Monday 29 October 2012

50 Shades of Grayling

Right now, grayling are the species du jour.  However, during my childhood, grayling were considered to be a pest, taking up resources for trout.  I’ve always thought that they were beautiful creatures with their De Stijl, colouring: slate grey flanks with a large black and red fin.  Nowadays, ever eclectic fishermen are constantly on the hunt for truly wild fish. These pretty creatures, which have never been stocked, fit the bill perfectly. As ever ahead of his time, they were also Charles Ritz’s favourite fish and considered them most difficult to catch;

“If I had to classify fly fishermen, I should place the grayling fisherman in the first rank, then the trout fishermen of the chalk streams and, finally, the trout fishermen of other rivers”.
Charles Ritz,  A Flyfisher's Life
1st Shade
The first fish I ever caught was a grayling. I was maybe four, five, six or seven years old. I remember it well. My father had placed me on a wooden footbridge on the River Itchen. I was using the same rod he used as a boy and I had been told to be careful with it. He had tied on a Butcher for me; it’s an old fashioned sea trout fly tied with silver, black and red. I let my line float down stream and watched it glint amongst the emerald floating blankets of weed. I felt the fish take the hook. I remember my parents telling me to keep my rod up as I played it. I remember feeling really pleased with myself when my father netted it. It was my fish. My first fish and I had to eat ti and so it was duly despatched and barbecued the next day.

2nd Shade
I caught a really big grayling this season. I’m not normally one for boasting because I struggle sometimes with people who do because I don’t often believe them.  I’ve broken all my own rules as I have been telling everyone I know how big it was. I don’t expect you to believe me.  For all its size it was an easy fish to catch. After a gentle take and a hard, long fight in a fast current my father was able to net it into my inadequately sized scoop net. He also measured it. It was 21” long.

3rd Shade
Another big grayling. I caught this on the Eden with Mr Chips and NCA.  It was a hard earned fish on a difficult and hugely wet day.  In this instance, I remember the fish less and the fishing more. I had been guided skilfully all weekend and had failed to catch a fish. In the fading light NCA and I spotted the fins and tails of an active fish in a steadily rising river.  I sneaked a cast up to it and uncharacteristically didn’t bottle it and miss the rise.  Strangely, this grayling felt like a big trout it felt shakier on the line than it should. When I caught it, I could have have been a little disappointed, I was after one of the famously vicious Eden trout. I couldn’t have been more pleased and neither could have my companions.  It had really been a team effort to get this rather shoddy fisherwoman to catch something.

The Other Shades
I admit that I have been known to target grayling with the express purpose of removing them (but not killing them) so that I can get at a prized trout. It rarely works. On the whole I don’t like catching grayling, they feel too precious somehow. When they are young, they feel so skittish and flap so much it’s a bit like catching a pretty moth and trying to release it outdoors without crushing its wings.  When grayling get large and old, they shoal up together like war veterans in a rest home.  I can’t help but think they deserve their peace.  I’ve been trying to express how odd grayling are.  They are wild and precious but can be annoying getting in the way of catching their flashier, blonder cousin the trout.  To look at they appear to be at once ridiculously delicate but also solid and steady.  Grayling have many shades, they are hard to explain or understand.  Perhaps, this is why, piscatorial gentlemen of yore called them ladies.

The title of this post was courtesy of Philip Miles.  Top photograph and grayling caught and photographed by Dave Smith. Bottom Photograph by  Matt Eastham.  All hold copyright of their words and images. 

Tuesday 21 August 2012

On Perfection

Wikipedia defines perfection as,“a state of completeness and flawlessness”. I think this has something to do with Pi and circles and maths. 

When most of us think of perfection, I think we think of perfectionists. You know, the fastidious types whose desks are tidy and whose pencils are sharp and who run their lives by Excel spreadsheet. I am rarely like that. I have my moments though. I am hypercritical of bad grammar in others; I know my blog is littered with mistakes but grammar matters. I wish I could apply such a critical eye over my own writings. I also am really fussy about saucepans and plates in cupboards. Everything has its proper place. I am fussy about hanging pictures, the fonts on labels and tea pots in display cases. It’s my job to be this way. I am a curator, being fussy about detail is what we are good at. I bring my work home sometimes; once I made my housemate re-hang all of his pictures in his bedroom. This is the pursuit of flawlessness. However, a correct sentence, a straight picture and a beautifully placed teapot, though flawless in execution, lack a certain completeness on their own.

To explain further, imagine this scenario. It's a true story. Place yourself on a warm, cloudy day on the banks of a southern chalkstream. Gin clear water filled with feeding fish. Gin clear water containing the biggest trout you have seen for years. It’s at least 6lbs, it’s probably 8lbs. It shouldn’t be in that castable spot. You look ahead and realise its proper home is tucked into the near bank, under a bush, impossible to get to. It’s on a holiday, the one day a year where she will expose herself to some sun. Fat Mrs Haversham leaves the attic. You walk past, you come back and watch her. She’s eating nymphs very near the surface but not quite on it. You tie on your scruffy version of a Wyatts DHE. When you grease it, you feel a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Predator”, psyching yourself up preparing your weapons for the big guy. It’s tense.You begin. One gentle cast behind it to get your judgement right. You go for the money cast. They never work first time. Well, not for me. For once, it works. The fly falls gloriously, floppily and with deadly accuracy. You watch the fly, you watch her. Her mouth opens, it’s about the size of a saucer. Her mouth opens for me, for my fly. You flinch in surprise, the fly moves. You hear a “sploosh” like someone dropping a champagne bottle in a bathtub, confirming its size like a slap in the face. She’s gone back down, without your fly. So, flawlessness without completeness.

Whilst I participated in this indulgence, my mother was teaching my Physicist how to cast. He is brilliant. Somehow, he seemed instinctively to get the "pause". The "pause" which all fly fisherman know, is an essential part of casting. The "pause" following a back cast, is the difference between a staright line and a nasty tangle. He talked physics at me, explaining the theory of casting, he used the word "synchronicity" which I liked, whilst executing a series of pretty decent casts. I have never felt more proud. He’s a long way off flawless, but the fact he caught a fish, played many and has mastered the theory of casting makes me feel like I am on the path to completeness.

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Monday 11 June 2012

Fluvial Lesbianism and Performance Anxiety

I’ve been having an affair with a woman, well a female. I’ve been sneaking out furtively when I can. Packing up special outfits and equipment and leaving work quickly. I’ve taken to texting the Physicist with excuses as well. “I’ll talk later”. “I’m out, not sure when I’ll be back”. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you”. Before we panic, I’m talking about the Pretty Ditch, my club water.

She hasn’t been kind to me. I’m just not used to her. I’m trying to get to know her, what she likes and what she needs. She’s just fickle and ever changing.
Her high sided banks are either overcrowded with trees or thick with nettles and flowers. I find myself grabbing on to over-hanging branches; straddling them as I try to scramble up muddy banks to avoid a dark, deep hole. She runs slowly, then, turn a corner and she is riffling quickly over rocks. Her bed is sometimes silty and sometimes gravelsome. On rare occasions it is lush and covered with weed. Her fluctuating nature, is my excuse, my reason for having so far managed to catch only a grayling and roach all season.

I wish I could say that I was more successful and more pleasing to trout on other rivers. I blanked on the Eden and blanked on Driffield Beck. Admittedly one day it was scorching hot, the other day is was bucketing down with rain and blowing a gale. At Driffield, I fared better and was rather proud to have risen about six fish in difficult conditions. I also lost one good trout when I tied a knot badly. It was the end of the day and my fingers were bloody cold. I seemed to have suffered from a sort of fly fishing premature ejaculation. I was nervous and striking too quickly; beginnings without ends and excitement without orgasm. I'm worried I’ve lost my fishing mojo. Luckily this poor performance didn't put off my man of dishonour (male maid of honour) who joined me fishing for the first time. Bizarrely, he was riveted by the experience and vows to join me again but wearing a waterproof and wellies. I am afraid he spent the trip damp and hungry. Seemingly, unlike females, men are easy to please.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Words on Water

I've wanted a home river for ages now. I've been a peripatetic day ticket fisherman all my life. I am now a member of an angling club and have all the access I need to the Pretty Ditch, when it isn't filled to the brim.
Today I had lunch with close friends like I have done many times over the years.  A little baby has recently joined our elite set of thinkers and jokers. Her gurgling and screaming made me feel like I was in the midst of my Yorkshire family. I waddled, gammon and chocolate-filled to my little rented terrace along the river, the Ouse in York. Its burst banks had recently subsided leaving a muddy film smeared all over its walkways.

For much of the year it is a benign and pleasant distraction on my walk into town. Its banks are crowded by tourists, cyclists, smug runners and dishevelled intoxicated students.  The concrete, brick and gravel taming it into a wide water feature.
Today I was reminded of its wildness. I nearly trod on the chewed remains of a pike. A few steps further and I saw the final resting place of a large bream.

 The strange, rapid rise and fall were too quick for these poor creatures.  Further on and a large branch has alighted itself on the park bench, an odd juxtaposition worthy of Andy Goldsworthy.The viewing dock is wrapped in yet more branches and a television.
I’ve never fished the Ouse. It’s not really occurred to me to. I have to admit that I am a little put off by the lonely men yanking out roach as they smoke roll-ups and the likely lads spinning violently for pike.  Because I have never fished it I had ruled it out as my home river.
The debris, the dead fish and the slippery mud knocked sense into me. A hundred yards from my house and some steps take me to its banks.  This river is home.  I’ve walked up and down it countless times. When I walk it now I always think of the endlessly repetitive conversations I've shared with ex-house-mate, colleague and man of honour, about Masterchef, London and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There is also a certain spot, where, after a jolly afternoon sinking impromptu cocktails he found relief. I still giggle each time I pass it.
The street lights and the sight of a modern, multi-coloured bridge have guided me home at times when it really would be more appropriate to take a cab. I am drawn to the Ouse. It offers a safe haven away from the night time, horrendous customers of kebab shops and the Wetherspoons following a day at York Racecourse.  One evening I saw a huge pike loll and roll on its flanks under a bush on the opposite bank. I like to imagine it had just swallowed a coot.
I’ll always remember watching the minnows jump and shimmy away from another large pike under the orange glare by Brownie Dyke Lane. In this instance it wasn’t because I’m an angler and I like these things. It’s because I was with my Physicist on a balmy July evening. He talked about the Manhattan Project and I realised then that he would never bore me. So I kissed him.

 * I bought Caught by the River: A Collection of Words on Water three years ago and became immersed in its tales of other people's rivers. Pretty soon afterwards I decided to start this blog in the dream of perhaps, when pigs have flown be able to write like those guys. I write this post today in homage to that book and accompanying website.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Thus I, faltering forward....

It was time to go.  I've been cooped up inside far too long. I’ve been living on my own for the last month. I've enjoyed the space and the knowledge that any hair I find in the bathroom is mine and mine alone. However, time and space can lead to a cluttered mind.  I needed a room without walls with water flowing right through it. Time to head outside.

So last night I packed up, sorted through reams of rotted reels of line and scrambled together a fly assortment of sorts. I bought Scotch-eggs and filled the thermoses. Yes, for the first time this year I was going fishing.

I’d been dying to try out the Pretty Ditch all season, work and rain and Swiss-based-husbands-to-be have prevented me so far.  The Pretty Ditch is my club water and I’ve been looking forward to working with her all year.  She was looking rather scruffy, like a deranged woman returned from drinking.  She had clearly almost flooded and the flow through her reminded me of the might River Eden.    After an hour trudging through her and up her, I learned so much.  Today she was cloudy but she is always high-sided and crowded with trees.  You can’t cast far, so controlling the drag on a sole nymph through a raging stream was difficult. I added a dropper and put a klink on, hopefully helping me see. This is a nod to allowing the dry fly fish more naturally. I am unused to duos, I am unused to casting with trees and bank everywhere and so very soon I got very used to ghastly tangles.

I switched to using a progressive New Zealand style.  Here you tie the dry and then attach the nymph to the bend of a hook.  Using this method, your dry fly really is little more than an indicator.
I needed it today, I couldn’t read the pull of my line fast enough in the water and this way the fly and nymph tangle up a lot, lot less.   If I had more space I would prefer to use a dropper but it was helping me get used to the weight of two flies.

Catching my first fish of the season was glorious. I paused when I spotted some flitting olives knowing that a rise couldn’t be far away. I snipped off the foreign klink and dink set up and put on a dry.  Two dodgy casts and one perfect one gave me a small and gorgeous grayling.

I ploughed on upstream and the Pretty Ditch gave me a big surprise in the form of a big drop into a deep hole. I nearly lost me and I certainly lost my net which ended my delayed season’s first trip prematurely.

Today was a start, not the one I hoped for but there’s plenty of time to make up for it. Next weekend I return to my Pretty Ditch.

Monday 23 April 2012


People, I have tied a total of three flies since January and I haven't been fishing yet. Something is up. I can blame a lot of it on work being quite busy but fun. However, it's something different, something new. It's not like trying coarse fishing. It's more familiar, yet different, maybe like nymphing. No,more glamorous, salt-water flyfishing. Not even like that, it's more of an adventure, more comfortable more joy making. Yes more joyful, glorious even. It's better than a generous sprinkling of may flies on damp day. The master river scribe Chris Yates has come closest to describing how I feel.
" It’s as if I’ve discovered – blimey, I can do other things in life, other than fish!  It’s exciting."
All evidence points to the fact that there is more to life than fishing, it's called physics, or at the very least a certain Physicist. Sod, it. Let's call it love.

Saturday 18 February 2012


Oh dear. I’m here again ranting about wimmin and fishin’ again. It’s very boring, and this is no way to start a posting. My lovely friend, who runs the brilliant Ladies Fishing, asked the editor of a very well known British Magazine when they would feature women on the front cover. Here was his response:

Tried it once, back in 1996. Pretty brunette, long, bare arms in a fishing waistcoat... remember it well. Thought: "with a huge male readership, this issue's sales are going to be sky high". So, can anyone tell me why it was the worst seller ever?

I suppose I had better answer his question. I think I have to think about what men were like in 1996. I like to think that all men were either mourning the split up of the Stone Roses and participating in lager fuelled Oasis V Blur debates. If they were in Edinburgh, they were clearly shooting up heroine and seeing babies crawl along ceilings and getting lost in the toilet and shouting “lager, lager, lager, shouting”. .. Were they indeed feeling guilty about living in a house, a very big house in the country and buying animals floating in formaldehyde? Did they take girls to the supermarket? Not knowing why but having to start it somewhere, so they started it. There. Did they wear three lions on their shirts only to tear them off again condemning them forever to mixed feelings about Gareth Southgate? A possible answer could be that they had other things on their mind like Kate Moss in Calvin Klein adverts and Louise Wener.

I was 14 in 1996 and buying the NME every single week. It was a ritual a sacrifice to music that was starting to dominate my life. My best friend and I decorated our room with images of Jarvis Cocker and pretentiously left copies of The Face strewn over our boarding school bunk beds. I would listen to John Peel every night and I felt like the coolest girl on earth. Come to think of it, buying The Face at 14 was pretty cool. However, I don’t think either of us really knew what on earth we were reading our minds were probably a little bit too addled by Tim Wheeler of Ash and that lad from the Bluetones.

My long-winded, nostalgia ridden point is this: 1996 was rather a while ago; John Major was Prime Minister, O.J Simpson went on trial. Times have changed.
More women have taken up fly fishing and its popularity is growing. We weren’t all killed by BSE, the Stone Roses have reformed. Oasis won. Dear Mr Editor, please roll with it, move with the times or I’ll have to draw upon something called Girl Power, invented in 1996 by the Spice Girls.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Going Coarse....

I think my little world is changing and going fishing this Sunday has made it clear. Things are moving on nicely with the Physicist. I took him home for Christmas and we are still together so I view this as successful. The family seem to like him; my aunt would even like his babies, apparently.
I found myself this weekend in the odd position of having an "'im indoors". It's like an 'er indoors but with testicles. I have been tidied up after, shopped for and have been very well cared for all week whilst at work. Somehow, I racked up enough "brownie points" (men always seemed to need these) and I was allowed out for the day leaving the Physicist waiting patiently at home.
I was off out winter grayling fishing. Now this is something I don't do. Civilised people don't wade in rivers oop North in January. However, you don't turn down an offer from the Master.
So, the ever patient Physicist was lured to Marks and Spencer to go shopping for negligee. Thermal leggings, socks, vest and a gilet were purchased.
I met the Master in a market town in North Yorkshire on the auspices of joining in a competition. I was stiff from lack of sleep and five layers of clothing. We were given our beat and off we went. I was told very firmly (again, you don't disagree with the Master) that my fly rod was spare and today we were using a centre pin.
Now, us fly fisherfolk can be terrible snobs. I count myself as one of the best and have been very dismissive of coarse fishing in the past. To me, coarse fishing was all maggots, boilies, bait alarms and cratefuls of gear. I take it back. There is something very lovely about drawing line down a rod and off the reel with two fingers. I loved the lob type casts; the heft of the float and shot plopping into position was a bit like a baby seal flopping towards its mother. Difficult and inelegant but satisfying. Floating a worm downstream on the free running line of the centrpin was like tapping into the blood flow of the river.With constant, gentle adjustments, it was like feeling the pulse of the river using my thumb on the circle-shaped reel. The reel turns gently paying out line as the float drifts. I could have watched that float drift for ever.

The Night Fisher by John Mcnaught (This brilliant image is borrowed from the amazing website Their selections of short stories are amazing and are the reason I started writing this blog. I am about to email the artist if I can use the image. The moral rights of living artists is very important and something I believe in very strongly. This image may well disappear. )

I shall add that I caught nothing on my own, I lacked skill knowledge and experience. True to form, the master held the rod twice and caught two off season trout. Beautiful, firm and wild.
To return to my first sentence, things have changed. I'm being cared for and have someone to abandon whilst I fish (a situation I do not like at all and hope to change). I think also, that this child of the chalk might well dabble a bit further into the world of coarse fishing. I shall keep my blog title, though A Coarse lady's life sounds far more interestsing.

Thursday 5 January 2012


Fisherfolk must know a thing or two. We spend all day near or on the water not doing much which gives us time to think, possibly too much time. This should explain why there are so many experts in fishing, so many people offering advice and the benefits of their wisdom. The cosy inertia of the river bank affording the space needed to provide reasons, or excuses for one's success or failure. The long, cold winter giving the time to write it all up as blogs or articles in Trout and Salmon. I hope that sometimes all that thinking time can spawn something useful.

I hate fly fishing art on the whole, it's impossibly naff at times but most commendably, often worthy of a place in the Daily Mail's "Not the Turner Prize". There is possibly no genre more worrying than hyper realism. All that copying is just a little unhealthy. Fishing art is more often than not just naff and twee.
Today I came across this cracking painting which has changed my mind about fishing art.

   Sedges,  Norman Wilkinson  (1878-1971) 

 It manages to be realistic without being kitsch and I can almost cast to those rises. It was painted by Norman Wilkinson who, as it happens, was an early camoufleur; a gorgeous word for a practioner of camouflage. Already recognised as a pretty decent artist, during WWI he was in the Navy. During that time, he persuaded the Admiralty to adorn their battleships with his "Dazzle" patterns with the aim of making the outline more difficult to trace and hopefully confusing German U-boats.
Dazzled Ships at Night, (1918) Norman Wilkinson Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum

After the Wars, he turned his attention to providing awesomely groovy images for government posters.

I like to imagine that he came up with the idea of dazzle during an evening with trout bursting to the surface as the sunlight casts strong shapes over a river's ripples. The overall effect causing him blinking confusion as to where to place his fly; or at least that was his excusing for missing the rise.