It’s three-thirty in the morning and we just know that nothing will be caught before six but we just have to be there at this most perfect time of day. The swim was dragged and baited last night and fish were seen rolling in the vicinity, heightening our anticipation of the trip. There is no rush – have a coffee, appreciate the dawn and watch for rolling fish. If there are big chub in the pit I often take a set-up rod with me and have a cast or two with a freelined lobworm or corn over last night’s groundbait. The chub like to come in the darkness and feed on the freebies and often make a rare mistake at first light. No chub? Then out with the drag and put it through the swim four or five times. It sounds like Hiroshima at this time of the morning but it must be done. Four or five balls of our blood-based groundbait and several pouches of red maggots and casters complete the preparation. We’ll fish a sliding float today as the water is twelve feet deep and a brisk westerly cross wind is promised for later in the morning. A slider makes accurate positioning of the float so much easier in a tricky wind.
As you set up well back from the water, a dark dorsal fin the size of a hand cuts through the surface of the water a few yards to the left of the swim and your heart literally misses a beat. You’ve been fishing for thirty years for goodness sake, why does that still happen? A few bubbles break the surface as the fish bottoms out in the baited area. On goes the driftbeater float and as we’ll be starting our session with a lobworm, a size eight hook is tied on with a BB lightly pinched on about six inches up the four pound line as the indicator shot. This distance will vary with the bait. The bulk shot are placed four foot from the hook with a number one a foot above that to keep the float away from them and minimise tangles. A Billy Lane overhand stopknot is tied on the line at about twelve feet from the hook. Always leave at least three inch tails on your stopknots to allow smooth passage through the rod rings, never tighten them up too much and use plenty of spit to lubricate them! Pinch a temporary swan shot on by the indicator shot and plumb the depth - there is no point in being too precise as we will be twitching the bait through and across an uneven bottom anyway.
It’s now four-thirty and fish are turning sporadically all over the lake, very audible but only just visible through the fine layer of mist that covers the seemingly oily surface.
Set up the rod-rests so that the rod points directly at the baited swim and position your low chair as far back from the bank as is practical. Lay out your tackle and bait as if you were night fishing – we have to keep movement to a minimum and everything should be at hand without necessitating getting up and down all the time. Drinking lots of tea or coffee is not helpful in this respect…
Right, let’s have a cast. Select a medium size lobworm and hook it once about an inch from its head. We want to fish it as a ‘pop-up’ so pinch a number one shot half an inch from the hook and introduce buoyancy into the worm by injecting half a millilitre of air in to the tail-end. Use a one millilitre syringe and as fine a needle you can get – I use a 25 gauge but these may not be easily available. I’m sure it hardly needs saying but extreme caution should be used when handling syringes and needles but they are obtainable from tackle shops these days. Check that the worm/hook/shot ensemble still sinks and cast out well past the baited swim. Immediately dip the rod tip under the water and reel in until the line has sunk totally and then wait. The bait will sink slowly down in a parabola and the sliding float will waddle across the surface back towards you. The aim is to get the bait to end up on the furthest boundary of the swim and then work it back through the swim, six inches at a time. This is why I try and get the swim as clean as possible as nothing is more frustrating than having the bait masked by a tiny piece of weed and not knowing about it!
If the float will not settle properly, strike – a perch will have grabbed the worm on the drop. I’ve had several perch over three pounds in the last two seasons while tenching, lovely fish and well worth catching. You may get a few perch before the shoal wanders off and by this time the tench should be getting ready to feed. Tighten up to the float after each ‘twitch’ and dot the tip down as far as prevailing conditions and your eyesight will allow. We may be fishing for tiny indications and 100% concentration is essential at all times.
Persevere with the worm for an hour or so and if no bites are forthcoming then start experimenting with bait. I always keep feeding with maggots and casters whatever I am fishing with at the time and caster will usually be my first change bait. Two or three on a 12 or 14 hook will be fine to start with, although be prepared to go down to a single caster on an 18 if bites are tentative. As long as your hooks are of good quality and strength, a well buried eighteen will land any tench that swims. If you miss a bite, cast immediately into the same spot and often the fish will grab it on the drop. If you bumped the tench however it will probably be on the other side of the lake by the time you recast!
Keep twitching the bait through the swim, searching the swim and its perimeter, changing baits and hooks, and working for your fish. Do have confidence in the method, as done properly it nearly always outfishes the boilie/bivvie techniques so prevalent these days. When you hook a tench play it calmly and firmly, remembering that you are fishing relatively fine. If the fish does weed you, then don’t just pull directly at the fish as this will make it dig deeper into the weed. Apply pressure in a pulsed fashion by gently flexing and unflexing the rod. This seems to confuse the fish into submission and it generally comes out the same way it went in!
When you land your tench treat her with kid gloves by unhooking in the soft folds of the landing net on top of an unhooking mat or a bed of your previously dragged-out weed. Always have a weigh sling and scales laid out to hand along with a simple camera if you wish so that handling time is kept to a minimum. Weigh the fish and carry it down the bank a few yards in the weigh bag and let it go – please, please do not retain fish in keep nets on those hot sunny days (or any time come to that). If you do get an exceptional fish that you want a more professional snap of, then pop the tench into fine mesh carp sack for a few minutes while you prepare the camera.
While on the subject of tench welfare, may I give a short warning on your personal welfare. This is an intensive method requiring great concentration and it is difficult do it for more than twelve hours. Wear a peaked cap and good quality Polaroids to protect your eyes and guard against headaches. Reel in and take a few minutes rest every so often for a drink and a call of nature perhaps. Remember that even the British sun can get very hot in the middle of the day and it is so easy to get sunstroke when you are concentrating totally on an active float, so protect your neck and head fully. Even more importantly, make sure that your lobworms are kept cool and damp as you will be lost without them…….
The best time of day for early season tench is usually from about six in the morning through until one or two in the afternoon. Even in the very hottest weather they will feed through this morning period and bites can come at any time, varying from a slight dip or lift of the tip, a full-blooded soar-away or a lift-bite of magnificent proportions. I am never very successful in the evenings but social considerations and inconveniences (like work!) often dictate when one fishes. However there is always activity on the lake at the fall of day and it is a pleasure just to be on the water as the sun sets, even if the fish are not feeding. As the season progresses into autumn then the cold mornings preclude any early morning action but the fish will then feed all day given the right conditions.
By the autumn the attentions of pike will have forced you to give up on the blood based feed and to go over to the fruity mix. I regularly catch double-figure pike on popped-up lobs – more than I do on deadbaits in the winter come to think of it! The tench will be that much warier and success with small baits and tiny hooks will be more likely. Feed the swim little and often to induce the semi-torpid fish into feeding. You can use the same tactics as earlier in the season but scale everything down as much as possible and dot the float right down in the water to enable you to see the tiniest indication. If the wind and resultant drift are just too much to hold the float in position then do not hesitate to use a float leger.
A small Arlesey bomb is positioned about six inches from the hook and the float is set about 12 to 18 inches overdepth. Cast out and tighten up until the float tip is just visible and keep your hand near the rod butt! Bites on this method can be vicious to say the least and often come right out of the blue, as the weather conditions preclude seeing the usual tiny pre-indications. Foot high waves and quarter inch bites most definitely do not go together! Although autumn tenching is hard work, the rewards are often great and the fish are in tip-top condition. They have recovered fully from the ordeals of spawning and have put on weight in anticipation of the coming winter. Like barbel in our rivers, it is this instinctive preparation for the coming cold period that sometimes sends them into a feeding frenzy and some very big bags are possible.
So there we are, an age-old technique that with modern application can still hold its own with the somewhat thoughtless and crude methods of today. Please try it, and try it with confidence. It has brought me countless tench over seven pounds in recent years from many different waters and because of its inherent flexibility continues to produce the very best from all the waters I fish. Have a good look at the photos I have selected to show you and you will see the quality of fish that it can produce.
As an appropriate footnote to this piece, I was so sorry to read recently of the sad and premature death of Len Head. I never met the man but he always was to me a ‘proper’ angler and a ‘real’ tench fisherman.