What did our ancestors think of this wonderful fish, the grayling? And again, what were their ideas about fishing it using an artificial fly? What were their favorite imitations? What did the use to tie their flies?
In the era of modernism, of synthetic materials and the ready-on-hand fish, it might be interesting to investigate a little in the past and try to discover news and hints which, besides giving us some notions on fishing, allow us to have a more complete idea on Grayling and on his fishing during the past years.
Known in the past with countless names and nicknames (Shadow, Silver Lady…), this fish has a very peculiar history that differs from that of the trout.
The life of the grayling – and its survival, we could say today – is studded in history by negative facts, which was not the case for the trout. Still not so many years ago, grayling was not well accepted by the English anglers purists who even tried to sweep them off the their “trout” rivers because fly fishing was considered only for trout and salmon.
Grayling, on those times, were even considered dangerous for trout and its environment as stated by Davie, in his “Trout and Grayling Fishing”, 1957 because used to feed on eggs of trout with negative consequences on the survival of the salmonid.
All authors agreed on the fact that grayling mostly rest on the river bottom from where it rises to the floating flies in a spectacular and exciting way, this being the cause of many missed strikes by the anglers.
They also agreed on the size for grayling flies to be extremely small (hooks #17-18 and even smaller). Very few report of catches on hooks #14, giving #16 as the biggest size for a floating fly.
Today we have such a wide variety of hook sizes with the smallest being #32, a microscopic piece of iron which, in my personal opinion, is time consuming in tying a fly and grants too many unhooked fish.
Such a small fly might attract more fish which, once hooked, are expected to quit due to the reduced resistance of the hook.
Last but not least such a small fly asks for very thin leaders (0.10; 0.08 or even 0.06mm). In most cases, too weak in moderate/strong current or medium /big sized fish.
Davies also stated that the most suitable flies for grayling should have a red component in their dressing: Red Tag, Red Spinner, Red Ant, Red Palmer…
Charles Ritz agreed on the reduced size of flies for grayling but stated that the fish prefer insects of dark/blackish hues (Schwiebert, Trout, p. 350).
Most authors report that grayling is a very strange and moody fish, in most cases rising to patterns with little or no familiarity with the real fly: blue or shocking combinations like violet-yellow, for example.
Authors fully agreed on the precision of the cast: the fly should pass exactly perpendicular to the fish.
Charles Ritz, in his “Pris sur le Vif”, states that “…natural insects are taken because they are real, they are more numerous on the water; they are alive and moving; they always behave in a natural way; they are free to move being not influenced by a leader. The real handicap for an artificial fly are the hackles which always deform its shape and appearance.”
This leads us to Ritz’ conclusion: the presentation of the fly is responsible for 85% of catches, while the remaining 15% is related to the perfection of the fly.
The Swiss angler suggests quite a number of patterns for grayling, all of them on hook #16-18: Gloire de Neublans, la Loue, la Favorite, Brown Ant, October dun, Purple Iron dun, Blue dun, Scarlet Quill, Sulphur Dun, Chorothepes Picteti, Imago and Subimago, Tup’s Indispensable, Red Tag, Sedge with white or brown wings, Tricolor.
De Boisset, the celebrated French author, in his excellent “Poisson de Sport”, lists 15 dry flies and 15 wet flies, differing a little from those of Ritz. He confirms the Gloire de Neublans being one of the most catching fly and suggests to have always a few in the fly box.
Striking a grayling’s rise leads to different opinions. De Boisset (“L’Ombre, Poisson de Sport”) and P. de Beaulieu (“La peche de l’ombre à la mouche”) state that in case of wet flyfishing striking is neither required nor necessary.
A. Petit, however, insists on a firm and delicate strike when you perceive the attack by the fish thanks to the whitish reflects of its body. Sort of “almost anticipated” strike.
Another point stressed by many authors is the limited dimension of the fish’ mouth which makes difficult a hold by the small hook (reduced penetration of the hook point into the fish flesh).
Today, grayling is fished with a floating fly but in the past wets, or even nymphs, were preferred.
In Cart Plat’s “Grayling Fishing” (1939) a full chapter is dedicated to nymph fishing while the already mentioned Davies mentions the prevailing underwater diet of grayling suggesting not to go fishing without some nymphs patterns.
Burnand and Ritz (“A la Mouche” – 1938) remind us that, in the ancient times, the use of a very long leader with up to 10 flies was very common. No reel and a rather short line completed the outfit.
The long leader with as many flies as possible and the absence of a reel recall a typical Italian technique, known as “Valsesiana” which is still in use mostly in the Piedmont rivers.
Authors suggested the use of a bamboo rod, with a rather soft action to overcome, as far as possible, the fragility of the leaders.
Today, nylon has replaced the old lines and leaders but a softness in the rod is very much appreciated by grayling anglers.
Fishing entering the river as much as possible (wading) was a rule for all the great authors of the past. It is surprising that they did not even consider fishing staying out of the water and this tendency is rather surprising to our eyes.
Our grandparents have always cast to grayling fishing upstream or at least 45° upstream. This is a very good choice even today but perfect curve casts are a must to drive the fly in front of the fish before the leader and the line.
There is still a lot to be discussed when comparing ancient opinions to ours. Today we can rely on more effective equipment but must face different and often more difficult situations.
The taste of ancient times has faded: today, grayling fishing is more dry, more essential, and more refined but not always more pleasant.
Old opinions are sometimes incongruent and not always valid. From the technical point of view our modern way of fishing is more correct but, to be honest, we miss a very important component: the calmness of spirit. That tranquility that shines through the lines of every book of the past.
We are in the age of speed, anxiety, carbon, nylon, #32+ flies and many other endless devilries.
Unfortunately, this is no longer the era of calmness. This is perhaps one of the things to envy to “our old” fly anglers.
The taste of the ancient times – “Consigli di Pesca” – 1985