With some of the lowest rainfall levels on record, 2017 could prove testing for fish and anglers alike. Dom Garnett offers some thoughts on the challenges of low water fishing and the issues facing our rivers.
For both coarse and fly anglers, low rivers present a difficult scenario. We might dream of full, healthy waters during the closed season, but often the picture is very different on the bank.
This year we have been hit by some of the strangest weather on record, and whether you blame climate change or just freak chance, more extreme weather patterns look set to stay. The driest April for decades was followed by some of the warmest temperatures we have ever seen; including the hottest June day since 1976. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the huge effect this can have on our rivers.
New highs, new lows
While pretty much all UK rivers have been at low levels lately, some have witnessed dramatic extremes. In Wiltshire, for example, parts of the River Kennet ran totally dry earlier this year, and experts warned that Britain’s rivers were in danger of drying up.
Of course, it is not only extreme weather that causes problems. Human activity also exacerbates low river levels, with abstraction and water wastage two of the biggest causes of falling waters. Indeed, groups like the Angling Trust and WWF have been campaigning for years to push for better standards, as population levels grow and water management still leaves a lot to be desired.
Effects on fish and fishing
Welcome rain has stemmed some of the extreme drought recently, but as river levels across the UK remain low, what can anglers do? Should we be fishing at all in extreme conditions? This is a very personal choice, but caution is advised and we must be extra careful with our catch.
For the fish themselves, low water can be a time of stress. When the body of water shrinks, temperatures rise quicker. Lower flows also result, further depleting oxygen levels. Just as we feel lethargic and short of puff on a hot day, the warmer the water becomes, the lower dissolved oxygen it holds for fish.
Some species should probably be left alone altogether when the water is really low and warm. Pike are especially fragile, but some anglers also cease fishing for barbel and other types of fish too. The choice is yours, but the fishing is likely to be challenging- and if you do succeed you must be responsible for your quarry.
Low water tactics
When rivers run low, fish are often at their most vulnerable. Less water means more exposure to predators, so they tend to be cautious. They will often move from their usual haunts too, meaning you must track them down. Many fish, such as chub and even carp, will migrate to fast, shallow flows where they have cooler, more oxygenated water. Others may abandon shallow, exposed lies for deeper pools and cooler depths.
The most obvious consequence for the angler is that they must be stealthier than ever to avoid scaring fish. Keeping a low profile and cautious wading are a must. Line and tackle are also more obvious when the water is clear and shallow, so finer kit makes sense. Smaller baits and hooks are a good idea for those seeking coarse fish, while fly anglers should resort to fine lines and smaller, more natural looking flies.
On trout streams, low water can make keen-sighted fish especially spooky. Those you find in the steady glides can become painfully shy to any disturbance. Spots with broken, faster rushing water tend to fish better therefore, providing oxygen for trout and enough commotion to conceal the angler.
On coarse rivers, standard tackle never looked so obvious to the fish and you might have to scale down. Simple link-legered or even free-lined baits are one answer, and you might find smaller, more natural baits such as maggots and casters work best. Another good dodge is to try fly fishing for the likes of chub, roach and dace.
Fish care in hot weather
Low rivers and warmer temperatures make the fish we catch more vulnerable to angling pressure. As we’ve said, it is a personal decision whether to fish or leave them alone, but in the hottest weather we must take extra care. Keepnets, for example, can be dangerous when fish are retained for any length of time.
A good general rule for the summer is to handle your catch as little as possible. Waders are useful here, allowing the angler to unhook and release most fish without them leaving the water. Should you want a quick picture though, your quarry can always be retained in a submerged net- much better than them flapping around on a dry bank. Should you need to land a fish, make sure your unhooking mat is well-doused with water.
Fish often need more recovery time on a hot day too. Just as you find exertion leaves you exhausted on a balmy day, fish also suffer in the heat. Where possible support the fish you are releasing and give it time to recover. Point it nose first into the flow and be patient; fish like grayling and bream may need a few seconds to fully come to their senses.
Longer term lows?
Are current low water levels an exception, or part of a troubled future for our rivers and waterways? Even Donald Trump would have a hard time writing off present day extremes as “normal” as records continue to be broken and the vast majority of scientists point towards a future of more freakish changes in our weather.
The bigger picture for rivers is that they will face more floods and droughts in coming years and require our protection more than ever. It falls to all of us to be more cautious about water usage and to lean on authorities to manage natural resources more wisely.
Finally, there are two further things we can all do to play our part. The first is to report any worrying signs such as painfully low water levels or fish in distress to the Environment Agency (the number is on the back of your EA license). The second is to support the Angling Trust, who relentlessly campaign to combat abstraction and other critical issues. If we anglers aren’t conscientiously taking care of our fish and the fragile habitats they depend on, who else will?
More about our blogger…
Dom Garnett is a weekly Angling Times columnist and author of several books including Amazon bestseller Flyfishing for Coarse Fish and his recent collection of angling tales Crooked Lines. You can read more from him at www.dgfishing.co.uk.