Leaving home around 7.30 p.m. on a mild grey day, prospects looked reasonably promising. I knew it couldn't last, but was secretly hoping the weathermen had got it wrong. But I wasn't going to vocalise those thoughts in case the 'Weather Gods' heard me. I was on the bank just before 9 a.m., and not a little surprised, after all the rain, to find the river still below winter level with not too much colour. And the weather was still holding. In fact, had I not known better I would have described it as being perfect for roach. But the roach knew what was coming. In the first hour I had two tentative bites (not minnow-like), then a good pull round. I missed all three, being otherwise occupied at the time - tea, sandwich, piddle; you know the kind of thing.
Around 11 a.m. Edward arrived. We fished various swims up the river, but all was quiet. Not for the first time I noticed that bites seemed to dry up completely after his arrival. Hmmm… I'm really beginning to wonder about that. Half an hour later the rain started, the wind started, and the river went even quieter. The rain at times was torrential, and the only thing of note to happen was that Edward's umbrella blew into the river, then sailed across to the far bank. Fortunately for Edward there was someone there to retrieve it. Unfortunately for Edward, his would be rescuer fancied himself as a javelin thrower and thought he would be able to throw the umbrella back across the river; throw a heavy umbrella across 30 feet of river into a gale force wind. Yeah right. The last Edward saw of it was as it turned and waved to him before slowly sinking in midstream. Funnily enough, he seemed quite pleased about it. "I've always hated that umbrella" he told me, leaving me to speculate as to how someone can become emotionally involved with something that is, after all, only trying to do its job! I do wonder about Edward sometimes.
We baled out at around 4pm, the rain still pouring, the wind still howling. Edward had actually packed up some time before me, having got into one of those tangles which, on a wet day, mean you just cut the lot off, throw it in your bag and go home. You'll sort it all out when you get there. I bet you don't though!
As I sat, neck craned from under the brolly looking up at the rod tops, a jet plane appeared briefly in a small gap in the huge clouds, only to be almost immediately swallowed up again. Despite how miserable the weather was making me, I couldn't help feeling impressed with the vastness and power of nature where even something as insubstantial as a cloud can dwarf a jumbo jet. Our total catch was one minnow, and I didn't catch it.
Don't you get a bit pissed off when after yet another weekend's fishing has been washed out, non-angling friends tell you that fish really like the rain? I guess it comes from salmon fishing, where the anglers are always praying for rain to get the fish moving. But mostly I've found coarse fishing in the rain to be totally unproductive.
The wet weather continued all week. No point in going back up to Oxford - the river would be in the fields. I guess the fish would be in the slacks, but I've never been able to find any slacks there when the river is really up. I know the fish have to be somewhere, but up to now I haven't been able to figure out where. So Oxford was crossed off the list.
I have an ambition to catch a Thames barbel. I only ever spent about ten minutes trying. That was on a winter evening many years ago. The first cast went into a tree, and the line snapped. I then discovered I'd forgotten my torch, so re-tackled by the light of a beta-lite. As the temperature began to drop the darkness became very claustrophobic. After just ten minutes fishing I decided I really didn't want to catch a Thames barbel that much. So I went home. I'd still like to catch one, it might even become addictive.
I seem to have lost interest in still-waters completely, so if it was to be a day on the river, then barbel would probably be the only species worth pursuing. As it turned out, five of us had the same idea and converged on a Thames swim on the Saturday. I hadn't bothered to pack a landing net - with five anglers on the river, we wouldn't all need one. I told Edward this when we were en-route. He'd thought the same thing, and had only packed a tiny pan net. Never mind, Stuart was coming down around midday - he would be sure to have one. We'd beach any barbel caught before then.
The river was very high, and very coloured. We fished the inside of a bend, which gave three options. We could trundle baits for a long way down the flow, or indeed anchor them out there. We could fish them in the crease, or in the nearer slacker water. In theory, all the barbel should be out in the flow "feeding their heads off". For some reason Edward decided that I was more likely to catch than he was, so left his landing net in my swim. I felt a bit embarrassed sitting next to the tiny pan net, so made him take it away! Not that it mattered - The barbel didn't seem to be feeding their heads, or anything else off, anywhere.
I worked baits carefully over an area half the size of a football pitch, but only succeeded in losing about ten lots of tackle - this on 30lb braid - and seriously aggravating my tennis elbow. Stuart turned up around 1.30p.m. minus his landing net. He hadn't bothered bringing it as he was sure one of us would have one. An hour later John turned up. He too had left his landing net at home for the very same reason. Fortunately John's friend did bring a net, which was as well for him as he was the only one to catch anything - a nice 7.5lb barbel.
I've never found floods to be the cast-iron barbel certainty other people do. They always seem a bit hit and miss to me. Perhaps I'm fishing the wrong places. I don't know whether the massive amounts of leaves coming down the river might have put the fish off - I think it might be a possibility. It's a funny period this, the time between what really amounts to being the end of autumn, and the start of winter proper. I'm scratching about really, not getting into anything properly. I'm looking forward to getting the first frosts out of the way and concentrating on the roach. But then I have in my mind the doubts cast upon the Oxford river by my psychic friend Kevin. I'm hoping these prove unfounded. Time will tell.
In the meantime I suppose all these floods could be a good thing, giving the rivers a good flush through before winter. Good that is, unless your house happens to be built on a flood plain.
I used to visit Barton Court several times during the winter, to fish for the roach there. For those who don't know it, it is an upper Kennet trout fishery that allows day ticket coarse fishing from the beginning of October. Around 5 years ago the roach fishing was superb and one might expect to catch more than 30 fish (sometimes many more) with an average weight of over a pound and a half. For whatever reasons, those days seem to have gone. I had one day there last year catching 18 roach, none over a pound. The other half dozen anglers in our party caught only 3 or 4 roach between them. That doesn't prevent me from hoping the big roach will make a return though, and I usually fish there at least once during the winter. It is mostly float fishing, and whatever the catch, it is nice to spend all day trotting with a centrepin. After all the recent rain the river was in remarkably good condition, not far from perfect, with not too much flow, and about 6 inches visibility. But once again the roach failed to show - a whole days trotting in various parts of the river bringing me just 3 roach, 2 small ones and one of 1lb 7oz. I also caught 2 small dace, 4 small grayling and a 2lb 8oz bream which got me a little excited when I first saw it turn in the coloured water, thinking it was a big roach. But by far the most numerous fish were the out of season trout.
I've no idea how many I caught - I stopped counting after 20. I've said before that I don't enjoy catching trout when I'm not fishing for them, and I especially don't like catching them on bait. They are so stupid - it is not at all uncommon to catch the same fish twice in a few minutes. They are no challenge at all, especially in a well-stocked river such as this. Among them were some quite big fish, the biggest I weighed at 5lbs 3oz, a superb brown trout, and there were several others around that size. All were returned straight away, but not after, especially with the big ones, they had crashed about in the swim killing off any chance of hooking one of the shy roach. Four of us fished that day - we had 5 roach between us, and about 70 trout!
You'll notice in the photographs that I was using a red centrepin on that day. No, your eyes don't deceive you, this is a Browning revolver, a reel I acquired at the end of last season and have been using a lot recently. I will be reviewing it fully, but for those of you interested, it is a very nice centrepin indeed…. errr… apart from the colour!
The rain continued unabated through the week. Time to go up to see Matthew. His river seems to fish well for roach when it is up and coloured. We met on the bank just after dawn. It was still raining.
Matthew had just cast into a deeper area, and suggested I do the same. I set up twenty yards downstream. We would start with the quiver tip, then try some trotting through the day. Before I was even set up Matthew had caught a couple of fish, nothing big, but nice roach up to 12 ozs. I cast out my flake bait and almost immediately the rod top pulled round to the first bite of the day. I struck, then disaster! The rod top snapped in half! I hadn't even hooked the fish. It wrecked my day really - I didn't have another quiver tip rod. Matthew had a spare in his car and kindly went to fetch it for me. Unfortunately it was a rod really meant for chub, and just a little too stiff for the roach. I tried holding the rod, which led to some conjecture as to why you only seem to get bites when you put the rod down. Vibrations down the line Matthew suggested. We agreed on little heartbeats being felt down the line, which would increase rapidly at the start of a bite making the fish let go. What a pity, because it seemed the roach in the swim were really having it, feeding their heads off as some people would say. I was getting a bite every ten minutes on average, virtually throughout the day. I hardly managed to strike any of them as it seemed they were feeling the resistance of the tip and letting go. I did try working the float through the swim, but even holding it back and inching it through the area where the fish were failed to produce a bite. It's odd that because every time Matthew went for a wander with his float rod he caught a few. And yet he hadn't had a bite on the quiver tip since 8.30 that morning… I reckon I had more bites on quiver tip in that one day than I'd had all of last season. I managed to hook just 4 roach, the best around a pound.
All day the rain came down, and slowly the river was rising and colouring up. Around 4pm I had another try with the float. Within about 10 casts I'd caught 3 roach, all around a half pound, pretty little fish. I found it odd, that they should suddenly start to take a moving bait as the water coloured. Even stranger was the fact that reverting to the quiver tip then failed to produce any bites at all, which is just the opposite to what I thought would have happened when the water began to colour up. One of these days I'm going to get it right and have a field day! In the meantime I have to find another 15-foot quiver tip!
I returned a few days later hoping the river would have held some of the colour so necessary in encouraging roach to feed. But things change quickly here and the visibility had gone from about 8 inches to almost 4 feet in a few days. Having come all this way there was nothing to do but make the best of it - it was going to be hard work. It is quite difficult to become a successful roach angler when you live so far from the fish you wish to catch. They can be fickle fish at the best of times.
I settled into a deep swim thinking the fish might feed better there with the additional security of the extra depth. It was the swim where I'd had continuous bites on the previous trip. I hit the first bite, a nice roach of around a pound, but then things went quiet. I wandered off with the float rod and fished here and there, occasionally trying the quiver-tip. The four roach I caught were all on trotted flake, the best a nice fish of 1.7. I don't think I had another bite on the quiver-tip. Five roach is a good bag if judged by the standards of the Oxford river, and I suppose given the conditions, quite reasonable here. One day I will be here when the conditions are perfect.
A lack of rain in the right areas suggested the colour would still be out of Matthew's river, so the following Saturday I went back to Oxford. Leaving home in mild conditions I was a little disconcerted to arrive at the river and find the fields coated in a thick frost, and all the puddles covered with a sheet of ice. That wouldn't help. The river was high too, almost a foot above normal winter level. That combined with a certain drop in water temperature might make things difficult. Oh the joys of being a weekend fisherman! However the colour was good, about a foot visibility, not muddy looking, and the flow not too fast.
After throwing a few balls of liquidised bread into the swim I set up trotting tackle, baiting the size 14 hook with a small piece of bread flake. Right at the end of the very first run through the float dipped and the strike brought the rod to life. The fish felt too heavy to be a roach, and was fighting so well I thought it might be a small barbel. I eventually netted a chub of around 3lbs, no great size, but things are put into a different perspective when you are trotting with roach tackle aren't they. I've had chub over twice that size but that didn't prevent me from enjoying catching this one. I suppose it was just as well, as apart from a very "big-roachy" looking bite on the quiver-tip while I was fiddling around taking the water temperature ( I missed it), it was the only bite I had all day. I started to think of compensations for the poor fishing, but the best I could come up with was that at least my landing net would be dry when I got back to the car. Hardly satisfactory though is it, and another week to wait before getting out again. You know how that feels don't you….
I'd been watching the weather reports all week, but by Saturday, that hadn't helped at all. It seemed we hadn't had enough rain to put colour in Matthew's river, which does need a fair bit of colour to fish well, while the Oxford river, which seems to fish best at normal winter level had received quite a bit of rainfall and was even higher than it had been on the last visit. After much deliberation we decided to go to Oxford. I say we, as Edward has been accompanying me on these trips, but for some reason has so far failed to register on the score sheet. I'm beginning to wonder if he is really trying to put together a string of record blanks! We met in a lay-by to discuss the possibilities of fishing the weir for a change. We eventually decided that with the river being so high we wouldn't be able to reach the weir, as you have to wade across to do so. I had toyed with the idea of bringing my chest waders, but thought that might have meant I would have been expected to carry Edward across the river on my back, like some latter day St Christopher! I didn't fancy the idea of that so donned the thigh waders instead.
I started as usual with a few runs through with the float, trotting a fairly short distance as the light wasn't good enough to see the float much beyond 15 yards. Third run through down it went & I connected with a medium size fish that felt very dacey. I was right too - it was a lovely pigeon-chested dace, and at first glance I thought it might threaten the pound mark on the scales. Not quite, but at 13 ounces, who could be disappointed. That is a cracking dace - a good start. I don't however let an early success here influence my judgement of how the day might turn out. Too often a successful start has failed to materialise into a good day. And so it was. Even though, in the morning at least, conditions were perfect, mild, overcast, no wind, I had to work very hard to get the next bite, a chub of around 2.12 taken on quiver-tipped flake fished upstream. I'd cast to the far bank, in front of the only bank-side bush for some distance. I'd tried it earlier with the float, but hadn't had a bite.
By midday the showers had set in and the wind was up. Heavy and prolonged I believe is how the forecasters describe it, and I kept getting trapped for too long in swims I would normally have only given ten minutes or so. I have said the river was high, but to be honest it wasn't exactly pushing through, and there were many eminently fishable creases and slacks which on other rivers would surely have been full of fish, probably feeding fish too after the recent floods. The words of my mystic friend Kevin kept ringing in my ears - "There is something wrong with the river".
The rain eventually cleared away around 2pm, by which time Edward had retired to his car having discovered that his joy at finding a spare umbrella at home after losing his first one in the river was short-lived, as the replacement leaked like a sieve! I kept at it, moving up and down the river, trying the float or quiver-tip as conditions allowed. In one swim the light quiver-tip trembled in a very fishy fashion a couple of times, but it failed to materialise into a strikable bite. This is a swim where you have to wade into the river & stand by your rod to fish it. It was here I discovered that I was once again suffering from leaky waders. Where's that Aquasure?
I met up with Edward at the swim I had caught the dace from earlier. His record blank was still intact, and to preserve it he had packed his rods away. I decided to fish the quiver-tip just into dark, even though dusk has been an anti-climax here of late. But just as the light had reached the point where the isotope on the rod top began to glow, the tip jerked promisingly, then pulled right round. I hooked a fish that felt like either a roach, or a dace, but almost immediately it came off. I re-cast. The same thing happened again, except this time I didn't get my hook back. Odd - the fish didn't feel that big, though I have in the past been bitten off by big roach here. After some delay, caused by finding both my torches had dead batteries, and during which time Edward retrieved his own torch from the car, I put another bait out. A few minutes later the tip pulled round again, but this time I missed it completely. And that was it - as quickly as the bites had started that ceased. I wonder whether the fish feed later at night, whether man's activities have made them nocturnal in the same way as most land creatures such as foxes, badgers and mice have.
I'm really beginning to wonder about this stretch of river. And it is not just myself and Edward who are struggling here - there were two local anglers on the river that day, anglers with some experience of the river. Both went fish-less, and one also went bite-less. It is costing me a fair bit travelling there, and I could probably have better catches on the Thames within walking distance of my house. But that would be without the roach potential, and whatever I say or feel, I know this enigmatic stretch of river will draw me back again and again. In fact I shouldn't be at all surprised if I am there again next weekend.