Thursday, January 22, 2015

Winter of Content

Winter plods slowly on bringing the 2015 trout season ever nearer, although that particular watershed still feels a good way off right now. This is the time of year when my flyfishing customarily goes into semi-hibernation and I concentrate instead on the indoor pursuits of re-stocking fly boxes, cleaning lines and building leaders. In some ways the break can do a man some good. After all, there has to be a time to get the fishing bag tidied up - retrieve all the discarded chocolate bar wrappers and birdsnested tippet from its mouldering depths and restore some sort of order to the chaos which built up over the course of the previous year. I enjoy such tasks, but as soon as they are accomplished, I feel the draw of water again and the ensuing wait for days to lengthen feels almost unbearable. Winter does not suit me well.

A year ago, I managed to stem such feelings of frustration and misery by returning to grayling fishing with an enthusiasm I hadn't felt for the previous half dozen winters. What precipitated this sudden change in heart is difficult to pin down, but it surely helped that I fished in places known to hold zillions of the little blighters. Several outings were made, lots of grayling were caught, and the second half of winter eased by so much quicker as a result.

So perhaps it's no surprise that when the 2014 trout season came to a close and I assured my good lady that my angling activities would be 'toned right down' for the winter, my thoughts turned to grayling once more, making a liar out of me straightaway. I embarked on a concerted tying spree of technicolor shrimps and jig nymphs, joined an eight man grayling syndicate on a sought-after river in the Scottish Borders, and so completed the full circle journey back to what I left behind in the late noughties:long hours of searching big pools in cold weather for elusive shoals of winter grayling. I've loved every minute of it! The syndicate water has produced grayling fishing of quality I am unused to, with fish over 2lbs commonplace and the real possibility of something a whole lot bigger. When a day in December yielded close to twenty fish with four of them weighing between 2lb 2oz and 2lb 8oz, I started to question why I had ever become such a reluctant winter angler in the first place. The real treat however has been the quality and strength of the fish. I have never tussled with fish so strong as Borders grayling, ever. Whether the somewhat laminar flow over smooth gravel works to their advantage as they hold station with dorsal fin raised against the current, or they are just stronger than our soft southern versions, I don't know. What is fact is that a big one hooked in water of good depth and speed is almost immovable for long anxious minutes, no matter how much sidestrain is applied. It's heart-stopping stuff, exciting and at the same time tortuous  - the grayling bug has bitten once more and for now, I cannot get enough of it.

A particularly memorable outing came at the turn of the year when Stuart and I had a weekend jaunt in search of fishable water when most of the country was swimming. As is so often the case when you have a trip planned at this time of year, the weather conspired to throw a big wet spanner in the works. I recall a couple of years ago almost to the day, plans to head to the south coast and fish the Frome for its uncommonly large grayling. You may recall the state of the weather in the south of England around that time......well when a day or two beforehand, I logged on to a local webcam overlooking the river, I couldn't see any dry land at all save for the very tops of a line of willow trees which I took to be lining the 'bank' of the river. At such times the prospect of ever fishing the dry fly again feels very unlikely indeed.

That the rains were scheduled to arrive the very afternoon before we set off for the Borders came as no surprise to Stuart and I, and we deferred for a day in the hope of somewhere dropping into at least half-fishable ply. As it happened, nowhere really did and we ended up taking a punt and driving north anyway, spurred on by desperation as much as anything else, and with a venue in mind which might just have avoided the worst of the floods. Not that I was too bothered: up until recently, the domestic demands which come with a tired wife and pair of toddlers had made such overnight trips difficult to justify and for me the prospect of a full two days fishing in the company of a good friend was enough in itself. Grateful just for the opportunity, I resolved to happily toss tungsten into a mucky brown torrent if needs be, and any fish would be treated as a welcome surprise! 

In the end, we had rather a fine time of it. Yes the river was high and dirty and the fishing restricted to marginal soft spots, but sometimes approaching an unfamiliar water with an unbiased pair of eyes can reap rewards and we managed to find surprising sport on a beat which was all but abandoned by the local anglers. Coincidentally a couple of friends were the only other lads out and having fished the place before, Peter and Ken were generous enough to show us around and point out the places that should produce....or at least would produce when the river was a foot lower! 

The fishing was out of necessity uncomplicated - good old fashioned Czech nymphing with a team of three weighted nymphs led through under the rod tip. Quickly I realised how little I have used this method in recent years; in fact I found the downstream progression which is customary when Czech nymphing, completely alien at first, so long have I spent fishing purely upstream. It's strange how you get into habits; these days, even when fishing short I always move upstream and have my flies out of the water as soon as they are level with my position. I've probably missed a trick in all honesty, and when my first fish came at that point in the drift known well to all regular Czech nymphers - downstream of square, just as the flies begin to sweep away from the riverbed - it was like a long dormant lightbulb suddenly switched on in my brain! Yes I have neglected pure Czech nymphing I admit, and that is an oversight I aim to correct.

That first fish was a belter - 2lb 6oz and fit as a gundog - and it set the tone for the weekend. The grayling were prepared to feed and although location proved difficult, the ones we caught were of a good stamp, with a sprinkling of very impressive specimens amongst them. Stuart shows off one such below (his own photo - a great self timer job with the camera!):

Day one rewarded us with 15 fish up to 2lb 10oz. It was more than I could ever have hoped for.

The following morning dawned bright and cold and with the river falling, but considerably cleared, a challenging session was on the cards. We had formulated a plan over beer the night before, which involved getting off the beaten track and away from the other anglers we expected to be present, given that the river was just about coming into decent ply. How successful our strategy proved to be is open to interpretation - we covered nearly eight miles on foot and found precious little worth fishing in the prevailing conditions. Total time spent with flies in the water probably amounted to little over half an hour between us as we trudged the 4 miles or so downstream and back. However, time spent exploring new water is never wasted and we had seen enough the previous day to persuade us that a return visit would be very much worthwhile. That we can now discount certain areas will make future tactics easier to decide.

It was a low key day from a fishing point of view. Ironically though, it provided me with one very memorable moment. Midway through the morning we came upon a roily pool which didn't really feel like good grayling habitat, but had that look about it which suggested that while there might not be numbers of fish present, it might just be home to an odd 'soler'. We decided to quickly fish it through, and shortly after came a strange moment. A couple of minutes down the run and separated by maybe 20 yds, we both simultaneously felt that a fish was on the cards. Whether there was something about the atmosphere, quality of light, or just the way our flies were fishing, we both agreed afterwards that just for a moment, something had felt very right. It was during one such drift that I looked at my leader, muttered something under my breath along the lines of 'they're going through nicely', before the indicator ticked upwards and I lifted into the biggest grayling I've ever seen. Not that I saw it right away of course. In fact it was a good five minutes of typical stalemate before Stuart caught a glimpse beneath the surface and announced "that's huge!" Cue sweaty palms and thoughts of the 50 different ways in which you can lose a big fish...... 

In the net, it looked like a different species of fish altogether, than the grayling I'm used to catching: broad shouldered, deep, and with a sheen of turquoise along its flanks and dorsal fin that was just stunning. I've always suspected that a true 3lb grayling must be a hell of a sight, but never really expected to catch one. Social media these days would have you believe that they are ten-a-penny, but are they really? For sure there are rivers which are very capable of producing such specimens, but how many of the fish you see claimed as '3lb plus' are actually weighed? I've have had enough around the 2lb 8oz mark to know that a grayling of that calibre feels like a very big one indeed, and understand how easy it is to get carried away if a set of scales isn't close at hand. 

That was me done for the day; I honestly wasn't bothered if I had another offer all afternoon. Which is just as well because apart from one skerrit, I didn't!

The long drive home was spent reflecting upon what had been a fine weekend and making plans for future trips. There is something undeniably satisfying about taking a road trip to fish new water, using fairly specialised methods at a tough time of year, in unfavourable conditions....and managing to eke out some success. When that success is shared and comes as a result of combined effort and teamwork, well I don't think it gets much better than that. It has so far been a winter of content. 

 photos 3 and 4 courtesy of Stuart Minnikin.


Jeff Hatt said...

A mighty fish! And a great photo of it. Always good when a trophy shot is firstly worth bothering with and secondly comes out very well. So many don't do justice to the day.

I wish I could fish for grayling more often, but Coventry is not where they're at! I do reckon my local stream would support them though it being shallow and quite rapid in many places and full of the right kinds of food.

I can hope!

Ben Lupton said...

Brilliant post Matt, the quality is worth the wait and reminds me that I have someway to go before I get close to your calibre. That grayling is a stonker, well done.

George said...

well done Matt that Scottish river is renowned for such fish like that above, your very wise to join a syndicate as it gets hammered everywhere else, a river I tend to stay well clear of.

Richard Tong said...

Well done Matt. Exploring new water, remote from where you live is great, especially when it is reputed to hold lunkers. Doing so with a good friend who thinks along the same lines as you is almost essential, given the new water; where to go, what to do the next day etc. When you hit it right you can give yourself a big pat on the back. Our trips to Aberdeenshire in search of big river trout were never less than a 700 mile round trip,and sometimes we would come back after 2 or 3 days with little to show for our efforts depending on the conditions. The good days make it all worthwhile though!

Tom Cull said...

That's some fish Matt and a great read. I just booked a day with Stuart in June. Looking forward to it. Might have to get off my arse and write something this year, it promises to be my most active year as fishing goes for a while.

Matthew Eastham said...

Thanks for comments chaps. Rich, you are spot on there - I can imagine your satisfaction when the pair of you pull it off and land summat special. Even the dour days are worthwhile - character building don't you think?

Jimmy said...

Some brilliant grayling there!

Anonymous said...

Aye aye..I recognise that hand! Nice write up buddy. Every time I see yer lump at the bottom of the blog posting the bigger it gets! Jammy B...


paul bristow said...

Top job Matt.Thats the type of trip that has me smiling at anglers spending £4 and £5k to go bone fishing or chasing NZ brownies. Don't get me wrong I'm sure the bone fishing etc is great fun but there is so much great fishing in the UK and Ireland that you could never come close to doing it justice and fish like yours prove what can caught if you do your research, pay your money and put the effort in.

William Addison said...

Really enjoyed this blog Mat and your recent articles in T and S. I've read so much by Geoffrey Bucknall about upper Teesdale that it is on my bucket list its Tenkara potential on it's pocket water. I was fishing Tenkara on Salmon Stream on the right bank on the Eden last Saturday and showed Mark (our keeper) the method, he said how you were developing your interest in it too which I knew about. Unfortunatley, we blanked - not a touch and nothing rising all day and lots of bright sunshine. But I can see Mark been seduced by the method when the trout come on. Malcolm Greenhalgh lives near me and he blanked on the Hodder too last week apart from the odd grayling still not yet absorbed by love. In these coldish temperatures the trout do take some while to switch on methinks.
Danny (Pinkshrimp) is going to join me on the Eden and Ribble when I get through some medical treatment I'm going through - probably late May/Early June.
You've seduced me with those lovely squirmy worm 'flies' you've tied and some different colours are on the way to me as I speak. It's nice to flirt with the dark side from time to time!
I'll be on the Upper Pitt River in BC in August and the bull trout, rainbows and cutthroats will be suckers I hope for egg flies, and modified leech patterns, some using this squirmy worm stuff - so thank you.
I hope we have the pleasure of bumping into one another on the banks of the Eden or Ribble this season - meanwhile keep up the excellent blog and articles.

Mick Addison/Micka

Matthew Eastham said...

Hey Mick,
Hope you are doing ok and thanks v much for the kind comments. I don't know if you are aware, but I've left the FFF forum for a couple of personal reasons (no drama, nothing sinister). If you want to get in touch, please use the email address attached to this blog.
And yes I agree - let's try to meet up this season - I'd love you to show me what you've learned about tenkara.