John Bailey: Why are we missing out on a grayling wonderland?

A grayling fisher’s dawn Picture: John Bailey

A grayling fisher’s dawn Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I was fishing on Valentine's Day – and I fell in love.

Imagine catching fish like Ian’s three pounder here in East Anglia Picture: John Bailey

Imagine catching fish like Ian’s three pounder here in East Anglia Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I've been fishing on a secret river for grayling, that most exotic, beautiful and fascinating of all our fishes. I'd like to name the river but I can't out of respect for my host; it is his pride and joy. Understandably.

From a misty morning to a sun-soaked evening, this was fishing to make you sing out loud. The twisting stream. The noble valley. The bird life, the woodlands but, above all, those grayling that came to the net in their shimmering loveliness as the day broadened out into something truly unforgettable. I was blessed to have this day, but we all should have equal grayling opportunities, even those of us living in East Anglia.

If you take my advice and track down a grayling day of your own, chances are you'll go to Yorkshire, Lincolnshire or Derbyshire as the nearest counties to find them. Of course, you could go down to the southern counties, like I have done. Or to Wales, the West Country, north Lancashire or even to Scotland, perhaps the Annan, Tay or Tweed. But you shouldn't need to. You shouldn't have to travel further than our own upper rivers. They are almost all perfectly suited to hold grayling, and indeed, the Wensum did from around 1880 to 1970. During the early part of that period, it was perhaps the greatest grayling stream in the country with the famous anglers of the time flocking to Fakenham to revel in the sport. I know for a fact that grayling even found their way into the upper Bure for a while in the 1980s and actually bred there for a while. I was told they were smuggled in an ice-filled water tank from the pearly waters of the river Kennet and released Ingworth way, though, of course, I wouldn't know any of the facts of the case.

I think that most game and coarse anglers would agree that grayling would give our upper rivers a tremendous boost in the winter time. Coarse anglers could pursue them on a float and with maggots and corn whilst the game angler could target them with nymphs fished Czech style or with a French leader. It would lengthen the season for the trout angler and give the coarse fisher something new and thrilling to enjoy. So, why not?

There is hardly any chance permission for a grayling restocking program would be sanctioned. The belief amongst fishery scientists is that the historic purity of rivers must be maintained. It is probable that grayling were not native to our rivers, though I think the case is still open to dispute. The core of the issue is that river stocks must somehow be preserved in the state they were millennia back. The thing is that we have been tampering with those stocks for centuries and it is mightily hard to say for sure what existed where in 1066 and all that.

Restocking rivers has been hugely successful over the years. Many of the southern grayling came from the river Dove in Derbyshire in the first place. The Hampshire Avon was stocked with barbel near a hundred years ago and thousands of anglers would say 'amen' to that. Here in Norfolk, our chub arrived only back in the 1950s and think what a life saving bonus they have proved to our ailing upper rivers. In many of them they have totally saved our sport.

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We are not idiots, we anglers. We know habitat is vital and we are quite aware that dredging, pollution and abstraction are horrendously damaging. This is not an attack on the fishery teams of the Environment Agency because they are doing what they can. The fact remains that year on year stocks are falling and what we all want and need are more fish. A lot more fish. I'd like to see all of us working towards serious, well-considered restocking programs, accepting Mother Nature cannot cope in these difficult days. Our rivers are screaming for fish. This should not be an academic exercise.

Why not begin with grayling, then? Imagine it. We must have a hundred miles of upper river in East Anglia fit for grayling to thrive in. A crisp February dawn. A frost on the flood meadows. A red-tipped float tripping down the glides. A strike indicator just visible in the diffused light. A take. A strike. A fight up there with a barbel or a big wild brown. And one of the most gloriously beautiful fish that swims gracing your landing net.

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