Thursday, 29 August 2013

Avon Roach —  Cardinal Sins

Unusual for me to spend so long in the one place when the itch to move is usually under my skin within ten minutes of not getting what I want from wherever I happen to wind up. It's a roach angler thing, upping sticks and off in search of new potential. I suffer terribly from it and simply cannot persist in fishing a swim I've lost confidence in. And that's especially true with roach where that crucial confidence can evaporate within ten short bite-less minutes.

Over the past few years I've observed that they're not like any other coarse fish because they cannot be enticed away from where they want to be. Sure you can move them a little to one side or bring them upstream a little but you cannot get them to shift into what they consider dangerous territory elsewhere just for food. That's not enough for them. They require safety too because they're fearful creatures given to picking at their grub at the slightest upset inside the strictly delimited zone of comfort they'll not leave for anything till leaving suits them. 

I've also observed that their liking for a safe house means that for the majority of the time they'll likely be wherever we ignore. That is to say the blandest looking piece of water on the stretch, the one where the easily seduced angling eye doesn't dwell, wherever the fishing brain fails to register interest. If it looks like it'll have chub in it, that raft of rubbish caught up in a willow on a bend for instance, or it'll likely throw up barbel because of this and that and whatever, or is a lovely looking glide of smooth water certain to be a textbook roach fishing paradise, then it won't produce the desired quarry.

In my experience they'll turn up in the between.

This particular stretch of river has had me fail singularly. I saw them once. It was my first session on the water in fact but I was stuck fishing meat for barbel while all around a shoal of large roach topped, and yes they had to be roach because no other fish would do such a thing in such a particular fashion on a river around dusk. It was classic stuff straight out of the big roach hunter's textbook. But that evening I'd committed the roach angler's first cardinal sin because intent on less demanding quarry I'd failed to pack the back-up insurance of a roach rod and half a loaf to fish with...

I never go to a river without that! 

But that time I did and have sorely regretted it ever since because I caught no barbel that night and couldn't have cared less, couldn't hope to catch those roach but cared a great deal about that, have tried for them over and over in the meantime but in every swim that looked 'roachy' I've never caught a single one. 

Great chances in roach angling come around rarely. One had passed me by.

Day one
An evening session again after barbel. After a few swim changes I settled into a peg with little to recommend it. Looking like nothing much, just a piece of dull water between more attractive swims, it did have one salient advantage over the rest — a comfortable bank where I could sit on the grass and while away a few moments in restful idleness before moving to another altogether more testing peg further downstream.

I had plucks straight away so decided to stay. A savage classic barbel bite came and for a short time I believed that it was one it was so heavy and determined but when enough pressure was applied, I found a one-pound eel who'd merely wrapped itself up around a raft of streaming weed. It was hooked cleanly in the bottom lip but getting it out was still tricky, so I smoothed the belly to send it into a coma making it perfectly docile even when held upright. When put back in the water though, it recovered immediately — a remarkable thing.

Day two 
An excursion with James Denison up from London on a day trip to the Avon and him intent on rolling meat down the weedy gravel runs for a barbel. It was a warm day under shafts of bright sunlight showing bottom in three feet of clear water and about as bad as could be for locating roach but I persisted fishing ledgered bread in the hope of finally finding them out. Once again, after a few hops from here to there in search of roach bites but finding only chublet twangs, dace jangles and surprisingly vicious gudgeon twitches I wound up in the dull but comfortable swim where I'd had the eel.

First bite was a roach bite and was the first I'd ever had from the place. Thankfully James is an experienced roach angler himself so I had someone to chew the cud with and we both agreed on that score. When fishing ledgered bread, a roach bite is a roach bite is a roach bite because no other fish bites on bread quite the same way.

When one was hooked sure enough it was, and though a relatively small fish of just five or six ounces, it was the first I'd had in so many sessions and cause for celebration. Of course I should have put it back half-a-mile distant, or packed a keepnet, but I plopped it back directly when I committed the second cardinal sin of roach angling.

Thereafter I could not connect at all because on the Warwickshire Avon returning a roach to the shoal almost always spells the end of your chances. The bites which had been quite confident considering the conditions became simply impossible and though I struck a hundred times over I never connected with one again. But at last I'd discovered them and as always, where I'd least expected to. Of course the reason I'd never found them before is that I'd ignored my own hard-won knowledge and overlooked the obvious. Roach are always found in the most boring water and failing to apply that rule here was how I'd committed the third cardinal sin of the roach angler.

After finishing up on the stretch James and I walked the near five miles to Stratford Upon Avon and fished Lucys Mill where I ledgered bread in one of my favourite weirpool swims. I had a predictable roach pretty much first cast and then a roach hybrid but then the swim died off and I struggled for bites. James float fished bread in my second favourite swim and had six or seven up to three-quarters of a pound. That was a lesson learned and I'd committed the — what is it now, four or fifth — cardinal sin of the roach angler. That of sticking with one way when another might be better.

Third day
Consequently on the last day I decided to try something that for some unfathomable reason still remains to me a novel approach to roach — the textbook method of trotting bread after them. I've done it before but half-heartedly. Never really stuck at it because it seems so unproductive compared to the instant gratification of ledgering the same bait when you know within minutes beyond doubt if they're there or not. 

First trot through and the float buries at the very end of the run through. A chub clearly— it segues from weed to snag to weed and back, so on and so forth. As they do. A nice fish of two pounds or so, but I shouldn't have brought it up through the swim. In doing so I commit another of the many cardinal sins of roach angling when the bank was clear and I could have gone down to the troublesome fish more easily than bring it up to my position disturbing the swim in the process.

Nevertheless the next fish is a roach. Then a dace and a gudgeon and another roach. They come from here and there but there's no line to speak of. Under the bank, down the middle, across the far side. Bites are few and far between as I expect with trotted bread but there's no pattern when they come. There and here, all over the place but nowhere in particular — I decide to feed to concentrate bites into a zone. 

That was the final cardinal sin. The death knell. The balls of bread mash served only to bring in more and more chub (who seem to be my default species at the moment no matter what I try!) drive the resident dace into a frenzy midwater and together they forced the roach's noses out of the trough. They were never to be caught again.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Avon Barbel — Hammer and Chisel Job

After years of dragging me round to fish just about every mill on the Warwickshire Avon but failing to find his thrill, at a new venue to both of us, Mr Martin Roberts finally cracked his long-standing 11lb personal best for barbel this evening with a specimen weighing in at an impressive 13lb 5oz, and so monumental in the flesh it could have been a Rodin bronze.

My efforts don't even warrant mention alongside his achievement and for once I won't bore you with the minutiae of them but just showcase a glorious fish and one very happy man.

Believe me when I say that it's very hard to get Martin to smile in a picture.

But for once it was all too easy...

You couldn't have wiped it off with hammer and chisel!


Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Wye Barbel — Downhill Struggle

Catching chub on trotted maggots and trundled meat respectively but singularly failing to lure even a small one between us in long hours searching every likely looking lie, when we'd exhausted every last try, Steve and myself together agreed at a certain angling moment around 4pm that we'd now reached a watershed when a move really was necessary or in our quest for barbel we'd die on our sodden arses.

It had to be to another fishery entirely because by then we both knew this one to be a lost cause.

Making phone calls to friends he came up with a solution when pointed downstream to where they'd 'certainly' be found. First of all we had to find the place — and you'd never know it was there if you didn't have the information and was tricky to find even with it. A very steep hill to amble down and then likely swims to locate— a tall order on a stretch that looked at first sight pretty much the same all the way along.

Evenly wide, shallow and slow-moving there was little recommending one over any other, but working on pointed info gleaned from Steve's very generous tipsters then all what we had to do was 'walk to a certain point, cast right across, fish as close as possible to the far bank bushes and preferably right in them.'

Then, when we eventually found the spot, seriously, it looked no different than any other we'd passed by already...

Steve donned his waders but I couldn't be bothered with that sweaty faff having worn them all day long and choosing to fish from the bank I left them to dry on the grass behind.

That gave Steve a clear advantage when it came to getting baits into position shortening the chuck by half, where I put myself at a major disadvantage by attempting to do the same from a distance of 60 or 70 yards which is not an easy thing with a cage feeder carrying nothing.

Falling a good twenty yards short I got a bites on meat, but when one was hooked it proved to be a very tricky 2lb eel who escaped the rim of the net by an inch of tail six times before I finally got it in. It was cleanly hooked in the lip (nice of it to be so obliging!) but off the hook it then escaped through a hole so small only a dace could have got through, but he managed it and slivered rapidly back to the water.

Steve had an early chub but of barbel there was no sign yet. Our cheerful bailiff assured us that when the sun set behind the hill and its shadow was cast upon the water, they'd come on the feed. He was dead right about that because just as soon as it did, Steve was into what we'd come for — a barbel.

At last!

His bait was a boilie. So, I rifled around my bag and found some of my own. But they didn't work at all with not a single bite in an hour. When Steve then hooked his second and then third barbel I borrowed a handful of his magic bait (as you do!) and went back to fish more hopefully but fully aware that I was looking at a blank.

Just as soon as it hit the deck there was a pluck. Ooh — a blank maybe not!

A few cagey plucks later the cage feeder was replaced with a big fat two-ounce maggot feeder stuffed with crushed boilies and that missile was was easily flung within five yards of the trees. The rod sat still for two minutes, no more, before a twang and then a massive wrenching bite set me upon my feet, attached at last...

... and to what felt like a train.

No way was I going to land this fish easily from my position with it now heading downstream hard and determinedly Steve's way, so of course into the water I went in rolled up trousers wading out to an altogether better fighting stance.

Then Steve had another fish on. Two's up was too good a chance to miss because here was a top notch photo in the making, so all we had to do was lose neither and it was in the bag. But I thought I would lose mine. This fish was crazy! Convinced I'd a double to contend with, I played it as safe as I could. But when I finally saw the bruiser was not quite the brute it'd made itself out, I piled on the pressure and finally, after a lot of vicious runs and a splashy finale, netted it. 

Four pounds or so, it was just a puppy, but blimey could it pull...

Well, we got the picture! And by the end of play we'd have a few more because on the magic boilies barbel were hooked and beaten again and again, Steve finishing up with six or seven before bites dried up completely as darkness approached. Myself fishing bank-side lazy style but having to get in the water anyhow, just a few between.

Steve won the pot hands down. A hard-earned and well-deserved result at mate's rates.

And then it was homeward bound but not before that bloody hill was struggled back up weighed down with waders I never used but really think I should have.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

A Case of the Trots — Barbel and Chub on the Warwickshire Avon

Having set my heart and mind on a quest to understand the full gamut of possibilities offered by various forms and styles of trotting bait, I've decided to run a series of case studies that might be of use as notes to myself and a more thought provoking technical study to other anglers than my run-of-the-mill diary style posts. I want to look at the subject in-depth, think critically about the problems encountered, write up what I've learned about a range of different venues, the different approaches necessary to get the best from them and cover as full a spectrum of species as possible, from barbel and chub, to dace, roach, perch, grayling and trout. And if I get the time to try, perhaps pike and zander too.

In short — if trotting will catch it, I'll try for it, and then I'll write about it.

A Case of the Trots — Barbel and Chub on the Warwickshire Avon

There'd been thunderstorms in the north of the catchment the previous day. The Sowe in Longford Park burst its banks for a short time, one of its culverted tributaries popped manhole covers flooding residential streets and when we left for Harvington levels were falling but the water still well-coloured from arable land run off. I hoped the storms had not affected tributaries in the rest of the catchment quite so badly because if they had I'd not be getting any trotting done and would be confined to rods-up close-in styles of fishing.

Thursday afternoon with temperatures peaking at a stifling 34 degrees we arrived at the main river 40 miles downstream (as the duck swims!) where it was clear that the effect was minimal and though levels had risen in the meantime and spiked a couple of feet up on normal summer levels, they'd fallen back quickly once the brief torrent from the relatively small catchment sector that had been affected had passed through. In short, it looked just perfect for my intentions next day.

First thing on an overcast Friday morning donning waders and armed with the fourteen footer, nets and a couple of pints of maggots in the bait pouch I got into position at the head of the relatively shallow medium-paced approach to the weir. Catches were predictably of dace, small roach and gudgeon but I hoped to build the swim and get chub and barbel feeding eventually. That never happened. A few chub did put in an appearance after an hour or so and even a one-pound perch who gave a fabulous account of itself, but really, I think the loose feed was devoured mostly by minnows who occasionally hung themselves on the size-fourteen and little of it reached bottom. 

Plan 1 fail!
Plan 2 — get into the weir run off and see what results a lump of trotted meat might bring.  

This was a new experience to me. I've never before in my life fished meat in motion, always using it as a static bait for the carp, chub and barbel who still adore the nutritious stuff, even if they've learned it usually contains a hook.

And I suppose that's lesson number one. 

Here at Harvington the fish populations are pressured in a way they rarely are anywhere else on the Avon. It's enduring popularity as a weekender barbel  session destination really  has everything to do with the fact that the stretches available do contain large specimens and provide easy access for anglers wanting to turn up and fish for them straight out the back of a van. 

I hesitate to caricature modern barbel angling and anglers, but in my experience it's become a 'drive-in Saturday' experience where weekender fair weather anglers wanting nothing more in the way of exertion than pulling up a handbrake, set up stall at whatever free peg is still available mid-morning, cast out baits, fall asleep at the wheel for a couple of days, and mostly blank.

There's not a great deal of original thinking going on. The fish have seen it all before. Static meat is utterly ignored in my experience, and though it'd be the first bait and method I'd choose to use on an under-fished or in the case of the weirs at Lucy's Mill in Stratford, badly fished venue where baits are invariably cast to where anglers hope barbel might be but nowhere near the crucial line where they're actually found, it is the very last bait I'd choose for the place. 

When moving though, fish have learned that it's safe. I'm sure every time a piece is tossed out at Harvington then within the half-hour there's a queue of fish sat behind it like dogs at the dinner table all waiting for an impaled crumb to fall from the fork when they pounce on it. It's the same story elsewhere and just a couple of miles upstream I've recently witnessed friends clean up alongside static bank anglers (myself included) by trundling meat through rapid water under the brightest sunlight of mid-afternoon.

It was high time I tried it for myself and this was the ideal opportunity. A bright sunny day, lots of fast water and hopefully fish actively seeking food within it. 

First try was the turbulent water immediately beneath the weir and fishing that by standing on the sill itself. Removing the feeder from a barbel rig already made up on the rod I attached a large float to the snap link swivel instead. 

This admittedly lazy improvisation nevertheless was effective there. Acting as a heavy waggler it allowing the side-hooked meat (hair-rigged it snagged far too often) to amble about in the eddy currents at will and though it sank from sight at the slightest snag or even when I over-tightened the line, did show when the bait needed to be twitched in order to move it, when I needed to slacken off, and most importantly in the white foam of the weir pool, where it actually was.

Shame I never got a bite there to strike at!

Then a move was made to the run-off and the fast channeled water that flows along the fishery bank. This required wading across to the opposite bank and walking through the shallows there to access the head of the rapid run. It could have been done from the fishery bank, though so many different lines through the flowing weed could never have been explored because limited to one position the current would have drawn the bait inside the main flow to the bank at any distance and into weed on too many.

From the first trial trot down it was clear that the pace was not only very rapid but the float keeping the line at or near the surface had the bait shoot down almost as quickly. In seconds it had travelled ten yards, then twenty and thirty when the rod top banged around and a fish was hooked. A chub of three pounds or so.

I hadn't intended to trot so quickly after that initial run through. It was only a way of gauging current speed and strength and what bulk weight I'd need to control things. I'd intended to weigh the bait down thereafter so it would just trip and then inch it through the swim as you should when 'trundling,' or so I've heard...

But this fish had shot out of its holt and on impulse grabbed a bait moving at five miles per hour. So much for inching. I thought that capture not only remarkable but the technique once discovered well worth persisting with and so I did it again and with equally instant results. As the bait shot down the run instead of watching the float, which was only acting as a visual guide to position and when out of view, weeding, I watched the rod top instead. After a while I took the float off and played without a visual marker noting the pattern of trips and bites as it flew along.

That pattern on a successful run down was a succession of trembles as line trapped under the finger was allowed off the spool, then a pluck or two, a resumption of trembles and then another pluck and a smart and decisive pull as a chasing fish hit the bait hard. In an hour or so I'd chinned out five good-sized chub, lost two more, but had had hundreds of indecisive bites between.

Then on the retrieve with the bait coming upstream and across the top, the rod bucked as a fish took the bait. They'd even take it even when moving in the wrong direction!

Then I realised I had not a chub on the hook but a barbel instead...

Which was pause for thought, because all the bites at speed were clearly from chub with their big  front-loader gobs who can chase food head on and pounce on it, where the barbel present hadn't a chance at such pace with their underslung mouths. But here was a barbel who'd taken a relatively slowly moving bait moving counter current right at the surface which must have required the gymnastic feat of turning upside down to do so!

You learn something new every day, don't you?  And then you learn it twice because the next fish also took a bait on the retrieve, only this time a chub with its entire right side gill plate missing from birth but breathing perfectly well...

So, if chub will take meat with gusto at high speed, barbel and chub will both take it when going effectively backwards, then that means that two shots are possible and the retrieve itself, usually the end of proceedings with a failed trot, is actually a second and golden opportunity not to be wasted.

But why on earth would they grab a bait acting in a way so unnatural to them?

Well, I suppose it's a food they love and know by sight whenever it comes their way so they pounce in a flash of purely instinctive greed. It comes in cubes which must become an instantly recognisable shape, a knowledge acquired over a lifetime of avoiding similar static ones but devouring any that move, and so they'll have anything similarly shaped before the next fish can whenever it's in range and no matter what it's doing because they can spit it out again if it proves not to be their favourite free meal.

I thought it almost lure fishing for barbel because I've no doubt an artificial lump of meat would have performed in exactly the same way, and that's worth a shot next time around because you do lose an awful lot of meat baits in fast weedy water. And losing my meagre supply proved the end of my session, but not before using up the last remaining cubes in a swirling pool where I saw the unmistakable golden flash of a barbel, and after a few minutes with the bait moving slowly around in the eddy currents, hooked and netted it.

So, in two hours energetic fishing I'd taken more fish than anyone else would on the fishery that day. None were 'specimens' but this series of case studies has nothing whatsoever to do with waiting games and boring out big fish. They are about fishing for its own sake and the enjoyment of being active and successful at it. 

The fact that I caught and lost more during those short active hours than the other anglers about the place fishing by rote with static baits under what were hopelessly unsuitable conditions for that strategy, is what matters. They failed because they were bound to. I succeeded because I'm sick to the back teeth of such failure in the pursuit of such small and ultimately ridiculous prizes as personal bests and want positive new experiences as their proper replacement. I went after them and of course I got them never having done it before 

A salutary lesson is what it was. That when things are hot and slow on the riverbank, then getting cool and quick at the riverbed is the way forward, I was actually proud of myself getting stuck in and working things out for myself. Not that promoting such a fact is in the best interest of anyone who's learned the truth of it, because an entire weir run off really is a one-man-only wading domain where two anglers in the same pool is a pool of one too many in the way of company.

Then again, the fish I caught weren't so very big so I doubt I'll ever be in fear of encountering that...

Chez us

  1. Whilst not strictly necessary for this fast-paced fishing conducted at almost the speed of the swift current, a float did help with certain crucial aspects of it. Firstly it kept the line floating on the top of the water and secondly it told me when the bait was weeded. That was important in not wasting time on abortive trots with a weeded bait when the consequent belly of line created still pulled line off the spool at the same rate and felt exactly the same as free bait traveling downstream of its own accord. A bubble float may be the full answer because other float forms were far too sensitive to be useful. 
  2. The reel used was a fixed-spool one. This was not the ideal choice when a centrepin would have allowed line to peel from the spool in a smooth fashion and without tripping. Retrieve was faster with a fixed spool of course, but, if retrieving slowly also catches fish as was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, then what does that matter?
  3. Chub can and will intercept baits going past at breakneck speed whilst barbel either cannot or will not. Barbel with their small eyes, underslung and relatively small mouths are pure bottom grubbers who require at least some time to make their minds up but given time enough will come up in the water. Chub are mid-water specialists who have big mouths and eyes plus minds that make pure opportunists of them when given as little time as possible to make a decision. A 'little time' with chub and barbel are therefore two very different things.
  4. Time is of the essence. Rivers conditions in fast and shallow water change more rapidly so far as fish are concerned than they do elsewhere — an inch or so of depth and an inch or two of clarity either way making a great deal of difference to them, their perceptions, and therefore their location.
  5. Daytime fishing with static baits is the least productive method possible to employ when the river is low, the day bright. 
  6. Where summertime fishing is concerned, angler activity equals angler success
  7. Both species will take a bait moving counter to the current, and if anything was gained by the session that really matters then it was the discovery of this fundamental truth. With chub it may be obvious them being natural born chasers, but to my knowledge, with barbel it's a fact that's never been observed in the entire history of coarse fishing.