As ever, cricket, or to be more accurate, my eldest son's cricket, has dominated my summer, and I've hardly been fishing at all. What started as a fun flirtation with sea-fishing at Brighton marina in the coarse close season slowly developed into an interest in that side of the sport, and more especially, into an unfortunate pre-occupation with trying to catch a big bass. I say unfortunate because it seems that coinciding with this new interest is also the virtual disappearance of the bass, heavily hammered as they are by the pairs trawlers operating from our coasts. I've had about 6 trips after them, and mostly I've been scuppered by bad weather, floating seaweed or coloured water; or just a plain lack of fish. So for the time being I've given up on them. The weekend's cricket had already been called off due to the wet ground (as had every other match during September). That left Saturday free for fishing, so I decided to go up to Oxford to see how the river was faring.
Reports from Oxford suggested the river was a little higher than normal summer level after all the recent rain, but not too dirty. I decided to try to catch some dace, and to float-fish for them with maggots. This would give me a chance of picking up virtually anything . It would be a fun day, and I would take the very minimum of tackle.
I arrived on the bank around 9.30 a.m. after first picking up my season ticket from the local shop. I also had to pick up another pint of maggots as almost half of the 3 pints I had bought the previous day had turned to casters overnight!
My first view of the water since March was disappointing. The level was fine, but the colour - oh dear! It was quite muddy, more big smelly baits for barbel conditions than maggot trotting for dace. Still, I had little option, I had brought very little tackle with me, just the 17-foot Harrison trotter/Speedia centrepin combination, some shot, and a few floats and hooks. I set up the rod in the first swim and was soon running the float through, the hook baited with double maggot. Bites were instantaneous, and I can almost see the grin on my learned friend from Oxford's bearded face when I tell you that the first cast connected with a minnow; and the second, and the third, and the fourth. I'll stop there, but the minnow procession didn't. I was though heartened, thinking that if the minnows were feeding in the coloured water, then surely other fish would be too. I switched bait to double caster. This seemed to do the trick, as the next two fish were dace, small ones, but dace nevertheless. Then the minnows got wise to the double caster trick, and there followed another half-dozen of these plucky little fish. I then tried 4 casters. The float sunk in the usual spot - it's amazing how far a minnow can pull a float down - only this time it wasn't a minnow. It was a proper fish, a good one too. I played it for around half a minute, by which time the head shaking was beginning to feel all too familiar. As it surfaced through the murky water my suspicions were confirmed - it was a trout. Actually it was quite a nice fish, a brown trout, mostly silver in colour, with big black spots, and weighing probably a pound and a quarter. In good condition too, with a full belly, unlike the thin specimens which take the baits in the middle of winter. I slipped him back, hoping he would stick to flies in future - I really get no pleasure in catching trout when I'm not fishing for them.
The capture of another half dozen minnows seemed to suggest I should try another swim, so I wandered off upstream, trying the swims I knew from winter, and vaguely wondering if the fish would be there at this time of the year. In one of the swims there were several horses on the far bank, trotting up and down quite noisily right by the side of the river. I wondered if they might spook the fish, or whether somehow the fish realised that they were animals, and not anglers.
Each swim produced minnows; some produced a single dace. As usual, they were in shoals of one! I wasn't spending too long in each swim - if nothing much happened after ten or fifteen minutes, then I'd be on the move again. I know that swims can be built up with continuous feeding - the matchmen do it - feed a swim for hours then suddenly it comes alive and it's a bite a cast. But I like to have an early indication that there is something half-decent in the swim that is willing to take my bait. If ten or 15 minutes trotting only produces minnows, then I just have to move on. Funny, I can sit by a carp lake for days, but put me on a river, and unless I find fish quickly I'm like a cat on hot bricks!
Halfway up the stretch I made the decision to bypass several swims and make straight for the top weir, which usually contains a few chublets of around a pound, good enough fun on the float. But the weir too proved to be full of minnows, though I did find one chub, looking to be just under a pound. Working my way back I had the best dace of the day in the bridge swim, a fish a fraction over 9 ounces. Dace do fight well - it's just a pity the bigger ones are so rare.
From that point, apart from a lost "proper" fish in the cattle-drink, which was full of cows (not unreasonably I suppose) it was minnows all the way until proceedings were brought to a premature halt by a huge thunderstorm. I didn't fancy walking around in flashing lightning carrying a 17-foot carbon lightning conductor, so made my way back to the car for an early exit. The bag was 5 dace, a chub, a trout and God knows how many minnows, though I think at least that I had a new personal best amongst them!
It's a great pity about minnows being so small - they must be the ideal angler's fish. They are always ravenous, feed in clear water, coloured water, or warm water; in cold water, moving water or slacks. They will have a go at any size bait, they feed on the bottom, on the top, and anywhere in between, all on the same day (and all in the same minute it seems…). There are zillions of them, and they are a very pretty looking fish. But they're so bloody small! Someone should look into the possibilities of genetically engineering huge minnows - what a sporting proposition a ten-pounder would be - the answer to every angler's dreams!
Midweek evening trips to a very local Thames swim were cancelled due to bad weather forecasts. Trouble was, the nights they said it would be cold, wet & windy, and on which I therefore cancelled my plans, turned out to be quite nice. The forecast warm still dry nights turned out to be howlers. Never mind - it can wait. The swim is a 400-yard walk from my house - I have only fished it once and had several chub, the biggest 4.9, plus a bream of around 4lbs. It's strange this business of fishing on your doorstep. If that swim were 40 miles away I probably would have fished it more often. But although I can walk to it from my house, I've fished it only once. It would seem to have the potential to produce good fish. So why don't I fish it more? I don't understand that either.
One week later, and still in the mood for some float fishing I accepted Edward's long standing invitation to come and fish with him on his home waters, the Thames near Oxford. We had planned to go on the Saturday. The forecast was for possible frost on Friday night, the first of the year. This wouldn't do the fishing much good, but at least it would be followed by a bright sunny day, and fishing would be pleasurable, important when you are fishing for the sheer fun of it. Not that I don't always fish for fun, but for some fish I am prepared to go out in all weathers, others I'm not. I am aware that I might be beginning to sound like a fair-weather fisherman. If you think that then I should tell you that most of my serious fishing is now done in winter, and that I spent the night of the 1987 hurricane bivvied up on a carp lake!
A (dubious?) advantage of convincing yourself that you are merely "fishing for fun" is that it then doesn't matter much whether you catch anything.
Six a.m. Saturday morning I was awakened by a persistent dripping noise. I lay reluctantly listening to it - I wanted another hour's sleep before I got up and drove to meet Edward at 8 a.m. But what was that noise? It couldn't possibly be rain. I ran through the options. It could be the dog licking his bum (horrible habit I know, but they all do it!). It could be a tap running, or water trickling through a pipe. Maybe the valve on the toilet stopcock was malfunctioning. Eventually I had to get up & look out of the window. It was absolutely piddling down. The sky was like a blank slate - no breaks in the cloud at all. It was too early to phone Edward, so I went back to bed. At half past seven the phone rang - it was Edward. The weather was the same at his end. We decided to call the trip off and go the next day instead. It was as well we did - it didn't stop raining all day. You'll remember it - it was the day Germany beat England in the last Wembley international. Not a good day all round was it.
Sunday was much better, and I met Edward by the river at 8 a.m. as arranged. This area of the river is quite interesting - it has a lock, weirs and several backwaters. I found it hard to get my bearings, but Edward led the way to a swim he had fished previously, and suggested I fish there, while he went further downstream. The water was around 5 feet deep, and fairly slow paced (though from time to time this would vary as the lock opened and closed) so I set up a 4BB stick float shotted shirt button fashion, which I prefer in slower and relatively shallow water as it aids presentation when holding the float back. Most of the time this didn't much matter, as the flow was barely perceptible. Main-line was 4lb Daiwa (very cheap in bulk) to my current favourite hook-link, Silstar Match, in 3.3lb. I never really use tiny hooks, and the tackle was completed with a size 14 fine wire barbless fly hook. I had a fair choice of baits; bread, maggots, cheesepaste and lobworms, but started, on Edward's advice, with maggots. Feeding every cast, which is essential if you want to get the best from a swim, I'd soon amassed a good bag of small to medium sized roach, the best being around ten ounces. Bleak were a bit of a nuisance, and particularly on single maggot, I had quite a few of them. Double maggot would deter them long enough for any roach to find the bait, though I still had several bleak, also a small dace, a skimmer and a gudgeon. I do like gudgeon. As well as being superb perch baits (!) they remind me of the days when, as a young boy I would travel miles to fish for them - there wasn't much else available, but at least they were real fish.
I also tried caster, which the bleak murdered, and bread-flake, hoping for bigger roach, but though I still caught roach, they weren't any bigger, and I was getting far fewer bites.
Around midday we decided to go to lunch, a very civilised affair in a riverside pub. It was a vast improvement on cheese sandwiches and the weather was even good enough to allow us to eat outside, and watch the bleak rising to the occasional small fly. Refreshed we returned to the river, and went straight to the top weir. The flow was however a bit heavy, and after picking about here and there for an hour during which time I realised with some concern that I was in the curious position of not really knowing what I was fishing for, we returned to our original swims where the roach still seemed inclined to feed. I lost count of how many I caught, but I also added a chublet and some perch to the bag, making a total of 6 species in all. Edward nearly made it seven when a pike grabbed a roach he was retrieving, but it came off. A short quiver-tip session produced the biggest fish of the day, a modest 2lb chub. But you set your expectations according to the venue - I wasn't expecting anything huge and was fishing with a light rod. The chub gave me a very good scrap. I'd had bites on maggot, caster, bread and cheese-paste, but curiously (and I did try it for quite some time) nothing at all on lobworm. I find that odd - of all the baits that I would have thought to be irresistible to fish, the lobworm is top of the list. So often though it has failed for me. We ended the day when the light started to go. Edward tells me some huge fish have been caught there, so I think another trip with more serious tackle could be in order.
A few days later Edward once again enticed me to Oxford, this time looking for barbel in a short stretch of the Thame. Edward is very keen to catch an Oxfordshire barbel, and had heard rumours that this stretch of river held reasonable fish. After all the rain we had been having it was no surprise to find the river very high and coloured. The perfect barbel conditions, though I must admit I always found flood fishing a little hit and miss on the rivers I have fished. Big baits, either trundled or static would seem to be the order of the day, and we did plenty of both. Sum result - one 3 pound chub, which really shouldn't have been feeding at all! I did however pull in an excellent quiver tip, hooked through the eye, and later a rod-rest that looked as if it had been in the river for about twenty years.
Two days later we were back on the same stretch; it's actually quite captivating you see. The level had dropped a little but the water was still very coloured, so once again we plied big baits, mostly meat, rolling them along, or anchoring them in the flows where we judged barbel might be. I hooked a fish early on, which fought like a barbel, but turned out to be a 3.2 chub. A little while later my mobile phone rang. It was Edward phoning me from 80 yards upstream to tell me that he too had caught a chub. You have to understand here that Edward has just got his first mobile phone, and was extremely anxious for an excuse to use it! The swim he was in seems to be a bit of an enigma. It has classic features and might easily grace the front cover of a magazine, illustrating the perfect swim. In the prevailing conditions you would think it would be full of fish. It is about 30 yards below a weirpool, and is the first area of quiet water after the weir. There is a good flow on the far bank where overhanging trees provide cover, and on the near bank there is a large deep slack, again with plenty of bankside cover in the form of large hawthorn bushes. But despite Edward fishing it for some time, with legered worms and meat, and myself trying it later on with the same baits, Edward's chub is the only fish it has so far produced.
While Edward was on the phone telling me about his chub, I noticed my rod top knocking. I'd cast the bait upstream and was letting it bump down slowly towards me. I prefer to fish a moving bait in this way, especially early in the season when there is still weed about. The disadvantage with trundling a bait down below you is that you can't always tell if it is moving, and when it does stick, the current will still continue to take line from the reel, deceiving you into thinking that the bait is moving downstream. It is only when you reel in that you find the bait has stuck almost under your feet, and you have paid off about 50 yards of line down the river. When upstream legering you can tell immediately if the bait is stuck, and indeed it pays to leave it in these areas for a while, as the obstruction which has arrested the bait's progress might well hold fish. It is also far easier to keep the bait moving in a straight line when fishing upstream in this way. A bait worked downstream will tend to pull in towards your bank, giving an unnatural presentation.
I informed Edward that I had a bite, and quickly slipped the phone into my pocket as the rod pulled round. I'm trying here to think of a different way of saying something like "the strike met with a firm resistance", but there aren't too many ways to describe that are there. So I'll just tell you that the strike did indeed meet with a firm resistance, and after a good battle in the strong current, I slipped the net under a nice little barbel of four and a quarter pounds. Edward was delighted - there were barbel here after all - it gave him great encouragement.
After Edward had taken a picture, he wandered back upstream. I then noticed a few wasps buzzing around my landing net - in fact more than a few. I watched for a while and it soon became apparent that I'd put the net right on top of a wasp's nest. And this was in exactly the position I had been fishing from, where I'd played and landed the fish, and where we had photographed it. I think I' d been a bit lucky not to have been attacked and can only think the wasps had been asleep, and were awakened by all the commotion above their heads.
We spent the rest of the day moving from swim to swim, but all I caught was another chub of around two-and-a-half pounds, and then later, after missing several bites on worms while fishing a slack, landed a chublet of about a half pound. We fished just into the dark (you have to leave the river at dusk here - which always seems daft to me…) but caught no more, though I did miss at least one good bite.
So Edward is still after his Oxford barbel. I wonder if he'll catch it before this article is finished. At least he now knows where one of them live!
Another long week at work was ended by a trip to the Upper-middle Kennet to see if I could connect with some rumoured big roach. Though still a bit early in the season for the true winter roach that I love, conditions were superb, the conditions I pray for in winter. Mild, overcast, no wind and a very slight and occasional misty rain. The roach swim there looks tremendous, the only problem being that it is at least a mile long. Knowing roach to be wanderers I elected to remain in the same swim all day, and keep baiting in the hope of attracting and holding a wandering shoal. Such plans! Even the small roach were in shoals of 2, or so it seemed. I worked hard trotting bread-flake & feeding liquidised bread, alternating this with giving the crayfish some claw exercise by quiver-tipping flake and cheesepaste. Stuart fishing further down managed a few small fish on maggot, but on the breadflake I never had a bite. Late in the day I switched to a slightly smaller hook, changing my 12 for a 14. That is small for me. When in pursuit of big roach I rarely drop below a 10, though I am still despairing, since the demise of the Gamaktsu 6318, of finding a good fine wire eyed hook in those sizes. I suppose this winter I will eventually take the plunge and change over to spade ends. The smaller hook tied on I began fishing bread-punch, normally a cold water tactic in winter (which I have to say, for me at least, usually fails). I had half a dozen small roach in about 40 minutes, then as the light went, changed back to quiver-tips. It was hopeless though - a few nips from the crayfish and the bait was gone. I'm not unhappy about crayfish in the swim when I'm fishing for barbel as I am convinced that when barbel, and big chub too, move into the swim the crayfish make themselves scarce. I'm not sure that it's not the other way around where roach are concerned though. Never mind - the whole winter lies before me and a day on the river is never wasted or regretted. It had been a day that John Geirach would have called "another lousy day in paradise". That just about sums it up doesn't it. There will be other days.