It’s a head-scratching situation. What do you do when faced with fish so flighty that a heron’s shadow will send them rushing for cover? In high water, grayling form shoals, feel safe in numbers and, driven by rivalry, may throw caution to the wind. But should you find a loner on a quiet river in drought conditions, it will usually be on high alert. Whether you fish on a tumbling spate river or a lush chalkstream, sooner or later a prolonged dry spell will lead to low, clear water, even in winter.

These conditions will give you a great view into the fish’s watery world, but it’s a two-way street because your quarry is as likely to clock you before you identify it. So, despite an understandable eagerness to make a first cast, it may pay to stop and think about your next step before unlatching the fly from its keeper ring. What follows is advice that has brought us and our customers success.



Rods of 10 ft and longer are increasingly popular for nymphing because they help you to hold line clear of the surface, which in turn results in a truer drift of the terminal tackle. The extra reach also helps when it comes to mending line, and perhaps more importantly, ensures a nice clean lift of the line from the water when re-casting. Too often the reason that fish are spooked is line being torn from the water.

10ft fly rod

A 10 ft rod will help you to lift line from the water with less disturbance.


In turbid water, you must rely on searching tactics to find fish. It makes perfect sense to attach three nymphs, but in the serenity of a drought-affected stream or river, a grayling is likely to bolt if a cluster of heavy bugs plops next to it. Far less intrusive is a lightweight single nymph, one with a 2 mm bead or a single layer of lead foil. If it is slim and compact it will still sink sufficiently and will flutter about more naturally than a team of three bugs that are shackled together.


There’s no rhyme or reason when it comes to the colour of nymphs or bugs during low water conditions. Instinctively, most anglers lean towards sombre, subdued dressings. Through experience, we’ve heard of seemingly fickle grayling turn to engulf a bright, flashy bug on its first cast after previously refusing several more natural-looking flies. We would suggest you err on the side of caution and start with dark-coloured flies, only upping the ante when refusals occur.

czech nymph

Don’t right off brighter colours, especially if natural patterns are not producing.


There is much talk about French and other long-leader nymphing tactics. Their aim is to have as little fly-line on the surface as possible so that drifts aren’t corrupted by currents. These methods are undeniably lethal at short and medium range, especially where the water is deep. However, in shallow runs, grayling can be notoriously difficult to approach and you need to make slightly longer casts, in the 40 ft-50 ft range. Disturbance is kept to a minimum by using a conventional tapered leader, which should be as long as conditions allow. A breeze will affect accuracy, especially if it’s blowing downstream.


The overall length of the leader we start with is 20 ft (see diagram above). Note the short 2 ft section of slightly heavier (thicker) monofilament between the tapered and tippet sections. This acts as impetus to provide help with turnover and dampens the effect of an overzealous cast, so that the tippet lands a little crumpled, which allows the fly to sink instantly. This thicker section is often a coloured shade or two of mono, which acts as an indicator so that you can roughly gauge where your flies are, especially when repositioning them (see illustration overleaf).

Attaching thin to thick monofilament is best done using the double grinner (see diagram) because the knots are in essence formed around themselves before being snugged up to one another. To make it easy to connect the tippet, use a small tippet ring. Alternatively, form loops in the end of thick and tippet sections for a loop-to-loop connection.


One of the most agonising questions we ask ourselves when sight fishing is: How far ahead of the fish should I land the fly? Land it too close and it’s likely that the disturbance will alert the fish. Also, there will hardly be time for a lightweight fly to sink sufficiently, so your fly will pass above the fish. Conversely, if the fly is landed too far away from the fish, then fly and line are more likely to be dragged off their intended path of travel. Thankfully, a little leeway exists, especially if you try this ploy.

Regardless of depth, aim to lead the target by some 20 ft and overshoot so that the cast lands beyond the fish (see “Reposition your fly” illustration, above). A fly pitched this far ahead is seldom noticed by the fish. Once the fly has landed, by lifting the rod tip, it can be immediately drawn back until you judge it to be on the correct path to its target.

Or, if you feel the fly will sink too quickly, you can allow it to drift on its original path before easing it back as it nears the fish (see “Drift then lift”, above). This not only puts your fly on the correct path, but lifts it in the water to avoid it snagging the bottom before it reaches the targeted fish. Gauging the distance before you draw back your nymph(s) is very much trial and error. Tread carefully by initially allowing plenty of lead as this provides ample time for you to fine-tune necessary adjustments. Be mindful, too, that because the business end is ultimately tethered to you via a flyline and leader then your flies will invariably track towards you (see Effect of the current”, below) unless you throw in copious amounts of slack. So, make an allowance when deciding where to settle your fly.


know when to strike

Timing the strike when sight nymphing ranks as one of the hardest fishing disciplines because if you lift too soon the fly is merely yanked away from the fish. Wait a fraction too long and not only will the fly be spat out, but your quarry is likely to wander off and sulk. Unless the light is perfect, forget about seeing the wink of a taking grayling’s mouth or a flaring of its gills. Instead, watch the whole fish. Try to present your nymph down the flank (preferably the nearside) of the fish, approximately 1 ft to its side. This way, it has to swing off its station to meet your fly and the moment that it stops is when it has grabbed hold. This is your cue to lift the rod and set the hook.


The way a grayling behaves when seeing your fly will tell you much about its mood and whether it might accept an imitation. Fish that are prepared to move a couple of feet to investigate your fly are clearly on the lookout for food. They might have refused your initial efforts, but their movement should be considered a positive response and you should persevere. A change of fly will often seal the deal, as will paying a little more attention to achieving better drifts without drag.

Beginners often make the mistake of thinking that a fish has not been spooked unless it swims off. Some grayling will seek sanctuary elsewhere, but others will choose to sit tight when sensing danger. If you notice that a grayling has become static after seeing your fly, then the chances are that it knows something’s afoot. These fish will often sink lower, too, appearing to be nailed to the riverbed. Rather than waste time making repeated casts, you’re better off finding a fresh fish.


In slow flows, nymphs that are tethered to heavy tippets lack the freedom to move. Fix this by reducing the tippet diameter. We recommend using 1.3 mm (approx. 3.5 lb) and 1.5 mm (approx. 5 lb), but we would consider 1.2 mm or even 0.10 mm. The latter diameter might seem foolhardy but when it’s matched to a lightweight two- or three-weight rod and fly-line, it’s surprising how resilient it can be.



It sounds obvious, but make sure you move upstream only. By approaching fish from behind, you will have the upper hand and hopefully be able to spot any grayling before they are aware of your presence.

It’s tempting to walk on to an inviting spot, but you may step past a big fish.


It’s tempting to hurry up a river, looking for the best spots and keen to cover as much water as possible. But it’s easy to miss fish and spook plenty, too. The knock-on effect is that alarmed grayling, and trout, will zig-zag upstream, warning other fish along the way before you can locate them.

We can’t stress enough the need to make progress slowly, a pace at a time, leaving a short pause for your eyes to absorb the surroundings. Get in the habit of stooping or slightly twisting your head – this subtle change in angle is often enough to avoid reflecting light on the water, giving you a better view beneath the surface.



A kneeling position will help to obscure your outline, especially when crouched behind bankside foliage. A low winter sun skimming the horizon often hinders sight fishing. In which case extra height can be a distinct advantage to help you gain the angle to peer into dark pools. The larger your profile the more conspicuous you will be and therefore you need to strike a happy medium. Where there is a decent backdrop, standing is okay as long as your movements are subtle. But in wide-open spaces any sizable figure(s) moving on the skyline is bound to spook fish.


Seldom will every grayling you find be in an easy-to-approach lie. Often, trees and bushes above and behind you will hamper your casts and make it almost impossible for a conventional stroke. The best way to get a fly to the fish in this situation is by making a bow-and-arrow cast.


Don’t think that this will restrict the length of your cast to a rod’s length – a surprising distance can be achieved by looping an extra yard or two of leader in your hand, before clutching the fly. With a 10 ft rod, it’s possible to catapult a fly 25 ft-30 ft, which is more than enough in a tight spot. When taking aim, hold the fly by the hookbend or tail to avoid burying the hookpoint in your finger, or the fly skimming your finger and thumb on its release, which can be enough to spoil its anticipated flight towards the fish.

If you require any further information regarding Grayling fishing, please feel free to contact the Angling Active team. We are happy to help.

This article was brought to you in association with Trout & Salmon.