With the advent of ‘heavy nymphing’ techniques anglers have a chance of catching grayling all through the winter, wherever they may hide!
Grayling, with very few exceptions, will be holding position near the riverbed. Their oddly shaped mouth, like the barbel, is designed so that they can pretty much hoover the bottom, rooting in among the stones looking for any tasty morsels that may get pulled along by the current.
Guess where your flies need to be! Yup, down by the riverbed!
In order to achieve this, then your flies must be weighted… more later.
The angler fishing for grayling is fortunate, not only will these fish be a lot more tolerant than trout, you’ll be amazed at just how close you can get to these fish, at times they will be right at your feet, but, unlike trout they can be found in large numbers!
They have a pronounced shoaling tendency, which increases as the cold weather moves in colder nights means lower water temperatures, so grayling start to congregate in certain areas bulking in numbers. After some severe frosts – my favourite time to target them – there will be less shoals but the ones that we encounter now will be very large indeed, perhaps containing hundreds of grayling. This MEGA shoal is often to be found in very localised sections of river.
A beat may consist of a mile or so of apparently barren, nothing happening here, river but in one small area contain just one ‘super shoal’, and so it’s worth persevering until you’ve covered all the water that’s available to you.
Find the shoal and it’s game on!
However, don’t expect to stand there hooking fish after fish, if you play them to gently, once hooked you need to get them out of there as quick as possible, side strain and some steady pressure, again we’ll look at this later, helps.
With all fishing techniques, success is in the detail.
For me, when it’s cold, I like the advantages of bright, indicator line, Hi-Viz offers me a better aid to take detection over other materials. Couple this hi-viz contrasting line with some heavyweight bugs and a soft actioned fly rod and you have a sweet recipe for winter success!
Most indicator lines are long enough, 5 meters, so that you can fish them right off the fly reel, attached to the end of the indicator line is a mini tippet ring, to this you attach your leader set up.
I keep everything short, tippet length and my droppers. My tippet is about 5ft of fluorocarbon to this I have three flies, first dropper is positioned a foot below the indicator connection.
I then space the flies at 20-inch intervals, so three flies over 60-inches. Also my droppers are short, the longer they are the more chance a fish has of taking and ejecting the fly without you seeing or feeling anything, 10cm for my droppers. If a fish takes one of my flies with this short dropper then it’s registered on the indicator line away!
Tippets, The Business End
In winter I rarely bother much with lower diameter copolymers, instead I go with fluorocarbon, something thin in diameter but very strong. Thin so that your flies can move in manner that look lifelike, your flies should behave as if they are the real thing pushed and pulled by the current. And strong, as no matter if you fish with jig hooks or bugs, winter rivers are full of snags and fishing the way we do, you’re going to get your flies snagged up often enough, so a leader with a bit of oomph is going to save you a lot of lost flies!
For this style of fishing and indeed for many nymphing styles it’s important to use a soft actioned rod and light one too, one that takes a 3 or at a push 4-wt line. We won’t actually use any fly line, fly line is what loads your rod for casting, but in this instance the rod is loaded with the weight of your flies. By lobbing these weighted nymphs they will put the bend in your rod in order to punch them wherever you want them.
Some anglers have real leaning toward grubs, bugs, Czech Nymphs, in other words patterns tied on curved hooks with underbodies of lead wire or foil. To be fair I can see why a lot of anglers still favour these styles as they look exactly what the fish are feeding on through the winter, namely, caddis and shrimp. These little creatures are the main staple for winter grayling and they can be big, depending on the river that you’re fishing – anything from a small 16 right up to a meaty size 8!
Colours tend to be subdued, like the naturals, buff, off white, muted olives and greens. However, there’s the rainbow brigade, flies that look like nothing on earth, normally in Pink, Pink Shrimps, purples and oranges work too. These flies, although looking to all intents and purposes like something out of sweet shop do take fish at times, often as the river thins down after a flood, more than the usual drab patterns do.
Then we have the nymph boys, looking to fish smaller flies, patterns with the weight all focused at the head of the fly in the shape of a bead. Most of these nymphs are tied on jig hooks, allowing the flies to swim with the hook point uppermost. These flies are based around the other food sources, namely the nymphal or pupal version of the upwing flies, large dark olives, mayfly, Iron Blue’s etc. Again, like the bugs, we have plain, looking lie the real deal flies and then we have the over the top Julian Clary types, all flash ribs and colourful tags.
Now, having more catholic tastes I’m up for anything that catches fish and I’ll often mix and match with all these styles of flies depending on the water that I’m fishing!
The manner in which my cast, actually lob would be more appropriate, is delivered and the flies fished is another very important element.
With many nymphing styles including this one, it can be split into both upstream and downstream approaches. I will switch between the two in response to the features I’m faced with, I will also turn around quite a lot and fish the water I have just walked in, often the grayling will come right to your feet, be mindful.
Many anglers practicing Czech Nymphing/ Bugging make the mistake of applying the technique as a standard approach and end up fishing like a robot, lob, drift, strike, take one step down the river and repeat.
The key to success is to learn the principles behind what you are doing more than the technique, the technique works, but by applying more thought you can make it far more effective.
With a lot of nymphing techniques the flies are cast and then allowed to drift, dead drift, back down to the angler, as they take up the slack line and feel for any takes, The other options is ‘high sticking’ them back, keeping an eye on the loop of line form rod tip to river, if it flicks, moves or straightens it’s usually a fish?
With the indicator line, and the heavy flies often employed when using it, my favourite way to fish is the following…
When you pitch your flies, I like to give them a few seconds, the time you give them depends on the depth of water, to sink down to the riverbed. I then, move my rod tip, and this is the key part, a fraction of a second faster than the current. With other nymphing methods it is much more difficult to speed up the drift and still get the flies deep (depth is important in winter).
To do this – faster than the current method – is easy, just pick a bubble moving on the top of the water and make sure that your rod tip heads downstream faster than this.
Now, what you’re doing is fishing your flies at a pace that means any take is immediately registered. The weight of the heavy point fly allows you to fish your flies at this speed without fear of raising your patterns too high in the water, and any taking fish is usually met with a solid hook up.
Make Them Take
You can, as with all styles of fishing, choose to implement your own little twists and turns into things.
There are times when I will hold back the rod tip as the flies pass below me slowing the progress of the flies ever so slightly, this can, at times, result in extra takes, that swift change of pace.
I’m also very partial to lifting the rod tip and dropping it as I swing it down stream. This allows my flies to lift and fall all the way through the drift, again another little string to your bugging braid bow!
There is one final method I’ll employ, one that scores very heavily on steady, even paced water, water about two to four feet deep, my knees and just over my waist. Off come the heavy point fly to be replaced with a medium weighted nymph. Cast square across the current about 20ft, then immediately put your rod tip under the water, as the flies swing round the tip should get deeper and deeper, by the time the line is coming into your slip stream, the tip should be on the riverbed. As the flies move into the softer flow that your body creates, they will start to fall, so you must slowly figure-of-eight the flies back to you. This at times is a truly devastating way of catching, but a word of warning, do not use a light tippet, beef everything up, 5lb breaking strain!
Reading The Water
Having some idea of the basics of the mechanics to ‘Bugging’ is only half the story; knowing where and how to apply the method is equally important. Bugging can be used in a variety of situations but through the autumn and winter the method excels for searching out shoals of grayling on any freestone rivers.
In August and often into early winter the ‘popply’ water at the heads of pools might be productive, but in cold weather look for long, flatter glides. A methodical search pattern will pay dividends, especially if the fish are tightly shoaled.
When approaching a likely-looking glide most anglers wade straight in, don’t!
Never put your feet where you haven’t first put your flies.
This can produce a surprising number of grayling!
Adopting a systematic search pattern ensures no piece of accessible water is missed. Grid the water in search of a shoal. Basically, cross the river at 90 degrees to the flow making a cast and drift with each step out. The only time you should make more than one cast per step is if you get an unmistakeable take or a fish… where you find one grayling you’ll almost always find more.
I will then turn around and fish the same water back. When I get back to where I started, I’ll take two or three steps downstream a repeat, being mindful of fishing the water I have just waded in. Your wading boots when you move, accidently will stir up the bottom, the steady stream of debris (and food) dislodged by the anglers’ feet, is like ground bait so you can always take advantage of this, the grayling most definitely will!
If you are fishing down a run and you start to contact grayling, think twice before pressurizing the fish by continuing to wade and cast down into them. A shoal of disturbed grayling tends to move upstream, not down. So, if you catch several and then bites dry up, they may simply have moved up past you. Try resting the swim for 10 minutes, then leave the water and go back in 50 yards above to try and find them again. Also, if you do find yourself on a real winner, show some restraint in the numbers you take and pick a moment to stop and try another place, particularly if it’s near the end of season and the grayling spawning time is close.
Heavy Nymphing Essentials: