Escape to the Irfon

Autumn grayling fishing in Mid-Wales with Ceri Thomas. Images by Tim Hughes and Ben Etridge.

Here in Wales, we are blessed...

...with a multitude of Grayling Rivers. From the industrial Rhymney and Taff, to the Vale of Glamorgan’s tranquil Ewenny, not forgetting the mighty Dee of North Wales and the River Severn; there are streams and rivers of all types abounding in grayling. But the jewel in the crown must be the Wye system, with the tributaries Monnow, Ithon and Irfon being brilliant grayling fisheries in their own right.

As much as I love fishing the urban rivers, with their prolific fish stocks and easy access right on my doorstep, it’s hard to beat a cold, crisp winter's day on the Irfon, surrounded by ancient woodland and beautiful unspoiled countryside; well worth the slight extra effort to reach and fish.

The Irfon and the Wye catchment in general has really been opened up in the past few years. This is mostly due to the downright hard work of the Wye and Usk Foundation, who as well as striving to improve habitat and water quality, have made hundreds of miles of river accessible to the public via their Fishing passport website.

The beauty of the Fishing Passport online system is its simplicity and choice. Browse the site, take your pick of beat, read the reports if you fancy and then enter your credit card number. It is as easy as that. The beat map is emailed to you so you can either print it off, or download direct to your phone – and you can book at any time of the day you wish, thus allowing you to make a snap decision on whether to fish or not. Above all, the booking beats offer superb value for money, and in many cases complete exclusivity. For (on average) around £15 you can obtain access to a good few miles of prime grayling water for the whole day.

Last November myself and fishing buddy Tim Hughes visited the Cefnllysgwynne beat, one of the most popular Fishing Passport stretches on the River Irfon. With 2 miles of double and 1 mile of single bank, there is plenty of room to roam here. This beat also has comfortable holiday cottage accommodation available onsite, perfect for those looking for a longer fishing break. Referencing the Fishing Passport site recent reports indicated prolific catches of grayling, including some larger specimens up to 17 inches. Full of anticipation, we headed to the middle part of the beat, driving down a farm track until we were just a field away from the river. The conditions were ideal for grayling; with no wind, a slightly overcast sky and a frost still thick on the ground - it looked to be a perfect day for it.

Even with the full day ahead tackling up seemed to take an age - the more eager you are to get on the water, the slower time goes... It probably only took us about 15 minutes, but getting the kit on seemed like forever, wrestling with the thermals and then forcing frozen wading boots onto our feet with numb fingers.

Setting up for nymphing

We had a variety of rods with us, including the Streamtec series from Airflo, with a 9’ #3/4 model and a pair of 10’ #3/4’s ready for action. These rods are nice and soft, allowing for sensitive presentation. We were on a mission to compare several grayling methods, with a friendly competition between ourselves to see which one would come out on top.

I set up the 9’ #3/4 rod, intending to use it with the ‘French leader‘ style, adding a few inches of coloured indicator, 5 foot of 4.9lb Airflo G4 tippet and a brace of flies to the end of the leader. The French leader itself is a piece of tapered monofilament, soft, supple and usually supplied at 9 metres long. When using this method no real fly casting is actually employed – in fact the weight of the flies helps the ‘cast’ go out and turnover. It is extremely effective because there is very little drag, and the flies sink down into the taking zone very fast.

The general ‘French leader’ technique is to flick your team of two or sometime three flies across and slightly upstream, often not more than a rod length or two away.

You allow these to sink and then track the flies downstream, watching for any movement or hesitation in your indictor as the drift fishes out downstream of your position.

Tim rigged up a 10’ #3/4 rod with an Airflo Czech nymph polyleader plus a team of three flies, intending to fish them ‘Czech nymph’ style, which involves rolling the flies along the river bed on a short line. The end of the fluorescent yellow leader was marked with black permanent pen to give it a bit of contrast, which can help to detect subtle takes.

The other 10’#3/4 rod was rigged with an Airflo SLN euro line and AirLock strike indicator, for use on the longer flats and runs, where 'long line' indicator fishing would come into its own. This method allows you to easily alter the depth you are fishing your flies at by adjusting the indicator position on the leader. It’s very similar to trotting using a float, allowing you to make long drifts of many yards down a pool by feeding out and then mending your line. It’s a good method for slower, deeper water or long steady runs and I find setting the flies just over depth works best.

Flies, flies, flies.....

My flies were the usual grayling suspects – various tungsten bead ‘bug’ patterns complete with trigger points of pink, red and purple, most of which were tied on size 12 hooks with 3mm or 4mm beads and lead wire under bodies. On my French leader rod the flies were tied using jig hooks, which would allow them to bounce along the bottom without snagging up.

Tim selected a team of old school weighted Czech nymphs, which are tied on curved hooks and are heavily leaded, including the obligatory ‘pink shrimp’.

Incidentally, Tim was one of the first anglers in the UK to have extensively used pink in his grayling flies, with a string of big fish under his belt including a former Welsh record fish at 3lb 2oz from the Severn. Tim is an expert hand at this method having seen and learnt from Czech international anglers during his time in the Welsh rivers team some years ago, and he often prefers this deadly technique in favour of the French leader. It would be interesting to see which style would do best today.

Frosty start

With a textured icy crunch under foot we headed down to the river and up the wooded banks. The river was running fast, up a bit more than we would have liked due to some heavy rain over the previous days. However it was certainly fishable, with the Irfon catchment usually being OK about 24 hours after a spate. If in doubt there is a very useful online gauge that you can check before leaving home.

The first pool we tried was where the river split around an island, with a massive fallen tree along our bank. It screamed grayling to us. Tim waded out first, flicking his Czech nymphs into the seam on our side of the heavy flow. I mooched around and took a few pictures, watching the master at work. After 10 minutes or so, nothing was happening, so I decided to make a cheeky cast a yard or two directly above where he was wading using the indicator set up.

The strike indicator dipped on the very first cast, and a nice Irfon pounder came to hand, having taken a liking to a 4.5mm heavyweight bug on the point. Two more casts and two more fish came from literally right from under Tim’s feet! It always amazes me just how tolerant grayling are of anglers, Tim must have waded through the shoal which obviously hadn’t bothered them in the slightest. Another cast and the rod pulled over into something better – a lovely 16 inch grayling plunged away in the current, a long and lean specimen but hard fighting and fully finned.

It’s rare that I get a head start on Tim – and true to form Tim, who had moved a bit further upstream had located a pod lurking in some slack water in a narrow channel. He soon caught up with me, watching the yellow leader tip with eagle eyes as he stayed in perfect touch with the weighted Czech nymphs as they trundled away on the gravel bottom.

After a flurry of action things slowed down, as often happens when a shoal has had a bit of a hammering. So we walked upriver, trying a few likely spots as we went. We fished several lovely long gravel runs that looked perfect for grayling, with a steady flow and even depth of about waist height. Here we picked up some small fish, but strangely none of the better stamp of grayling that we were expecting from these areas.

On another day, given a hatch of upwing flies these runs would have been perfect for fishing a dry fly.

We ventured up the length of the beat continuing to look for the fish; this was such a scenic beat, resplendent in late autumn colours that we simply had to take our time to admire the surroundings as we went.

Find the gravel, find the grayling

There really is some cracking water on Cefnllysgwynne, with rocky gutters and deep pools galore that looked perfect for holding salmon and resident trout. For grayling though, a patch of gravel is often the best place to try, no matter how small.Whilst taking a well earned coffee break we spotted a short gravel bar at the back end of a pool – it looked like it could hold a few fish, so we had a speculative few casts in this area which was just a few yards across.

This paid off with half a dozen nice fish coming to our nets, including a cracking specimen of 16 inch plus that fell to a natural hare’s ear Czech nymph pattern, worked expertly by Tim. It came from water that I had just fished and waded back to shore through - yet more proof that grayling are not bothered by wading anglers in the slightest.

Time on the river bank simply flies, and even more so on a short, cold winter day. Before we knew it the session was done and we had to hit the road – with the obligatory stop for a burger in Builth wells for a well earned calorie hit. Tim, naturally, had caught a few more fish, so Czech nymph had beaten French leader and indicator today. It had been a very enjoyable day out, in perfect surroundings. What more could you want on a crisp November day?

Ceri and Tim work for BVG Airflo in Brecon and regularly fish through the Passport. Both have fished extensively around the world but remain passionate about the fishing here in Wales.