Lisa Isle’s reflects on a recent trip to Poland’s River San in search of its 50 centimetre plus grayling…
Fly fishing on the River San in Poland has taught me so many lessons. The river teaches you lessons if you let it. Trust me on this, I’ve fly fished the San for several years now and each year is different. The first couple of years for me was all about numbers, how many fish could I go and catch in a day. Going back to the lodge and sharing stories of the day with fellow fly fishers was, and is, just amazing. Listening to how other fly-fishers found enjoyment and happiness from their day. Some would, and are just happy to be, there for the experience…a few fish was a bonus. For others, like myself at the time, it was just a numbers game. Sharing stories of how fast you could catch the smaller fish was great practise for competition fishing for me.
Lisa has fished the River San on many occasions but her recent trip focussed on catching the rivers bigger grayling.
Ready For The Next Challenge
Since having time out from the competition scene I realised there was a completely different side of the San that I was missing. I’d go back to the lodge and share stories and images of fish caught and released, realising that actually my biggest fish were between 30-40cm. Seeing other fly-fishers images of grayling that were 50+cm, close to the 3lb mark and over, AND being caught on small dry flies, I started to question myself. Could I catch the bigger fish? Was it time to step up my game?
I realised that I’d got to a point in my fly fishing life where I didn’t need to go and catch over a hundred fish in a session, I had done that before. I wanted to catch these big grayling from the San. Knowing that they were there it was time to start a new chapter and become like a sponge again; absorbing information as quickly as I could, going out and putting it into practise, trying new things, pushing limits within my own abilities. Letting myself make mistakes and then learning from them, analysing situations to get the best from them and then moving forward.
I was ready for the next challenge. Instead of getting to the river and jumping straight in, I’d let the other anglers on the trip decide where they wanted to go. No pressure on myself. I’d just go where there was space in the end. Remembering it wasn’t a numbers game, I’d set myself small goals (even if fish weren’t rising at the time). Getting my dry fly to turn over properly, getting my presentation as perfect as possible fishing either upstream or downstream. I found this to be amazingly therapeutic and I started to appreciate even more things about where fly-fishing has taken me.
Autumn on the smooth, clear River San.
I had just thrown away one of the best opportunities of the day for catching a big grayling. Lesson learnt.
Having fished certain sections of the San, it was time to explore. Telling myself to go and fish the more difficult spots, to go and test those skills! Remembering that there is no failure, only feedback. What I mean from this is if you have a bad experience, then there are always positives you can take from it and build upon.
For example, I remember fishing on one section of the San. It was around the middle of the hatch of blue winged olives. I started to hear some bigger rises downstream from me. I stopped fishing and just watched for about five minutes. Locating the closest ones to me, seeing which ones were the biggest; I came up with a game plan. Confidently peeling some line off my reel I made my first cast, gently feeding my dry downstream, I knew it was on the money so I was completely ready for the take. I caught three decent grayling within 10 minutes.
It was time to target one of the bigger grayling; this one had shoulders, 40cm+ in size. Time to step it up a level, all of a sudden I could feel the pressure mount. I peeled off some more line, first cast just fell short. A bit more line needed, I lifted off, a couple of false casts, and my dry turned over so delicately, I actually located it before it hit the water. 3…2…1…rise…SNAP! What a mistake. I knew what I had done wrong the moment my fly line came flying back towards me. I didn’t move my feet! Instead of taking more line off and casting further, I should have just gently waded downstream and got closer. Instead, I cast further, more material to lift on the strike, so more weight, causing too much tension on the initial strike. You can’t get away with mistakes like that…I was punished. I had just thrown away one of the best opportunities of the day for catching a big grayling. Lesson learnt.
A selection of Lisa’s dries for the River San.
Reflection and Re-Book
The week had come to an end and it was time go home and evaluate what I would change. Reflecting back over the week, I knew I had made mistakes, several, but learning from them and recognising them is something that I think is very important. Evaluating those moments that almost annoy you, acknowledging the mistakes you made instead of blaming things like the wind, or it was too sunny.
I booked my flights and next year’s trip came around so fast. I promised myself on the flight to take more time getting into better casting positions, not rushing into moments and taking more time until I was really comfortable and seriously ready to make casts. What a difference!
We’ve all had days when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed and have a negative attitude. But, when you wake up on the right side of the bed and go ‘today, is going to be a good day’, boundless energy, optimism and confidence follow.
The River San at first light- a red-letter day followed.
The first of two big San grayling.
It was on one of these days that I was to fish on one of my favourite sections. It was going to be one of those red-letter days. Arriving to the river around 10am, there were a few fish rising so plenty of time for each of us to decide where we were going. I decided to make more of an effort and wade to the other side of the river, and then head upstream, leaving the other anglers plenty of space. One thing on the San is if you fish 100 metres of water in a session, you’ve fished it too fast.
A few more grayling started rising and I’d landed some decent fish, all on dries again, little 20’s and 22’s always work. Best fish so far was around 40cm, so my goal for the day still needed to be met. I wanted one of these 50cm plus grayling and I knew I was getting close to one of the ‘hot spots’.
Some sections of the San can look so featureless but below the surface it’s completely different story. A few bigger grayling started to rise, and my adrenaline started to kick in. Watching these crimson coloured dorsal fins break the surface, sometimes with the sun shining, they just glow! Witnessing their shoulders pushing water forward as they effortlessly feed on emerging blue winged olives, slowly getting into position, trying not to disturb the natural flow of the water as where I was actually fishing was a very smooth slow glide.
I don’t think I’ve ever had such an aggressive take from a grayling in my life!
There were two decent grayling rising. They would come up from beneath the weed, then dive straight back down. These fish are just like shadows, ghost like almost, you’ll see them, and then completely lose sight of them. I covered the water to what I thought was the right lie, fishing upstream dry fly.
I don’t think I’ve ever had such an aggressive take from a grayling in my life! This 50cm plus grayling came out of nowhere and just smashed my fly, it literally came full flight out of the water, making me jump, and it was on. Only being about five yards in front of me when it acrobatically jumped out, I knew it was a big fish. With the water being so clear, I could see it during most of the fight, with just a bit more of a lift, I had its nose up and it just effortlessly glided over the lip of my net. I had done it, my biggest grayling from the San. What a fish! I remember sitting on the bank after releasing it, smiling to myself and realising just how much I had learnt and achieved from my first ever lesson. What a brilliant memory!
Poetry In Motion
My latest trip didn’t disappoint. I was fishing away on one of the days when I got a call to come upstream from a fellow angler. When I got there, my jaw literally hit the rivers surface! My eyes widened and I knew this was probably going to be the best opportunity of the week to get ‘proper’ San grayling. So starting with the basics, working out the seams, the biggest grayling manage to position themselves in the best possible position for them, in terms of using as little energy as possible for maximum food consumption. For a fly-angler they test you on all levels. Your presentation has to be perfect, even one centimetre to the left or the right, those big grayling just know.
After about 10 minutes I thought I had it nailed, just the right amount of line out, comfortable casting; I was really happy with my presentation and had 100% confidence in my fly, it was just a matter of time.
I cast, the fly dropped about three feet off my left shoulder facing downstream. The target was in my sights. I ‘fed’ the dry downstream, so in motion, almost becoming the river itself. The grayling started to come up and it sipped down my fly, strike, NO CONNECTION! WHAT!!!!
I pulled myself back together for it to only happen four more times, and I didn’t prick the fish once! What was I doing wrong? To this day I still don’t have a clue! It was coming to the end of the hatch as well so against the clock by this stage, I decided to give the fish a break. I just watched it rising as confidently as ever; all of a sudden its cycle was broken. Instead of coming up for one fly on a very smooth and almost timed rhythm, it took three naturals off the surface one after the other!
This was my chance! The amount of concentration and energy exploding through my body was insane! All senses heightened, I was totally zoned in, a now or never moment. Totally comfortable with my cast, my little size 20 emerger soldiered on downstream, the grayling’s pectoral fins at the front just locked, I was just witnessing poetry in motion. I can still see the white lips and then its dark back, crimson dorsal as the grayling moved for my fly. All I had to do was lift into it. Finally the connection was there, after about five minutes, my best fish from the week was in my net. Another true test of mentality and self-confidence as a fly fisher!
Lisa’s biggest River San grayling taken from the Baklava Stretch.
Having fly fished from the age of ten, Lisa Isles has competed and fly fished worldwide in destinations such as Poland, Norway and New Zealand. Lisa is an Angling Trust and Fulling Mill Ambassador and hopes to continue to travel the world, inspiring others to do the same.