Fly Fishing For Grayling

The grayling is without doubt my favourite fish. It is not stroppy or temperamental like a trout and you never quite know how the fish will react to being hooked. I would go so far as to say that the grayling is schizophrenic. A ‘condition’ my grandfather Frank Sawyer displayed in his behaviour towards the fish. In my opinion the grayling is schizophrenic because it goes from being vermin to a game-fish depending on who you speak to, and also because the lazy, bone-idle fish of early summer becomes a ferocious fighter in late summer/early autumn. Frank Sawyer’s double personality came from his attitude towards grayling in the stretch of the River Avon where he was keeper. Publicly the fish was a nuisance, but privately Frank respected the grayling for its tenacity and pure wild-bred genes.

In Frank’s early career the grayling was vermin to be hunted, exterminated and driven remorselessly from the river. He even invented a special lure to catch the fish in large numbers. The lure was far more successful than electric-fishing methods or netting. It was originally an unnamed pattern sometimes called the ‘grayling lure’, or simply ‘bug’. It was unnamed because no self-respecting chalk stream fisherman would ever stoop so low as to deliberately fish for grayling – this was the 1930s. That was before Frank discovered that his pattern was also deadly against trout and other fish. One of Frank’s American friends, Lee Wulff, suggested that the pattern was too good to remain as a keeper’s vermin extermination tool. Taking Wulff’s advice, Frank renamed the pattern the Sawyer Killer Bug and it remains one of the most deadly patterns in the world today.

My father tells the story of visiting Prince Quadt in Bavaria with Frank and fishing the royal estate’s many lakes and rivers. The Prince had just invested in some electric-fishing equipment to clear out chub and other vermin fish from the rivers. The Prince was highly amused at the end of one day to discover that Frank and my father, using the Sawyer Killer Bug, had caught three times as many fish as the electric fishing team.

According to Frank’s book ‘Nymphs and the Trout’ his feelings for the grayling softened towards the end of his career. Actually Frank always had a soft spot for the grayling but couldn’t say so publicly as it was in direct conflict with his job as a keeper. Frank changed his public-face towards grayling in particular after he had seen grayling in Bavaria; he began to write in magazine articles that he believed the grayling was a fine wild fish and a worthy alternative to the increasing number of mature stocked fish that were being released into fisheries.

Frank and my father used to play a game with grayling that we still play today when we go fishing together. It is called ‘take and take about’. In this game two fishermen share a rod. Whoever goes first nominates a grayling in the river and identifies it to the other player. The fisherman must then hook that nominated grayling without catching one of the other fish. If he succeeds within 5 casts he scores a point and nominates another fish, if he fails the rod is handed over to the other player.

People often ask me whether Chadwick’s 477 wool, the original wool for the Killer Bug, has special properties that make it so deadly. This is a question of great importance as Chadwick’s ceased production of the wool in about 1965. Fishermen and fly tyers have been known to pay huge amounts of money for some original Chadwick’s 477. Frank used a substitute wool when Chadwick’s ceased production and the procurement of this replacement wool is rather interesting.

Frank was out on the river one day, as he was most days, when he met an American on the village bridge peering in to the water. The American was over in the UK on business and had made the ‘pilgrimage’ as he put it to the famous Avon chalk-stream. It turned out during the course of the conversation that the American was heavily involved in the wool trade. To cut a long story short, Frank provided a sample of original Chadwick’s 477 to the American who returned home and produced the substitute wool from scratch. Is it as good as Chadwick’s 477? Well, who knows but Frank tied most of his Killer Bugs from 1965 onwards with the substitute wool and I would estimate that millions of fish have succumbed to its charms! The Killer Bug is perhaps the easiest of any pattern to tie and tying kits including the substitute wool and the original wire used by Frank Sawyer are available from my website.

So the grayling has gone from vermin only suitable to be caught on an unnamed extermination lure, to a respected game fish hunted by a Killer Bug developed with the weight of the American wool trade and named by a transatlantic fishing legend. I think it is sad that some fishermen and river keepers still continue to differentiate between wild naturally occurring fish species labelling some game fish, others coarse fish and the remainder vermin. The grayling has the dubious honour of having been labelled as all three at various times. A pessimist may argue that the situation is hopeless for the grayling. I disagree; I think the grayling’s schizophrenia makes it the ideal fish to unify anglers in the common cause of fishing.

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