Talking to the Swale

Chris McCully fishes a day-ticket water in Yorkshire - and catches tricky grayling on a variety of flies

It's impossible, given that we've been surrounded for over 100 years by 'Lady of the Stream' metaphors, not to anthropomorphise the grayling.

If we do so, however, perhaps we should always add Frank Sawyer's laconic rider to Francis Francis's 'Lady' description: '...sometimes a very greedy lady, and a flirt'. I know that I, too, while finding the attribution of human characteristics to fish at best tiresome and at worst distasteful, sometimes do the thing I would not normally do, and imagine, usually while the grayling are flirting, that I'm having an angling dialogue with them. Sometimes, perhaps early and late in the day while the river whispers in the background, the fish are smutting.

At other times, when grayling are taking wind-blown terrestrials, aphids, a hatch of upwinged fly or fall of spinners, the glides are full of excited swirls and those bubbles so characteristic of the aftermath of a grayling's surface movement. When the autumn sky turns leaden, the weather drowly with a sullen cold front, there's sometimes an unexpected hiatus. While the dialogue continues, as an angler one adjusts ' now quickly technical, now relaxed but efficient, and now utterly baffled. How often, in grayling fishing, have I come to bafflement? Yet that also is part of the charm of the colder months.

My fishing diaries tell me that I last caught a grayling on Yorkshire's River Swale on August 18, 1974 ' part of a catch including 'around 30-40 dace' which ran to 6 oz. My 16-year-old self caught these at Topcliffe, near Thirsk, all to the same method: long-trotting with a self-cocking Righyni grayling float loaded with 2 BB shot, under which was a 1.7 lb Bayer link knotted to a size 18 or 20 hook. The solitary grayling ('perhaps 1/2 lb' says the diary with suppressed pride) took at the end of the swim when the float was being momentarily checked and the bait sweeping up in the water'a minor tactic I was to use to catch grayling on the Teviot and Tweed many years later.

However beautifully memory intrigues with our angling solitudes it is not quite the same as actually fishing, and therefore last autumn I resolved to return to the Swale and, if possible, resume what had been a too-long-interrupted conversation with its grayling.

Together with Steve Rhodes and Rod Calbrade ' company as formidable as it is delightful ' I tackled up with the 4-weight just below Richmond, where a generous length of very fine mixed fishing is available on day-tickets. Mixed fishing? Dace and chub are present in these lengths of the river, and longtrotting is permitted during the autumn and winter. Yet during our day's work we didn't see the merest fin-ripple of a dace or chub. Nor did we see another angler.

Where does one begin, on these Dales rivers with their successions of stream, glide, pool and pool-tail? In October and the early part of November, if the weather's mild and open you will usually find grayling early in the day by looking closely at the water of the glides and/or the deeps of pools. Grayling will often betray their presence by smutting.

On a windy day, and particularly if there are bankside trees, grayling will often take small beetles or aphids blown from the foliage. I'd add that at such times, grayling can occasionally be found in very shallow water, sometimes rising in the leaves blown down a line of current. In the forenoon and in the hours around lunchtime, when you can confidently expect a seasonally late hatch of olives, needle-flies and perhaps small sedges, I pay particular attention to the deeper glides, and as autumn wears towards winter, to the streams.

Grayling are partial to any hatches of fly, but on many of these rivers in the early part of the autumn they tend to avoid the trout, which are still feeding in favoured lies at the heads of pools. As the hatch (if there is one) tapers away in the later part of the afternoon, I turn my attention again to the glides and pool-tails where fish will, perhaps sporadically, again be smutting.

Finally, if the autumn weather's warm and the air calm, sedges and needle-flies may still hatch during that last hour of light, and as the day quickly fades one can experience a hectic 20 minutes of conversation as grayling busy themselves with the hatching fly.

I prefer imagining grayling in this way rather than reaching automatically (as many of us do these days) for rows of Klinkh'mers or Goldheads. I'm the first person to admit the great effectiveness of these patterns for grayling, and have a box or two full of them myself, but using them willy-nilly is the piscatorial equivalent of indulging in a monologue.

I prefer to listen ' to the river, the mood of the fish, the fly-life that is (or is not) hatching on and around the stream ' rather than charging heedlessly into the boxes that contain 'something with CDC' and/or 'something weighted'. This approach, too, allows me ' no, it compels me ' to use what seem these days to be quaintly traditional flies on appropriate occasions. Those last 20 minutes of activity, for instance: if the fish are on small hatching sedges or needles then I've never yet found a more effective tactic than an Orange Partridge (size 14-16) fished across and upstream, just under the surface. Many years ago I took a big Wharfe grayling like that, and what was then an accident has grown into a strategy.

During the morning spell below Richmond, however, there was no question of fishing the Orange Partridge. In one corner pool the grayling were smutting, and doing so avidly and in what at first glance looked like absurdly shallow water ' six inches or so, close to the near bank. More careful inspection revealed channels in the gravel, some of them knee-deep, and it was in these channels that the fish were making the subtlest of gestures to smuts trapped in the surface.

You will have your own favourite dry-flies for smutting grayling. One correspondent wrote kindly to me recently extolling the virtues of a size 26 Humpy-style dry-fly constructed wholly from CDC, and I'm sure that if I could see sufficiently well to tie one of those on to a 1.7 lb point I'd raise grayling with it.

Yet as I listen to the conversations of both fish and fishers I must also contend with anno domini in the form of varifocals, and I usually plump for something in size 18 or 20 tied with a palmered genetic hackle. Griffiths Gnat, a tiny Imperial, Grey Duster, and that wonderful grayling pattern, Sturdy's Fancy ' all can and do find a place on the end of my leader when fish are smutting.

On the Swale it was the turn of the Griffiths Gnat (size 18), tied with the merest splodge of Globrite red tail and knotted to a point of 2 lb Maxima. The small grayling milled under it, flicked at it, rose to it and missed it. They broke into peals of laughter at it. And then, finally, after the pool had been rested for the time it takes to drink half a cup of coffee, a decent grayling softly annexed the fly in one of the shallow channels.

It always surprises me how the most casual dimple of a rise can conceal a grayling of 1 lb and more. And this grayling was, I judged, almost exactly 1 lb ' slim, silver and pristine. Another 200 yards upstream, another glide, more smutting, and the conversation resumed: another grayling, just as lovely as the first, swirled gently at the Gnat, was hooked, brought to hand and returned. Meanwhile, Steve had been busy with a brace of grayling the same size as those I'd been catching. These fish he'd taken on a size 18 variant John Storey tied rather as one would a Klinkh'mer. It seemed as if our grayling conversations were aspiring to something almost like a fragment of song (I'll never be callous/About you, Thymallus'.) and we seemed well set for a long and talkative afternoon.

It didn't happen quite like that. During the hours after lunch ' times when one might expect grayling to be most active ' sport slackened almost entirely. I wasted an hour over what appeared to be a small pod of grayling busy at the slower-flowing end of one particular channel, and blush to admit I raised what I'm sure was the same fish a dozen times without once hooking it properly. Eventually giving that one best, I raised others; Steve raised others; we raised others in a baleful chorus. Yet we landed none. We had reached bafflement.

We turned our backs on the fish and made off resolutely towards Easby Abbey, which lies 20 minutes' walk downstream of Richmond Bridge along a disused railway track. Just downstream of the abbey the Swale rushes through a gorge. Upstream of the gorge, however, and under the abbey walls, lies a long, deep glide.

It was well past three o'clock and the light was fading on what had been a dank day, but here and there along the glide one could see grayling busy with smuts and occasionally there was a brisker, more purposeful, rise. I didn't find covering the glide a simple prospect ' there were bushes and trees on my own (right) bank and I was going to have to fiddle about with switch-casts.

Because I'd seen one or two olive spinners I put up a size 18 Pheasant Tail with a sparse blue dun hackle. I suspect the pattern was immaterial. 'It didn't seem to matter,' my notes tell me. 'If they could see it they'd take it.' And there under Easby Abbey everything came right at last, bafflement was forgotten, and they did take it ' with ringing, large-circled and determined rises which even for me were unmissable.

Somewhere in a bush a pair of long-tailed tits screamed at each other, and the abuse continued as I landed and returned one grayling of around 14 inches, then another, and then ' glory be ' another. They were all the same size, the same radical energies in silver and burnished pewter. The conversation even started to acquire a rhythm: cast ' drift ' rise ' tussle ' slip out hook ' amadou patch and reproof ' re-cast'

The day was coming to an end. The grayling had stopped rising, I'd stopped fishing, the tits had called a truce on abuse. Steve and Rod were walking back across the sheep pasture. 'Do any good?' I called. Steve had taken another two grayling and had moved others.

The Swale ' its name derives from Old English swealh meaning 'swilling' ' is reputed to be the fastest-flowing river in England. It wasn't at the time of our visit: that part of Yorkshire had missed the rain falling everywhere else, and in the corners of some pools a thick carpet of leaves rotted on the bottom of the river.

Nevertheless, even in that low water the grayling had done what autumn grayling usually do, and in that lovely part of the Dales we'd enjoyed not only a grand day's work but also the intricate form of reciprocity grayling fishing almost always brings with it. The technically minded would have seen two men going through the angling repertoires implied in their fly-boxes, but at root what I know we were doing was listening to the grayling and talking to a river.

Published on our website courtesy of the Trout and Salmon Magazine.

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