This year - unusually for me - the end of the grayling fishing segued into the start of the trout season almost seamlessly, a mere ten hours either side of the midnight transition point finding me casting a line for one species or the other, on two different rivers.
It's amazing how such an arbitrary distinction can affect the mood of one's fishing. Yesterday the feeling was one of faint regret, bidding farewell to the grayling which have given me so much pleasure over the last few weeks. I caught trout then too, but a few hours short of becoming legal tender, dismissed them nonchalantly. Today an atmosphere of expectation pervaded every aspect of my fishing and suddenly, where Salmo trutta was perceived to be a nuisance not 24 hours earlier, suddenly the burden of having to catch my first fish of the new trout season proved excessive and I couldn't tempt one of the little blighters to save my life. Not that the enterprise was entirely unsuccessful, far from it. My fishing partner returned 5 trout, a particularly nice specimen amongst them; and as he was my guest for the day, I could at least take comfort from the fact that his journey wasn't wasted.
So, the final throes of the grayling season. Last weekend I took Dad with me to a recently discovered gem of a river. The Old Fella hadn't caught a grayling since he was a boy and I was confident we could address that in style. Sure enough, the silver beauties obliged and by fishing a combination of French nymph leader and later on as the weather warmed, a cast of spiders, we were able to attract interest with pleasing regularity. One particularly productive spell saw Dad fish an insignificant looking seam of brisk water and return half a dozen nice grayling in the space of about ten minutes. The smile on his face alone made the journey worthwhile.
As far as grayling were concerned, that was just about that I thought....until an opportunity presented itself to have a quick couple of hours on my local river on the very last day of the winter season. Turning up at mid afternoon on a cool overcast day, I was pleasantly surprised to find a good hatch of Large Dark Olives underway in a couple of my favourite pools. A blustery upstream wind made for less than ideal conditions, but the fish didn't seem to care and could be seen rising regularly to the newly emerged duns which were skating about the surface in the chilly breeze.
I wasn't able to tell if they were trout or grayling. I never have been much good at interpreting the rise forms and don't put much stock in that old 'grayling leave a bubble' theory. Unless I can visibly tell which species it is, I have a cast to find out. Unfortunately it seemed on this occasion as though the majority were trout - just a handful of hours too early! I don't generally photograph out of season fish but made an exception here, the trout below being the best of a fit half dozen (the LDO para-emerger can be seen wedged in the corner of its jaw in the upper image).
Just as it looked as though I might fail to catch a grayling for the first time in quite a few sessions, the day was saved by a large cock fish which rose in a slow, scything arc to my emerger. It was a fine fish of exactly 2lb and marked a fitting end to the best winter of grayling fishing I have ever enjoyed. I bade the big lad a fruitful mating season and paused a moment to reflect on the wonders of our sport, before beginning the long walk across the fields and back to the car.
Fast forward twenty hours or so: Gary Hyde and I are pulling on our waders in a frigid west wind high on a bluff above the Cumbrian Eden. Recent reports suggest that, as in Lancashire, the spring olive hatches are well underway and trout have begun to move to them. Hopes are high - I know a couple of sheltered place where the stricken duns - should they choose to hatch - will get harried by the breeze, accumulate in back eddies, and quickly become the target of large wild brown trout. It's still early though, so we both put up nymph rigs and head down to the lower pools on the beat.
Straightaway I don't like the cut of the river's jib. It is running exceptionally clear, in a blueish, sterile sort of way which speaks of midwinter and piscine inactivity. Although the day - wind chill aside - is fairly mild, everything else feels as though spring is yet to assert itself upon the Eden valley. Suddenly I have a gut feeling that today will not be a day of invertebrate activity. The river feels lifeless.
And so it proves, for me at least. Confidence is a hugely influential factor in fishing, and with my quota diminishing incrementally with every fruitless drift of the nymphs, the spectre of an opening day blank looms ominously. I focus my efforts on putting Gary into the spots I hope might just yield an offer or two, before heading off upstream in the faint hope of finding a localised hatch. Nothing stirs. My mental tally of olive duns spotted hovers around the upper single figures. I return to my guest, all apologies and bad tidings.
As it happens, Gary has managed to winkle out a brace of small brownies and even as I watch him nymphing up a shallow pool, the indicator dips and he lifts into something altogether more substantial. A brief, acrobatic fight ensues and to our combined relief, a beautiful wild trout is eventually drawn over the waiting net. It's a fine fish: slim from winter rigours, but healthy and bright. It's made Gary's day, and mine too.
Gary goes on to land another couple of fish. Five trout on opening day, especially one as bitter and unforgiving as this, is a fine effort and one which I am unable to match. As I nymph through a final couple of pools, I am resigned to my fate.....but also excited about the prospect of the season ahead. All this greyness and chill, the bare trees, strafed sandy banks, raw wind and soulless water; all this will be replaced soon by life and vigour and rising trout. I will have to wait a little longer yet to open my account for the new season - but such is the fickle nature of the British spring, that it may be as soon as the next few days. This slow gathering of vernal momentum is, I'm convinced, one of the river flyfisher's greatest pleasures and I remind myself of that whilst peeling off my thick neoprene waders for what I hope will be the last time this year. It has been a challenging day....but better times most certainly await.