Thursday, 15 December 2011

On Roach - Warwickshire Avon Über Roach

One day it had to happen, and that day has finally come around. Forget the Bristol and the Hampshire, the Avon of the moment is the Warwickshire one. 80 miles of wandering, willful water has finally matured into a bona fide big roach fishery with the stunning captures of two two-pound fish in as many weeks.

I always knew it could do it and have heard that it already had but reports heard on the bank so often turn out to be bunk, especially when it comes to big roach who are so impressive looking when they reach a pound and a half that anyone can be forgiven for marking fish of that stamp down as two pounders if they are not weighed, that I have put them in my back pocket as indicators of potential and not proof positive of that potential coming to maturity.

Now it's official, as the aforementioned fishes are both documented, properly weighed ones and the proof is irrefutable. The Warwickshire Avon is on the up and up.

What's even better news is that the two fish were caught 30 miles apart, which means that the whole river has the potential to throw up a big roach, not just a few exclusive, expensive miles. The majority of the Warwickshire Avon is accessible on day ticket or club book and so far as I know, none of it is syndicated or season ticket only, and so access to the majority of its length is open to ordinary cash strapped grunts like me.

You know how much I love roach. I find them the most interesting fish of all that swim because of their contrary nature, one day the easiest of fish, the next the toughest, never dull, often obliging, more often than not, tricky, a fish who's bites can be the most difficult thing to hit imaginable, but on rare occasions a whole shoal of these beautiful sleek fish seem to want to climb up the line and join their shoal mates in the net. I think they are majestic, in both their handsome good looks and wily character.

That the Warwickshire Avon is now capable of providing the best roach sport, and sport to match that of other great rivers pound for pound, is remarkable and hopefully, if roach anglers begin to see it as a worthwhile place to fish, then we'll see even larger specimens still, because big roach need to be targeted exclusively. They do turn up as accidental captures, of course they do, but the vast majority of large roach caught every year are specifically fished for by a band of enthusiasts who love the roach more than they love any other fish and have studied them long and hard in order to understand some small part of the complexities they confound us with.

What do I suggest anyone do who wants to join the very small band of people who do go fish the river for its roach and its roach only? Well, after three years of fishing the river catchment after its roach, in its meekest trickles high up in the narrowest reaches of one of its tributaries, in the gentle, wandering meadowbound reaches of its upper reaches, the weirs of its town stretches and the grand broad flow of the lower river, if it looks like a chub swim avoid it, as chub and roach don't seem to make good bedfellows on this river, be very careful about how much feed goes in lest you attract the wrong kind of fish altogether in which case things get very tough, and fish big pieces of bread flake nailed to the deck.

Roach love bread more than I love roach. They just don't seem to be able to resist it. I don't even fill the feeder nowadays, just cast around till those tell tale roach bites are found. Sharp twangs and big bangs on the tip are chublets and chub proper, they'll hang themselves and you'll see the proof of that, also too much drifting feed and they'll certainly find it. Roach bites are always the same -- a few preliminary knocks and when it finally comes, a slow inching of the tip, which is when the strike is made, not sooner or later, or you'll miss it as roach do not hang themselves being past masters at the sip, suck and spit. Let me put it like this, if you cast a piece of flake amongst a shoal of roach they will bite (you may not be able to hook them!) no matter how difficult the conditions, but if you cast a piece flake where roach are not then they won't bite at all! It is as simple and direct as that. No messing, just lots of legwork, casting around and swim hopping. Forget about drawing fish up and into the swim, or even drawing them across the river. Roach don't do that. Chub will, but contrary to popular belief roach won't move to you, even for bread.

They are the most intransigent of fish in this respect as they are prey for every predator flying, diving or swimming around, consequently they always put safety first and food is a secondary consideration. They don't have to eat to live, but do have to live to eat. If moving to food means moving out of the shoal's narrowly defined zone of comfort then they simply won't do it because that means shifting out and crossing boundaries deep into enemy territory. The shoal has a linear patrol route which is up and down an area of perhaps thirty yards or so of riverbed, but not across by more than a few yards. It's a defensive strategy for survival that the roach shoal has honed to perfection over hundreds of thousands of years and not surprisingly they trust to it completely.

Bob James' historic ten two-pounders at a sitting on the Hampshire Avon is a perfect illustration of this important fact about roach. They were caught on a shallow hump in the centre of the river with deeper water either side where other many other roach anglers had trotted baits and failed over and over. They had taken up station at that place because cormorants liked the deeper water either side in which to operate at maximum efficiency and so the roach had simply outwitted them by moving to where they couldn't operate efficiently at all. They wouldn't move off that hump for anything and certainly not passing food, hook in it, or not. They had given themselves an edge against their predators, and it was quite an edge, until Bob tripped them up, that is...

If and when a predator strikes at the shoal they scatter in what looks like utter confusion, and I've seen this happen clearly in a gin clear pool full of roach, perch and pike, but it's confusion only for the pike who rockets out of the wings at full pelt, can't turn quickly having such a long wheelbase, misses his target, which was the shoal itself but is now broken into a myriad pieces none of which he can focus upon, him having narrow-field, target-centric binocular vision and not the near 180 degree movement-sensitive vision of the roach whose eyes are side-mounted and perched high on the snout, and having expended a pile of precious energy in the attempt retires back whence he came only for the roach shoal to reform in less than twenty seconds and swim about calmly, as one, and as if nothing had ever occurred.

Roach are never individuals either -- they'd rather die than be that -- which is why they don't behave like chub and the very reason why I avoid chubby looking swims. The chub, though it is a shoal fish also, is a loner at heart and an opportunist too who will break ranks for a drifting morsel. Those chubby looking swims suit its character very well, as they provide ambush points where just about anything that can be eaten drifting along downstream can be pounced upon. The roach shoal though, is very different prospect as it acts as a unity, a creature in its own right, if you will. Target roach and you target a shoal not an individual with its own volition and purpose for a roach has only one vocation and purpose in life and that is to be a member of the shoal, survive against all the odds, grow big and wise and become the shoal leader - the Über Roach - whose accumulated experience guides and controls every single movement, action and reaction of the rest of the shoal members

They really don't have a clever brain as individuals but the shoal does possess a brain, if not a soul of its own, which collectively outclasses the individual brain power of any of its predators with the possible exception of the otter. Even the uber roach (is not necessarily the largest roach...) is relatively thick on its own but its swifter, more decisive decision making ensures that the messages it transmits are felt and obeyed very rapidly by the whole of the shoal, which is why you must seek to outwit her first and take her away from the rest. Once this happens, shoal cohesion begins to crumble away, hence some of the remarkable big roach captures of the past, when the decision maker fell early and the rest surely followed her into the net. Get it the other way around (and that's a hard thing to avoid!) by catching lesser members first and then things just get progressively tougher and tougher till the point comes where bites simply never get to that confident point where a hook up is ever possible and you end up flailing around and failing further and further still. But that's roach fishing for you. One day you can't put a right foot wrong, and the next you can't put a left foot right.

I am very happy that the Warwickshire Avon has now proved itself as the river I always dreamed it would become. That I have never had a roach from it above one-pound six-ounces is neither here not there, the spark that these two big fish has lit under my skinny butt is just what I needed, as fishing alone is not the most productive way of going about it, the successes of others being a great spur to further adventures in the big roach direction.

I'm making it my river of choice from now till the end of the river season next march. I may not get that elusive two pounder but I don't care about that, because with roach, of all fish, it's really still the chase that matters and not the gross numbers, though big numbers are always something to look forward to, I have to say. It's a pursuit I never tire of, one that gets you out there and in the harshest weather of all, and just for the chance of that remarkable, difficult, wily, wise and rare, rare fish...

The Über Roach...!

It won't last long. It never does. They rise, and they fall. The peak will be just a few brief years and then they'll simply vanish as they have on all the famous rivers, one by one down the decades. The Wensum, the Dorset Stour, and all the other Avons, they've all seen these brief years of roach fishing delight and then, inevitably, the tower crumbles from its foundations and big roach are found fewer and further between. It may be a false dawn, like those of the Wye and the Severn, both tipped to become roach wonderlands not so long ago when the two-pound barrier was broken regularly, but proved themselves rivers that never would peak quite high enough.

But, whatever the truth, if the Wark's Avon is now breaking through and going on to a new peak of roach fishing perfection, even if that peak may not be much past two-pounds, then I for one will be at the forefront of the fishing, out there in all weathers, snow, ice, wind and rain, you name it, I'll brave it till I catch my fill.

There's 80 miles of water to go at, it's cold outside, and snow on the way.

I may be some time...


  1. Jeff

    I have followed the blog for some time and recently in particular your comments on publishing. If your forthcoming opus shows half as much enthusiasm and love as this post it cannot fail to be a bestseller. Not being a roach addict I cannot but feel humbled by the passion and accrued knowledge of this post.


  2. A fantastic an truly inspirational piece Jeff . Snow, clear rivers and roach sounds fantastic .

    Barry Peck