Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Tickets, Timetables & Tight Lines - Itchen Roach (Pt3)

Three roach anglers in a car on the way to a roach fishery. The one in the back leans over the seat, and says to the other passenger, "if you won a million quid on the lottery, what would you buy?"

"Two-pound roach..." he thinks.

The driver sparks up, and says, " If you could have any girl in the world, then, who would she be?"

"Two-pound roach..." he thinks.

There's no punchline. That's just roach anglers, and that's me in the passenger seat. Whilst roach are in the offing, "Two-pound roach..." will always be the prelude to any answer given to any question, because it's a mantra going on in roach angler's heads the whole time they're fishing for them. Though every single decent sized roach is promising, and every one over a pound a cause for celebration because pounders tell you that you're doing it right, no other target in coarse fishing is quite as glamorous, or hard to achieve as the 'Magic Two.'

Unless that is, your name is Steve. Steve caught his first two-pounder by way of a blinding streak of the most astonishing good fortune. Simon, who'd already had two-pounders in his roach career, and from here, was fishing the first day of the season and had carefully built his swim the day long catching a stack of good roach by it. Steve turns up evening time, to trial the long rod Simon was using that day, ahead of the possible purchase of it. He trots down on his second cast, strikes a bite, and brings in a two-pound roach...

Lucky sod! Lucky rod! I think he bought it...

That's roach all over. I had my best on what was only my third serious trip after them. As I'd repeated in my pre-sleep funk the previous night, it went one-pound, fifteen-ounces and eight-drams, a two-pounder short of a gulp of water, but because of that apparently cruel weight, I have chased them religiously ever since, because it has been the perfect spur, and I've enjoyed every single second in fathoming the bottomless mystery that big roach are in order to better it.

Will I ever get that extra half-ounce under my belt? Yes. Will it be today? It'll be one day, and I don't very much care which. There's half a chance, always, if they are there in the first place. And they are here on the Itchen, and that's good enough for me to believe it can happen on any bite that comes my way today.

Simon and Steve leave me to the swim Simon had fished the previous day, and go off on a hike to fish from the far bank. Our mission is clear - "Two-pound roach..." It's a really nice day, even at 5.30 am. The air is cool, and the sky overcast, but unlike yesterday there's no promise of rain, rather it'll be sunny and bright by afternoon. Now I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing here. In the lexicon of roach fishing 'bright sun' equates to 'bad fishing' but I'm buggered if that'll deter me for even a second. The loaned long-rod is set up, the pitch prepared, and off I jolly well trot.

The swim is a long, fast, and smooth glide. I soon find out that free bait must be catapulted very accurately against the far bank, and as the day progresses, I find that to get bites I must have that bait land at an angle of 35 degrees upstream to my position. This is because the flow spreads the bait and eventually deposits some of it in a shallow depression about 45 degrees to my left and about thirty yards away from where I stand. Most of the red maggots never land on the river bed, and are either snaffled by minnows near the surface just a few yards down, chub in mid-water, ten or so yards down, continue to drift away, caught in the surface turbulence, or get caught in weed. I doubted one in ten were reaching roach at, or near, the riverbed.

My first fish is a one pound chub. As the float passes along the far bank at a brisk walking pace, even with a 17 foot rod, it cannot be held back, so the bait just flies downstream unchecked whilst mending the line so that the straightest possible trot down is maintained. The water is still heavily coloured from yesterday's rains but the fish don't seem to mind that and bites are regular, however many of these are simply the hook dragging through weed, but all are struck at. The first small chub comes from mid-water, and though it's only small, the heavy flow and having to carefully drag it up and across, makes it feel like a four-pounder.

Look mum! I can touch the other side of the picture! 

The rod performs very differently to any I have ever used. It is very light, but the sheer length of it makes it feel quite heavy at normal trotting position. I soon learn to prop the butt in the crook at the side of my waist, keep the tip well up and have the line to the float off the water as much as possible. This little thing improves things out of recognition. The rod is now manageable, and the trot down more accurate and effective. But landing fish though! Now that's a whole new thing...

The first five fish are similar sized chub and I'm wondering of any roach are in the swim. I set the float so that the baited hook trips bottom and catches weed every time at the start of the trot, and by doing so, find a depression below the tripping point where the float glides freely through. The float dips, the rod arches over, and eventually, the first roach comes over the rim of the net. It's well under a pound, but it's the first and from then on in, every single roach hooked comes from, at, or very near, that certain point where the deeper water starts.

As the first hours pass by, my actions become ever more fluid and predictable. Casting off the long rod with the closed face reel is extremely accurate and I get that float and bait to land where I want it every time, which is under overhanging trees that fall to within three feet of the water in places, but the rod makes casting under them easy, and I'll not lose a float in the branches all day long.

I'm building a steady net of fish. Some are roach, most are chub, but there's a couple of gudgeon too. I had forgotten something after all in my packing though, and it would have helped out enormously. My bait-waiter is in the cupboard but I really need it here. Bending down to the pallet to rebait or catapult freebies, is a royal pain, seriously impeding fluidity and costing time, and trotting is all about that. The more trots you put in, the more fish you catch, and once the gear is mastered, the biting points found and the feed working as it should, that's all there is to it. But take a rest, get a tangle, even take too long banking a fish, and it goes off the boil.

And the tangles! Long rods are tangling machines. They get caught in everything, the line wraps around them, and they will have someone's eye out if you ain't careful. Untangling the rod top whilst perched on a sunken pallet mean shipping the endless thing backwards and reaching out over the water. The only answer is not tangling in the first place, and by three hours in, that was happening less and less as I learned to control the beast.

That big roach still hadn't arrived though. Not to any of us. By midday and the arrival of the crowds, it still hadn't. The sun was high and it was very warm, the water was clarifying too, a combination of conditions that looked dire for roach of any size, let alone that elusive 'two.' Nevertheless we soldiered on. Then I saw Simon over the far bank with a fish slumped in his net, that from my distance looked like an enormous roach. Shouting across the water a word I couldn't quite hear, but that sounded like 'grub,' and me thinking he was asking me over for a spot of lunch, he then held up a near six-pound chub!

Good fishing that, on a size 22 hook and two pound bottom...

I feared such a fish from my swim. I'd gone up to a size 18 and three pound bottom just because of the flow and what it was doing to anything but the most secure hook holds, because the sheer pressure of it was sometimes pulling hooks out of the better fish, any one of which could easily have been the target. When I eventually did manage to bank one of the larger roach, I was glad I had, because even the one-pound, three-ounce specimen I eventually teased up and across the current, felt like it would well exceed two-pounds.

I'd started out at 5.30 am, and it was nearly two in the afternoon now. The pub was heaving, and out of hours anglers on the way to enjoying a meal and a pint there, couldn't resist taking a diversion and waving the wife and kids along, to talk by the waterside. It was like being home on the cut. I continued to catapult maggots whilst I sat down for a break and chatted with them, and they understood very well why I must.

Resuming work, I got a call over from Simon standing in the woods, far bank...

"Jeff! Steve's had a scraper 'two'...! Just under I reckon, but hard to tell. It might just make it over..."

I was half a pint of reds away from extinction now, and needed more to continue. Steve's good news and my own pounder had buoyed me up, though. At least the bigger fish were biting after all, and could be caught no matter what the weather.

I persisted there for another hour and a half, eking out the reds till the supply had dwindled away to nothing. I tried bread, but got nothing, caster too, with similar results. I had a half-pint of whites, flavoured and coloured bronze with turmeric, but they were having none of them either. No, red maggots is what I'd fed for nigh on eight-hours now, and red maggots was all they wanted because of it. I was going to have to split soon, join Simon and Steve on the far bank to 'borrow' some more reds out of Simon's enormous bucket, and once there, build a new swim from scratch.

I pulled the net after packing down for the move. There must have been fifteen pounds of mixed fish in there. A good haul for my first time at this lark, I thought. I hadn't managed another roach larger than the biggest of my day thus far, but I was best pleased to have at least got over the one-pound hurdle by a few ounces. Like I said, a pound is the marker weight with roach, because they let you know you're on the right track wherever you fish for them, be it lake, canal or river. If a roach angler doesn't exceed a pound, he has blanked, is disappointed, and scratches his head perplexed.

Which is why I'm balding on top of my crown. Too many roach blanks, you see...

Getting round was a nightmare. Treacherous swamps, dead ends, lost bearings, rods tangled in trees and barbed wire, but eventually, I found the way across a deadly improvised bridge of fallen boughs covered in slime crossing an orange-coloured silted up carrier stream, and was there.

It was a different river. Slacks near bank and turbulent water out front, shaded, and with rampant untamed vegetation making moving about hard work. I settled into a swim across from the pub and cast  a feeder rig baited with maggots into the boiling water to have it come back to the crease between slack and current. A couple of handfuls of freebies, and I was set up.

I was glad to get back to ledgering, because using the long rod in this swim was impossible, and I was absolutely knackered from using it all morning and into the afternoon anyhow. I could tell I would have to pay for it. Even now, muscles were tightening and cramping up, and my right hand was seizing tight from the operation of the new reel with its specialised technique and necessary odd grip that has to be employed with it. I couldn't fault the old ABU though. Thirty years old and performing like it was fresh out the box. Not a single tangle! The only problem had been severe bedding in after playing fish (and weed, old cans and line festooned sticks) because I'd loaded too much line on the spool, causing line to trip up, rather than spill freely out as it should.

The rod top quivered and juddered, then arched violently down to the water. I struck, and a good fish was on, but then it was off again, the hook-length bitten through above the hook.

Sea trout...

Next bite, a gudgeon, but I doubt a gonk would bite anyone off!

Next cast,

The rod top quivered and juddered, then arched violently down to the water. I struck, and a good fish was on, but then, it flew three feet into the air in a spectacular display of, loutish, troutish, out & aboutish behaviour. Everyone on the pub veranda stood up to view the fight, girls gasping, boys hanging over the picket, jaws dropped. An audience...

I did my best to entertain them. And, for once in the weekend, actually managed to land a trout. I even got a round of applause for it!

You can't let down an audience...

I don't know that much about trout or salmon. I think you have to handle a lot of them before you get your eye in with the various types at various stages of their breeding plumage. The stocked brownies are easy up the Lower Itchen Fishery because they have buttery yellow bellies and big red spots on their flanks. This type though, the ones with black spots and a few reddish ones, well I don't know what they are. Wild browns, or sea trout in the river some time? I don't know.

I slipped it back, fished on, lost a good fish in weed that might just have been a really big roach, but I think was actually a large perch, and after farting about a while but with bites drying up anyhow, decided that was my lot for the day. My appointment with a train was approaching fast, I needed at least an hour to pack down and walk to the station, and there were just two hours left now, of my weekend on the fabulous Itchen.

Two kids watching my rod top after the trout spectacular. 

Now, what about that 'scraper' two-pounder of Steve's? Had we done it? Had we broken the two pound barrier between us three?

I hadn't come all this way for anything less, had I ?

We packed down. Simon had kindly decided to shorten his day and give me a lift I was glad of. I think we were both finished off anyhow after two days solid of feeding and casting and trotting and playing fish to the bank. Steve looked fresh still, but we both didn't.

As I was finishing stuffing stuff into stuff, Simon came along the muddy footpath with a carrier bag full of just one fish. The scraper...

He had his scales in hand, and hoist it on...

You'll never believe it. I couldn't believe it, but Simon was absolutely right.

For it went...

One, fifteen...

One, fifteen, bleeding, eight...!

It was my own long unbroken personal best returned to haunt me.

She was a big fish, a very big fish indeed, and some would have called her what she wasn't, but she wasn't a 'two'!

Steve didn't even want a trophy picture of her. And he said something I will never, ever forget when Simon asked if he did...

"Nah, it's not a 'two,' and 'two's' are what it's all about, right?"

I was gobsmacked. And I always will be. But Steve is kind of right. I don't take trophy shots of any roach below a pound, ever. But I always take shots over that weight because they matter to me. I suppose when I finally do catch a 'two' and move on to catching a few, I might arrive at the same conclusion? 

But I very much doubt it! 

If Simon had just jiggled that bag and blinked, he could have made her over onto what would be the 'fish of a lifetime' for most, but no, he refused to. Just as I had been faced with the same dilemma four years hence, neither Steve or Simon nor I, wanted her to be what she clearly wasn't, and there was a cementing felicity in that, and a loyalty to each other, to ourselves, and somehow, to the whole of angling, for if we won't lie about that crucial half-ounce that makes all the difference in the world, we won't lie about anything at all.

Back she went, and vanished into the current to haunt some other roach angler hunting for their first 'Magic Two.' I thought it remarkable just how small such a large roach looked underwater, but how very impressive she'd looked on the bank. I'm only glad that it wasn't me that banked her, Another close shave like that would have been too much to bear.

I was happy with my weekend, happy with my efforts, and happy with my best fish of the day. That she was just an average fish for a canal just a hundred yards from my doorstep, and that a place where two-pounders certainly do reside, well, that'll never stop me traveling out for the same, a hundred miles distant...

And it wouldn't stop you either,

If there's a half-ounce of chance in the prospect.


  1. I recon half a dozen more maggots and a few grains of hemp would have seen her make the magic 2 alas is wasn't to be next time

  2. That's about all it would take!

    Simon, fantastic weekend and thanks so much for everything. Couldn't have managed it without your help, loans, expertise and deep knowledge of this river. Or Tony's excellent spag bol and crumble!

    I had a one-seven last night up the cut on the last of the caster, looked exactly the same as an Itchen fish.

    Anytime, I'll return the favour should you want a zander, or anything really.

    I owe you.

  3. I greatly enjoyed reading that. Most entertaining, and brought back memories of the fishing that lead to my own first 2 pound plus roach ( a project of several years, on and off). It went 2-3 and had, by the look of it, never been caught or touched by human hand, never had any close encounters of the Esox kind. It was a beautifully pristine stillwater fish. I think no other fish before or since ever gave me such a sense of achievement as did that roach.
    The Itchen looks lovely, too far away for me I fear, but my local stretch of the Mersey looks very much like it. I just wish it held good roach rather than the abundant old tyres, sanitary products and ASDA trolleys...none of which are in pristine condition! There are some fish, but a 2 pound roach is unlikely ever to take a trotted bait in the river.

  4. Glad you enjoyed it JayZS, and that you know full well the quest for a two! When I finally get one, and its doesn't matter when because the quest is more important to me than the target, then I don't know how I'll feel. Will it be the culmination of one thing, or the start of something else? who knows?

    Who knows anything, with roach...

  5. Great read Jeff and I am planning to fish that same stretch at some point a lot later in the year, The inns audience looked suitable entertained as well.

  6. Mark, you'll love it. But you'll get an audience every fish! Don't let them down...