Thymallus thymallus, the European grayling, a fish surrounded by contradictions. Although most definitely a salmonid, as clearly demonstrated by the presence of an adipose fin, in many places classed, and indeed treated more or less as a coarse fish, due to its spawning times. Although many anglers now consider it a worthy quarry, and travel a long way for the opportunity to catch them. Unique among salmonids, grayling spawn in late spring and summer. All other salmonids are autumn and winter spawners.
Grayling require clean water to survive, although they prefer well oxygenated water, they can in fact withstand relatively low oxygen levels if forced. Even minor pollution can wipe them out, and in many places, precisely this has occurred. They require relatively cool water, less than 18°C in summer, although they can also withstand somewhat higher temperatures for short periods of time.
Much better eating than trout, and a real delicacy when smoked, winter grayling are also a very worthy adversary, and not to be compared with the slow lazy fish of summer. Best after the end of September, many anglers extend their fly-fishing over the winter months by targeting grayling.
Many trout anglers who catch grayling in the summer months consider them poor fighters. In summer, grayling are not in the best of condition, and even larger fish will put up a relatively poor fight. They are also liable to die rather easily when released. Some time and effort is required to resuscitate grayling before release. They will not stand much handling either, and should preferably be brought to hand and released as soon as possible, without touching them at all, if one can help it. Assuming one wishes to release them in the first place of course.
Often found in small shoals, grayling may be caught using a number of methods, one of which is of course fly-fishing. Large grayling tend to be solitary creatures, and require rather special methods.
Relatively shallow streamy gravelly runs are a favourite haunt of small to medium sized grayling, and they will often be found in such places, in various sized shoals. Older, larger fish, will be found at the head of a shoal, and one may pick these fish off, using the right methods. One such method is to use largish “Klinkhammers”, size 12 or even 10, and fish them downstream!
Usually, the single main problem when grayling fishing, is finding the fish. Shoals move about quite a lot, and what was a good spot one day, may well be empty the next. This does not apply to the large solitary fish of course, but these may require considerable effort and planning to catch. Such large fish do not get large by chance, and they are very wary, and usually in extremely well protected places.
There are a large number of “grayling” flies extant. Peacock-herl-bodied flies are especially popular. These flies will also take trout of course, but many are better known as grayling flies. I have never had any remarkable success with them myself, and have little faith in all the variations. Apart from the “Klinkhammers”, which really are exceptional flies, I like a “Grey Duster” variant, with hares ear body, no tail, and a fairly sparse badger hackle. One really effective and little known fly for winter grayling fishing is a simple “buzzer” (chironomid) pattern. These will often take fish when other patterns fail, but are not in common use on running water. On occasion, the only flies hatching at all in winter will be midges of some description. Using very small flies, like size 20 “Griffiths Gnats”, and similar, as our American cousins often do, will often prove successful. Personally, I almost never go below a size 16, but I have a few friends who use the extremely small flies very successfully.
“Czech nymphing”, and the old traditional “Down and across”, with a team of spiders will also often prove successful for grayling. Nowadays, I invariably use a single fly only. Most of the waters I fish only allow one fly in any case. Whether one fishes upstream or down, is largely dictated by the terrain here. I actually prefer to fish downstream usually, as it tends to be more successful, especially when fishing a shoal. On occasion, dry-fly fishing is better upstream. Sight fishing with nymphs is rarely possible where I fish, and is seldom done. One thing that should be remembered is that grayling will hardly ever feed in cloudy or coloured water. At least not on flies!
Larger grayling specimens tend to be solitary, and territorial, and will usually be found in deep pools, often under tree roots and the like, where they rarely rise to take floating flies, and it is necessary to go deep for them. Heavily weighted flies are often required for this. Tungsten bead-head hare´s ears and similar flies are popular choices. My own choice for this, is either the “creeper” described below, or a very heavily weighted shrimp pattern. Sometimes, even a large woolly bugger will work very well! I have had a lot of success for large grayling, often well in excess of fifty centimetres, with a Woolly Bugger tied using a hare fur base, a grizzly cock hackle, and a short bright green tail.
I also tie some with red tails. But although they catch fish as well, they are nowhere near as successful as the green tailed variants. Unfortunately, I can no longer remember why I tried the green tails. Doubtless I had a reason for doing so, but I failed to note it at the time, and it now escapes me. Whatever the reason may have been, it was a good idea! I seem to vaguely remember catching a lot of grayling with a lot of green stuff in their guts, and this may have been the reason, but I really can no longer remember.
The small mouth myth
Over the years, many angling writers have maintained that grayling have small mouths. To be honest, I can not imagine how this impression arose. One very successful technique here for large grayling, is to use a well-weighted size 6 long shank hook overwound with herl, and a black or brown head hackle. Some people prefer a grey wool body, and a grey hen or partridge hackle. Such a fly was also often used on some rivers in the UK years ago, and was called a “creeper” The fish seem to have no trouble taking it. The Woolly Buggers I mentioned above are also on size 6 long shanks.
Years ago, when I fished in the UK, the standard rod for most river fly-fishing was a nine foot #6 weight. This is actually rather heavy for most stream fishing, and I prefer to use a #3 weight for grayling fishing, and indeed most of my other stream fishing nowadays. Long casts are very rarely needed on the streams I most often fish, a thirty-foot cast being a long one! I usually use a #4 DT silk line on this rig. It casts better, and the presentation is better than with plastic. Grayling here (North of Germany) grow larger than those in the UK. I have no idea why this so. A one-pound grayling in some English streams would be a very nice fish, but is only average here.
Grayling are not as easily spooked as trout, although stealth is still of course required. Many times, I have been standing still in the stream, and looking down, have noted grayling finning near my feet. I have never experienced this with trout. Anybody watching would doubtless have been highly amused at my ridiculous contortions in an attempt to catch such fish! Some day I will maybe even manage it! Site BiteIf you want to learn more about Stealth go here!
As far as fly-patterns go, I would be more than happy with a selection of the patterns mentioned, and I don´t bother with lots of fancy flies. In England I used to carry a fair range of “fancy” grayling flies, but they were never as successful as the ones I use now.
One very popular fly, the “grayling bug” using the famed “Chadwick´s 477” wool, caught me quite a few fish in England, but I now use a simple hare fur bug instead, where such might prove useful, and have noticed no drop in catches. This is just a relatively heavily weighted size 14 or 12 hook relatively thickly dubbed with hare body fur, which I mix so that it has a sort of “fawny pink” colour. No hackle, tail etc, ribbed tightly with wire, either copper or brass (“gold”!), and then well brushed out with a piece of Velcro.
So, how does one go about catching a large grayling? This is not at all easy, and requires special tactics. Normally, most people will never see a large grayling, as there is usually no way of even knowing they are there, apart from actually catching one. There are exceptions to this of course, one is mentioned below.
Special flies alone will also not suffice, although they are required, the tactics are all important. One must also be able to “read” the water, for likely grayling lies. As previously mentioned, these are large solitary fish, and are territorial like big brown trout. They will not roam about much at all, and they will almost never be seen feeding, except perhaps at mayfly time, or when large numbers of caterpillars are falling into the water at certain times of the year from certain types of trees.
One may occasionally get an inkling of such a fish, when seeing it “flash”, or even an occasional “bow-wave” when one is spooked. But as they are usually in deep water, this is by no means common. By “deep”, I mean anything in excess of five feet or so.
For years, many people tried to eradicate grayling in some places, but they are very hardy fish, and about the only thing that will finish them off in a particular place, is pollution.
Among other things, I engage in quite a lot of stream conservation and improvement work, which also involves the stocking and control of fish. I realise that this is not common in other places, and is mostly left to professionals, but here in Germany most clubs are obliged to look after their own water. The clubs I belong to have a “hard-core” of members who engage in this work, and are specially schooled for it. Every club member is obliged to take part in working parties on occasion, but only properly trained and certificated members may use some of the special equipment involved. Some members with special interest go on to take special courses in these disciplines, sometimes a club will finance this, most often the member concerned pays for it himself. Various fishery authorities provide these courses for anglers who are interested, considered suitable, and sponsored by the clubs concerned.
As a consequence, and also because the whole thing fascinates me, I went to the trouble of obtaining various “extra” licences, a long time ago. One of these is a licence to use “electro-fishing” apparatus. Using such equipment on small streams, (in my particular case we use it mainly for removing and collecting brood stock, checking our feeder becks, removing large pike and eels from such feeders, and also for catching seatrout prior to stripping them and rearing to the fry stage in our breeding station), is a real eye-opener! If ever you get the chance to watch or assist in such sampling etc, then take the opportunity. You will gain a very great deal of knowledge as a result, which you would never otherwise obtain. Indeed, it is just as fascinating as angling.
One word of warning here, not least because I get a lot of questions about it. Electro-fishing apparatus is highly specialised and dangerous equipment. It should only be used by trained operators. Attempts to build such equipment, or use batteries and similar stuff, will most likely not work at all, or in some cases put the person so indulging in very considerable danger. Best not to even try!
Electric current has a number of widely varying effects on fish, depending on a whole host of factors. The pH of the water, the resistance (actually the conductivity is usually measured which is 1/R, the reciprocal of resistance), of the water in question, the frequency and type of current, the field strength generated, the strength of the current itself, and the voltage involved. All these variables must be carefully measured, and known, and the equipment set up and adjusted appropriately before commencing to fish. Just blasting a current through the water is dangerous, and not likely to prove successful.
Electrofishing is more or less the standard technique in many places for doing population checks, removing small or unwanted fish, emptying feeder and brood becks, catching fish for stripping (removing eggs and milt for use in breeding stations), collecting brood stock, etc.
Assuming a trained operator, and correct adjustment of the equipment, fish are neither killed nor damaged. They are simply temporarily stunned. The equipment also makes it easier to catch the fish, as once in the field radius, they are attracted to the charged net. Normally there is an operator, and at least two “catchers”, with ordinary nets, who collect the stunned fish the operator misses. The apparatus consists of a metal laced and rimmed net on a long plastic pole. This is one electrode. A long blank copper strip is dragged behind the operator on an insulated lead. This is the second electrode. There are various types of equipment, generator or battery powered. Some may be used from a boat, or towed along behind the operator. The type I have mostly used is a battery-powered backpack. Bloody heavy as well! 🙂
The operational radius of the equipment varies according to water chemistry, (mainly conductivity, but not only), the type of current, voltage and frequency used, and the size of the fish to be caught. (The effects are directly proportional to the body area of the fish). Most equipment in common use has an effective radius of about ten to fifteen feet around the charged net. Some equipment has a much greater field radius. This also depends on many other factors. Such equipment is of greatest use in small streams, and of the least use in deep water, (still or running), as the fish simply dive under the field as soon as they sense it.
There are several effects on fish which are touched by the field. The first one causes flight, then the fish is involuntarily attracted, and then stunned, (in small streams it is virtually impossible for a fish to escape the field). There are a number of physiological effects, which also depend on a whole host of factors. These factors must be ascertained on the spot, and calculated so that the equipment is correctly adjusted before use. Otherwise damage and fatalities will occur.
In most places such equipment is of course illegal, certainly for private use, except for the purposes mentioned, or for scientific study. It is also extremely dangerous, the currents and voltages used can easily kill a man, and horses and cows etc, will be either killed or severely damaged if exposed to such fields. “Safety men”, who keep their eyes open, and are aware of the dangers, are required to be placed at strategic points when using this equipment, in order to prevent such unfortunate occurrences.
When used incorrectly, it can severely damage, or kill fish, especially small fish. “Turning up the Voltage /frequency/ Current etc etc, “ will not catch any more fish, it will simply damage or kill the ones you would have caught anyway. Small fish may go into muscular spasms, which will break or at least severely damage their spines. Other animals like insects, small mammals, crustaceans etc will also be damaged by incorrect use.
Fish subjected to such fields produce far greater amounts of slime afterwards, there are no other visible ill effects, (assuming correct adjustment and operation), and the fish swim off fully recovered, after a very short time.
My apologies for the rather major digression, but I am often asked about electro-fishing, and it seems as good a place as any to explain a little about it. Not least because it explains how I know that there are some very big grayling hanging about in various places, which nobody ever sees!
You may well have no access to such equipment or information, and have never even seen or heard of a sixty centimetre grayling, or even larger ones, and so we must perforce proceed on a number of assumptions.
Assumption number one, is that if there are grayling in a particular water, then there will also be a couple of big ones. Perhaps a fair number.
Assumption number two is that such large grayling behave differently to the rest of the population, and are indeed solitary, territorial, and only found in certain places. You will have to take my word for this at first, until you manage your own “proof”.
What follows, is the distillation of a number of years seeking and catching such fish. If you follow these methods and considerations, you will eventually catch larger grayling. Inside knowledge of a stream, such as may be gained by electro-fishing, scuba diving, and one or two other methods is obviously invaluable, but if you don’t have it, and can’t get it. You need some other way of obtaining it.
Just about the only other feasible way of doing so, is trial and error, and developing an “eye” for the right spots to try. Some common characteristics of such spots will help you to do this.
Tactics used in these spots must be tailored to suit the habits of large grayling. This basically means, that one must be able to reach the fish, and that whatever one reaches the fish with, must look and behave in a manner which is likely to induce it to take.
Normal equipment and tactics are generally useless, and catching a large grayling on “normal” gear is likely to be a very rare and highly serendipitous event.
OK, we’ve all done it. read a book or a magazine article about some clever-shite who wanders around getting paid for catching fish. Often large ones, in interesting and exotic places, which we will never ever see. Wonderful pictures of various stream and river-scapes, and fantastic fish are depicted, perhaps a re-hash of some tactic or other we have all heard a hundred times before, a list of flies, some technical information on lines or rods etc, and that was it.
Long ago, I decided that if I could not visit all these places, then I must find a way of catching such fish and enjoying myself close to home. The reason I explain this, is that anybody reading this can do exactly the same. It requires some application and knowledge, but once you have this, you can not fail. The result is inevitable. After all we are only trying to fool a fish, this is not quantum mechanics.
As I mentioned in a previous article, in my opinion #6 weight rods are far too heavy for most stream fishing, and most especially for grayling fishing. “Oh of course”, everybody doubtless thought at the time, and continued reading avidly, as they would also like to catch lovely fish on light gear, and then went on to wonder how I manage to cast a size six long shank weighted Woolly bugger, green tailed or otherwise, with such a rod.
Well, I will let you into a little secret. Just like all the other clever-shites, I cheat! There is no way you are going to be able to cast such a heavily weighted and wind resistant fly using a standard #3 weight set-up. It is pointless even trying, you will cry tears of frustration, and if the rod does not shatter the first time the heavy fly hits it, then you will doubtless break it across your knee, and curse the fool who ever suggested such a thing to oblivion and worse.
There is however an extremely simple and effective trick which will allow you to cast such a monstrosity, in the manner I will presently describe, without any trouble at all, to the everlasting amazement of your angling companions, (who don’t know the trick yet), and hopefully the inevitable downfall of large numbers of nice fish.
This trick is absolutely germane to many of the techniques I use, I could not possibly do without it, and if forced to, I would probably not catch very much, certainly not many very large grayling.
So, enough suspense building, what do I actually do? Quite simple, I use a heavier line. I never need to cast more than thirty feet, and so I simply use a thirty-foot piece of #6 weight fly-line. I have no trouble at all hurling leaden monstrosities with such a line, and as I never have more than thirty feet of line out, the rod has no trouble handling it either. I have even used a piece of #8 weight line on a #3 weight rod without any problems at all.
So why not use a #6 weight rod to start with? I hear you asking. Because that is not the same thing at all. If one fishes heavy flies on light tippets, then one must perforce use a light rod, as otherwise the rod will simply not provide enough cushioning effect, and the fish will break you. One may use 2 lb tippet on size six long shank woolly buggers with impunity, as long as the rod is light enough to cushion the fight of the fish.
One must indeed constantly check the knots on such a leader, and also change the tippet at the slightest sign of abrasion, or after a hang-up etc. But it works perfectly well.
Standard tapered leaders are useless for this type of fishing. One may use the butt of such a leader, but it must be modified, usually by adding a much heavier butt. We need a good length of light line in order to get down deep quickly, notwithstanding the very heavy fly, in order to stay in the “strike zone” as our American friends say, and a normal leader will not allow this.
“Oh dear!”, I hear some of you mumbling, “That does not sound much like the fly-fishing I know and love”. At this particular point in time, one is bound to decide, does one wish to fish? Or does one wish to catch a few as well? Preferably large ones!
For those of you already sickened by this philistine approach, then cease at once I beg you. Because it gets worse! 🙂
Most people go and buy a fishing rod somewhere, for any number of reasons, and then start trying to get the rest of the tackle they are of course then also obliged to buy, to match it in some way. This very rarely works, and is the main reason why many have awful trouble catching fish.
In this particular instance, we require absolutely specific flies and leaders, in order to attain our objectives. All the other gear used is a direct result of this. If you want to try these methods on a #6 weight rod, then go ahead, but they will not work anywhere near as well.
So, we have our fly, preferably the size six long shank weighted green tailed woolly bugger already mentioned. Other flies may be used, but this one works perfectly, and is easy to tie.
Because such grayling are large, solitary, and territorial, they are also often cannibalistic. “Not the beautiful ´Lady of the Stream´”, I hear some exclaim, “how can this be?”. But I assure you it is indeed the case. Large fish need more food to support them, especially if they wish to keep growing. As a result, they are bound to concentrate their efforts on larger food items, as the energy returns from insects, unless they are in massive abundance, will not even keep them alive.
This is why a woolly bugger is attractive to such a fish, it is large, it moves, and it looks like a nice juicy meal. In most fish, such an object, when presented correctly, will trigger a response of some sort. In larger fish, usually an attack or feeding response. So it is with large grayling. Even small fish will often attack such a fly with abandon.
We have our fly, our rod, our piece of line, and we are about to assemble our leader. Normally I use up to nine feet of 3 lb breaking strain nylon. Just ordinary nylon as sold on the hundred yard spools in any tackle shop. I do like Maxima, but I don’t get heart failure if I have to use something else. I don’t bother with “double strength”, “Fluorocarbon”, or all the other stuff which is now available, as it offers me no particular advantages.
Depending on the depth of water I wish to fish, I tie this long fine tippet to a leader ring, and thence to a heavy, short, steeply tapered butt.
This is easy and quick to do, and is very quickly changed or adjusted at will. If one wishes, one may use an indicator as well, but I don’t, I rely on watching the end of my line, or on “feel”, depending how I am fishing.
Even very deep and quite fast water may be fished properly in this manner. Usually I dead drift the fly through a likely run at least once. If nothing occurs, I move it! Usually the move does the trick. The move can be anything from a couple of twitches, to actually retrieving the fly upstream. The hits are of course unmistakable in such a case, and the fish is nearly always well hooked. It really wants that fly, and makes every attempt to obtain it. Then the fun begins!
Large grayling are very powerful fish, and fight like demons. Unlike trout, and some other fish, they will not run for cover, into weeds etc, but slug it out in the open. Even in small confined pools, the fish behave in this manner, and so one simply has to hang on, and fight the fish in the normal manner.
Basically, grayling love highly oxygenated water. Large grayling will normally be found in deep pools, usually under trees or near obstructions, especially after waterfalls, the deep tails of streamy bubbly runs and similar. So all you now need to do, is go along and simply prospect in such places. You may be extremely pleasantly surprised. I do hope so.
For a time, fortunately short, rather early on in my long and chequered angling career, I was an adherent of the so called “exact imitation” school. I imitated, or tried to, everything I read, from hats, to rod, to reels, and a lot of other stuff besides, but I drew the line at trying to exactly imitate flies!:)
Most of the obtainable books at the time, concerned chalk stream fishing, and much of the information therein contained was rather useless to someone who fished North country rivers and becks. In most cases, three dry flies will suffice for practically any eventuality on such streams, and carrying more just wastes space. Mind you, I carry a large number of flies nowadays, but I know what they represent and when to use them, and I do so because I enjoy doing so, and not because I feel I have to.
I remember the first time I used a dry fly in the presence of an old acquaintance on a beck we were fishing. After watching me messing about for a while with floatant, false casting it, and all the usual hanky-panky with amadou etc… My acquaintance strolled up to me and said, “Just spit on it lad, that´ll sink it”. I did not bother even trying to explain.
Most anglers, indeed probably all, go through various phases as they progress in their fishing careers. One of these is often the compulsion to carry enormous numbers of flies. This is invariably contra-productive, as at the beginning, they have no idea when or how to use them. I remember struggling to memorise Latin names of various insects for quite a while. Rather a useless exercise, as it did not help me to identify the actual insects any more accurately. It is only later that such knowledge became of practical use.
Asked by a friend of mine on the stream to explain what my “Weighted Green-tailed Woolly Bugger” was designed to represent, I simply replied “Fish food”. he was not impressed. He asked me what I thought the fish took it for, and was equally unimpressed when I replied “I have no idea, but they take it well!”.
“Well, what does it look like to you?” he persisted. The reply to this got him somewhat agitated, as I said “It looks like a weighted green-tailed Woolly bugger to me”. ( my weighted flies have a small spot of red varnish on the head, so I know that they are weighted). With many of my weighted flies, this red varnish is indeed somewhat superfluous, as I would simply need to drop them, and listen to the earth shudder from the ensuing impact.
Of course I like to catch fish rising to flies on a good imitation of what they are taking. It is a most satisfactory and enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, if I relied on it for my fishing, I would only be able to go about twice a year! Hatches such as described in much chalk stream literature, simply do not occur where I fish, and not in many other places either. On most streams and rivers, a veritable potpourri of insects is usually flying around, sometimes in large numbers, but this may only very rarely be referred to as a “hatch” in the normal sense. There may be several hundred different insects abroad, in all shapes colours and sizes. Luckily, fish are not usually at all selective on such occasions, and will take practically any well presented fly which lands in their immediate vicinity. Or not, as the case may be. Having an exact match for something is usually very much less important than the presentation involved.
And so we come to grayling flies. There are hordes of these artificials, many so similar that it would be absolutely pointless to carry more than one pattern. Whether you use a “Red Tag”, “Treacle Parkin”, “Sturdy´s Fancy”, “Bradshaw´s Delight”, or “Fred Bloggs´ inevitable”, is probably quite immaterial. The only things that these flies, and a host of other similar ones can possibly represent with any degree of accuracy, are terrestrial beetles, and similar insects. Add to this, that one is often fishing in the depths of winter, and there is absolutely no sign of anything even remotely similar, either around, or on the water, then the pointlessness of carrying large numbers of such things with various coloured hackles, and sporting varicoloured arse ends becomes apparent.
In view of this, kidding yourself that you are fishing “correct imitations” of anything at all, when using these flies, is pure delusion. Usually, you would be better off with a few sparse spiders or similar in any case.
My most killing fly for grayling, and many other fish, all year round, and under a host of circumstances, is without a shadow of a doubt the “Klinkhamer” from Hans van Klinken. Much controversy surrounds this fly, and discussions rage as to whether it is a dry-fly, an emerger, a wet-fly, etc etc, and the ethics of using it under certain circumstances, and so on and so forth.
Regardless of all this, it is one of the most interesting modern fly-developments of all, and one of the most successful. It works best when tied as its inventor intends it to be tied, although variations will also work. You can find the original, and the developments and improvements later included, here ; complete with background info, tying instructions, and straight from the “horse´s mouth” as it were. Thus saving you a long and doubtless unnecessarily involved diatribe on my part.
One other pattern I would not like to be without in Winter, is the “Grey Duster” variant I already mentioned in a previous article, This is my “standby upstream dry fly for winter grayling”. The Klinkhamer will of course work upstream as well. Also, I usually have a few buzzer imitations, some weighted hare fur shrimps, and a few sparse Yorkshire spiders.
I don´t usually use bead-head “nymphs”, as I don´t like them much. They will work alright, and some people use them practically to the exclusion of all else. I prefer not to use them. One reason is, that such things will “ding” a rod very badly, and even shatter a tip, if one miscalculates, or the wind decides to be uncooperative. This will rarely happen with a woolly bugger, or a fly in which the weight is covered with dubbing, or well hackled etc.
As I don´t fish for grayling in summer, I don´t have any flies specifically for catching them then. They will in any case take any of the above, and a host of “normal” trout flies then in any case, so the problem, should it be one, does not really arise.
Tactics for using these flies are important, and here are a few. The buzzer, a black one is usually enough, although I have a range of colours, ( one after all has to do something with all those reels of tying silk, and similar material obtained at great expense and trouble over the years !:)), should be small, no larger than a 16, and fished on a fine tippet greased up to an inch or so before the fly, and this presented dead drift. Owing to the peculiarity exhibited by the larger shoal grayling of staying at the front of the shoal, this operation is best carried out from upstream.
Much the same applies to the “Klinkhamer”, except the leader should be degreased, ( pulling through a piece of Fuller´s earth mixed with washing up liquid, or a small damp sponge, soaked in the washing up liquid), and the parachute hackle treated with floatant. No floatant should get on the body!!! I like to pre-treat the hackles with watershed. Otherwise I mainly use Permaflote, which I still have a supply of.
Amazing as it may seem, grayling will take even very large examples of these flies, size 8 and larger, quite confidently. Even though once again, there is nothing even remotely similar floating around at the time.
In both the above cases, a normal tapered leader, about one and a half times the length of the rod, made up to your preferred specifications, will prove more than adequate. If you use shorter leaders, you may have various problems. Leaders are required to allow good casting. If you practice casting on grass, or in the back yard etc, then you should still use a leader.
Sparse spiders, I like Stewarts “semi-palmered”, and “full-palmered” spiders, as well as some sparse dressings with just a collar hackle, as the fancy takes me, may also be fished on the same leader, which should be thoroughly degreased beforehand. In this case, the wet flies should be small, once again, no larger than a sixteen.
The “Grey duster” can be fished wet or dry, as the fancy takes you. If you wish to fish it dry, then a little more hackle than in the wet version helps, but don´t overdo it.
Weighted fur shrimps may also be fished on the same leader, but the tippet should be longer. Appropriate to the depth you wish to fish. They may be trundled along dead drift, given a little action ( a “little” action is the watchword here, shrimps can not travel upstream at a rate of knots, under any circumstances whatever).
One may make up a “cast” of flies, using a weighted shrimp on the point, a spider on the first dropper, and a buzzer on the top dropper. Such a cast can be amazingly successful. One is of course covering a fair bit of the water column with it. This may be used “across and down”, or however it takes your fancy.
When smaller flies are being “worked”, either swinging them around, or giving them movement in some other way, you will experience a fair few “misses”. This is in the nature of the beast. The fish are not “coming short”, they are having difficulty taking the fly properly. Changing flies or sizes, is invariably a waste of time in such circumstances. Best to change tactics if it is very bad.
Using a piece of split shot, instead of a point fly, may be of advantage in some places, or even instead of the first dropper. This allows one to present the flies at a specific depth. One must adjust the tippet to allow this. I like the “leader rings” invented by Edgar Pitzenbauer for this. They save a lot of time, trouble and expense.
Last, but by no means least. One may also fish the weighted green-tailed woolly bugger on a normal leader. In relatively shallow water, its weight is sufficient to take it down to the fish. One may also increase tippet length to increase depth. Dead drift it first, and if nothing happens, move it. Move it “slowly”!!. When dead drifting, cast well upstream, and allow the fly to sink well, perhaps by mending. Even heavily weighted flies will not sink far on a taut leader. Even on a slack leader, they need time, and a chance to do so.
For the sub-surface techniques mentioned, one may also use an indicator, cork, foam, yarn, etc, or a “Klinkhamer” with a buoyant post. This will take a few fish in its own right usually.
For the surface techniques, or when a fly is being actively “worked” an indicator is just a hindrance.
All these tactics can be used on any half-way “normal” rod. Best in my opinion for most circumstances is a nine foot #4 weight, although I actually personally prefer a three weight. I overline this with a #4 DT silk line, as I prefer the superior control, casting capability, and presentation which a silk line allows. This has nothing to do with traditionalism, or purism etc etc. It is simply better suited to the purpose. Plastic lines will work alright though.
For the very heavy flies, remember to use a heavier line if you are having trouble casting. You should be able to cast easily, “lobbing” or “chuck and duck” is inadvisable, as you lose control too easily. Rather softer rods are better when casting heavy flies, as the action is slower, and this helps to create rather wider casting loops, which will keep the flies away from you, help prevent tangles with multi-rigged flies, and you will be less likely to “ding” the rod. Such a rod will also protect fine tippets much better than a heavier or stiffer implement.
Shoals of grayling will generally be found in relatively “open”water, in the middle of the stream, or of the runs concerned. It is usually a complete waste of time fishing close to the banks, undercuts, etc, as you will simply end up hooking a lot of out-of season trout, and virtually no grayling.
Several techniques have actually been covered here, some “tight-line” techniques, and some “slack-line” techniques. What these are, how to differentiate between them, and how to set them up and use them, is really the subject for another article.
Crunching underfoot, and making an awful lot of noise in the still air, the frozen snow surface breaks through at every step, jarring uncomfortably occasionally, as the distance to the solid sheet ice below it is misjudged, and my feet come down too hard.
About a foot deep in most places, but sometimes more, the going is quite difficult, I am forced to lift my feet very high before each step. I am glad of my neoprene thigh waders. Only a lunatic would go wading in this weather in thigh waders, but they are certainly keeping me warm and dry, even when I sink into the occasional hole or depression under the snow.
My exhalations form little clouds, suspended unmoving in the completely windless air, and rise slowly upwards as I trudge on.
Trees and bushes hanging low with a heavy coat of ice, some already broken under the unaccustomed load, add a rather festive air to the proceedings, somewhat reminiscent of overly decorated Christmas trees.Looking back over a series of fields and fences, the virgin snow, broken only by my tracks, testifies to the fact that nobody else is abroad, or has been for a while.
The last snowfall occurred two days ago, and since then nobody has ventured this way. Little puffs of vapour hang in the air behind me, slowly rising and dissipating, looking more than anything like the trail of an errant steam engine.
Just after seven in the morning, and with the sky lightening rapidly, I carry on along the river, stopping occasionally to view the prospects, and then moving on again. After about forty minutes fairly brisk although sometimes difficult walk, I reach my first target area, and commence operations.
My gear is already prepared, I had tackled up at the car before starting out, and all that remains is to tie on a fly.
Scanning the fairly wide deep flat with my binoculars from a safe distance, I finally espy a ring at the tail of the flat, in relatively shallow water. It is quickly followed by two further rings slightly further down, and this is repeated several time in the space of ten minutes.
Rises in the middle of flat shallow water, over gravel in the depths of winter? Could only be Grayling. Good, that is my intended quarry.
Try as I might, I can discern nothing hatching. As far as I can tell, no flies or other insects of any description whatsoever, are abroad. Checking deep under a nearby bush in a spiders web, which also glitters with tiny ice pearls, I discover a few smallish grey coloured midges which look fairly fresh.
I very rarely fish extremely small flies, and these are smaller than anything in my box, but undaunted, I mount one of my “old faithful´s” in such conditions, a size sixteen hares ear bodied fly, no tail, and with just three turns of short badger hackle.
My flies are invariably pre-treated nowadays, so messing about with floatant is not necessary, and I tie the fly on, after adding a foot of tippet to my tapered knotless leader. Drawing the tippet and leader through my soap soaked sponge is all that is required.
Several overhanging bushes to my left preclude getting below the fish and reaching them with an upstream cast, and so I remain where I am, and cast a fair way straight downstream and across with a “wiggle” cast, immediately paying out line as the fly lands.
After about three or four feet the fly starts dragging, and just at this moment it disappears in a ring! Striking gently, with a short pull of the left hand, I am immediately rewarded by a wild plunging and head shaking on the end of my line. After a very spirited fight, a very nice grayling of 45 cm comes to hand.
The water is icy cold, although I have not measured the temperature, I doubt it is much over 5°C, and it takes a while for my hands to warm up again after landing and despatching the fish. A warming cup of tea with just a small dash of “sweetener” occupies a few minutes, while I wait in the same position, for further developments.
Grayling, unlike trout, are not easily spooked, unless one does something really foolish, and sure enough, after about ten minutes, a solitary ring appears just below where the first fish was taken. Identical tactics culminate in an almost identical result, and a second fish, practically the twin of the first, lands in my creel.
Despite a further twenty minute wait, and another cup of tea, nothing else moves.
Unsure as to whether the fish are still there, and simply no longer feeding, or have decided to seek less dangerous pastures, I change my tactics.
The dry fly is snipped off, the tippet removed, and replaced by a piece about three feet long, to which is attached a size sixteen, lightly weighted, brushed hares ear nymph.
Three casts later, allowing the nymph to trundle across the flat, with an occasional twitch of the line, the line tip dips, and I once again strike gently with a short left hand pull.
This is a much larger fish, and puts up a very good fight, using its large dorsal fin to good advantage in the relatively fast water. Eventually it also comes to hand, ( traditionally, no net is used when grayling fishing), and is despatched and admired before being consigned to the creel, where it only just fits, being 52cm. A very good fish indeed.
One more fish for my “limit”, and I move down a few yards to a break in the bushes, and deploy my binoculars once again. Some thirty feet away, right at the tail of the flat, where the water starts deepening and getting faster as it funnels into the next cascade, I see a small shoal of grayling holding steady in the current.
They are not apparently feeding, just finning and remaining stationary in the current. Five fish, all of reasonable size in line abreast, like old warships waiting to engage in battle.
I squat between the bushes watching them for a while, they do nothing at all.
This being one of the few occasions when I have a camera along, I decide to try and photograph the fish. Although I have no trouble whatever seeing them perfectly clearly through my polarised binoculars, I can not see a thing through the viewfinder of the camera, and an experimental click on the shutter release, merely serves to confirm that my luck with regard to cameras is holding true. Nothing happens!
I suppose the cold is too much for the accus. The second set of accus from my inside pocket proves no better, and after considerable extremely inventive cursing, fortunately heard by nobody, and which presumably is entirely wasted on the fish, and “lovingly” packing the %””&$&$ useless piece of high tech “$$&% back into its padded waterproof case, ( although a watery grave seemed more appropriate at the time) I reluctantly give up my attempts.
After another cup of tea, and a final long glance at the fish through my glasses, I decide not to try for them. Three decent fish is enough.
Dismantling my gear, I walk slowly back through the snow to the car.
Although I did not have many trips this year, and this was only a relatively short one, I was away for less than five hours all told, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was once again charmed by the pleasures of fishing in a “winter wonderland”.
I only fell down a couple of times, (I must get some studded waders for winter fishing), and I never got close enough to the river to fall in!
On the way home I bought some freshly baked bread and one or two other things, as my neighbour and I have invited a few people round for supper. My neighbour is enjoying a stiff rum grog, ( as indeed am I ), and keeping an eye on the smoker, where the fish are presently sojourning, along with a few others, while I write this short trip report.
Back out to the smoker now, a few neighbours and friends have turned up for a grog and a bit of hot smoked fish. Just the right conditions for it as well, -4°C, twilight, snow about a foot deep, and still a few snowflakes falling, the trees and bushes lit by our open fire, indeterminate but pleasant music drifting on the air from the shed beside the smoker, we will get the guitars, banjos, harmonicas, and so on, out later, aromatic smoke, and the smell of fish cooking, the distant sound of hunters engaged in a drive, with an occasional horn blast, or gunshot floating over the woods and fields around my house.
A very nice day, and it has not ended yet. Rather a shame I don´t like fish ! Oh well, I can always have a sandwich, and at least I like rum grogs ! 🙂
Hope you had such a nice one too.
Finding specific spots where one may regularly catch fish in winter requires very careful observation, and a lot of deduction. Intimate stream knowledge is also more or less essential. Although it is possible to find certain areas and conditions on streams you do not know, and also make some deductions, it is far more difficult to do so, than on your home water.
Midges hatch throughout the year, even in winter. Unfortunately, they may only hatch in certain specific areas. Fish of course , will be found in these areas. One reason for the success of all sorts of outlandish concoctions for grayling, is that if they are actively feeding, and see what looks like a reasonable mouthful, they will simply grab it, whatever it looks like. If they are not feeding, then they will usualy ignore practically anything you throw at them, except for things like woolly buggers etc, which they can not afford to pass up.
The main reason for the fish feeding in such spots is that the midges hatch there, or very close by. If you check that water exactly, you will find a slower deeper spot with some silt/mud or similar, and the midges hatch from this, and a constant parade of them drifts down the feeding lane. I noticed this peculiarity in quite a few places, a long time ago, and actually checked it out by diving to the bottom of the stream and checking the surroundings ( I used to have scuba gear). I damn near froze anyway, a wet suit is not much use in a cold stream as I discovered, especially if you are getting in and out all the time, but I gained a lot of invaluable information.
In the mainly freestone ( rocky spate rivers),streams I used to fish, there were a few places where amounts of mud or silt became deposited, and the midges and their larvae only exist there. Sand, gravel, scoured rock etc etc is completely barren of midges usually. They need mud/silt to live in.
Some of these spots change from year to year, due to flooding etc, but some remain constant. Some pockets of silt may be small, in a crack in the stream bed, in a depression etc, but enough to support a population of midges.
In all the spots I knew where this behaviour was apparent, and checked, there was mud or silt close by. Sieving this produced larvae. Where there was just sand or gravel, there were no midges to speak of, and no fish either.
It has invariably also proved so since. There are quite a few such spots on my home stream. Others which look similar have no silt/mud for the midges to live in close by, and the fish in them ( fewer fish usually) will not look at midges.
Midging grayling on freestone streams, will only be found in such spots in winter. It is often a waste of time trying the midge anywhere else, they don´t even look at it. They are more likely to grab a mobile wet fly. or even a dry. At other times, especially in summer and autumn, they are found almost exclusively in gravelly streams.
It is my belief that this is one reason why fish may always be found at such spots in winter. This is borne out by the fact that when such fish are killed, cleaned, and inspected, they have a very large proportion of midges in their guts. Fish caught in other spots have virtually none.
Sometimes the fish will key on the larvae, sometimes on the pupae, especially during a hatch of course, as the insects spend time in the water column, while ascending, and may also spend some time in the film as well, although sometimes they come off very quickly, depends on the weather, and the strength of the film, and sometimes the fish will key in on the emerging or adult midges.
Because midges are more or less a universal insect, although of course species may vary, relatively few patterns suffice for them, irrespective of where they are found.
My favourite author on midges at the moment is Brian Chan, and you can get a lot of his stuff here:
All well worth a careful read. Some of these patterns are quite deadly for midge feeding fish.
For some odd reason, many anglers, especially in Europe,( and specifically in the UK) more or less ignore midges ( meaning chironomids ), totally, on moving water, although many fish with them consistently on still waters, sometimes practically to the exclusion of all else.
I have had some of my best winter fish on them over the years, and best days as well. Many times I have caught fish on both still and running water which were chock full of chironomid larvae, or pupae. The main problem when massive hatches come off, is getting your artificial noticed. Although this is rarely a problem on running water in winter. I generally exaggerate the breathing filaments, if I am using “standard” ties, ( see below)and try for a brighter colour, a hook size larger, or even two, and occasionally a complete colour contrast. All these things work quite consistently.
The various techniques used are also important on still water. Less so on running water, as these are more or less normal presentation techniques which one would use with other flies as well.
I hardly ever use hooks ( in fact practically never nowadays ) smaller than #18, indeed very rarely indeed below a #16.
These midges are found in large numbers in practically any body of water. Cold clear freestone streams do not have massive populations when compared to other waters, but still massive in terms of sheer numbers. In actual fact, in most places it is rare to catch a fish ( practically any fish, not just trout and grayling), without some form of chironomid in its gut.
One of my most successful patterns is the plain old “Snipe and purple” soft hackle spider. I tie the silk more around the bend, and rib it with silk or wire. Changing the silk colour gives you a whole range of patterns. Starling hackle works more or less just as well. I have these in sizes from #18 to #8 in a range of colours. Red, green, brown etc etc. They all work well depending on the colour of the “midge de jour”. You can clip the hackle on some and you have a hatching pupa imitation. They usually work better than more complex patterns as well.
Regarding “midge” pools. I have found that it is nowhere near as successful to fish with midges in “barren” pools, or in the runs below them. You will occasionally take a fish, but not as consistently. The fish in the “midge” pools, and below them, are sitting there waiting for the insects to drift along. In other pools, without mud/silt etc, such a fly might be taken serendipitously, but you can not rely on it.
When I fish my “midge” pools, I fish the pools and the runs below them, and then change flies for the stretches in between, if I want to try fishing them, as the midge is just not as productive outside these areas.
This mainly applies to freestone and similar relatively “barren” streams. On others I will confidently fish a midge all day. Usually a snipe and purple upstream in the film, just like a dry fly.
Midge larvae are quite difficult to imitate successfully. These are also known as “bloodworms”, and although I have tried quite a few patterns, none were as yet particularly successful on running water. In still water I have caught a lot of fish on bloodworm imitations. In slow rivers, these are the staple diet of many fish, including carp, roach dace, bream etc etc.
Fast flowing freestone streams are not conducive to fishing bloodworm imitations really. Some extremely successful coarse fishermen use these as bait on tiny hooks, the larvae are glued on with a spot of superglue, as they would otherwise burst and become useless. The #32 crystal hooks from Mustad were produced for just such a purpose. I assume you will not want to do this!:) You get very cold hands anyway, grubbing about in the mud for worms!
The pupae and the hatching adults are your best bet. As an aside, it is my belief that the “Klinkhåmmer” from Hans van Klinken is probably more often taken for a hatching or crippled chironomid than for anything else, and is one reason why it is such an effective general pattern. Especially in the original tie from Hans himself. Many “Klinkhåmmers” you see in shops etc bear little resemblance to his design. It is hardly ever even spelled correctly, as most European and other keyboards do not have the characters necessary readily available, quite apart from the charcter sets which may be loaded.
By the way, although the creatures mainly under discussion hereare called “midges”, they are by no means always small. Some get very large, and are an attractive mouthful for the fish. especially if large numbers are hatching. The only other authors I know with much relevant information on chironomids are mainly British stillwater specialists. I know of none of them on the web.
Although some of the following is primarily of interest on stillwaters. The patterns and techniques practically all work well on running water. most especially for grayling. Here are a couple more pages on entomology, patterns etc etc.
You should have a good look around the whole site. There is some very worthwhile stuff on chironomids.
There is one point stated here which I disagree with however, and that is that the larvae will be found on any type of bottom. I have never found them except in silt or mud. Sand laced with various detritus may contain them, but they are usually only found in oxygen poor environments. The larvae are often bright red, as a result of the large amounts of haemoglobin they require to survive in such environments, which are known as “anaerobic”.
Our rivers do occasionally freeze to an extent, but it is quite rare, and even under such conditions, even a little sunshine will often provoke a midge hatch. Midges are without a doubt one of the most important insects in winter. Trout are out of season here in winter, but they are still often caught when fishing for grayling. In winter it is fairly common to find trout and grayling in such midge pool places, especially in deep slow water. In summer you will rarely find grayling there, and nowhere near as many trout either. Mostly though, trout will be holed up somewhere in an undercut bank, or deep hole, conserving energy.
There are one or two pools on my home stream that are full of fish in winter, simply because of the midges, and perhaps because of one other linked phenomenon ( see below ). In summer the fish redistribute themselves,as more insects and other food becomes available. In winter, midges are practically the only things moving at all.
One other point which might be of interest, although it is difficult to check. The water flowing over silt/mud, and rotting detritus generally, is warmer than the other water in the area. This is presumably because of the heat generated by the decomposition, and the insulating properties of the mud. All the chironomid larvae I have found have been found in such conditions. The temperature difference can be appreciable. This may cause conditions similar to those pertaining in still water with a “thermocline”, and fish may be holdimng at a veryspecific depth because of this.
You need special equipment to check this, but I have measured a steadily decreasing water temperature gradient above such mud, the mud itself sometimes being ten or more degrees warmer than the water. As such deposits are only found in relatively slow moving areas, the water directly above the mud warms up.
The water three feet above the mud ( in the water column),and ten feet below it ( in stream flow direction ), was up to two or three degrees warmer than the rest of the water flowing past, which in this particular stream is otherwise a fairly constant 6…8°C for most of the winter, although this temperature varies a lot at various parts of the stream. Chironomid larvae and especially hatching pupae were inevitably found in this “warm stream”. This is still the case when the surface is frozen. The “cold” water eventually mixes with the “warm” water of course, but at the spots where this occurs there are often quite sharply delineated areas.
It is basically the exact opposite of looking for fish in summer when the water is too warm. One is then looking for cold springs, inflows etc. where the fish feel comfortable, and there is a food supply. Comfort being the first priority in this case.
In winter, the warmer water near such mud seems to be preferred, which would also help to explain why fish congregate in such places, apart from the supply of midges. There are lots of variables of course. The fish seem to hang around at the edges of such places, and do not apparently venture into the anaerobic regions. ( Understandably! )
The mud itself contains virtually no oxygen, and in summer such places are not always good fishing, as the water here is badly oxygenated. Fewer fish are found in these areas in summer. Presumably the temperature in such places in summer is also higher than the surroundings. I have never checked that. Interesting to find out. I will put that on my list of things to do this summer.
One of the main tricks here is to use a fly with just enough weight, and a long enough leader to reach the bottom, or the depth at which the fish are holding, and stay there, but still allow you to “brake” the fly gently without it lifting too much. If you hang up on the bottom occasionally, you have it right.
You may “cheat” here by using a piece of split shot on a dropper off your main leader. This may be anything from six inches to eighteen inches long, depending on how far off the bottom you wish to fish. You should use an unweighted fly then of course.
This rig is best fished with an indicator of some sort, as takes are often very delicate indeed, and you will miss many at first. For some reason many people find it easier interpret an indicator, than the end of a fly line. The indicator will also help to keep the flies at the correct depth. The fly line may be pulled under. The length of the leader is very important here. If it is too short and thick the rig will not fish properly. If too long, you will miss too many takes. When fished correctly, by holding the line slightly taut, ( try not to fish with the line taut though ), you should be able to “feel” the split shot “ticking” along the bottom. If it stops, or you see the indicator move etc etc, immediately strike with your line hand. don´t move the rod. The rod should be pointing at, and “following” the indicator at all times during the cast.
Tippet length and size are also very important indeed. In deep water I will use up to nine feet of tippet on a seven foot leader. Occasionally even more if the water is very deep and the area is not too confined. ( Long tippets love trees and bushes! :)). Shorter, thicker leaders, or heavy tippets simply will not reach the fish.
You may also “high stick” very successfully with the rig described. It is also good for reaching deep water when required, and is just as versatile in shallow runs.
This technique works well for imitative flies like chironomid pupae, nymphs etc, and is very productive, although very work intensive, and after a while somewhat boring. One “fishes the water”. It will be necessary to modify the rig for every pool and run, regarding weight, tippet length etc. One reason for using a ring connector for attaching your dropper and tippet in the first place. Knots are a nuisance, especially in winter with cold hands, and the ring allows you infinite variation without ruining leaders etc.
These are tiny silver rings available from some dealers. If you have problems, Sportfish in the UK stock them. They are virtually weightless, and do not affect casting etc. In fact I also use them for dry fly fishing, this means I can use the same leader all day, and just add or remove tippet as required. They are absolutely ideal for dropper fishing.
In slow spots, it is often best to treat the situation as if you were on stillwater with a slow current. ( There is of course virtually no such thing as absolutely still water, some sort of current is always there, even on sheltered lakes). In this case “slow” means something else.
It is unfortunate that so many terms like “slow” “fast” cold” “warm” are completely relative, and as a result often inaccurate and difficult to define. By slow in this case I mean either at the same speed as the slowest current, or slower. This may seem difficult, but is merely a matter of practice. In slower spots, the water at the bottom of the pool etc, moves more slowly than the surface current, in fact there may be little movement dead on the bottom.
Your fly, a weighted woolly bugger for instance, is cast above the spot you wish to fish, allowed to sink, and then “followed around” by your rod tip, much like high stick nymphing. Here just watch the bow in the line hanging from your rod tip, if it sags, straightens etc, strike immediately with your line hand. You can of course also use an indicator here as well. Watching the line tip is most effective, but also the most diffciult skill to acquire. At any range, it is also entirely dependent on more or less perfect eyesight.
Once the fly is below you, a slow retrieve ( although you may vary this of course) just inching the line in with your line hand is often very successful. A retrieve slightly across the current is always more successful then straight up against it. You may also pay out line slowly from your left hand allowing the fly to tumble downstream, stopping occasionally or giving a few short pulls etc. This often results in a strike, and is good in low clear water where you do not want to scare fish by casting. The only difficulty here is maintaining contact with your fly while it is tumbling downstream. One reason why a larger fly like a woolly bugger works best here, is that you can “feel” it more easily than a small fly.
Sometimes even stripping quite fast will work, although some fish will flee in panic from such a fly, the line disturbs the water as well, and it is best to try this as a “last resort” before moving to another spot.
“Dead-drifting” is a slack line technique, and requires considerable practice to do it properly without using tricks like the split shot rig described. At first you will either miss all the takes, or indeed not even realise you had any. Then you will begin to notice them, but miss most, and after a while you will start catching plenty of fish. There is no substitute for practice and experience here, you have to do it in order to realise what is involved.
It should also be realised, ( if not already obvious from the above), that current speeds may vary considerably in the water column, and that the speed of a “dead drift” on or near the bottom may be a lot slower or faster than on the surface. If you are not getting any takes, then it may be due to this. Try braking the line gently to slow down the drift. ( This is then the borderline between dead drifting and tight line fishing). Or throw an upstream mend.
Throw a slight downstream mend in your line to speed it up, etc etc.
The classic “dead drift” is a drag free dry fly floating downstream, and this is what people usually mean when they say “dead drifting” . When sub-surface fishing things are complicated by the third dimension ( depth), as the current speed may vary considerably in the water column. Small amounts of drag will not cause much harm usually, but it is common for fish to refuse “dragging” sub-surface flies. It may actually be beneficial though on occasion, this is a case of trial and error.
I usually start by dead drifting, and if that produces no response, I move on to other techniques. For upstream fishing with small flies, dead drifting is the most productive technique. Some “inducement”, like lifting the rod, jigglin the line, etc may be used to advantage on occasion, but should be done with restraint.
Once again, streamers and large flies may be actively stripped downstream, or forced to travel downstream very fast, by using downstream mended loops to “tow” them, and this often produces savage responses from the fish. Trial and error. This “U” mending technique is excellent for this, as control is easier. You can not strip line as well, or in the same manner.
Fish holding in cover in cold water in winter, will rarely leave that cover to grab dead drifted flies, unless it looks as if it might be worth their while to do so. They can not afford to waste much energy on minor titbits. If there is a midge hatch in progress, and the fish are actively feeding, then they will be in their feeding stations, and not in cover.
Fishing to cover station holders in winter is very difficult indeed, for a number of reasons. The fish are not actively feeding, and must be provoked into doing so. A midge or similar fly is unlikely to be successful here. A streamer or a woolly bugger, etc are much better bets.
Casting the fly beyond the cover, and then retrieving it up past it, ( or down past it ), and to one side, is often successful, but be careful not to let your fly get directly behind or directly in front of the fish, they will often simply panic then. Here one is attempting to stimulate either an attack reflex, or a feeding reflex, but in a fish which is not actively feeding. This can be very frustrating at times. Fishing to feeding fish is much easier.
One last point here, in very cold water, in winter, fish are easily completely exhausted very rapidly. ( Much the same as when the water is too warm in summer, but for slightly different reasons). Small fish ( or those which you intend to release in any case), should be played out and released as quickly as possible, they will die otherwise, their energy reserves are low, and their metabolism is not capable of producing the energy required for prolonged battles.
Fish are “cold blooded”, meaning they are dependent on their environment for body temperature. The body temperature controls the metabolic rate, and is directly responsible for the speed with which energy may be generated and used by the animal. One reason why even small temperature changes may have drastic effects on their behaviour. They do not use any of their food energy for generating body temperature, and are consequently at the mercy of every whim of climate.
In very cold water the fishes metabolism is slowed down considerably, (if it is cold enough, then actually to a standstill, which will kill the fish anyway), and this also has several other consequences. The fish does not need to eat as much, which is just as well, as not much is available in very cold (fresh), water usually. It still may feed occasionally, (although some fish do not feed at all in cold water), but not as often, and not as much.
All fish have certain ranges of temperature in which they can survive, some of these are very narrow ranges, some quite wide. This is directly dependent on the metabolic rate of the fish involved.
This is also why one is able to tell a fishes age by counting the rings on its scales. These mark periods of good versus bad feeding, and correspond to the climactic changes over the year, and in actual fact reflect the changes in metabolic rate. Even if a lot of food is available, it is no use to the fish at low temperatures, it can not even digest it properly.
As an interesting aside, it is not possible to count “year” rings on scales or otoliths etc from fish which live at constant temperatures with a regular food supply. Aquarium fish for instance. Their metabolic rate stays constant.
I believe that most fish (especially trout), caught in very cold water are caught as a result of reflex action, either the attack impulse, or reflexive feeding reactions. Very few will be actively feeding. On slightly warmer days midge hatches may occur, and if the water is warm enough, the fish will then feed on them. Even if a massive hatch occurs in very cold water, the fish will not feed, because they are simply unable to.
Severe exertion when the metabolic rate is very slow will kill a fish quite quickly, it is simply not capable of converting enough energy at a great enough rate for any prolonged antics, and will quickly build up muscle poisons. This does not stop it trying to do so, ( this is an automatic reaction in many animals, the fish of course has no control over it ), and it is then obliged to mobilise its emergency reserves almost immediately, and these are very quickly exhausted, also being affected by the slow metabolic rate. It will tire very quickly, and even after release, because it is still not capable of releasing any backup energy, it will not recover for a long time, if at all. Especially small fish will die very quickly under such circumstances.
This is independent of the oxygen situation. In cold running water the oxygen content is normally more than sufficient. Oxygen is required to burn calories and provide energy, if the metabolic rate is very slow, this process is no longer efficient. The oxygen is useless to the fish, as it can not convert any calories to use with it.
This is the main reason why fish caught in very cold water do not put up much of a fight at all, they are unable to mobilise any reserves. Many trout caught in winter will be very thin, as they have already used up much of their summer reserves, most especially after spawning. These fish will often die minutes after being released.
One reason I try to avoid catching trout in winter. ( They are legally out of season in any case), I target grayling on my home stream, and it is relatively easy to avoid catching trout usually.
This is not limited to freestone streams either, although these can be extreme, quite a few other streams and more than a few lakes often suffer from such phenomena. When the water temperature is at or above a certain level, the fish are forced to feed or starve, their metabolism demands it. In “cold” water ( as it relates to the temperature range of the fish concerned), most fish can go for a very considerable time without feeding, in “warm” water they must feed regularly in order to survive, and of course to grow.
Fish like trout and grayling are “regular” feeders usually, if their environment allows it, this means they may feed several times a day. Other fish like pike and some others, are “irregular” feeders, and one large meal may last them a week or longer. There are exceptions, larger cannibal trout and grayling do not feed so often, and smaller pike in relatively sparse environments may also only feed once a day or even less on smaller fish.