The asche, the knab, the mittler, the stalling, the ombre, the vlagzalm, the perek, the smrdlan, the kharious, the jigan, the giazzarolo, the temer, the mutema, the lipan and the Lady of the Stream etc., etc., etc.
Never have I heard of so many names for just one fish. Of course, the extensive distribution of it is part of reason but the other is undoubtedly the esteem in which it is held in some countries. In Germany & Austria there are at least 26 names for the fish; 15 in Italy and 12 in Russia.
The Grayling, or Thymallus thymallus as it is scientifically termed- so called because of wild thyme smell, is one of the most beautiful, most respected and loved yet also the most victimised freshwater fish in the northern hemisphere.
There are a number of species of grayling living in the freshwaters of Europe, Asia and North America between about 400 and 700 latitude North. They are, without question, salmonids and, apart from the presence of an adipose fin – that’s the useless little appendage on the top of the fish near the tail and present in all members of the salmon family – distinguishing features include a large dorsal fin, rather large scales compared to, say a trout, a small mouth and a pear-shaped eye.
Grayling are also found in lakes, particularly in northern parts, but in the United Kingdom it is usually where the still water is part of a river system.
In the extreme north of its range, the grayling is tolerant of salt water and occurs in the sea, although I believe the salt content of the Arctic is less than that in lower latitudes.
The Grayling – at least our grayling – are not found in the Southern Hemisphere although there is a fish called the grayling in Australia but it is no relation at all to Thymallus thymallus.
The earliest record of grayling comes from the south-east of Europe in the Miocene era some 20 million years ago. Grayling fossils of similar antiquity have not been found elsewhere.
What then could have been the conditions allowing grayling to spread so widely?
During the last Ice Age, when the ice sheet spread far south into Europe and North America, much of the plant and animal life of the northern hemisphere was overwhelmed. The Grayling, however, survived in parts of North America and in the Danube basin and from those refuges, over the following centuries, it re-colonised Canada, most of Europe and parts of Asia.
Fossils of grayling and their relatives the trout, salmon, char and whitefish are rare because their habitats are not very conducive to fossil formation – they do not inhabit muddy and swampy areas which are the ideal situations for the formation of fossils. A few populations were sufficiently far south in Asia to have survived during the Ice Age and they are distinct enough to be now classed as separate species. They are the Amur, Mongolian, Hovsgol and Baykal.
Although the grayling’s distribution tends to be patchy, particularly in the south, where it does occur it tends to be generally abundant.
As Lee Berg said in 1948 about grayling fishing in Russia: “The grayling is very abundant in the Anadyr, near Markova: at times one angler could take up to 800 specimens nightly through holes chopped in the ice”. The rest of the world’s grayling, including our own, the European grayling, and the Arctic grayling are nowadays considered to be one species – Thymallus thymallus or a pair of closely related species.
The grayling, whilst being members of the salmon family, spawn in the Spring – leading, of course, to the misconception that are one of the coarse fishes. Why do they call them ‘coarse’ fish anyway – I cannot imagine a carp or barbel or roach deserving the description ‘coarse’.
Spawning takes place on the clean gravel sections of the river in a manner not dissimilar to trout and salmon. The males are very territorial on the spawning grounds chasing away intruding small males.
During spawning the male curves the extended dorsal fin over the female almost like a clasping organ, there is vigorous vibration, eggs and milt are discharged and partially covered by the material stirred up during this vibration. The female may spawn once only or several times in different areas – promiscuous little bats! There is no spawning at night and it is naturally more active during warmer water temperatures of midday.
The grayling is a most strikingly coloured fish and its beauty never fails to astonish the angler who catches one for the first time. The dorsal surface is dark purple, or blue-whilst the flanks are silver grey to dark blue with a pinkish iridescence and often a golden lateral line and are marked with a varying number of V-shaped or diamond-shaped spots. The ventral surfaces are light grey to white. The head is olive-green with a mauve iridescence, and the eye is dark green and gold with the pupil shaped like a teardrop on its side.
The dorsal fin is the singular most characteristic feature of the grayling and is huge! It is basically dark coloured with a narrow mauve edge often with a wider blue band below and vertical rows of orange-red or mauve to emerald green spots. The males have the larger dorsal fins and, as in the way of nature, are the most vividly coloured with females being similarly, but less brightly marked. The young grayling, are deeper in the body than most salmonids, greenish above with a large dorsal fin and 10-20 dark parr marks straddling the lateral line.
The EUROPEAN GRAYLING
It is a species of the central and northern countries of Europe found mainly in rivers and some alpine or alpine type lakes. The grayling is found in many rivers and some lakes in countries throughout Europe such as Italy, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Poland, the Baltic States, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia and ,of course, Scotland, England and Wales. Curiously, it does not occur in Ireland! I have a theory that St. Patrick was taught his environmental management by a keeper for a trout angling syndicate on an English chalk stream. So, after doing something useful like chasing all the snakes out of Ireland he then did a really daft thing and got rid of the grayling!
The ARCTIC GRAYLING
This is a species closely similar to the European grayling and is found in North America and Asia. Arctic grayling occur mainly in rivers but many of the populations are associated with lakes, including the huge Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes. Isolated populations occurred in Michigan and, at high altitude, in Montana, but the Michigan population (where it was abundant last century) is extinct and the Montana population is now limited to a few lakes and streams. There are also grayling reputed to exist in lakes in the Rockies in Colorado and the Colorado Department of Game & Fish lists a grayling record.
In Asia, Arctic grayling occur from the Urals east as far as the Bering Straits. They didn’t make it across the sea though and there are no grayling in Japan. Even if there had been grayling there they would probably have eaten them all by now! There are four types of grayling found in Asia which are sufficiently different to be generally considered as independent species; the Baykal, (both the baykal white and the baykal black); the Hovsgol found in Lake Hovsgol; the Mongolian Grayling and the Amur – a brightly coloured grayling with an unusually large dorsal fin. Perhaps that’s where Roger and I will go the next time we have the cash!
Now that we know where they are to be found how can we catch them? Well let’s first take a quick look at what they eat’. As you might expect feeding intensity is closely related to water temperature – and feeding is at its lowest in February and March when water temperatures are at their lowest, and at a peak in the late spring and early summer – but it is generally high throughout most of the year. Grayling consume both a large variety and a large quantity of food organisms – anorexia is unheard of in the world of the grayling!
GRAYLING RISE FORM
The grayling’s area of vision, encompassing the surface, can trigger a response, in which they glide up from considerable depths to intercept a floating offering. Because they come from so deep and their mouth is much lower down the jaw than that of a trout, a surface fly is taken by the grayling in a near vertical position, quite unlike the trout which generally just raises its position in the stream without changing its orientation.
In general their acceptance of imitations is very much quicker than that of the trout. They have, after all, less time to make a decision since their position near the bottom means they have further to travel than a trout if they are to intercept the fly.While the grayling’s rapid, angled rise often causes it to miss the artificial, it will rise again and again to a carefully re-cast fly. In my experience, a grayling will generally rise 3 times to the same fly before it becomes wary. Wait 5 minutes and it will rise again.
Grayling have softer mouths than trout and demand a gentler strike. They also fight in a more dogged manner than a trout. Unlike trout, they don’t normally dash about like supercharged nuclear subs, but seem to have a greater understanding of hydrodynamics than the stupid trout and use the currents and downstream pressure of the water to help them fight the angler. The challenge posed by the European grayling has led to the proliferation of specific tactics and fly patterns.
The GRAYLING SOCIETY
The Grayling Society was formed in 1977 by a group of enthusiastic game fisherman who wished to protect the Grayling and establish it as a true wild game fish. The object of the Society was and still is, to bring together those interested in Grayling and Grayling fishing and to promote and publicise a proper appreciation amongst Anglers, Riparian Owners, Water Authorities, Conservationists, the Sporting Press and the media generally, of the Grayling as a game fish in its own right and as a member of the Salmon family, and to correct the many misapprehensions regarding it and to conserve stocks and the natural habitat and to prevent exploitation and destruction. Over the years the membership has grown to a total of over 1,200 with members as widely spread throughout the world – even to Australia and New Zealand where there are no grayling.
With special thanks to Steve Skuce