A Stop Start Winter

Since my last Fishtec blog in autumn, my fishing became very disjointed from October onwards and only really came back to normal in February. The main reason was a succession of health issues within the family, which saw me missing a lot of fishing and only going locally for a few hours when I could get out. Consequently, I was never able to get a proper campaign underway and the results suffered as a result.

The main target of my river fishing was the upper Warks Avon near my home, principally because it is so close and I could be home quickly if need be. Unlike the middle to lower stretches, the chub and barbel of the upper river are fairly modestly sized, 5lb chub and 10lb barbel not being that common, this looked to be the perfect place for a few short coarse fishing sessions. So I made those two weights my initial targets and would go from there. My first few trips produced a few barbel to just over 7lbs and chub to about 4lbs, but the fishing was very slow at times. Blanks were common. Then, in late November, I had my biggest Avon barbel of just over 9lbs plus a chub of 5lb 4ozs ten minutes later. Obviously, these are quite modest fish by Ouse standards but I did feel that I was getting somewhere. Over the next couple of weeks I had another two small barbel, but struck a purple patch with the chub, taking three more five pounders on the bounce. That made four 5lb plus fish in a few weeks and, according to regulars who have fished the stretch for years that is very unusual.

Just after Christmas, I was fishing the lovely crease swim where I had taken my most recent 5lb chub. A large near bank rush bed projects five yards out from the bank, throwing the main flow across to the far bank and creating a really pronounced midriver angled crease. At a steady 5ft depth and smooth gravel bed it is a perfect set up for chub and barbel. I was fishing an 18mm boilie, with a PVA bag of broken boilie pieces impaled on the hook on each cast. My first cast was made around midday but it wasn’t until nearly dark that I had my first serious indication. I don’t count a kamikaze 12oz chub that nearly choked itself on the boilie in mid afternoon! A vicious pull had me on my feet and I soon realised that this was another chub, but what a beauty. It weighed 5lb 7ozs, another very big fish for the Upper Avon. It was my biggest Avon chub by a couple of ounces.

Ten minutes after the recast, I was in again and this time it was obvious that I was connected to a big barbel. That fish gave me a memorable scrap, making the clutch scream more than once, and I was soon netting my first Avon double figure barbel. It weighed 11lb 5ozs and I was absolutely over the moon with it.

After those fish, with all family worries now behind me, I was able to resume my love affair with the Great Ouse. Like waters everywhere, it was painfully low at the back end of the season, and four trips to a stretch where bites are always few and far between, but the fish are big, saw me averaging but one bite a day. And a day means fishing from about mid morning until well after midnight. The previous season I had taken my 7lb 13oz personal best chub from the same stretch, and I was never able to come close to that this time. In all, I landed eight chub, which comprised a baby of 4-12, four more five pounders to 5-15 and a top three of 6-1, 6-2 (featured below) and a 6-6.

Most pleasing was a final session barbel of 13lb 6ozs, my first barbel from the stretch for three years following the attentions of otters.

As well as the chub fishing, I also had two sessions at the perch stretch where my 5lb pound fish was taken in 1999. Sadly, that has also been badly affected by otters and, although there are still big perch to be caught, the numbers have been drastically diminished. Apart from a solitary small perch, all I caught on my lobworms were average chub and a small pike.

I can look back on the season just ended as one of the most difficult I’ve ever experienced, for several reasons, and in some ways I was glad to see the back of it. Now, after two weeks off, I’m planning some tench and bream fishing, commencing next week. The water has produced tench to 11lbs plus and bream to over 16lbs so I’m hoping for some exciting fishing. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Trotting our way into Spring

As we reach the last few days of the season there is no better time to be out with your fishing rods, trotting the odd red maggot into an unwary shoal of Grayling or Roach. As winter slips into spring the rivers become slightly warmer and the days that little bit longer which provokes a strong feeding urge in most of our fish species. There is no better time of the year to target roach especially as they are fighting fit in readiness for their spawning activities in a month or so’s time.

I have been fortunate to fish a couple of exclusive sections of two of the Southern Chalk rivers, the Test and the Wylye but returned for a very pleasant trip on a small river much closer to home, the Lugg. Each river is very different from the rest and my approach had to reflect those changes in the methods used, here is how I went about it.

The Test was my first port of call, its a trip I make most years and I know that the fishing will be relatively easy but you still get more out of it the harder you work. I used a 13′ float rod with a very soft tip as I was predominantly fishing for the grayling that swim there in large numbers and they have an uncanny knack of shedding hooks due to their twisting action during the fight. My ‘secret weapon’ when grayling fishing is the Guru QM1 hook, its circular design helps to secure a firm hook-hold and I find that more fish are landed as a result. They are barbless and easy to remove from landed fish indeed often the hook falls out in the net. I tied a size 16 or 14 to a 4lb hooklink attached to 6lb mainline which may sound strong but, it was low visibility fluorocarbon and, as the river is very fast, the fish have little time to decide whether to take the bait or ignore it, so there is no point in going ultra fine. The other factor in choosing line strength was the presence of numerous large brown trout which ignore the fact that they are out of season and gorge on the bait, fish up to 15lbs have been landed and their toothy mouths and powerful fight makes short work of light tackle.

Although the river was only 3 to 4 feet deep I put most of the bulk shot about 15′ from the hook with a no4 dropper 10” below that to get the bait to run deep and I was immediately into a shoal of grayling taking several over a pound in the first hour.

Fishing with my mate Tony, we leapfrogged down the fishery trying several glorious runs and pools catching more grayling, numerous trout to about 4lbs (I lost one much bigger!) and a few roach albeit mine only went to 12oz whereas Tony had one knocking the door of 2lbs and another almost as big. We both scored best with red maggot as bait whereas on some days its sweetcorn that sorts out the better fish. I did find that sweetcorn attracted the attentions of too many trout so I baited with corn to keep them chasing the yellow grains whilst I trotted maggots beneath, it seemed to work well on the day and it shows that experimenting with bait is always worthwhile.

The next day saw us fishing a tiny tributary of the Wylye where you could almost touch the opposite bank with the rod tip. A smaller float shotted ‘shirt button’ style was called for. This means  spreading the shot evenly spaced down the line (like shirt buttins) which allows the bait to drop slowly through the shallow water and also enables the angler to hold back and get the bait to rise up off the bottom so, by holding back, you can get your gear to negotiate depth changes and weedbeds along the run. Also, holding back and letting the bait rise is an enticing movement often irresistible to fish.

For such a small river the fish stocks are astounding and we caught countless grayling from a number of different features, my best, which must have been very close if not over the magic two pound mark, came from a slightly deeper bend where I had bites from just one small area beneath an overhanging branch.

The last swim we stopped at was in the main river and is renowned for it’s abundance of grayling and Tony had the privilege of fishing it. He had switched to his old split cane float rod and had countless grayling testing its soft action. I borrowed it and had a few myself, it reminded me of the rods I used as a kid but I was also struck by the forgiving nature of the cane and how it absorbed every lunge of the grayling, the old rod and the new hooks meant that every fish hooked was landed in that pool and that, for those of you that grayling fish, is food for thought.

Back on home soil I was after chub on a narrow, overgrown river, time for a tackle change. I have a Drennan float rod designed for carp fishing, it is however, perfect for chub and barbel and can be used as an 11 or 13 footer. I opted for the 11′ version and set about trotting any likely looking swim. I was using a 3 AAA balsa and can float which was shotted fairly well down with a single no4 shot between the bulk and the hook as the current was quite fast and I wanted to get my bait down quickly. I had a 5lb hooklength and was again using the wonderful Guru QM1 in a size 16.

I had my first bite by slowing the float right down and letting the bait waft up a little off the bottom at the end of the swim, a 2lb chub couldn’t resist the two red maggots and it fought hard in the tight swim seeking sanctuary amongst the overhanging branches of a willow tree. I have always found that balanced tackle will stand a lot of pressure and have landed much bigger chub on much lighter gear albeit in far less snaggy waters but, as long as you move smoothly and let the rod absorb the lunges, you can steer hard fighting fish with relative ease. This point was proved with the biggest fish of the day, a chub not far short of 4lbs that got stuck around a branch but, by walking down to point opposite it, my constant pressure slowly brought it back into the current and eventually to the waiting net.

In these days of our obsession with bigger fish the humble float gear seems to be ignored by many anglers which is a pity, it really is a great way to learn about the contours of the river and the art of presenting a bait on the float will bring guaranteed pleasure. The other benefit of trying it nowadays is that so few are actually doing it, its a method that is unknown to many of the fish. Go back a few years and everybody float fished to a point where it was often necessary to go ultra-fine to entice the wisest fish but nowadays they are as green as grass so you can get away with quite robust gear on many rivers so it is still a viable method for chub and barbel but with the possibility of having some wonderful sport out coarse fishing. Give it a go.

The Dog Days of Summer

I love these conditions. Low, clear water, the fish are hiding in the most out of the way places and are reluctant to move far to feed. Conditions like this can be really challenging whilst coarse fishing but, with a little thought and flexibility in your approach, you can still find consistent sport.

Take a session I had last week. I arrived at the river to find it quite busy with people in the usual swims but all catching very little. I took some time to wander and soon found a spot where a few elips pellets tossed into the margins from a high bank, were taken on the drop by a group of chub. I kept the feeding going in little and often and soon those chub were preoccupied and joined by others from downstream. Inevitably they were then joined by a couple of barbel, looking pale compared to the chub and blending in with the gravel as they drifted across it. Now was the time to plot their downfall.

My fishing rod was already rigged with 10lb line, a 2′ long coated braid hooklink with the last couple of inches peeled back and a size 10 hook at the business end. I’ve gone over to coated braid for the time being as there is some evidence that barbel will spook to fluorocarbon if they touch it whereas they tolerate brushing against the more visible braid. Whether its a fact or not I don’t really know for sure but I’m catching on braid so it’ll do for now.

The lead is coated to blend in with gravel and a lump of plasticine is wrapped 3′ or so above it to act as a back weight. Pinning the line down is essential in fooling wary fish in shallow, clear water. To this end I also put a couple of rig putty blobs on the leader, I don’t want it wafting up in the current. The bait is a single elips pellet, broken in two then glued together over the hair.

I waited, the fish left the area having eaten every item of loose feed. I lowered the rig exactly where I wanted it, close to a nearside ledge. Here the line up to my rod would be less visible against the stone than it would in open water, another bonus in this stealth war. Having got everything where I wanted it, I recommenced loose feeding and immediately the fish returned. I kept the free pellets falling through the swim as the chub were taking mostly on the drop, this increases the chances of it being a barbel that takes the bait – and it worked. The barbel headed straight for open water and I was quickly on top of it, guiding it to the waiting net.

Having spent my time building this swim up I thought I’d get a bait straight back in and await the fish’s return in the hope of a second success. I figured it would take half an hour or so to settle and sat back playing with my new camera but was surprised when, after just a couple of minutes, the rod jolted down and a chub headed for a sunken bush. I was too slow, the fish went into the snag and the hookhold failed. Damn! My fault, sometimes the fish don’t respond in the usual manner and I had spooked the swim.

Not to worry, there’s plenty more water to explore. I found a couple more ‘flashing’ barbel but could not induce a take so ended the day at an old favourite swim of mine. Its been largely ignored for most of the summer mainly due to the distance from a car park but that suits me just fine. Here I put my lead into a pva bag of pellets and broken boilies and cast it into a deep run. Having the lead inside the pva bag ensures that it hits the bottom before breaking up rather than wafting in the current and spreading your bait far and wide as often happens when you simply put it on your hook.

I was joined by my old mate Tommo who declined the offer to share my swim and headed off to a spot that has given him some good results in the past. It was another deep run of well oxygenated water and close to an overhanging tree. As we chatted my rod sprang into life and I landed a barbel. I followed this with another fish of a similar size, about seven pounds or so, and a couple of chub. But it was Tommo’s excited whistle and shout that signalled the high point of the day. As I got to him he was just netting a beautiful barbel that turned the scales to 10.4 and was in mint condition.

Not bad for a difficult day.

Written by Dave Burr

Effects of Weather on the Winter River

As an all round specimen hunter, our normal wildly variable winter river conditions rarely see me stuck for which species to target. Other anglers, specialising in one species, can often go for weeks where the conditions give them very poor prospects indeed. There are now a large number of anglers who fish for little else but barbel, and I’m often asked what are optimum conditions for winter barbel, and, conversely, what species would be best sought when conditions are adverse for barbel.

5lb 8oz chub taken in perfect winter conditions

Let’s look at the winter barbel angler’s dream conditions first of all. What I want to see is a rising water temperature, and the sharper the rise the better I like it, coupled with dropping air pressure. These conditions are at their most dramatic when a high pressure dry spell, coupled with clear skies, night frosts and low river levels, is ended abruptly by an intense low pressure belt that brings gales and heavy rain, leading to rising water levels carrying deepening colour. After days of low temperatures, barbel do go on the feed with a vengeance when the temperature starts to climb and the river starts to colour up. I’ve had some of my biggest barbel in such conditions, barbel being one of the few fish, along with roach, that feed avidly in a rising river. As long as I can find a swim where I am not too frustrated by the floating crap that usually accompanies such conditions, I can virtually guarantee sport. There is an important point to be made at this juncture though. A winter flood can also result from melting of heavy snowfall, which has a serious deoxygenation effect. If this is also accompanied by ingress of rock salt where road de-icing has been taking place, don’t even bother going fishing. Of all water conditions, these have to be the worst.

Hardly ideal barbel conditions

Knowing your river is important for fishing in floods, for safety obviously, but also because you need to know the bottom composition of all the newly created marginal swims, which will normally be on dry land. A gently sloping dry gravel bank will become a classic floodwater swim. High natural banks are also important because the bottom of such a bank in flood conditions, tight in to the edge, can have a remarkably steady flow, even if the surface current seems impossibly savage. Similarly, where undercut banks occur, the undercuts are usually packed with fish of all species in a high flood, where they can escape the full force of the current. Although I have caught most river species from undercuts, I particularly associate them with perch. Legered lobs, fished light enough on long tails, so that the bait washes right under the cover, has yielded me some memorable bags of good perch.

16lb 6oz barbel taken in a high warm flood

Once a flood has peaked and starts to ebb, losing some colour and current speed, most species respond to anglers’ baits avidly. I’ve had some great catches of chub and roach as a flood just comes off its peak, and when the river has dropped to almost its normal level, while retaining some colour, the conditions are absolutely perfect for perch. Bream and carp also respond well to a slightly coloured river. Both of these are neglected river species by specimen hunters but I can assure you that they are both well worth targeting.

11lb plus Ouse bream taken on a mild February morning

On those all too rare mild and dry winter days, with light winds, and rivers running at normal winter level with only a hint of tea stain colour, most species will feed well enough, although barbel and roach not as avidly as when conditions are murkier. Barbel that may be very aggressively feeding on large baits in well coloured water, actively foraging all over the river, are usually much more static in clearer water, suggesting that feeder fished maggots would be the most effective approach in daylight. With temperatures holding up after dark, however, barbel will respond normally to large baits in the conditions of low visibility. This is my favourite approach as I absolutely love winter night fishing for barbel. On stretches with big barbel a possibility, I hedge my bets in these conditions by targeting chub in the daylight hours, getting serious about barbel as dusk approaches. There is a definite parallel here with roach. In clear conditions, I find the species more effectively targeted with maggots, either on the feeder or on light float tackle. However, in coloured water, or at night, those same roach respond eagerly to large chunks of flake or full sized lobs.

My first 7 pounder on an icy winter evening

Chubbing in such mild, settled conditions is an absolute delight and after forty years of using the technique, I still never tire of wandering the banks with a light quivertip rod, baiting several swims with mashed bread, presenting legered bread crust. It’s fair to say that, these days, I fish more often with special pastes and boilies, looking for mega specimens. But when conditions are right, legered crust in conjunction with bread mash is as effective as it ever was.

Try for grayling in extreme cold conditions

Another species for which settled conditions are ideal is the pike. Every pike in the river is feeding when the conditions are like this, and it is a mistake to linger too long in a swim if there is no response. Just as with feeding perch, if there’s a pike present, a bite will not be long in coming. For river piking, I’m probably more mobile than with any other species apart from grayling, and at the end of the day may have covered over a mile in fishing for them. My favourite swims for river piking are those slow, near bank crease swims, which are obviously attractive to prey species. I rarely fish livebaits these days for any pike fishing, and generally trot with natural deadbaits fished horizontally on the trace or freeline sea deadbaits in the slacks or inside of crease swims.

Barbel love warm winter floods

The best perch conditions are found on heavily overcast days, as perch appear to detest high light intensity. They don’t like heavily coloured water though. Whereas great pike conditions include a clear blue sky and pleasant winter sunshine, perfect perch conditions are found on those muggy days when it never seems to get properly light. If there’s drizzle in the air so much the better. The absolutely prime time for a big river perch in winter is the hour just before dark, and my favourite method is to be laying on a large lobworm under a night float if the current is sluggish enough. I use a Drennan insert crystal with a snap in night light. To see that glowing float tilt and slide away in near darkness is a magical experience.

Dusk is the prime time for winter perch

So far I’ve talked about various combinations of water conditions featuring favourable water temperatures in the mid forties Fahrenheit or above. Where temperatures are struggling far below these ideal levels, however, fishing becomes much more challenging. The first extreme is that of high pressure with clear skies, leading to cold, frosty nights and days of weak winter sun when the thermometer struggles to creep above zero. At the time of writing, late November, those conditions are here with a vengeance! With low, clear water at a temperature down in the thirties Fahrenheit, the only species we are going to find feeding with gay abandon is the grayling, which revel in the cold water. They respond readily to both trotted maggots and feeder tactics. For the better quality fish you cannot beat feeder fishing with corn on the hook and crushed corn grains in the feeder. Grayling absolutely adore sweetcorn. Other species that are still very worthwhile quarries, despite the low temperatures, are chub, dace and pike. It is important to stress that all the preceding comments assume that the cold conditions have been prevalent for several days. Sudden frosts after mild weather kill all sport stone dead initially until the fish have acclimatised.

A nice winter double on a freezing cold day

I’ve fished for chub in arctic conditions with breadcrust for the best part of fifty years, and have learned and applied important variations to my approach from that in more favourable feeding conditions. First, the fish are certainly more sluggish and prone to stay in one comfortable swim. I always want steadier water than that which they normally inhabit. A crease swim is a perfect example of what I mean. In normal temperatures, the chub will be found adjacent to the fastest flow, feeding with gusto. In cold water, they may have migrated inshore to be tucked into the very gentlest flow under the banks, even skulking right under marginal ice. They are still happy enough to take a bait, and still accept a good mouthful. But they are not prepared to chase all over the river for it. I therefore cut right back on free feed and cast regularly. Over the years, most of my chub in these conditions have come within a minute or so of a recast, obviously suggesting that a bait needs to fall close to a fish before it will consider taking it.

When we have weather severe enough to freeze rivers, I’ve found piking can be excellent. My solitary thirty pound pike, the 32lb 1oz Thurne fish of the mid eighties, was taken in water that had only been ice-free a matter of minutes. When I’d arrived that morning the river had been frozen bank to bank, apart from a few hundred yards upstream of the dyke where I kept my boat moored. I had commenced fishing at the edge of the ice and as the ice gradually receded during the morning in the strengthening wind, I continually worked my livebait into the newly available areas.

Where we have very low temperature, but the river is fast, high and coloured, we really are up against it, especially if the temperature is still falling. I must admit I rarely bother fishing a river in these conditions. It is totally hopeless when a rapidly falling thermometer is coincident with a rising dirty river caused by melting snow, coupled with deoxygenation caused by ingress of road salt. I definitely admit defeat on rivers in these circumstances.

In every other combination of weather and water condition, though, you need never be stuck for a species to go for that will give a good chance of sport. Play the percentage game and choose the species where the likelihood of success is greatest.