Euro Nymphing for Grayling in Scotland
In Scotland, we are blessed with approx 30,000 lochs filled with wild brown trout and iconic salmon rivers like the River Spey, River Tay, River Tweed, and River Dee. There is a wealth of fishing to choose from.
It’s not well publicised, that Scotland has many world class grayling rivers. The grayling thrive in these clean, well oxygenated Scottish rivers. The natural food source in these rivers is also healthy, and that too, promotes rapid growth, and big fish.
The introduction of grayling to Scottish waters
Grayling are not a native species in Scotland. They were introduced to the River Clyde from Derbyshire (East Midlands of England) in the mid 1800’s, and then by enthusiasts and anglers to the River Annan, Ayr, Earn, Nith, Tay, Teviot and Tweed, where they thrived, and spread to some of their tributaries like the Jed water, Ale, Leader, Ettrick, Whiteadder and Lyne Water.
What do Fishing Guides in Scotland do in the Winter?
I’m the founder of Alba Game Fishing, chief cook, bottle washer and skivvy..oh, and a fishing guide in Scotland. Spring and summer is therefore busy with guests, but winter brings the end of the fishing season, and an opportunity to switch focus on to grayling fishing.
My focus from October is the Lady of the Stream, the Grayling. The amazing Grayling is a true wild fish, and member of the Salmonid family, Latin name (Thymallus thymallus), it’s one of my favourite species to fish for.
Scotland has some of the finest Grayling rivers in Europe. There are two main rivers we target in the winter, the River Annan in South West Scotland, and The River Tweed system in the Scottish Borders region. Both of these rivers hold massive stocks of wild grayling. They are within easy reach of my hometown of North Berwick (near Edinburgh). Most of my winter, off-season days, are spent on business development, or with my son. When I can, I steal time to go and explore the rivers and go fishing.
I caught my first Grayling when I was 11 years old. That was 47 years ago. My mum would have gone crazy, if she knew where I really was. I told her I was fishing on the water of Leith that runs through Edinburgh. I n fact, I sneaked off to the Scottish Borders, on an Eastern Scottish bus. An hour later, I stood peering over a bridge on the Leader Water, a tributary of the Tweed. As I stared into the pool below, I was surprised and hugely excited to spot the shape of a big fish moving slowly upstream.
Uncle Jimmy’s Fly Rod- a snooker cue
I don’t know where my interest in fishing came from. My Uncle Jimmy had dabbled with fishing, but had long since given up. He gave me his unused, 11ft 6inch Daiwa Whisker fly rod. The Whisker was a big floppy sea trout rod, too heavy for trout and designed for single hand sea trout fishing in smaller rivers. I made the most of it nonetheless. It’s added length proved useful when steering bugs and nymphs into awkward spots, even if it felt like a snooker cue. I didn’t know any better back then.
I think in 1973, I pioneered my own form of what’s now called Czech or Euronymphing, without even realising! I had a secondhand Leeda LC100 fly reel, bought from F&D Simpson tackle shop in Edinburgh. In those days, I had to buy tackle with money I had saved from washing cars. I used a 35mm film case as my fly box. It was filled with home tied weighted nymphs and caddis. It was all very crude, but highly effective.
A Leviathan of a Grayling falls
So back to that fish….I scrambled down to the riverbank, positioning myself 50 yards upstream of where I thought the fish might now be. My tactic, was in slowly working downstream, and hope to come into contact.
In those days that section of the river was free from undergrowth, nowadays it’s as wild as the Amazon rainforest. Half way down the pool, the nymphs that were bouncing along the gravel bed nicely, suddenly stopped. This was a section of river bed with snag free gravel, so it could only be one thing. I tightened into a very big fish. After a frantic fight, where I managed to steer the fish away from fallen trees and other snags, I was delighted and surprised to see a huge Grayling shimmering in my crappy old net.
This magnificent silver and iridescent fish, lay temporarily out of his element. Its huge dorsal, and shear beauty, remains a memory that will stay with me forever. It laid the foundations, and a lifetime fascination with this species. The fish weighed a few ounces under 3lb, my first ever grayling! A specimen when you consider the UK record is 4lb 4oz.
How do grayling feed? Are they easy to catch?
The Grayling is a soft mouthed bottom feeder. A Grub Muncher. Their mouth is downturned, aiming towards a diet of nymphs, larvae and shrimp. Smaller fish will occasionally take a dry fly, extending their body almost to a vertical position in the water column to do so.
Grayling can throw the hook easily, especially as we fish barbless. The combination of a huge sail like dorsal fin and soft mouth, allows them to evade capture frequently. Therefore, it pays to play these fish carefully, with a soft, forgiving rod. I prefer a 10ft, two weight rod, that can soak up sudden lunges by a bigger fish.
Best rod length and weight for Grayling?
The best rod for nymph fishing for grayling is a 10-11ft rod 2 or 3 weight. We favour the Orvis Clearwater, and Sage ESN.
What type of flies/ nymphs are best for grayling?
As you can see from the box of Grayling candy below, you’ll need a variety of nymphs in different weights. These nymphs should represent Caddis larvae, RyacohilaIa, Ephemerid nymphs and shrimp patterns. Then you have the dirty section of the box. The weighted salmon eggs, and squirmy worms, which work effectively in the right conditions. I split nymphs up by weight, 4mm, 3.5mm, 3.0mm sized bead heads, and so on. A small inexpensive set of digital pocket jewel scales is also a good way to weigh the nymphs.
The body mass of the nymph, needs also to be considered, as bulky flies don’t sink quickly and get dragged by current.
When you come to fish a run, select a nymph which bounces along the bottom. If that doesn’t happen by the end of Area 1 (see diagram below), switch to a heavier nymph. Jig head hooks are more effective, because as the nymph bounces along the bottom, the hook is turned upward, so less likely to get snagged.
Get down, deeper and down
The heavier 1 gram jig heads will sink quicker in higher water. On days where the water is low and clear, it definitely pays to go down to the smaller, more imitative nymphs.
One, Two or Three Flies when fishing for Winter Grayling?
I prefer fishing a team of three nymphs. I use a small profile fly on the top dropper. This is because, if you are fishing a pool with a uniform bottom, the flow of water just below the surface is faster than on the riverbed. A smaller fly, in the faster current, equals less drag. Importantly less of a chance of the top fly, dragging the lower two in an unnatural presentation.
I use a weighted Caddis pattern on the point fly, when fishing a 3 fly cast. There are two droppers above that, each 12 inches apart. The middle dropper catches more fish when fishing a team of 3 flies, like this. If you pick a mid-weight nymph, like a 3.5mm bead, you’ll find that the nymph is presented at a perfect level just above the anchor pattern.
Best tippet material for grayling?
I cannot stress enough, the importance of choosing the right tippet material, when fishing for grayling. I use Fulling Mill Materclass and Lazer Shogun monofilament at the business end. Both of these tippet materials are supple, and strong for their small diameter.
Fishing the wrong diameter of tippet could have disastrous effect. The greater the diameter of the tippet material, the more drag this creates in the current. This means the flies take longer to sink, or the flies can get dragged by the water resistance of the tippet. Lazer Shogun is highly effective, at 0.14mm diameter, it offers 2.9kg breaking strain. Another factor to consider, is that 5X is less likely to tangle when casting, than 7X, so keep this in mind on days where there is more wind.
In addition to all of this, a more supple tippet material, allows the flies to swim more naturally. It all needs careful consideration.
Best Waders, Boots, and Clothing for a days Grayling fishing
When fishing for grayling, you are often doing a lot of walking in waders, so it’s best to travel light. I carry a small Patagonia pack containing tippet, flies and spare indicator material.
I use a “Living the Dream’ landing net, clipped to my Orvis Pro Wading jacket via a magnet. I carry only one box of carefully selected nymphs, and a bottle of water. I don’t eat when I’m fishing, I’m far too engrossed. The winter days are short enough to fish for 6 hours with focus and determination, and not waste time eating.
Some Grayling anglers swear by neoprene waders when fishing in the winter, as they are warmer. The downside with neoprene though, is that they are cumbersome, and difficult to walk in.
I prefer lightweight waders and multi layers of thermal leggings. The Patagonia Capilene thermal leggings are unbeatable, and I wear underneath a pair of Patagonia Nano puff leggings. This set up is very light and allows easy movement when walking between pools.
The Orvis Pro Guide waders are my choice. These have built in knee pads. These waders have 4-layer Cordura® fabric shell in the upper and 5-layer Cordura fabric shell in the lower legs. This offers unbeatable abrasion and puncture resistance.
Best wading boots for winter grayling fishing
Vibram soled wading boots with PosiGrip Tungsten studs, give you the best footing. You’ll have a good grip on the river bed, and the river bank. Felt soled boots are quiet on the river bed, and grip well. They offer no grip on the river bank though. You need to be surefooted when wading in the Winter months, as a dip in the icy water can really spoil your day.
Winter fishing can be hard on the hands. Fingerless gloves are essential. I also carry a pair of warmer thermal gloves (with fingers) which I change into, when walking between pools.
Keep safe and warm when wading in rivers
If you’re a beginner reading this, make sure your wading belt is very tight. If you do fall in, will allow your waders to fill with water. This can be fatal. You should also wear a good auto – inflate life vest.
Over the years, I’ve suffered cold feet when winter wading. Once your feet get cold, your core temperature drops. Then I started wearing two pairs of Patagonia Merino wool socks. The are warm, and thin enough to double up.
Remote rivers with few people
When fishing in Scotland for Grayling you will seldom see other anglers. The rivers we target are quiet. You can walk 10km of a river, and not see another person. Grayling can shoal, but are often nomadic and solitary. So it pays to move around to prospect fish.
Stay positive if you struggle to find fish. Stay mobile too. Often it will surprise you were fish get caught, so keep an open mind. The photo below shows ideal Grayling habitat. A strong current on the far bank and a lovely seam running on the nearside, with a gravel bottom. In an even current like this, these Grayling can use that dorsal fin in the current to their advantage, and put up a hard fight.
Do grayling shoal?
Grayling can sometimes shoal, usually when the frosty weather sets in. However if your hunting big fish, they are nomadic, and tend to spread out. When you hook a big grayling, it will surprise you with its strength. The huge, sail like, dorsal fin uses the current for purchase. It’s also better to steer grayling into slacker water, when playing them. This will give you a better chance of landing them.
Techniques for Euro nymphing for Grayling
Euronymphing, or straight line nymphing, is a method where you are casting mono to propel the flies to the target. The thinking behind this, is that with no fly line outside the tip of the rod, there is less resistance and a great sensitivity and awareness of subtle takes.
A 10-11ft 2-3 weight rod is ideal for this method, and gives you better control of the flies.
The technique is to pitch your flies upstream and aim for a drag free drift. You hold your rod tip up, and suspend your dropper nymphs up, while letting the tail nymph bounce on the bottom. Your sight indicator should be just above the water line, and visible enough to see subtle takes. The takes come in different guises.
The ‘Stop Take’ is when the nymph just stops progressing downstream. It pays to strike speculatively, as this can often mean a fish has stopped the progress of the nymph downstream.
When a grayling takes with more gusto, the rod lunges over, as the fish grabs the nymph and turns. Then sometimes there are subtle takes, indicated by a small pluck on the line. This is where a sensitive rod, like a 2 weight wins. It helps define the different takes, and therefore delivers a bigger percentage of hook ups.
Casting with nylon, how to avoid tangles
Casting two or three flies using nylon alone, can be tricky. When you are learning this technique, it can be hard to avoid tangles. Find a technique that works for you, and try to get into a casting rhythm that works.
When casting, you should see three visible rings on the surface when the nymphs land. If not, stop immediately, check your cast. Usually two of the flies are tangled together. Stopping to rectify this, means the snag is easier fix. If you carry on, the mess gets magnified.
Always strike downstream, as this deliver better, hook ups. Fish face upstream (obviously) so as the nymph is hoovered up, a swift downstream strike sets the hook often on the scissors rather than the front of the mouth (precarious).
As I mentioned before, I prefer a 2 weight 10ft rod. Firstly because I can feel everything as the nymphs tack down on the bottom. Secondly I find it easier to cast using nylon only. Thirdly, when into a big fish, the rod is very forgiving, and sudden lunges by a grayling are soaked up in the blank.
You can read a review of both rods here.
How to read a river for Grayling
A common question asked is how to read a river? This is very subjective, and dependant on both the river, and the water levels and condition. Here are some tips to help.
Start by asking yourself, where do you think an abundance of food will be channelled to? Some of the best grayling spots are close to a pool, that offers cover during a flood. Grayling like uniformity, and a gravel bottom.
Foam on the surface, is a great indicator to how food is channeled. Try to visualise the river bed in your minds eye. When exploring beats, build a picture of where the holding spots for fish are. Of course they change yearly, as the river gravel shifts with floods. This awareness and connection between habitat and hook ups, is what defines a good grayling angler.
Battleships, the hunt for grayling
When I find a likely spot to prospect, I try and draw a map in my minds eye of where the fish are likely to be. I then cover all likely spots, like prospecting for a hidden destroyer in a game of battleships.
If you find fish and catch a few, sometime the grayling can get spooked and head upstream. Rest the pool for a bit, walk upstream, and sometimes the action begins again.
Be aware also that as the river level rises fish are less likely to stay in the same runs. During a spate, the fish will seek cover of deep eddies and slower seams. Try to think like a fish, where would you go to get food? Where would you shelter? Where can you get flow, food and oxygen, without too much effort to hold in the current?
Catch and Release
All grayling caught on the River Teviot and Tweed, are released safely. We fish exclusively with barbless hooks.
An Ideal Grayling Leader Set up
There are various ways to construct a leader, when Euronymphing. I’m not saying my leader construction is better than anyones, but this leader set up is very effective, and importantly catches fish. When you construct a leader in this way, you can really feel what’s going on, as the nymphs track downstream on the riverbed.
I’m not a fan of tapered French leaders, as they are thicker in diameter, and prone to wind resistance.
What fly line to use…if any?
I like the Mastery Nymph line or the Orvis Nymph line. Both are low diameter and excellent quality. The only time the fly line is outside my rod tip, is when a big fish strips line off the reel. When this happens, low diameter nymphs lines are best, as they have less drag.
I tie a 20ft length of 8lb breaking strain Amnesia to the fly line. This is my main casting line. I then attach a 12-18inch length of indicator tippet, using a three run dropper knot. If you trim the tags, make sure you leave a small section of Amnesia on the upper end. This is then looped with a simple Granny knot to stick out at 90 degrees. This serves as another good sight indicator.
The leader length varies according to the depths you are fishing in. generally I fish with a 10ft leader and three flies. The heavier jig fly on the point. I tend to fish tippet about 0.16mm for heavy flows/ rivers/ fish and 0.10mm diameter for finer fishing. The lower diameter tippet has less resistance, allowing the flies to sink quicker.
The best rivers in Scotland for Grayling
The best grayling rivers are located in the south of Scotland. The River Tweed has a healthy stock of grayling throughout the system. Tributaries like the River Teviot, River Leader, Gala Water, Ale, Jed Water, River Ettrick and The River Whiteadder all hold stocks of grayling. These tributaries are worth exploring, especially when the main River Tweed is in spate.
The River Annan, in the South West of Scotland, is a superb grayling river. The Annan rises in the hills at Annanhead Hill. It then flows through the Devil’s Beef Tub, Moffat and Lockerbie, before reaching the coast at Dumfries and Galloway. The Annan is smaller river than the Tweed, but holds some real specimens. The River With, near the Annan, is also a worthy grayling river. It probably gets less fishing pressure, so is worth exploring.
The River Clyde holds a good population of Grayling, though it’s not a river we focus on. I guess we have too many other choices, closer to home.
Winter in Scotland can be a dark and dreary affair. The devastating effect Christmas has on your wallet, the weather, lack of sunlight and following a football team as mediocre as I do. Grayling fishing is a great way to keep your angling skills sharp, fine tune your fishing skills and prepare for the trout and salmon season ahead.
Take my advice, get out in a Scottish Winter and fish for grayling it’s good for your soul, mental health and sharpens your saw!
I hope this article helps you and whets your appetite to target the Lady of the Stream. Tight Lines and keep those grayling wet when releasing.
If you are looking to join us for a grayling trip, please go here.
Written by Stewart Collingswood founder and Head Guide of Alba Game Fishing
Alba deliver fishing trips and bespoke fishing vacations throughout Scotland for the last 16 years.