Anglers did tend to compartmentalise their fishing in those days too. June and early July was for tench, July through September for carp (remember that carp didn’t feed in cold water….) September and October was barbel time, and October was start of the pike-fishing season. Species including chub and roach were sought through the autumn and winter, bream when you fancied them and rudd, well find somewhere that held them! No one specialised in crucian carp fishing.
This kind of simplicity is glorious and it bred the kind of angler who developed a very broad based attitude to fishing, became competent in most techniques and one who respected all species of fish. The kind of ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude that has developed in the last couple of decades that puts carp (and in the eyes of many carp anglers, themselves too) head and shoulders above other species and specialists was unheard of and, I guess, would not have been tolerated.
Yet there has been a spin-off for the tench angler. Whilst there is little doubt that mid-summer is good tench time we have learned that tench are entirely catchable throughout the season. With a bit of research catching tench in the winter is every bit as possible as catching carp; indeed some winter carp anglers find themselves ‘plagued’ with tench. We also know that fine tackle is not needed after July.
Fred Wilton’s bait developments that began in the 1960’s revolutionised many branches of coarse fishing (although, at the time, they were intended for carp) though even today anglers have been slow to adapt Fred’s ideas to species such as roach and eels. Tackle developments, the availability of superb 4-season clothing, bivvies and luggage have each contributed to angler’s ability to spend time at the waterside right through the winter. It is not until we began to spend nights at the waterside through the winter that certain taboos were laid to rest.
In the early ‘80s Ray Bishop and I spent full seasons fishing for tench, sometimes in bitterly cold northerly winds, not infrequently driving through iced-over puddles to get to the fishery and whilst it was slow-going at times the rewards were excellent when we got it right. I’ve not (yet!) forgotten catching my 100th tench over 6lbs a little before midnight one March night. The swim was dead during the daylight hours but came alive with rolling fish as soon as darkness arrived. This rather special tench, at 6lbs 13ozs came from 3 feet of water on 8lb line and a bait one inch in diameter. We associate tench with warm water, the fish themselves being warm to touch. In the winter they are cold and strangely alien.
Two seasons ago I again, fishing alone this time, spent the winter tench fishing and although activity was very slow from late November to January, the last 6 weeks of the season was as productive as any time in July. The very last day of the season (this particular lake has a closed season) I got tench of 8lbs 6ozs, 7lbs 13ozs and 6lbs 3ozs and I cannot think of a better way to finish. The experiences of many other anglers would be needed to confirm, or to deny a theory I developed for the slowness of the sport in midwinter but I came to think that it had something to do with day length.
We know that when direct sunlight strikes the water at below a certain angle (I think it is around 14 degrees to the horizon) most if not all of the light is reflected back. In other words for a short period each winter very little light actually penetrates the surface of the water. If tench activity is based upon a ‘formal’ light cycle then it may follow that their feeding becomes very limited, if at all, when their world is one of near-darkness. It’s only a theory though the coincidence of timing (on ‘my’ water) was quite noticeable.
Throughout the summer months tench remain active and roam widely. Most fisheries have known hotspots but they can turn up almost anywhere. As the year progresses they begin to group and not always in favoured summer areas. Come October some of the better summer swims seem to be devoid of tench though the problem is exacerbated by the fact that as the water temperatures drop, rolling and surface splashing becomes less of a feature (more of which later though) so location is more difficult. Oddly, perhaps, this grouping of late season fish isn’t necessarily, or even at all, towards deeper and/or more sheltered water. I’ve caught June tench in 18 feet of water and February tench in 3 feet of water and most combinations between. One of the very hottest winter tench areas that I have ever come across is almost devoid of submergent weed (in summer), uniform of depth and nothing more than an average earlier season swim. Locating reliable and consistent winter tench swims is one of the more difficult tasks but in so being one of the real challenges facing a seasoned, all-season tench angler!
The strength of winter sun, infrequent and unpredictable as it is, is insufficient to warm even the shallow-most water. Wind strength of course continues to turn over the water in precisely the same way it does so in the summer (when it can have an effect of warming and cooling water) but will have little if any effect on the water temperatures from one spot to the next. Daylight hours are of course noticeably reduced for weeks on end and the direction of the wind becomes more variable than in summer. Food sources, in the form of larvae and other crustacea are severely depleted and so feeding is more confined to grazing for whatever can be found. It is true that the first few hours of daylight tend to be the most productive times for late season tench, come midwinter, and in my experience, the fish become significantly more active after dark. For reasons that I cannot define, swims that appear devoid of tench become active and productive as the light fails. It is at this time that I have seen more rolling and surface splashing by winter tench than at any other time in the 24-hour clock. To call the activity ‘surface splashing’ is perhaps an exaggeration in that the disturbance is muted in a way that suggests to me that the tench are actually rolling just under the surface rather than on it. Big fish belie their presence with gentle surface disturbance often mistakenly interpreted to be roach.
The colder water isn’t in itself responsible for this action because the tench, when hooked, fight as well as they do in the summer and the warmer water. This kind of lazy rolling does puzzle me and, of course it pretty effectively hides their presence (though I doubt it’s done for this reason!). To some extent of course, this behaviour is akin to what carp do in the winter, or more correctly don’t do so much of, which is to leap clear of the water. Even so, the disturbance created by a big tench rolling just beneath the surface is little more than that made by an eight-ounce roach.
I would, therefore, highly recommend would-be late season tench anglers to spend a bit of time at the waterside, fish spotting, at ‘odd’ hours and not to put too much emphasis on the dawn period.
I am a confirmed HNV bait addict when tench fishing and I have absolutely no reason to change my bait or my tactics throughout the season. These days I have reduced the size of my tench baits a little (they used to be fully one inch in diameter, these days one half inch or so) though I keep to this size right through the year. If you work up a good HNV bait it should last you for many years, actually increasing it’s effectiveness and so the tench have no reason to look suspiciously at ‘large’ baits in the colder months when they have fed avidly on them a few months before. Heavy prebaiting is not needed either – a dozen or so free baits at the beginning of the session followed up by similar quantities depending on the level of activity you are getting. In my view there is no point in firing out more free offerings when the first lot remain uneaten – wait until the tench arrive in your swim, or come on to feed, then top up the larder on a little and often basis.
Back in the mid-1970’s I found that feeding sweetcorn to tench was far more productive if a few dozen grains were scattered over a square yard or two (on a little-and-often basis) rather than heaping it in and expecting the tench to burrow in to the pile in the vain (grain!) hope of finding your bait. The same applies, to my way of thinking, with HNV baits – keep ‘em hungry and keep ‘em looking. If food that the fish are seeking is scattered loosely they need to browse actively to find it; browsing actively means moving around over a wide enough area to give you decent takes instead of twitches. It’s a very simplistic view, I’ll be the first to admit but it works.
I’ll feed about twice as many free offerings in to the swim during the summer as the winter, though it all depends upon fish activity. If you are getting takes frequently it’s reasonable to assume that the freebies are being eaten quicker than your bait, so feed in a few more. I also think it’s more productive to recast every hour (or less, of course if activity is greater) with a fresh bait but go easy on the free offerings if sport is slow!
Call me Mr Stick-in-the-mud and I won’t object; my strongest recommendation concerning terminal tackle, or end-rigs if you prefer, is to keep it simple. Concentrate on finding the fish, be sure not to spook them, and work up a good bait (preferably one that others are not using) and you’re there. It is the bait that catches the fish, not the bit of tubing the hook link is attached to!