Caught by the River

Grayling and Piano Wire.

23rd February 2011

by Chris McCully.

The prescription for Reg Righyni’s trotting float, as given in Grayling (1968), calls for balsa wood and 20-gauge piano wire. What the great man was enjoining his readers to make was in effect a wire-stemmed stick float which would be largely self-cocking and therefore carry only a small amount of lead – two BB shot.
As 14-year-old schoolboys we seized gratefully on Appendix B of Righyni’s monograph. The balsa wood was the easy part: cutting a small length and then turning it in sandpaper until it assumed the desired shape was simple, even for someone as myopic and clumsy as me. To this day, however, I can’t remember where we got the piano wire from. I have a dim recollection of disappearing into the back room of a York junk shop with a hammer and a pair of pliers, but I may have dreamed it. Somehow, though, we got our hands on some of the precious wire, because lying on the desk as I write are two Righyni floats which in 1972 were made with it. At the business end of the wire is a large loop of nylon whipped onto the stem exactly as prescribed. The bodies of the floats are painted an uncompromising matt black; orange tops show where I’d got busy with a small tin of Humbrol gloss.
Constructed this way, the result is a light, compact trotting float. The top is secured to the line via a float rubber; the line runs through the whipped loop down to the hook-length. Such a rig is easy to change, since the float can simply be slipped down the line, over the shot and hook, and replaced. Load the float with two BB (I use Dinsmore’s non-toxic weights these days) and a half-inch of tip will show above the surface; any bite, even the most hesitant, will register. Further, the floats are durable. The fact that I still have two of them – in sporadic use for nearly forty years – speaks for itself.
When you’re young, the satisfaction you obtain from making your own tackle lies in inverse proportion to how little you expect it to work. In 1972 I knew virtually nothing about trotting a float for grayling, and the idea of following in Righyni’s footsteps and catching grayling using tackle he had designed and recommended seemed somehow too… grown up. I was not very far, after all, beyond the crabbing net, the comic and the sandcastle.
The float had its first outing on the Wharfe at Addingham. A glide below the weir looked particularly promising, though you had to ford three-quarters of the river in wellies to get to it. Another promising pool lay towards the lower end of the reach. Here, the trout could be found in autumn in privileged lies towards the fast water at the head of the pool, just as Righyni had taught, while the grayling occupied the slower, flatter water in the middle of the pool, which coiled under a concrete banking which supported a road. Between the glide by the weir and the lower pool lay a long stretch of shallow water which flattered to deceive, even flattered to madden, since it was constantly troubled by the rings of tiny though hyper-active grayling which were, I’d learned, almost impossible to hook even on size 20 dry flies.
It was October, and a half-term holiday. This break in the Winter Term always fell in the third week of the month, at exactly the time when the riverside trees were looking at their most spectacularly autumnal, and we decanted from the bus and walked down to the river among flames of the dying year.
It’s a cliché that the summers seem to have been longer and hotter when you were young. I add a supplementary, angler’s cliché: back then, in the Land of Lost Content the rivers always seem to have run at a perfect level, irrespective of season. And in this October of the Trotting Float the Wharfe ran beautifully, neither too high nor too low, carrying a green, lucid clarity that any grayling fisher would read as in invitation.
I tackled up by the glide at the weir: threaded the line through the rings of a newly-acquired Daiwa coarse rod (12 feet of laughably whippy, purple fibreglass); slipped a float rubber onto 4lb. main line; slipped the Righyni float up the nylon; bit down on two BB shot and attached a hook-length of 2lb. Bayer Perlon knotted to a size 16 eyed hook.
The bait was a well-scoured brandling. If it’s true that I knew almost nothing of trotting for grayling, previous adventures among Yorkshire trout had taught me to scour (to clean and toughen) worms well, so it was a pink-ribbed, latex-skinned brandling that was eventually nicked onto the hook.
Out went the float, trailing two feet of nylon and the terminal tackle. As the shot settled, the float cocked; a fleck of orange – an elongated dot no bigger than a mutant lentil – rode the foam which was peeling belatedly from the fall of the weir fifty yards upstream. To have assembled, from scratch, a properly self-cocking float was already a major satisfaction.
Then the float disappeared. No trumpets brayed; there was no drum-roll; no ancestral face – not even Reg Righyni’s – appeared from parting cloud. The float simply vanished, downwards into the shallow green depths of the glide.
One thing about fishing that its writers rarely record is the importance of noise – how, for instance, fishing can pick up as the stress of the gale lessens and the world becomes quiet enough for you to hear bird-song braving the dying wind; how casting effectively and rhythmically during night sea-trout fishing sessions is often a matter of listening to the hiss of the fly-line; how the grain of water in different river pools has a respectively different sound; and how a hooked grayling, splashing at one’s feet, aurally disturbs the constant roar of the weir upstream of your rod-arm.
The grayling was briefly framed in its own noise, then kited off only to be worked back again, its massive dorsal flared. I cradled the fish briefly, slipped out the hook, and held the grayling so that its head butted at the current. Within a few seconds the fish had recovered; for a few seconds more it lay, gills working, at my feet; and then it was away.
Over the next few years the glides of several Yorkshire rivers taught me a great deal about long-trotting for grayling, but the first of those fish was in many ways the most memorable, if only because it gave me confidence. Something had clicked into place. A small puzzle had been solved.
Beyond the balsa wood, the piano wire and the puzzle, however, it’s the autumn itself I remember: the orange Humbrol top of the float riding among the reflections of umber and scarlet; birch-leaves, minted in death and yellow, staring upwards from the shallow glides into which they’d fallen; and among the leaves and glides a grayling’s dorsal fin, freaked with black and erect in crimson.

This article was originally published in ‘Grayling’ magazine, available by subscription from The Grayling Society. Many thanks to the editor Bob Male for allowing us to re publish Chris’s piece and thanks to Geoff Wood for bringing it to our attention.