Like many winter anglers, grayling fishing, for me, conjures up crisp, cold days on the river bank. Over 2/3rds of my grayling have been caught in the winter with February alone accounting for a quarter. When high pressure brings iron hard frosts and finger numbing cold, grayling are often the only fish that can be tempted to feed. I have been out in some really unpromising conditions in my time and, providing you fish light, (I often go down to a size 20) and really slow the float up so that it edges through the swim, you can usually have some success. Of course, I'm fortunate to have access to waters that hold this quite rare and wonderful fish, which, with it's sail-like dorsal fin can put up a fine scrap on light tackle.
In fact the wiry grayling often fight to the point of exhaustion. I would recommend ALWAYS using barbless hooks when fishing for them, purely on the grounds that they need to be exposed to the minimum of handling before being returned. Even so they will often still need to be held in the current being 'nursed' back to full strength. There's nothing more heart breaking than see one of these elegant fish going 'belly up' on being returned to the water.
It was during a winter grayling trip in the late 80's that made me realise I needed some new tackle! At that time all my kit was all a bit old and 'Heath Robinson'. I was still using a couple of rods that I'd bought from Woolies with my paper round earnings as a teenager, my Mitchell 206's were from the same era, all my floats were either home made or one's that I'd found (actually they still are!) and I'd not long owned my first brolly. It was really a case of 'make do and mend'.
The trip in question was on an extremely mild January day a week before my 28th birthday. Fishing a carrier for grayling, I'd accounted for a couple of small specimens and a brace of half decent chub of around 3lb. Curiously I was also being 'plagued' with fingerling trout. Much in the manner that one gets minnows, cast after cast produced minnow-sized brownies. Eventually bites from the brownies abated and I connected with what I originally took to be another, smaller, chub. I was stunned though when, a minute or so later I was not slipping the net under a chub but under a dace. This was my only dace of the day but was not just any dace - this one was huge (well huge for a dace). It was a plump, pigeon breasted, pregnant female. I stared at it in awe as it nestled in my net in the shallows.
I then realised I had nothing with which to weigh it really accurately. All I had were the Little Samson's of my youth, which were OK to within a couple of ounces, but I wanted a really accurate weight for this old lady. Both sets registered it at 1lb which in a perverse way didn't please me! I felt ashamed to be weighing the fish of a lifetime on such pitiful equipment. I checked the spring balances when I got home with a measured pound which appeared to match that of my fish. In that moment though I resolved to get some better scales and a week later was treating myself to some for my birthday.
The following year saw a general upgrading of my tackle. I bought my first carp rod. I picked up a lovely 14 foot match rod from a bankrupt stock auction for song. I even treated myself to a centre-pin. It turned out to be quite an expensive dace!
Twelve years later and things have come full circle. My 14 footer has been replaced, it was hammered for a decade and was starting to show its age at the end of last season. Somewhat fittingly the last fish of note to be caught on it was my second pound dace. This fish was also captured whilst out targeting grayling on a winter's day and pulled the needle on my scales round to a jaw dropping 1lb 1oz.
This month sees the eagerly awaited grayling days organised by Alan Tomkins for the Internet Angling Club. Alan organises trips to the Itchen and upper Kennet to target the lady of the stream. These trips have proved massively popular, and have become almost a permanent fixture in the IAC calendar. They have also allowed many to catch their first ever grayling. It is a real treat to be able to fish waters which hold these lovely fish in some numbers. Anyone interested in joining the Internet Angling Club can do so at www.fish-on-line.net.
The first trip to report this month was actually made on the penultimate day of 2000, though by then I'd already written up my monthly instalment. We were still in the middle of the cold snap that had followed Christmas and with the temperature struggling to get above zero for a number of days it was just the sort of weather I talked of earlier. In fact Jacqui thought I was mad to consider venturing out in such conditions, so much so that I was under strict instructions to give her a call on my mobile to herald my safe arrival on the river bank!
And so it was that I pulled into the snow covered club car park at first light with the thermometer in the car registering - 6 degrees Celsius. As I unloaded the car I was practically mugged by a robin for some food! Fluffed up against the cold, it jumped onto each item of tackle as it was removed from the car. So I opened up my maggot box, placed it in the snow and invited it to have some breakfast on me whilst I put on my thermals and squeezed into my new chest waders. (A Christmas present from Jaq, getting their first outing). The bird must have made over a dozen sorties to this food source before I put the lid back on, shouldered my tackle and trudged through virgin snow to the river bank. I was glad to see that mine were the only prints since the snow fell 3 days previous.
I expected a slow day so was somewhat surprised to get bites immediately. Initially, however, the only indication of fish was sucked maggots, the float didn't register until it was shotted right down. The first couple of hours were then remarkably productive given the conditions. I caught dace and grayling in the ratio of 2 dace for every grayling until by the time the sun was on the water and the bites stopped, I'd had 18 fish in total. The dace were a respectable size, this being the venue of my first 1lber, with over half around 8oz. The grayling were similarly proportioned - the best being about 12oz. However this wasn't a day to be measured by the size of the fish. With the landscape illuminated by a blanket of crisp, white snow just being outside was a joy -providing you stayed warm! Catching fish was a bonus.
With the sun up, the rest of the morning was a struggle for bites and whilst I had no more dace or grayling I did account for 3 chub to 3lb and a 1lb perch along with a couple of out of season spotties. By 2.30, though, I'd gone nearly 2 hours without a bite so I emptied my few remaining maggots out on to the bank for the enjoyment of the local bird-life and made my way back to the car. The temperature was now up to minus 2! But I'd come suitably attired and had been as warm as toast all day. It had been a really enjoyable outing.
My first trip of the New Year was a day after my 40th birthday. I had yet another new item of tackle to try out and this one was something a bit special. To mark this anniversary, Jaq had got me a Young's Purist Centre Pin. A real indulgence and a lovely reel. I just had to take it out for a spin!!
Conditions were far from ideal for this short trip to Speen. A biting North-easterly wind, bright sunshine, the river still only just within it's banks yet running cold and clear after a week of frosts; everything was against a productive session. I had to work hard for my bites, slowing the float right down, fishing light and with a size 20 at the business end, my first fish was a spirited dace.
The rest of the session saw me get a couple of small chub, half a dozen more dace and a similar number of small roach. A real feature though was the number of trout I connected with. I had 3 at around 2lb each and lost the same again. I assume they had been washed down in the floods from the numerous trout fisheries upstream and whilst they weren't quite what I'd come for they certainly put my new reel through its paces!
A fortnight later, Paul and I planned a return trip to the same venue. Once again though the weather intervened and altered our arrangements. Heavy precipitation - rain, sleet and snow - the evening before was followed by a sharp frost. We knew the river would be coloured and hard work so decided to start on our 'flood swim' below Newbury and move upstream at lunch time. A sensible move.
Sure enough the river was coloured and the large slack had formed. Paul installed himself in this swim whilst I moved a few dozen yards upstream on the carrier. The conditions ruled out grayling - I never catch them in coloured water - but I was soon bringing some dace to the net. After an hour Paul joined me and we fished the same swim equidistant from where we'd set up. Within seconds of each other we both connected with something solid - mine proved to be a perch of a pound and three-quarters, Paul's a chub half a pound heavier.
With the sun on the water, bites came at a premium and we were just contemplating a move when Paul shouted for assistance. He'd hooked a lovely plump perch which he'd got to the surface in the fast current - I went downstream and netted it for him. The fish was incredibly fat, somewhat in the manner of a boilie fed mirror (on a smaller scale), and pulled the scales down to 2lb 4oz - a new personal best for Paul.
So with our confidence restored in the knowledge we'd already had a more than satisfactory morning's angling, we packed up and moved 3 miles upstream to Speen. The fishing here was much harder. I winkled out a few dace, a nice looking roach a couple of ounces under a pound and a very out of condition trout of 3lb. Paul went 3 bite-less hours before hitting on a shoal of gudgeon and then contented himself with a fish a minute for nearly half an hour! Mervyn rendezvoused with us as promised. Mervyn is thinking of getting a Harrison 15 footer and wanted to have a play with one of ours. Tackle Tarts one and all!! - I wonder if Alan Tomkins is on commission?