Grayling

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Paul Procter travels to Berkshire and catches grayling with dry-fly and nymph on the Kennet and her carriers

A cluster of five grayling held steady close to the far bank. Stationed in a slight depression that afforded them respite from the current, they were clearly visible. The two lead grayling were decent fish and took the lion's share of food swept downstream. Riding shotgun with them, three smaller fish sucked up any scraps that somehow made it past their larger brethren. Surging this way and that, clearly all five were feeding.

I was on the banks of a Kennet carrier at Denford on a typical autumn morning. A succession of frosty nights had finally turned the leaves and the faintest breeze brought them tumbling to the ground. I hoped the grayling had sensed this seasonal change, putting a keen edge on their appetite.

Dave Martin, of Go Fly Fishing UK, was my companion and, having guided here for a number of years, he had a trick or two up his sleeve. He suggested a nymph to start with, something buggy like a Shrimp - which is why I thought it odd when he put on a size 16 Adams! Obviously, with good fishing right on his doorstep, Dave can afford to sit around and wait for the fish to come up. I had other plans involving two suitably weighted nymphs.

I dropped in some way below the shoal. What I hadn't counted on were a couple of back markers that shot upstream, startling the others. Trout are the worst offenders here, as they often dart about frantically: a single fish has been known to upset a whole pool. Grayling, on the other hand, usually glide into a deep corner. Luckily, just as quickly as they'd parted, the pocket of grayling regrouped and resumed feeding.

It's easy to spot a fish darting for cover but a different matter trying to spot one in a feeding lie. Worse, I was staring down the barrel of a low morning sun, which only moments ago had been a blessing in helping to locate these fish. I edged forward, trying to spot those ghostly shapes. Spooking another fish from under my feet, I decided to fish this water first, before concentrating on the shoal further upstream. Overhanging branches and trailing reeds made a run under the far bank look promising, but after a few casts another fish zig-zagged upstream, and two others quickly followed. I realised that, with two layers of lead in its dressing, my Shrimp was far too heavy, announcing its arrival in this shallow water with a far too obvious plop.

The addition of a further 4 ft of mono to my leader and a change to smaller nymphs was the answer, and very soon a leash of Kennet grayling obliged, the best of them a solid 15-inch cock fish. Two had grabbed the size 16 Biot nymph while the third preferred a Sawyer's Pheasant Tail. Now it was time to try for that huddle of fish, though deeper water called for more weight, so I replaced the dainty Pheasant Tail with the heavy Shrimp.

When targeting a shoal of grayling, we are often told to pick off those at the rear first. This is all well and good where a big shoal of grayling is concerned, as generally they have a safety-in-numbers attitude. However, smaller groups tend to be a little more flighty and the sight of one or two fish disappearing can be enough to upset those that remain. With these fish tightly bunched it seemed a good plan to trundle a fly down to the frontrunners. Glaring sunshine was still a problem, so I cast 10 ft-12 ft ahead of where I judged the leading fish to be.

Tracking the leader, and ultimately the fly-line, I readied myself as the nymphs neared the shoal. A flicker of a grey flank told me to tighten but there was nothing there, apart from a plume of silt kicked up by one very disgruntled grayling. Did I strike too quickly?

After resting the shoal for five minutes, I again sent the Shrimp diving towards the riverbed when a sideways movement of the leader prompted me to make a halfhearted lift. It was wishful thinking on my part, but as the nymphs ascended, the fly-line drew taut and an upward flick set the hook. I'd fluked an induced take. Fluke or not, 16 inches of handsome grayling was a welcome sight, and firmly clamped in his upper jaw was my size 14 Shrimp.

Like many chalkstreams, the Kennet teems with freshwater shrimp, which provide a yearround larder for trout and grayling. Such water quality appeals also to creatures like the signal crayfish. These aggressive crustaceans pose a threat to native wildlife and need keeping in check.

Happy with the fruits of my labour, I went off to explore another section of river. That's the beauty of Denford, where carriers of all sizes thread their way through the water-meadows. One intimate stretch seemed fascinating, if only because you could leap across it in parts. Such narrow carriers are usually quite deep, and this one was no different. Since they have no room to spread out, the grayling, like cars in a multi-storey car park, were stacked in tiers. The fattest ones occupied the prime lies near the riverbed while, above them, smaller fish jostled for position.

A heavy nymph lobbed a short distance upstream and allowed to flutter into the depths would do it, I thought, but it was far from easy and overhanging branches and reeds interfered with almost every cast. Compensating for a tangle of branches is one thing; dealing with reed-laden banks is another, especially when converging currents continually push fly and leader towards the margins.

Getting a fly in the water was only half the battle. Steering the nymph and leader through the maze of reeds and conflicting current lanes was an art in itself. As the nymph neared me, I stepped back a few paces from the water's edge, effectively shortening the length of my rod and giving my nymph an uninterrupted path of travel. It sounds simple enough, but standing back from the water's edge prevented me from seeing the fish. But the induced-take method worked its magic, allowing me to winkle out a few plump grayling, which fought exceptionally well on such a short line.

Compared to the carrier, the main Kennet flows sedately here and with several dimpling rises in midstream I changed to a dry-fly. With leaves falling on the water, I reckoned it was a fair bet that the grayling were taking greenfly transported to the water on the leaves, though every so often a large dark olive came fluttering by, to be taken by a grayling.

When fish are rising some way off and long casts are required, drag can be a problem. Longish leaders can help, and dry-flies presented on long leaders land like thistledown, especially those incorporating CDC. A gauging cast enabled me to measure the fly's drift before drag set in - about 3 ft seemed the norm. My next cast landed 2 ft ahead of a rise. The CDC Olive couldn't have landed any more gently and a tentative upstream mend set the drift up nicely. To my eyes, everything looked rosy, yet the movement to my fly suggested otherwise. It was one of those rises where a fish merely noses the fly, almost pushing it to one side.

Undeterred, the grayling in question continued to rise. Usually when fish refuse a fly a change of pattern is standard practice. However, I decided on a different angle of presentation. Using a pile cast, which sends a series of wiggles down the fly-line, and concentrates the slack near the leader, I had my fish.

It was now early afternoon, and with more duns appearing we were treated to some wonderful surface sport until about 3 pm, when a distinct chill came over the meadows and the fish went down.

Sampling top-drawer dry-fly fishing makes switching back to nymphs rather difficult, but a further hour plugging away with dry-flies produced only one more grayling and an out-of-season brown trout.

Putting on nymphs once more, I went in search of another Denford carrier. A hatch pool and series of runs gave me something to get my teeth into.

Such lively water is bread and butter to me - if only I'd discovered it earlier in the day! Grayling can be devils to spot in poor light and with the shadows lengthening I adopted a sequence of cast, retrieve then raise the nymphs with an induced lift. The only interruption to this rhythm was a satisfying bend in the rod every so often, culminating in a good rainbow that lurched forward to take my nymph and moments later tore around the pool in a flurry of spray.

The maze of carriers here can keep you busy for some time. Pressing up yet another channel, my mission was to reach its conclusion before bad light stopped play.

As darkness fell, I kept telling myself 'Just one more cast'. A scrunching of fallen leaves told me Dave wasn't far away so we carried on, relying on feel to bag our final fish. Although autumn is a favourite season of mine, dusk does have a nasty habit of coming all too soon.

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

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