Grayling are a medium sized freshwater fish. Grayling are a truly stunning fish and one of the most respected in Northern Europe. Grayling are prized by anglers for their dogged determination and their fighting spirit when hooked.
We adore this fish and I know we aren’t alone in believing that this is one of the best looking and best overall fish in our waters!
European Grayling (scientific name Thymallus thymallus) are a freshwater fish of the Salmonidae family. This is the same family as salmon and trout which are probably better known (which is a shame).
The scientific name Thymallus thymallus was given to grayling as they allegedly smell of wild thyme.
The grayling with scientific name Thymallus thymallus is the only member of the genus thymallus – or “the graylings” – which is native to Europe.
There are other species of grayling around the world such as the Arctic grayling which is similar to the European grayling in appearance and if found in North America and Asia.
Grayling are affectionately named “lady of the stream” for their beautiful and graceful looks. It is clearly held in high regard in many countries as there at least 25 names for the fish in Germany and Austria, 15 in Italy and 12 in Russia.
Grayling were a very popular eating fish in the past and were readily consumed across Europe. There are still countries which happily eat grayling.
In the UK, there are many recipes for grayling which include baking, broiling and frying. A popular recipe appears to be grayling poached in beer with grated horseradish and thyme, served with horseradish cream.
If you wanted to try grayling make sure to check with the owner of the water and the Environment Agency before taking.
There is debate amongst anglers about whether grayling are coarse fish or game fish which is an age old debate. We aren’t going to wade into this debate but will leave it for you to ponder.
Distribution and Habitat
Grayling are native to Northern Europe. They can be found from the west in France and the UK to the east in Russia. They are naturally not found in the warmer Southern European countries such as Spain and Portugal.
They are also naturally non-native to Ireland. Grayling have been introduced to Morocco and Scotland. They do not appear to have taken hold in Morocco, however they have been more successful in Scotland where they can be the dominant fish in an area which suits their habitat.
In Scotland they are now present in central and southern areas.
Grayling are primarily a river fish. They will mainly congregate in the upper reaches but they can venture to the middle rivers. They are a shoaling fish and tend to keep together.
They prefer gravel or chalk bottomed rivers. Grayling can tolerate still water, however in the UK this would generally be water that was attached to fast flowing water such as a river.
Grayling need cold, clean, and well oxygenated water in order to survive. They cannot tolerate pollution and it is a sensitive fish in this sense.
If there are grayling present in the water it is actually a testament of how clean the waters are for this species to survive.
The habitat of grayling very often mirrors that of trout, however there are subtle differences. Grayling tend to spend their days in a different water strength to trout.
They are also more sensitive than trout in terms of pollution. Grayling also prefer slightly slower moving rivers with a small difference in gradient.
Grayling are a truly beautiful and graceful species.
Grayling are blue and silver or blue and grey in colour. Their name is derived from their colour “grey” in “grayling”. Their belly is a pale white colour. Grayling have large scales in comparison to other members of the Salmonidae family.
Grayling have silver, purple or violet stripes which are horizontal on their flanks. They have irregular black spots on the front half of their bodies, which are similar to the that of their cousin the trout but smaller.
Grayling have relatively small heads which come to a point on their noses. They have large eyes and a slightly protruding lower jaw. Their bodies are slender and streamlined.
The dorsal fin of grayling is their most impressive and distinguishing feature. It looks like a ship’s sail which is extremely tall, large and pronounced.
The colours of the fin really are sublime, it glimmers with green, orange, purple or violet and red. If you see these in the waters the fin looks like something from an exotic aquarium species. Grayling also have an adipose fin between the dorsal fin and caudal fin.
Grayling tend to be smaller than their cousins the trout. They average approximately 6oz to 1lb (approximately 0.15 to 0.5kg). You may find larger fish and anything above 2lb is thought to be a specimen.
The average length of grayling ranges from 7 – 12 inches (approximately 17.5 to 30cm). You may find larger fish in prime habitats. The lateral line scale count is 75 – 90.
The British record for grayling currently standard at 4lb 4oz 8dms (approximately 1.95kg). The grayling on the continent are known to grow larger.
Grayling live from 6 to 14 years, although you may find older specimens in prime habitats up to 18 or 20.
How they Feed
Grayling have a smaller mouth gape than trout and their prey is smaller as a result. Grayling will feed all year round, however feeding is at its lowest during the months of February and March.
Grayling will feed by waiting for food which is brought downstream. They will feed in the middle of the water, on the surface, or they will scour the river bottom and any vegetation.
The smaller fish will tend to take food from the surface, however the older and larger fish tend to avoid surface feeding if they can and stick to feeding from the bottom.
Grayling tend to feed on insects, insect larvae, crustaceans and molluscs. More specifically, known foods include shrimp, worms, leeches and fish eggs (including those of trout and salmon).
Grayling reach sexual maturity between the ages of 3 and 4 years old, depending on location.
Grayling spawn in river shallows when the temperature of the water reaches between 8 and 14 degrees Celsius. This is usually in the months of March or April. They require river shallows with small gravel.
They can tolerate a moderate current in order to spawn. Spawning usually takes place during the daytime when the water temperate is warmer. The male grayling turn a slightly darker colour when they are about to spawn.
The male grayling adopt their territory and attract females from downstream. The larger grayling are shown to be more successful at reproducing, probably due to the size as they are territorial and will chase away the smaller males.
During spawning the male drapes the large dorsal fin over the female and they vibrate near to the bottom. The female releases the eggs and the male fertilises them. The vibration enables the eggs to be partially covered. The eggs are left unguarded.
Females can produce up to 30,000 eggs per kilogram of bodyweight. They can spawn several times each season.
The eggs are approximately 3mm in diameter and will hatch in around 15 – 22 days depending on the temperature. The juvenile grayling measure from 15 – 18mm once hatched. In the clearer waters they can be seen in shoals from the margins.
Juvenile grayling are a silver green colour and with dark blue spots. Grayling are incredibly fast developers in the first year and they grow quickly until they reach sexual maturity.
Trout and grayling have different spawning methods. Trout tend to spawn in Autumn in deeper water. Trout also cannot match the rapid development of the grayling and will grow much slower.
How to Catch Grayling
Anglers have historically been treated grayling very poorly. There used to be a belief that grayling would compete for space and food with salmon and trout which would lead to a reduction in trout stocks.
In some areas of the UK, particularly in the south, there were widespread culls of grayling to remove them from the waters. They were also often treated as vermin or a by-catch and, if caught, were routinely killed.
Thankfully, times seem to be changing and fishing for grayling is now popular amongst anglers looking for the delight of hooking this hard fighting and challenging fish.
Grayling are also popular with fly fisherman as they provide sport to many once the trout season has ended.
The best time of year to catch grayling is usually autumn and winter where they provide a more ferocious fight, however they can be caught at most times of the year.
In terms of location, you need to locate a good, clean river or stream with gravel bottoms. Grayling do not like murky water so you may struggle if there has been a lot of recent rainfall.
Try to search out overhanging trees or hollows in the river bed. Grayling usually congregate in these areas.
In terms of bait, this will depend on the type of fishing you intend to do. If you are going to bait fish, then red maggots (always go for good wriggling ones), wasp grubs and worms are the most effective.
If you are going to try your luck at fly fishing, artificial flies which have colour have long been thought the most effective. Red and pink flies have been met with good success and we’ve been told that purple and UV flies are effective too!
You can fish for Grayling by “trotting” with a float or fly fishing.
You will need a good light to medium rod for this species. Go for a 12 to 15 feet rod with a centre pin, closed face reel or use a fixed spool reel.
Use a mainline which is 3 – 5lb with a 2 – 3lb hook length. Use a hook which is between the sizes of 14 to 18 depending on the bait (14 for worms and 16 – 18 for maggots). Two to three maggots on the hook should be perfect.
As grayling are bottom feeders, you could also try using a feeder on the bottom to attract the fish. This might be a good technique for the larger specimens.
For this technique, use a light feeder rod and a small blockend feeder. Try loading the feeder with maggots for excellent results.
Fly fishing is usually the best from September to December when grayling feed more actively. In early autumn you can catch using greenfly. In December when the weather is very cold, “bugging” or sinking lines is the way to go.
If you are fly fishing the grayling will usually swim from depths to the fly, taking it vertically due to the shape of their mouths rather than the trout which tend to be more horizontal.
Grayling are fierce fighters and they will use up a lot of energy in the fight. Once hooked, bring the grayling in as quick as you are able. You should not over play this species as they may over exert themselves.
Grayling are a delicate species and the utmost care should be given to the fish when handling them. Bring the fish in with a good landing net which is the size of the fish you are looking to catch.
Do not put the fish onto the banking, put them directly onto a good unhooking mat which is at least the size of the fish. If possible, you could unhook the fish in the water.
If you wish to take pictures of your catch (why wouldn’t you!), give the fish a dip in the water to refresh them.
Give grayling plenty of time to recover before releasing, particularly the larger specimens. Hold the fish facing upstream until it can swim by itself.
If you would like more information on how to fish for grayling, or would like some further information on angling techniques, check out our fishing tips page for more information!