Most anglers seem to have their favourite swims and the reasons for this are probably as varied as there are swims themselves. There is an uncanny, and almost unnerving connection between good swims and car parks for example, and I may well return to that theme later, depending upon the directions these thought processes take us.
We can be fairly comfortable in the understanding that plateaux, submerged islands (bars in other words) and weed beds, for example, mostly produce reliable feeding areas for fish. Weed beds we can understand because the creatures on which the fish mostly feed live themselves in or on the plants, feeding on yet smaller items. But plateaux and submerged islands? What makes such areas so (apparently) productive? Well, for a start fish frequent such places with a regularity far in excess of chance. They patrol areas of abrupt depth change and graze areas that are shallower than the surrounding water. But what makes a plateau at 12 feet more appealing than the surrounding water at 15 feet depth? Light penetration and water temperature will be much the same and, likely as not 15 feet elsewhere in the lake will produce plenty of fish!
And, to further complicate the issue, not every fish visits the plateau nor patrols the submerged islands – at least, not all of the time. So, whatever it is that attracts some of the fish for some of the time, the ‘draw’ is not that strong. The ‘draw’ for most of the time is, of course, food, and fish, like all creatures, are not hungry all of the time.
Acute changes of depth cause currents to form in certain wind directions and a flow of water will, firstly, bring food with it, secondly clean the bed of the lake in some places and not others, and thirdly create a flow of oxygen at different levels to still, or stronger flowing water. Currents scouring the bottom, combined with the ‘fall’ in the angle of the bar help to prevent silt deposit which in turn creates local areas suited to specific types of submerged, or emergent plants. Healthy plant growth encourages a stable food larder. For fish which are not feeding these areas afford places to explore and, as appropriate, security. If a fish, or a shoal of fish is patrolling a gravel bar it/they get some security on one flank from the bar itself, thereby cutting down the risk of attack, at least from one side.
Browser species are commonly inquisitive and any new territory (such as freshly flooded land) is quickly explored. This may be to search out potential new sources of food, it may be the new water-borne smells, it may be nothing more than nosiness! It is this latter which helps the angler.
Much of the food eaten by fish is too small to be seen in detail by the human eye. It is little wonder, therefore, that fish need to eat, or to be on the look out for food, with the frequency they do. It also gives a clue to the nutritional value of the food they find occurring naturally. We all talk of feeding spells, and we go to some length to make full use of the times when the fish are actively feeding. But what is it that we are actually describing? We are describing only those occasions when fish are taking anglers baits. For most of the rest of the time we haven’t got a clue whether or not the fish are feeding and even on those occasions when we can watch them ‘behaving naturally’ we cannot know for certain what is their thought process any more than we fully understand what triggers a sudden change in behaviour.
On a recent 8 mile walk I came across a rabbit whose presence I only just caught in my peripheral vision. The rabbit stood its ground and had I not noticed it just 20 feet away I have no doubt it would have remained ‘invisible’. As it was I stopped and watched it ‘eye-ball-to-eye-ball’ and after a few moments of this stand-off, it’s nerve broken, it took flight into nearby vegetation. The same almost certainly occurs when we watch fish – they know we are watching them more often than not and so, after a suitable period of play-off they choose to melt away. If such drifting away is gentle and unhurried we assume they are not alarmed, the movement is natural and we try to make some sense of their behaviour. If, and it is just as likely, we have misunderstood the behaviour (i.e. they are alarmed but drift out of sight slowly so as not to attract too much attention) we have absolutely no chance of making sense of what the fish are doing. Any attempt, therefore, to put such behaviour in to angling terms is as likely to fail as it is to succeed.
But it is the natural inquisitiveness of fish and their need to feed regularly that gives us the edge (sometimes) when trying to catch them. That’s the theory anyway……
The pin-point accuracy of loose-feeding seems to have become obsessive for many anglers these days, and marker floats adorn many otherwise pleasant scenes across the country. They are used in all extremes between highlighting the whereabouts of gravel bars, to a space between weed beds, to ‘ownership’ of a pitch or area of water, to a must-have, must-use piece of kit which borders the ridiculous. I cannot stand the things myself and I doubt their need. It is just as easy to use a reflection of something in the water, such as a street lamp, or a particular shape of a tree to act as a target for both casting and for firing out loose feed. Using natural markers offers two advantages – firstly it trains the angler in accurate catapult techniques and secondly the loose feed is spread out a little which causes the fish to browse more intently. It isn’t a coincidence thereafter to find with uncanny frequency that such (apparently) random swim choice proves to be a good, consistent and reliable pitch. This approach is risky if the tree is cut down! The fact is, of course, that you are creating a feeding area by the regular introduction of food. Fish are never shy in exploiting new food sources and provided you choose an area where the fish are comfortable to visit you can create, then develop a hot spot.
It seems just as likely therefore, and to my way of thinking that ‘feeding times’ are entirely angler-made.
So what do fish do in an entirely natural situation where they are not habituated to the food introduced by anglers? They are extremely difficult to catch! For starters their feeding times are not subject to our influence which probably means they pick-and-peck when it suits them. Weather, and water conditions play less importance because they are not, after all, being influenced by the competitiveness that develops between groups of fish when anglers introduce bait in tight, defined areas and at certain times. We condition fish by our activities and immediately we do that they are no longer behaving ‘naturally’.
I mentioned earlier the frequency with which car park swims prove to be reliable and productive. Anglers are naturally lazy and fishing in front of your car requires less effort. Regular feeding into an area is quickly capitalised by the fish, some of which take up almost permanent residence there. The more productive the area becomes, the more anglers fish it and more food is introduced.
I’m sure that just about every angler has experienced waters ‘going off’ after a spell of good fishing. Is this a result of angling pressure? Do the fish cease to feed for a while because of being caught? Having broken the ice covering on puddles on my way to a winter tench swim, I believe that fish are willing to feed at just about any time of the year. If fish are able to feed in water temperatures below 8c those occasions during warmer months of the year when they are being uncooperative are because they are elsewhere. Or, because they have become shy of bait. The obvious conclusion therefore, is to change ones approach; use a different bait, change the form of any pre-bait (more, less, cloud, stodge etc) or fish another area.
There are plenty of times, however, when fish are clearly in the swim yet not eating our baits. I’ve concluded that the best approach here, is also to move away. Not all fish in a water are feeding at the same time but there will always be some fish willing to feed no matter what the conditions; you just have to find them.
And here we are, back where we started. First find a good swim!