In the high-pressure world of modern specialist angling, tench fishing is one area in which I believe you can retain some of the more traditional techniques and still be very competitive and successful. This is not retro-angling á la Chris Yates but an adaptation of existing methods to create an efficient and deadly way of catching big tench on a regular basis.

Most of my tenching is done in the rich gravel pits of the Thames Valley and the way the deep seams of gravel are dug in this area invariably produce pits with a cross section roughly like a wedge of cheese – deep on one or two sides and then gradually shallowing to the point where the gravel company works would have been. Weed growth tends to be lush in established pits with gravel bars providing clear oases in the desert of Canadian pondweed. The fauna that these pits support has to be seen to be believed and the now famous TC Pit in Oxford was described in its heyday by an eminent University biologist as the most prolific water he had ever seen for both diversity and quantity of insect life. It is this abundance of ‘fish food’ that makes fishing the pits so challenging but perversely we can use it to our advantage when tench fishing, as you will read later.

So how would I define my ideal tench water? It would be from twenty to two hundred acres in size, have at least one bank with twelve to fifteen foot of water close in and have a lush weed growth with underwater channels and gravel bars in the shallow areas. It would need very clear water, only one carp every ten acres (!), a night fishing ban (!!) and an enforced close season (!!!). Sheer bliss. Tench numbers should ideally be around ten or less per acre but my very best tenching was had on a pit that had only one or two per acre. Without man’s intervention tench suffer badly in the face of competition from too many carp in a particular water. They will survive on the introduced bait but often suffer secondary damage from the stepped-up tackle used these days for carp. Hence the inclusion on my ideal wish-list of a night fishing ban and very few carp being present.

My hypothesis with regard to swim choice is that, eventually, you will catch tench virtually anywhere on a gravel pit but by dodging all over the lake you may miss the best of the fishing. Systematically and over a period of time I want to entice the fish to come to me and for consistent results the tench have to learn that a particular area is the very best in the lake to spend quality time in. They are, by nature, very nomadic creatures and will spend all day grazing, stopping only to feed for short periods until the immediate food supply is depleted or they are disturbed – we have to change their habits!

Before starting a campaign it is imperative to know the topography of the lake bed and a day spent plumbing is time well spent. Make note of areas of deep water and any gravel bars or weed beds. Try to draw a mental map of the water and work out where you think the tench will naturally patrol. Look for swims that have over ten foot of water a rod’s length or two out, with a steeply shelving marginal shelf, for these are the swims that will consistently produce throughout the season. Try to spend a few early mornings and evenings by the lake fish watching. Learn where the fish tend to roll more, or areas in which they come right into the margins to feed. Try to avoid the corners of the lake when choosing a swim as in my experience they are not good in the long term. Similarly you will see fish on the shallows but although these spots can produce spectacular sport on occasion they are not the consistent fish-producers that we are looking for. If you can detect an area that is even slightly deeper than its surroundings on a straight, seemingly boring bank then that will be perfect – a natural feeding area that you are going to turn into a float-fishing "super-swim"!

Now comes the hard work…
We now need to drag this area as clean as we possibly can. This may take two hours or two days but it must be done. I use two rake heads welded together back-to-back with thirty metres of polypropylene rope attached. Although using a small rake like this takes time, you can throw it a long way if necessary and it is easy to carry while actually fishing. Drag a six to eight foot hole until there is absolutely no debris coming back at all. Then do the periphery of the swim for a few feet either side and at the back of the swim, although not as thoroughly. Try to leave a strip of marginal weed in place by lifting the drag early on the retrieve and you will find that this retained weed will provide essential cover later in the season when the lake is flat calm and the sun is shining down. Remember to put the dragged weed in a heap by the water’s edge so that insects and invertebrates can crawl back into the water easily and check it out for trapped fish. Baby crucians and tench can often be trapped in the dragged weed (No you can’t use them as livebaits…) It is also best to move weed well away from the dragged area so that the swim remains as discrete as possible. Pick a swim that you know the fish visit, that has the right topography, that you can drag and bait regularly and fish it to the exclusion of all other areas. Have confidence in your approach and you will consistently catch more than anyone else on the lake and the swim will just get better and better as the season progresses. It’s an unusual thing for a specialist angler to say but the more tench you catch the more chance you have of netting a big one.

So we have our swim and now we have to ensure that the tench think it worthwhile to visit it regularly and indeed to feed on what we want them to feed on. Please be aware that is a no-compromise technique and if you are an angler who likes variety in his catch then this is not the approach for you. Apart from perch and the odd carp and pike you will dissuade any other fish from the swim after dragging and baiting – it is totally directed towards catching tench. One should groundbait at every available opportunity, with an amount of feed commensurate with the numbers of fish present in the water. Do not worry about overfeeding a little as the dear little ducks will soon polish off any excess bait and the feed itself will attract infusoria and water-borne insects to your swim.

I use two basic recipes for my groundbait, one blood-based for early season and another fruitier one to take us through to autumn and beyond. The gory one is three pints brown crumb, one pint crushed hemp and one packet of dried blood. To this is added liquidised sweetcorn, casters, prepared hemp, tiny sinking trout pellets, chopped worms, and an essential 10mls. of Kryston Ambio or ACE worm concentrate. Mix this until a fairly sloppy consistency is obtained as we are fishing within hand throwing range. After a sunny morning it smells like nothing on earth – it keeps rubber-neckers away but attracts every dog for miles around! You can stiffen the whole thing up with more crumb if you find it necessary to feed at longer range or to fish the feeder. Add live red and white maggots to the mixture just before baiting. Although some anglers advocate the use of dead maggots, I actually want them to crawl into the silt and be there for the tench to find when they come grubbing into the swim.

As the season progresses, as deadly as this recipe is, you will find that perch and pike become a nuisance and you will have to change to a fruitier mix. Forget the dried blood and use brown crumb and red groundbait in equal parts as your base mix and add a couple of milliliters of a fruity flavour like strawberry. Keep the rest of the cocktail the same but add any other baits to it that you wish to use. Use whole sweetcorn with extreme caution unless the water has a good track-record with it. It can totally kill a swim if used indiscriminately and I always opt for the dyed and flavoured version whenever I feel the need to use corn. I always take a variety of bait with me and will never go tenching without lobworms, casters, red maggots, white maggots, bread, mini-boilies, and luncheon meat. You can add as you like to this list such things as brandlings, redworms, beans (black-eyes are good), tares and pastes of various flavours although if I had to fish all season with just lobworms, casters and red maggots I would not feel unduly hampered. Always use the best quality bait you can obtain and keep maggots and casters in top condition. I have proved conclusively that tench can detect that faint ammoniacal smell that emits from stale and ill-kept bait and that they will actively avoid such bait.

Tackle should be as light as conditions allow. For most of my float fishing I use Drennan Tench Float rods and find these cope with most situations. I have been fishing deeper pits of late and will try in the near future some of the new 16-20 foot float rods designed for carp-puddle fishing but whatever you choose it needs a little more strength than a standard match rod and should retain a reasonable amount of speed of strike. I am not a great exponent of braided lines so tend to use monofilament for my fishing. Its inherent elasticity is essential for close-in float work and I almost invariably use Trilene XL at 4, 6 or 8lb test for all my tench rigs. Hooks are any best quality round bend – good examples are Drennan Specimen or Super Specialist – in size fours right down to twenties. Unless you are using lobs, pinch the barbs down and keep the points sharp. Nothing blunts a hook like catching perch and you must inspect the point regularly and hone it up as necessary. You may be fishing for just one bite - you don’t want to bump a fish and ruin your chances. For floats you can get away with just three patterns – straight peacocks, insert wagglers and Drennan driftbeaters, all in various sizes.

Next week I will take you through a couple of typical sessions, one in late June and one in the colder days of autumn and I’ll try and give you an idea of the way I fish for these wonderful creatures.