Besides being one of our most beautiful freshwater fish, the grayling is also one of the most misunderstood. Dom Garnett recently spoke to Grayling Society general secretary, John Walker, to hear more about this intriguing fish, including angler led efforts to monitor and conserve populations.
DG: First up, John, many thanks for talking to us to discuss the grayling. The general consensus would seem that the species is better valued these days, but how far have we come?
JW: Well, they are now recognised as a worthy quarry for any angler- but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding and there are still places they’re seen as a pest. If only fisheries saw how much value grayling can add to them, because they’re a great fish to catch!
DG: Absolutely. Whether you enjoy fly fishing or trotting, they’re fantastic fish. But are populations now strong?
JW: Generally speaking, populations are pretty healthy. But they can be quite a fickle species in terms of population. They’re perhaps only truly indigenous in three or four catchments- and numbers can fluctuate for a number of reasons.
DG: Are they as short lived as some say? That can’t be the only factor at play? They’re also quite notoriously delicate fish that demand respect, of course?
JW: They are indeed quite short lived. When anglers catch even really big grayling, they’re often not very old. Six or seven years would be a very old fish. They have a very high metabolism, which explains why they grow quickly, feed well and can be quite easy to catch.
There are other factors that make them a special case, too, though. For one thing, they are quite susceptible to cormorant predation. Unlike trout, they shoal and prefer steady currents, making them easier to pick off. They also need really well oxygenated water- and have a small liver, which makes them highly susceptible to pollution.
DG: So, presumably your grayling catch monitoring form is an attempt to get more of a handle on population sizes and any threats to the species? Tell us a bit more.
JW: Well, we wanted more of that all important data collection, but without the faff that might put off anglers. It had to be easy to use, hence the simple digital app. Anybody can use our catch forms (find them at www.graylingsociety.net/catch-returns) and the system is open to all!
Talking to the various authorities, it became pretty apparent this sort of monitoring was scarce and it was up to anglers to do something themselves, hence our intitiative. At first we considered all kinds of detail, but there was a danger it could get too techy and off-putting, so we’ve kept the form really simple. It’ll work on almost any computer, phone or tablet and is quick and easy. It can also be completely anonymous. It takes about a minute, that’s all!
DG: You also request data for brown trout catches on the same form. Presumably there’s quite an interesting relationship between the two species. I assume they fairly happily co-exist in spite of quite big differences?
JW: They tend to coexist well, although one species will often be the more dominant on a particular stretch of water. For one thing, grayling are designed more as bottom feeders- you only have to look at the mouth. They are also far less territorial than trout and move greater distances. To take just one example of this, there was one site where a weir was removed. Trout numbers seemed to decrease immediately after this, while the grayling suddenly thrived.
Unlike trout and salmon, they are less able to navigate obstacles and barriers. In spite of this, they can easily move up to a kilometre in a couple of days, which explains why they can be absent some days, or suddenly show up on others!
DG: I know they’re also delicate fish. What basic grayling handling guidelines and advice would you give anglers for catch and release fishing?
JW: They do demand respect- and much of the work of the Grayling Society is educating people about conservation. We have a set of easy to follow guidelines on our website (CLICK HERE). I’d also like to give a special mention to the ‘Keep Fish Wet’ best practices that the Society supports, which are well worth checking out.
In general terms, that saying rings absolutely true and the golden rule has to be keep the fish wet where possible! If you can avoid taking them out of the river entirely, so much the better. Barbless hooks are also good practice- with the downturned mouth, you’ll still tend to get a good hook hold.
As for playing, we’d say not to bully them hard, but get them in smoothly and try to land and release them quickly. Give your grayling a chance to recover, too. It can take a fish a few minutes sometimes, so hold them gently into the flow, supporting them underneath. Don’t rock them back and forth, but be patient!
DG: What about keepnets, weighing or photographing fish? Presumably it’s not a great idea to retain fish in a keepnet or to spend too long getting a perfect picture?
JW: They fare really badly in keepnets- and we’re quite reserved about competition fishing. Competitors are often in a hurry, which can discourage careful release. As for weighing, perhaps the best solution is a net with inbuilt scale to keep the fish wet and make this quick.
With pictures, virtually all mine are taken with the fish still wet, and held carefully in the hand or net. The golden rule always has to be put the fish first, rather than that trophy shot or the pounds and ounces!
DG: As a real grayling fanatic, you must have fished some interesting places in your time. What are your favourite settings and methods?
JW: The locations and methods are endless. I love Wales and its rivers, especially, and you can even find stillwater grayling in Bala Lake!
My absolute favourite method of all is dry fly fishing, but I have more success on wet flies such as spiders. You suspect that grayling have quite good colour vision; after all, they have such amazing colours on their fins, so why would they be colourblind? I regularly use beads on my flies, often glass or seed beads which add a lot of colour without excessive weight.
That said, I use anything and anything to tie my flies- colour is a really interesting consideration and perhaps the more colourful the better! I use a lot of flashy and glitzy materials- although funnily enough I also have a good friend who is the total opposite, going drab and realistic all the way. There are so many ways to catch grayling, though. In Croatia and other European countries, they even use small lures.
DG: Many thanks for speaking to us, John. Let’s hope plenty of anglers use the catch return system- and that our efforts to conserve this beautiful species continue.
Further information, grayling catch return form and FREE digital grayling book
To find out more about grayling, fishing methods and the work of the Grayling Society, visit www.graylingsociety.net
The website contains lots of good advice on angling and looking after this great species, as well as an easy to use catch return form. Don’t forget to spread the word to any friends who also fish for grayling!
Last but not least, there is also a FREE book on grayling conservation that comes highly recommended to all anglers! Find this download on the Conservation page of the Grayling Society website- or simply click here. This is a helpful guide not just for anglers but also fishing clubs.
You can also view a special interview with the British Record Grayling captor in our blog archives HERE.