You might remember I set myself some targets for the winter - perhaps to catch a 1lb dace, and certainly some more 2lb roach. So far I've nudged up my personal best in both species with a 14oz dace, and a 2.1 roach. The Oxford river doesn't seem to hold many two-pounders - going by my own & my friends catches it's about 1 in 25 fish There are however quite a few fish around the 1.12 mark, young looking fish, which bodes well for the future. I'd still like to catch a 1lb dace and it seems the back end might be the best time - they are just a little thin at present. Roach? Well I'd like to catch a two-pounder that wasn't a scraper - say 2.4 or so. There are one or two there.
Due to publishing deadlines, February actually starts at the end of January. After over a week of frosts and high pressure, at last the weather looked set to turn mild by the weekend. But the winds would be there, as ever, and with a vengeance - gale force south-westerlies. Rain too was forecast, so at least the river should get some colour. That might at least compensate for the difficulty of fishing in high winds. I was only able to go for half a day on the Saturday, as my son was playing in the finals of an indoor cricket tournament in Guildford late afternoon. So I got up early and by 7.30 a.m. was driving down the track to the river.
It was very dry - no water at all in the holes which normally form puddles after the smallest amount of rain. And the wind was howling, but at least it wasn't blowing from the north. It's funny though, in most swims it still contrived to blow downstream, even though it was supposed to be in almost the opposite direction from last week's northerly. I went straight in with quiver-tipped flake in the first swim, a fairly slack area inside a bend. Within a few minutes the tip jerked round. I struck, felt nothing and retrieved my line minus the hook and 12 inches of hook-link. That'll teach me for being lazy and not tying on a new hook-link after last week! I tied on a new one - about 2 feet of Silstar Match 3.3lb and a size 8 Gamakatsu 6318 - the link connected loop-to loop to Daiwa Sensor 4lb main line.
As usual I was using a small Drennan open-ended feeder, filled with liquidised bread. I was intending to try a special bait on the river this winter, but though I've been putting some in, for some reason I can't explain, so far the time has never felt right to use it. I re-cast. A few minutes later the tip pulled round again. This time I hooked the fish, which quickly rushed out into the main current. It felt too heavy to be a roach. I suspected it might be a trout. It wasn't long before it came to the surface and confirmed my suspicions. It fought hard, and very noisily, spending much time crashing about on the surface. As I'd also suspected I might, once the fish was landed I got my other hook back! This looked very much like the same trout I'd caught a few weeks earlier, but it had lost a bit of weight. Even so it wasn't far off 3lbs, a lovely fish looking very much like a sea-trout. I'd only paid attention to one side of the fish previously, but this time I noticed some marks on the other flanks, marks that were identical to the net marks that many salmon and sea-trout bear. I wonder - can sea-trout get up this far? I put him back to grow fatter.
If you looked at this swim you would say it screamed chub, and yet, so far I've taken only one chub from it. In fact the chub are hardly putting in an appearance at all this winter, which is a bit surprising considering I'm using bread most of the time. Speaking of chub, I see someone is claiming a massive chub of 8.14 from the Avon. I only hope they had it weighed & witnessed properly - that is a huge fish. I don't doubt at all that they exist. A couple of winters ago I was pike fishing on the Avon, using sardine dead-baits. Mid morning I hooked what I thought was a medium sized pike - except that it felt a bit odd. My first glimpse of it was when it rolled on the surface two rod-lengths out. I was staggered to see I'd hooked what I took to be a common carp. I played it a while longer and eventually had it under the rod top, where again it rolled on the surface. It was an enormous chub, a real monster, far far bigger than any chub I'd ever seen. I turned to reach for my landing net and at that instant the hooks pulled out. I went back to that swim every weekend for the rest of the season and tried to catch that fish. Unfortunately, I failed. How big was it? Well, I've had plenty of upper five-pound chub, a couple of six-pounders too, so I do know what a big chub looks like. Also, I almost always underestimate the size of fish in the water. I would say that the chub I lost was a minimum of eight pounds, and if it went nine or more, I wouldn't be in the least surprised…
As usual, the commotion made by the trout killed the swim completely, so after half an hour I moved on. The next area does produce good roach, but is very open and exposed. Today I could hardly stand up in the wind, and when I did my chair kept blowing away. It nearly went into the river twice and in the end I had to peg it down. I gave the swim a fair amount of time, but after getting no obvious bites, then having a pair of swans fight right over the top of the bait, I gave it up. The older swans were really giving last year's cygnets a hard time, chasing them all over the place. I presumed they were their own off-spring, and although I realise it's for their own good, teaching them to fend for themselves and establish territories, I wondered if the younger birds found it hard to understand why their parents were suddenly turning on them. Maybe that's why swans remain such bad tempered and ornery creatures for the rest of their lives. It must put a real chip on their shoulders!
After a brief and unsuccessful dalliance in the swim where I had the barbel last November I moved into one of the 200 yard long roach swims, a nicely paced straight with a fairly even bottom. In this swim the wind came from behind me so I decided to try the float. On about the twentieth trot down, just when I was on the point of giving up, the float dipped in midstream, about thirty yards distant. An enquiring lift of the rod brought everything to life - I was into a fish. At that distance down-river it was impossible to stop the fish kiting into the marginal reeds, and he got stuck about twenty-five yards from me. It was quite difficult to keep a tight line on the fish whilst moving towards him carrying my landing net, but eventually I was opposite him, and after a tussle between myself and the clutching fingers of the reeds, I got him into the net. A nice roach, but not a big one, in fact at 1.3.5 my smallest from this river - a new personal worst!
This capture gave my float fishing a new lease of life, and I battled with the wind a further 15 minutes before resorting to the quiver-tip. Again the wind banged the rod around, but during a lull I had a definite bite. It didn't quite develop enough for me to strike, then stopped completely. I re-baited and re-cast, but the fish didn't come back, which I thought was a bit odd. I moved downstream and quiver-tipped the area in which I'd hooked the roach. Five minutes later I had another good bite, but before it could reach the critical moment, the wind again buffeted the rod so much I couldn't tell when to strike. In the end I didn't strike at all, and the bite stopped. Eventually I re-baited. Three times more that happened, each time the wind making a well-timed strike impossible. But fourth time lucky, the wind held off for just long enough. The result - an immaculate roach of 1.12. I was almost out of time now - it was 12.40 and I had to leave at 1 p.m. there were still a few swims I wanted to fish, and with panic mode well set in I flitted from one to the other, doing none of them justice and catching nothing from them.
Was it worth a 120-mile round trip for just those fish. Looking at the 1.12 roach, I'd say yes, definitely….
I'd planned to go the following Tuesday, but as often happens, those plans had to be changed, and I was doomed to watch probably the most perfect roach fishing day I've seen for years through the office window. However, the forecast looked set to be mild, so I booked Thursday off instead. I set off early to miss the traffic around Oxford town centre but was dismayed to find the main road out of Oxford closed due to an accident. I had to make a massive detour, and during the journey watched the most spectacular sunrise from the car, a sunrise I would love to have got on film, and would have done had it not been for the diversion . I arrived at the river nearly an hour later than expected. Another of those bad omens? Read on
Bites were hard to come by, though I had the almost obligatory brown trout from the first swim. It took a while before I started getting bites in the next swim, but after 15 minutes I got a good tap, which didn't develop. As the bread had been out for some time I suspected it had now come off, and recast. As I put the rod on the rests it gave a sharp tap, then 2 more. Then it slowly bent round and sprang back dead straight. This didn't look right - I was fishing the far bank and there should be some bend in the tip. After puzzling on it for a moment, I reeled in to check, and found everything gone, hook, hook-link, swim-feeder. I guess a pike must have eaten my feeder. And I guess too that he stuck around as I couldn't get another bite. The next few swims were very quiet, but at around 1pm I at last found some feeding fish. I struck into the first good bite for ages - and the quiver tip rod snapped in half, the line broke, and I lost the fish. I was a dumbfounded - there's not much you can do with a broken rod is there? I didn't have a spare quiver rod with me. The only thing to do was to try the float again, but it seemed that still they didn't want a moving bait. I tried laying on, but in the flow it only resulted in a tight line to the float, and whilst watching the float I noticed the rod top tapping. I removed the float and tried quiver-tipping with my float rod, but it was no good - the top was too stiff. All I got were a couple of sharp taps, then nothing, presumably the fish leaving the bait after feeling the resistance. There didn't seem much else I could do, so by 2 p.m. I was reluctantly on my way home.
The mild weather continued through to Saturday, when I was once again on the river. Having had some good roach in bad conditions, I really thought I was in with a chance of a good catch. The water temperature had risen to 47F, a rise of 3F since Thursday. The wind was light and westerly, and the light was reasonable, there being a light cloud cover. And so far, there had been no bad omens! Surely the fish would be feeding well today. Well, some were - I had plenty of bites all right, persistent trembles on the quiver-tip from minnows, the sort of bites that can keep you too long in an unproductive swim if you aren't aware that minnows are the culprits. Although none of them managed to get the hook into their mouths, I actually foul-hooked two. I did have two or three proper bites when something larger turned up before the minnows managed to whittle the bait away, but missed them. Then late in the day I connected with a fish, and the hook-link broke, just below the loop knot. This is something that happens too often, and I'm not sure why. When I test this knot at home it is fine. My friend Kevin uses the same knot all the time and has never had it happen. Admittedly he uses Super Shinobi, whereas I am using Silstar Match, and I'm aware that different knots suit different lines. But last year I was using Shinobi too, and it still happened.
There seems to be a pattern developing lately where the fish are feeding between 4 and 5pm. At 4.30pm I hooked and landed a pristine roach of 1.4.5. As ever the swim then died and ten minutes later I dropped downstream where I had another good bite. I connected briefly, then retrieved the line minus the hook - a bite-off. This too has happened before, and to my friends as well as myself. We are positive the roach are doing this, as when they do feed, often when you catch them the hook is well back. It's difficult to know what to do - you miss so many bites because presumably, they don't have the hook in their mouth, then when you do get a roach, more often than not the hook is quite some way back. I stayed on into darkness, but only had another couple of bites which didn't produce a strikeable indication. I left at 6pm.
This weather just won't settle down will it! You get rain and coloured water one day, followed by an overnight frost. The fish that will feed in coloured water don't like the frosts, and the fish that don't mind the frosts won't feed in coloured water. I had two mid-week trips to Oxford. On the first I was enticed out by promised daytime temperatures of 54F. It turned out a good deal colder, and by midday, the air temperature was 44F and dropping. The wind was gale force and then some, but with a water temperature of 46F I thought I might be in with a chance. But what with the wind, and the ravenous minnows, I found it difficult to know if I had a proper bite. I lost another hook on the strike after a bite that looked very much like a chub, then further downstream had a 3.4 chub, thus ending the long chub drought. Of the roach and dace there was no sign, though as well as the minnows pecking at my bait, I was suffering from the bakers curse - dry bread. Yes I had bought 2 loaves, just in case, but they were both as bad, making it difficult to get the flake baits to stay on the hook long enough for the roach to find them. The ever-pecking minnows didn't improve things, and I actually foul-hooked two of them during the day.
Three days later I was back again. Heavy rain had turned the river quite muddy. The fields were white with frost when I arrived and the water temperature had dropped from 46F to 42F. The skies were perfect blue, and the sun shone brightly - I couldn't imagine conditions being much worse for roach. I optimistically tried the float in the first swim, but with such a temperature drop, and the river carrying so much extra colour I didn't rate my chances. I soon packed the float rod away and decided to concentrate on the quiver-tip. The first bite, on bread flake, brought forth a lovely roach of 1.8.5. I really don't know what to make of this river! But it gave me great hope, as the both water and air temperatures during the day were bound to rise, and the weather man had said it would cloud over by the afternoon. I had quite a few tentative bites in the morning, and though some might have been minnows, I don't think all of them were. Early abandonment of the float rod meant I had a little more time, as I usually float fish each swim for 15-20 minutes before trying the quiver. I ventured a little further upstream than normal and had a fish in a swim I've never fished before. It looked around 1.8 but despite desperate examination of the anal fin it proved to be a small chub and not a record dace. Next swim down produced a very enthusiastic chublet of about 6 ounces. I continued to fish my way downstream. But as the conditions improved, bites tailed off completely. Late afternoon and I was back in the same swim I'd had the roach from in the morning. Looking upstream at the setting sun I thought a silhouette of me fishing in the sunset would make a good photo. I set the camera up, pressed the self timer and rushed back to my chair to strike a good angling pose. Immediately the rod pulled round, I struck, and was into another good roach. I'm not sure if the camera actually took the photo, but the roach was a cracker - 1.13.5. I had a few more taps after that, but then a daft swan decided that every time I cast the feeder, it was grub time, and kept swimming through my line. I gave up and moved downstream, intending to fish until the traffic jams had cleared from the main roads. Just after dark I had quite a shock - hovering in mid-air, and coming slowly towards me along the bank was a large white apparition - it gave me quite a start until it got near enough to see that it was my friend's white landing net sticking out of his rod-bag - no wonder they call them Ghost nets!
Each winter I have one day fishing for that most graceful of fish, the grayling, aptly named by someone whose name now escapes me "the lady of the stream". The normal venue is the Kennet, where these days I organise fish-ins for our Internet Angling Club, whereby around 10 of us descend on the river. This year some of us had a change of venue and visited another of the southern chalkstreams. Sorry - I don't wish to name it for fear of an eventual expose in the weekly angling press, inevitably succeeded by the invasion of hordes of litter dropping anglers… Some of the anglers had been several times before, and there were reports of big grayling including several well over 2 pounds. With a personal best in this species resting around 1.13 I was very keen to catch one of these bigger fish. The night before the trip my friend Geoff popped round with some information on the fishery, and showed me a picture of a 2 pound plus grayling he’d caught. He hadn’t weighed it, but it looked huge. He asked me what I thought it weighed and I said it looked more like 5 pounds! Of course it wasn’t that big, but it was certainly well over two.
The weather forecast sounded good, light overnight frost, a bright start, with possible rain later (which thankfully didn’t materialise). It was a perfect day. I took all three of my sons, and though fishing water that moved was a new experience for Liam, the youngest, he did manage 10 fish, 9 grayling to 1.9 and a trout of about 2lbs. And I only had to set up his rod for him four times during the day, each time after he had managed to knock off the anti-reverse on the fixed-spool reel and wind in backwards, resulting in an horrendous bird's-nest only curable by a severe application of scissors! It was also quite amusing to see him trying to wind his fish through the tip ring as youngsters tend to do. I still have this mental picture of him standing on the bank, leaning back, rod bent double, float jammed in the tip-ring with a 1.8 grayling thrashing about, two feet above the water! Still, he’ll learn.
Son number two fared a little better requiring only three or four untangles of terminal tackle and 2 hooks plus weights to be put on. He caught around 20 fish to about 1.8. My eldest son is now quite capable of looking after himself and netted around 30 grayling to 1.10. So that leaves me… I’m not sure how many I actually caught – I know I lost 10 after playing them for some time, and landed many more than that. I lost count in the mid-thirties, so it must have been around 40-45 grayling, together with a few trout, and a lonely chub of about 3.4. These fish were caught from all over the river, almost every swim I fished producing. Funny though this losing fish – I had about 25 grayling in the morning, only losing one, then moved into a swim where at one time I lost 5 out of 6 fish. The first one to come off felt like a very big fish too. My best fish? I had only a couple over 1.9 (though many around that weight), one of 1.13, and a beauty of 2.0.5 – a new personal best.
Other anglers on the day reported several 2 pounders so maybe the four of us were unlucky that in over a hundred grayling we only had three over 1.9. Not that I’m complaining – the day was superb, all the fish being caught trotting a stick float with a centrepin. Apart from one or two taken on corn, all were caught on maggots. I’m told there are big roach there too, though no-body caught any. I’m wondering what a day with a bucket of liquidised bread and a fresh loaf might produce - but March is fast approaching and I’m running out of time…