January 2005 -
"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
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
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
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.