Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Hanningfield Perch - The Ineluctable Fact

The morning broke with a murky grey light boding bad news. A glimpse through the parted curtains revealed a dank and miserably forbidding pall of grey hanging motionless in the frigid air. Once again, mist and fog was likely to stop play right in its tracks. Sure enough, on arrival at the reservoir, the foggy freeze meant that boats would stay tethered to the jetty till it finally cleared away and revealed what was forecast to be a warm clear day by noon. This time, however, we lost no time in buying day tickets, confirming the booking of the boats, and departing for the bank to fish till it did.

You shan't go out...

Our party had grown a little, Andy and Jan having arrived, but Steve and mate were still en-route. I was not to see anything of them till late afternoon, and then at distance, which was a shame. The dam at Hanningfield is the longest in the country and seems to go on, and on, and on, and on, though it's probably only half of that. On and on, more like! At the far end there's a car park and anglers walk through a gate manned by a permanent bailiff, and when you enter the fishery you see why that is. The banks are lined with Eastern European anglers of a decidedly lower rank than those who choose to fish from boats with their nice tackle and expert casting skills. Some of these fishermen, and ladies too, were employing telescopic beachcasters teamed with cheap little fixed spool reels, but with thick coiling line to suit a thirty pound class wreck rod tied to lures the size of a three ounce dace ...

Hanningfield's 'Any Method Rules' really do apply here. I wonder what knots they were employing?

Andrzejek! Katarzina! Lay off the fishing for a week, save the £26, get down to the tackle shop and blow the ticket price on a complete Lineaeffe spinning outfit!

The bank was a plain concrete shelf sloping away underwater so I chose a 'nice looking' metal platform with a handy heavy link chain running down to it, to fish from. The drop-shot rod was pulled from the bag, and, I thought I should effect my changes and retie the lot there and then, but honestly, it was so blinking cold that I saved that operation for later, and just popped on a worm and cast out. On the fifth or six cast, I received a heavy drag, then a sharp thump, and no further out than ten yards, saw the broad flash of the golden-green flank of a good fish, but the hook, once again, failed to find the fish. The worm came back as just a remnant of flesh dangling from the bend of the hook. Once again the drop-shot rig had failed, and that flash I'd seen, well I fancied it might well have been a perch...

The thought occupied my mind. Trout do have greenish brown backs when seen underwater, but the backs of fish never, ever cause flashes, only the bright scales of the flanks can do that. Then again, the water was carrying a green tinge, so maybe it was just a trout after all. I'll never know for sure.

Forty or fifty biteless casts later, I retired the drop-shot rod, ruing not altering the rig before starting, but doubting that my fumbling manual dexterity would allow it by now, and having utterly satisfied myself that the way things stood it was never ever going to catch me any fish, moved along to spin for a trout till the fog lifted, but without success. By the time it finally did, my hands were frozen stiff...

Optimism! It could be this big... Anchorman Lee, and helmsman Leo in an unfamiliar boat.  
Eventually we pushed off the jetty and went out for another crack at the perch. Birthday boy Lee looked beside himself in anticipation...! Leo fired up the unfamiliar engine, dropped it into gear, and  crashed the boat hilariously in a tremendous shunt accident that pushed a line of boats down the jetty tight to their tethers, Lee's startled face was a picture of dread!

Under control. Phew!

Our first stop off was at the valve tower where Keith wanted to float fish again, but against the tower structure itself this time, but where I wanted, and intended, to catch a fish at last to the drop-shot rig. On the way over I retied the lot. This time I made a double overhand loop in the trace as you would to join a light hooklink to a standard coarse fishing mainline, but left a long tail to which was attached an old plummet at around two feet distance from the loop. From the loop I hung a six inch hook-length of four pound mono made from the excess line nipped off the trace once the lead was attached. It looked crude, was crude, but in the clear water alongside the boat, the worm swam along beautifully, the tail flickering about and waving around tantalisingly.

How could it fail?

At least part of the problem with failed hook ups had to have been that the fish were taking the worm right in, but encountering the hook tied right up tight against the trace, which is correct practice for a drop-shot rig using plastic lures, and is vouched for as the way with them and why I had persisted, but in practice, with real live worms, the fish was either ejecting the bait as it came up against the taught line of the trace, which was acting as a bar across the lower and upper lips, or simply not hitting the bait hard enough.

Because I have actually witnessed perch take lobworms whilst fishing for them in the gin clear water of the summer Sowe, I do know how they do it . They'd bolt up to the worm out of nowhere. How they knew it had just dropped into the water is anyone's guess, because the smell of the worm could not have reached them so quickly, Then they'd stop dead in their tracks and eye it up. When they were sure they liked what they saw, they'd slowly upend, move slowly down toward it, suck it all up in one go, wait till they were sure it was good to taste, turn about, and then bolt away with it.

With this rig, I had that experience always uppermost in mind, certain that reservoir perch too, would display the same mix of instant curiosity and prudent caution, the rig having to be worked slowly and methodically to allow a perch the time it needs for its inspections. I was sure that the curious drag bites I had experienced were caused by a fish having worm pulled slowly out of its closed mouth whilst it tried to hang on to its escaping prize.

Out went the rig and back it came. Nothing. Out it went again, but nothing, but then on about the tenth cast the rig dragged, and thumped too, but the fish once again, escaped. Now I made the second adjustment. The worm was nipped in the head and the hook threaded down through the body lugworm style, and out the side as far down as I could get it around the bend of the size six hook, then the head was pulled up and over the eye of the hook and along the line, and the bait was ready. The only problem was that this method more or less instantly killed the worm, but if this way of stringing the bait didn't make the decisive difference, then nothing ever would.

The rig was cast a few times and then at a distance of twenty five feet or so, the rig dragged, thumped, and at long last, shot away. The series of head bangs it made as I stopped its first short run had me praying that it was a perch at long last, and for a time I was convinced it was because it displayed no trout-like bursts of astonishing speed, but then the rood hooped right over to the water, and I knew for sure it was just a trout after all. The fish was a fantastic opponent against the Shakespeare wand I had been using all along, a rod that has subdued double-figure carp quite capably, but was having more fun with this fella! The runs were tremendously exhilarating, the rod arcing and trembling, the reel screaming, and the fish lunging right under the boat. Then it got around the anchor rope and I thought it lost. So I pulled up but the fish released itself, Dropping the anchor, I went back to battle but after a few weaker runs the fish was in the net. A mere two-pound rainbow. But what a fight they give on very light tackle! Heaven alone knows what I would have done with one of Hanningfield's occasional doubles...

Crazy little trout of two pounds something

Well, it might not have been the target, but at least the rig was finally sorted out to the point that I was fully confident that it would indeed catch perch too, if they were ever found. 

I am a conservative angler when it comes to refining my rigs, sticking with things that don't work when they are supposed to work, long enough to be fully certain exactly why they don't. I don't mind this. There's no replacement for it. Testing to destruction is the only way I know to fully understand how anything works, or why it does not. Chopping and changing constantly through a series of wild, disconnected experiments only to arrive accidentally at a solution is very unscientific to my mind, and no fun either. It's like boarding a train on journey to somewhere new, but failing to secure a window seat, when I'd rather stand by a window by the toilets than sit without a window to gaze out of. How can I ever understand how I arrived at my destination otherwise?

The rig and the way it works over shallow water when cast and retrieved

The rig and the way it works over deep water when cast and retrieved

My final destination, is of course, a Hanningfield perch, and I will get there, I'll vow, and further, in time I will get one of the biggest that swims in it. I have very long and successful experience of whittling down vast acreages and finding the goodies in them, you see. And I'm talking about far greater areas than Hanningfield's piddling flooded farm. 

I used to be a metal detectorist in a previous life. With metal detecting you scan the acres with a tiny eight inch search coil, and you do it all day long, so it's little different than exploring a reservoir with rod and line. The difference is one of scale, because there are no reservoirs in this country or perhaps even the world, large enough to compare with what land I used to have at my disposal to search. 

I acquired, over time, no less than 22,000 acres of arable land on farms all over East Anglia in which to have my fun. To give you a true sense of the vastnesses such tract of land would comprise of were it all brought together, then consider that Lake Windermere, the largest lake in England, would fit into the three thousand acres at the Northern corner, and that there'd still be seven times its total area left to explore.

The reservoir overlaid accurately with a Victorian map of what it used to be; a series of small fields that make up just one medium-sized family farm of 800 acres. You'll see the hedgerows and lanes on the victorian map extending into the land of the modern aerial view just as they once did. This technique, derived from metal detecting practice, and one that reduces vast areas to logical, manageable units, shows exactly the features that will be under water to this day. Combined with a contour chart, the mysterious bed of the reservoir, becomes intelligible.

I reality, I used to only tackle a manageable 3000 acres of it, leaving the rest till years later when I'd finished with what I could handle in my head. That acreage alone was an area as large as the surface area of Windermere, all on a group of farms surrounding a group of villages in Essex, and not more than a good stone's throw from Hanningfield itself. Going out on a boat and anchoring up in a lake the same size, is, unless you have a very good reason to stay put, akin to going out into a random field, standing stock still, swinging the detector coil around your feet, and being surprised that you not only find very little, and that a single scrap of trash that you stumbled upon by sheer good luck, but much more likely, nothing whatsoever, and all because arable fields, like reservoir's beds, are for the most part devoid of anything else but mud.

No, the trick is in movement. Constant movement. All day long movement. And never stopping even for a moment. The same will apply on a smaller scale on Hanningfield, where to find perch you must constantly move, keep on the move no matter how tiring moving becomes, and only ever stop when at last you find just the one. Then, and only then, can you afford to drop anchor and fish a float, or cast about the boat with spinners or drop-shots, or whatnot, because in such an acreage, if you ain't within 20 or 30 yards of the prize and you know they are there for certain, you may as well be a mile away.

It even applies to trout fishing, this law of constant movement, only in metal detecting terms, the gaggle of boats all finally crowded around a stockie trout hotspot someone has chanced upon is akin to a group of detectorists gathered on the site of a boot sale finding dropped pennies and ring pulls, but lacking the energy, application, or will, to venture out into the wilderness to find the real treasures under their own steam -- the valuable Saxon coins, the Medieval gilt-bronze statuettes, the ancient Celtic jewellery, all of which require mammoth application, will-power, research and resolve to even begin to get close to, when there are perhaps ten or twenty such prizes in every 3, 000 acres. But with logical and methodical  work, reducing the acreage by eliminating the very large areas where they cannot be found and locating the very small areas where they are likely to be found, in the end, they will be found because they certainly are there to be found. 

Finally, when the static approach was seen not to be working in our favour, we moved once again. This time back to the first mark we'd sat at on the morning of the first day. Here I got another tug, and then a kick back, and a fight with a trout every bit as violent and exciting as the first. The rig was finally resolved.

After this we moved again, to a spot where Keith fell asleep watching his float and where I understood for certain that my rig and technique could never work over very shallow water by casting alone because I had no bites, but really did require the technique I'd imagined of it, which as I have said before, is a form of bass fishing, and finally we retired from the fray, myself full of beans sure that I'd cracked at least half of the puzzle in readiness for the next time.

Next time, will be Autumn. 

When I will go out alone and try to piece together the other half of the puzzle to my own satisfaction, because you cannot have two anglers in the same boat fishing diametrically opposed styles and conflicting methods with what I intend to do all day long, as it's a one style, one method, kind of fishing that demands that two anglers in the same boat fish relentlessly with identical rigs and baits till it reveals, as it will, the ineluctable fact...

As with treasure, as with perch.


  1. Ah, Heathcote's legendary transportation disasters are not just confined to four wheels than, you kept that one quiet Leo!

  2. Cough cough!

    Great write up Jeff, a very enjoyable trip despite my lack of boat control!

    Great to finally meet you lads anyway after following your blogs for so long.

  3. Leo, was it just me, or was i shorter than you imagined, or you taller than I imagined?

    Sorry we failed with the perch, and thanks for the jelly worms, I will use them very soon but had other designs on the day, and I think you were top dog for trout with three ?

    One of the polish lads had his limit. Float fished trout pellets though , which is clever, but naff. The stockie trout just don't know what a fish is just yet, only having been released recently. By June they hit big lures so hard it's scary!

    It was great to meet up after what seems an age of being strangely familiar to each other.

    Rob is obviously familiar with your machinery skills?

    I'd have done exactly the same!