Tuesday, 7 July 2009

48 hours

We went camping at Montford Bridge on the Severn late Saturday afternoon; Judy's master-plan was for her to stay overnight, return home Sunday morning to clear up some end of year college marking, leaving me and Molly on the bank till late on Monday. Molly's plan was to play endless games with her precious cricket ball, in and out of water. My plan was to fish every waking moment for an early season barbel

On arrival the bank-side campsite was chock full, but we squeezed in. The pegs along the short campsite bank were occupied by a group of five barbel anglers who had arrived early and set up an enormous palace right on the edge; they were chucking baits out into the river from the top of the bank and then propping the rods up high, some were even float fishing from this elevated position! Now, the banks of the Severn at this point are about twenty feet above the water at normal flow, but the water out front was down at least five feet from that level and only a few feet deep so the line to a bait in mid stream was at an angle of forty five degrees. That's probably a good thing because it cuts down line bites and avoids the thrust of the flow but what makes me laugh is that anglers who are fishing alone and unassisted often fish this way and some even insist upon keeping the landing net at the top of the bank with them!


What sort of madman goes after hooking one of the most powerful fish in British waters from the top of a high bank and when he succeeds in making contact, then has to scramble the twenty slippery feet to the water, usually in the dark, down a muddy, narrow and near vertical pathway, holding both rod and net and still playing the fish with all the attendant problems that entails, in order to land it? Who would risk such a foolish thing? Is any fish worth a twisted ankle, a broken leg, concussion, or, on a large river in even moderate spate, death? I tell you, if you fall into the Severn at Montford bridge in full winter gear when water is ripping through at running pace after heavy rain, you are brown bread, my friend...

Barbel Palace

Surely, what any sane person would do if fishing really has to proceed this way would be to place the landing net where the landing net is used - at the waters edge- freeing up an entire arm no less, and then fix a rope to something solid at the top of the bank so that when you go sliding down to the water you have something to hold on to with that free arm. Even better, tie the rope to yourself, free up both arms, avoid drowning altogether!

I'm going off on one now, a digression too far, methinks.

Anyway, I watched their antics for some time, until it was obvious from their constant recasting and tackle adjustments that they'd blanked thus far, then went for a walk along the pretty river bank, where I met a few other anglers, none of whom had caught anything either, got down to the water and took a good up close look at the state of play.

It looked OK. Slow and low, but full of fish life.

I didn't fish that night, but got quite sloshed instead on what bibulous reserves we had about us plus a few pints of Highgate Dark Mild up't pub.

Next morning Judy was to go, but hung around till afternoon, dithering with stuff. She obviously wanted to stay on but couldn't, so in the end I got short with her and told her to "go home, now! Or stay! " I wanted her to stay. She makes a good brew, a wicked bacon sarnie, and has a way with domestic camping particulars that I lack in abundance, so why wouldn't I? I catch the fish, she cooks em! That's been the man/woman deal from time immemorial.

She went, in the end, and left me with a dog for company.

By the time I came to fish, most of the other campers had left for home, and the Barbel Palace boys were packing up too, so I enquired about their overnight luck and found that they would have drawn a complete blank but for one eel on a worm. I decided to trot. And when I did I discovered a truth about this part of the Severn that had been hitherto suspected but never truly realised - It is certainly full of fish, but full mostly of minnows and bleak. The lovely float trundled its lovely way down the lovely stream only to be dragged under every few seconds and released again by a fish too small to swallow a size ten but more than fish enough to remove the bait from it. I mounted worms and bread only to find the hook bare within seconds, a fact borne out by the evidence of a now serene float ambling away into the distance unimpeded.

I put on a maggot, and then two, three, ten, twenty, a medusa head of maggots, but within a thirty yard trot all were removed by the ravening hoards. Eventually I caught a few of them, minnows mostly, but bleak too; I could have scaled right down and learned how to catch them properly, and had I brought a keepnet I might have been tempted the way things transpired later in the expedition.

A minnow; one of many

I went back to the tent after some of hours of this nonsense flogging of the float, made a brew, cooked some noodles, and then rigged up the big artillery...

It was going to be barbel, chub, or nothing.

I tried loads of swims that afternoon but had no bites whatsoever from any of them so I decided to fish the shallowest part of the stretch, a place where the water glides smoothly across gravel and under these conditions is only a few feet deep at most. My reasoning was that spawning fish hang around the shallows before, during and after spawning time so here there was some chance of finding one or two in a feeding mood.

On the beach

There was a gravel beach that made for pretty comfortable fishing, and with my brolly set up to keep off the intermittent rain, a deck chair lugged down from the camp and my rods up high it was like just miniature beach casting. I put out sweetcorn on a simple link leger rig that would come around in the strong current to rest where it would, and fished pellets and meat alternately on a heavy lead on the mid stream rod. I sat back to wait, and started to experience infrequent tugs, taps and bangs on both rods that never went far enough to strike, and when the rig was retrieved the bait was usually gone. This 'feeding spell' lasted an hour or so and then the bites stopped altogether. Eventually I went back to the tent to find another Barbel Palace set up in exactly the same place as the previous one.

Molly and barbel palace 2

This tent was impressively spacious for the two occupants and was brand new, the bright green guy ropes all spaced evenly and pegged down in military fashion. After dinner and a few more pints brought down from the pub I decided to do an evening session and possibly the whole night if things went well. On passing the palace I talked to the anglers, father and son in fact, and the father was the same guy I had met here last year and who's landing net I'd had to borrow as he slept when I'd allowed mine to escape downstream just on the point of bringing a barbel to the bank. I informed them of the luck of the previous tenants of their swim and moved back to the beach.

Hopeful and intent

Fishing at the beach progressed exactly as before. After dark I had a spell of bites that went nowhere and then after an hour they stopped altogether, but why exactly, I really don't really know. Perhaps the fish were just being inquisitive but not actually so hungry that they'd compete for food and take anything with disregard for safety, but, it could have been any number of variables that was producing this behaviour, but I didn't get to find out. Around ten I pulled in both rods, left the tackle set up on the beach as there was no-one around to nick it, and went to the pub to buy a couple of pints for later as I'd already decided that midnight was time for bed.

Cheesed right off

Around half eleven I eventually got a real bite that hooked up to something large and ponderous, that wallowed around in midstream, and then kited toward the the beach thirty yards downstream and beached itself in the shallow water. I wound down to it and went to investigate, thinking it was no barbel but could be a really large eel. When I got to it I could make out an elongated shape, a prehistoric shape, like a small crocodile. Molly was barking her head off at this strange creature but then I got close enough to see it was neither eel nor crocodile, but a large logfish...

I pulled it up the beach and tried to convince Molly, who was jumping back and forth in high anxiety, that the creature was harmless. She was having none of it - she'd seen the thing moving, and it was bigger than her! It pulled the scales down to an impressive thirteen pounds dead, easily the largest logfish I'd ever caught personally, and I like to think, a true test of both tackle and angler.

The big logfish next morning, Molly still keeping her distance

Next day was all wet and dry. The rain came in waves and the water level began to rise very slowly. I hoped it would improve the fishing...

A gaggle of fellas with black umbrellas...

In the margins of the beach I experimented with the ravening hordes of minnows, throwing in all kinds of baits to see how they reacted and how the baits fared. Pellets were smothered in a writhing mass of fish as soon as they hit the water, the tiddlers moving the pellet all over the place but never whittling it down much - I learned why my hair rigged pellets were getting knocked off the hook though, and that was because the commotion and the constant movement would eventually ease the stop into the drilled hole and the pellet would eventually come free. Meat was treated with less interest, and could not really be torn apart it being rubbery, but the same fate would apply to meat as had applied to the pellets - if they are not secured well enough then they will get pulled off the hair in the end. Sweetcorn was attacked with gusto but after just a short while was pretty much left alone, presumably because the skin is impervious to attack and all its attractive juices had leeched out by then, and that may be why sweetcorn works best in my experience when it is fed little and often, and why a big bed of the stuff can be the death of a swim. Bread was torn apart and engulfed in seconds, much quicker than I'd ever imagined. Maggots were treated the same, a handful was gone in seconds. Worms just got devoured. Keith Joblings particle mix was most interesting - it caused uproar, but after an hour quite a lot of it was left intact, the fish not being able to get the harder stuff down their throats - of course the bigger minnows further out probably could have, but in such a situation I reckon that a good particle mix of larger items including a liberal dose of corn may withstand the attentions of these devouring machines and stay around long enough to attract the attentions of better fish.


By the end of the day I had fared exactly as before, I tried everything, moved swims, experimented with hooklengths and what have you, but experienced the same pattern of bites. I should have tried sweetcorn and stuck with it, I have since decided; I think it might have been the only real way to go under the circumstances. Back at the camp I enquired as to the fate of the barbel palace occupants, and they reported the same pattern as I had experienced, lots of tugs and knocks in short phases and then motionless rod tops for hours on end. The son had apparently hooked a fish the night before, that promptly got off.

A barbel perhaps, but another logfish, I suspect...

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