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January 2005 - Grayling fishing

"It's January so it has to be grayling." It is from such simple, one-dimensional flickers of inspiration that fishing trips are assembled. A visit to the River Avon no more than an hour's drive from my home would have been too easy.

For some reason which defies any attempt at logical analysis, I decided that the River Ure at Masham in North Yorkshire would be the perfect place to splash a line in the new year. I suppose it had something to do with unfinished business. An earlier hunt for grayling on the Ure had been thwarted by the presence of an icy mush called grue that sticks to the line and makes fishing impossible. This time it was heavy rain. The river was three feet above its normal winter level and the keeper advised us to stay at home.

But I couldn't do that. I had just bought some new chest waders. "What about the River Don at Penistone?" said Drew Short, a long-time fishing partner who specialises in finding fish in the unlikeliest places. The river was 20 minutes' drive from his house in Holmfirth.

A few years ago the idea would have sounded ridiculous. The Don was one of Yorkshire's most heavily polluted rivers, flowing through textile areas in its upper reaches and on through the industrial towns and cities of Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster before it reached the tidal stretches of the River Ouse.

Then, in the late 1970s, the Yorkshire Water Authority began to improve the habitat. A survey of the river carried out by the Salmon and Trout Association found old prams, car bodies, metal drums, tyres, sewage, offal, oil, salt, corrugated sheeting, foam from detergents and ochre staining of the river stones from iron hydroxide. It was just like all the streams I ever played in as a youngster.

Little of this detritus remains today and the water quality has been transformed to such an extent that the upper reaches now hold breeding populations of grayling and both brown and rainbow trout. Unfortunately, what held for the Ure applied just as strongly for the Don. "Wouldn't it be good if we each caught a nice silver grayling," said Drew, whose consistent optimism is symptomatic of the committed fisherman.

Walking the banksides was like wading along a Paschendale trench, and the stream was not much clearer. Still, we cast out our nymphs in the hope of a miracle as the sleet turned to hail that the wind whipped sideways under the brims of our hats. Snagging my hook in the branches of an overhanging tree was a fitting end to this bleak and all too brief midwinter visit.

So where was I going to get a grayling? As storms swept across the British Isles, rivers began to burst their banks and I did begin to wonder at one stage if the water might come to me. Surely there would not be a river fit enough for fishing. Then I spoke with Simon Cooper, who runs the fishing agency Fishing Breaks, at Nether Wallop. He promised me a sparklingly clear Hampshire chalk stream - part of the Upper Test - 40 minutes from my door.

The forecast for the next day sounded ideal. A thin mist hung over the water glowing in the sharp winter sunlight and the ground was hard with frost as I trekked quietly upstream with Mark Zawadski, the head keeper. I wasn't too hopeful. I never am. Much is said and written about having the right tackle but the real secret of catching fish in these conditions is to sneak up behind them.

When the trout's attention has turned to breeding, the grayling start feeding, so it is not unusual to see a shoal of them grubbing around in the gravel for shrimp. We could see the trout guarding their redds - the shingle depressions where they lay their eggs.

Harder to spot were the ghost-grey flanks of the grayling. Those in groups of three or four tended to see me coming and darted away - eight eyes are better than two.

But there was a single obliging fish in midstream complementing my lack of deftness with a matching lack of awareness. After about a dozen casts in which the nymph was landing with all the grace of a tiny depth charge, the fish took the bait.

I had intended to take one home for the pan but this one was such a lovely, if stupid, specimen it didn't seem right to kill it. So back it went.

The question now is: will it survive subsequent electro-fishing designed to thin out the grayling stocks? Many chalk stream owners regard the grayling as an unwelcome competitor for their cosseted trout. But I like grayling and they ensure some interest when the trout are otherwise engaged.

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