Heading west for some fishy ladies - how I’d love to fish for them here in Norfolk

16:48 14 February 2017

Neill Stephen fly fishes on the Frome. Photo: John Bailey.

Neill Stephen fly fishes on the Frome. Photo: John Bailey.


Latin name Thymallus Thymallus. Often known as Ladies of the Stream, perhaps because of that massive fan-shaped dorsal of theirs. I’m talking, grayling, one of the most beautiful fish that swims UK waters.

John Bailey with a fabulous Frome grayling.

John Bailey with a fabulous Frome grayling.

Here in East Anglia, there are always debates about the grayling. For example, are they indigenous to our eastern flowing rivers?

Probably, once a long time ago. Are there any grayling present in East Anglia today? Probably not, sadly, is the response here. As I’ve written before, the Wensum, in particular, was one of the UK’s most legendary grayling waters a hundred years ago but, after the First World War and the deprivations of the 1920s, the grayling population stocks fell and almost certainly petered out by the 1980s. Isolated reports since then haven’t really convinced me that the grayling stocks here lingered on.

Perhaps the most current of debates is whether grayling should be restocked, principally into its old haunt, the Wensum? Anglers would certainly vote for this reintroduction. There is no doubt about that if my own inquiries are to be believed. I can also say that the majority of landowners would be very interested as well. They would prove a great boon for coarse anglers and fly men alike, especially from November through to March when river fly fishing is off limits.

And they are simply stunning fish. I’ve just returned from an enchanting four days down on Dorset’s River Frome. What a spectacular river it is. It is also managed extremely well, but I’ll come back to that particular point. What I would like to concentrate on first are the extraordinary grayling there.

I think I might just have landed my first 3lb UK grayling, but as my friend’s scales were dodgy, I’m not actually claiming that. However, the last two days I was fishing with friend Neill Stephen, whose scales were impeccable and we recorded at least 15 fish between two and a half pounds and 2lb 15oz. That’s not actually the point. These fish fought majestically, incredibly really given their weight, and looked fantastic.

Despite air temperatures never rising above two degrees, we still managed a hatful. Best of all, we caught them trotting, quiver-tipping and even on the fly. They really are the most magnificent target species in the most difficult conditions. It would be simply wonderful to have these beauties back with us once more.

Watching Neill catch a big grayling on the fly in the half light of early morning was one of angling’s mesmerising moments. I wish you could have been with me to watch him ‘sight’ his fish, stalk it, slide into the crystal water and snake out a fly line through the branches of a willow. The strike, the fight and the sight of that pulsating fish reinforced why angling is an art, why I am an angler and always will be.

In four dawn-till-dusk days down on the Frome, I counted a total of six cormorants overhead during that entire period. I asked one of the keepers, how come so few? His reply was that none of the keepers down the valley tolerated them. They were well aware of the cataclysmic damage that they do to small fish of every species in every freshwater type. They all have culling licences and they are all diligent in their cormorant patrols.

The Sunday just gone, I was lucky enough to be out pike fishing along the Wensum Valley. I didn’t get out too early this time, about 10 o’clock to be honest. And I packed up around four. During that period, I counted 67 cormorants overhead. Is it any wonder that outside the tidal rivers, we question where our smaller fish have gone in both our upper rivers and our stills? Go out anywhere there is water, either early or late, and look to the skies. There, the answer is writ large as these clumsy black birds fly in to the feast.


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