least holding good, and may even be improving. Reliable reports from local match anglers also suggest that grayling are now regularly caught as far downstream as Keighley and even Bingley ' this in contrast to other Yorkshire Dales rivers, where the stocks of grayling seem to have almost deserted the upper reaches (I think here of the Swale and the Wharfe). Perhaps, on those other rivers, generous stocking with big trout in the upper reaches means that little grayling are heavily predated. Perhaps larger trout also eat the eggs of spawning grayling ' there's a splendid photographic sequence, for example, in John Roberts's The Grayling Angler (1982) which shows that they do so. Perhaps predation by goosanders is particularly detrimental. Perhaps the presence of signal crayfish in the upper Wharfe'

Perhaps. I don't know why on the upper reaches of some Dales rivers the stocks of grayling are no longer as abundant as they were. I only know, from first-hand experience, that the stock of grayling on the Aire below Gargrave seems to be relatively robust, and that your brace or two of fish will probably include at least one of well over 1 lb. Sunset. A washed sky full of pink. Autumn and copper leaf. A wonderful day.

'It's been a grand day, Steve,' said Rod. 'It's been a grand day, Chris,' said Steve. 'Aah,' I said. 'Reet.'

Published on our website courtesy of the Trout and Salmon Magazine.

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