I always used to wait until after the first hard frosts had hit and the weed growth had started to die back before embarking on my first trip. There's some good piking to be had on most stretches of the Kennet and for a decade or so from the mid-eighties I enjoyed some great sport presenting a range of legered dead-baits - such as smelt, sprats and occasionally sardines. But that was before the Crayfish.
I caught my first decent sized Pike in December 1981. On the coldest day of the year - the temperature REACHED -6ø C that day - and after heavy snow, I had a day's plugging on the river at Padworth. To add to the ideal conditions (NOT!!) the river was also well up - I would be mad to even contemplate going in such conditions today but in those days I wasn't mobile and when my Mum offered to drop me off for the day and pick me up at night fall I jumped at the chance.
In bright sunshine and in a northerly wind of the type I once heard a Yorkshire sheep farmer describe as 'lazy' coz 'it goes right through you', fishing was a constant battle against the elements. The rod rings froze every couple of casts and I was thankful that most of the swims had me facing south with my back to the wind. My only take of the day was fishing the most unlikely of swims (at normal levels), a flooded cattle drink which under normal circumstances would have been inches deep but in flood conditions was over a couple of feet. And in it was laid up my pike.
Time has blurred memories of the battle but I remember it being quite a while before I even saw what had snaffled my plug. Once I got it to the surface I realised I'd come hopelessly under-prepared net-wise; it was just far too small so I had to land the fish by hand. My fingerless gloves froze solid the instant I took them out of the water. I quickly realised, also, that it was imperative to get the fish back as soon as possible as the sheen on its flanks was beginning to dull as water turned to ice. At 12lb 14oz it was easily more than double my P/B at the time and really opened my eyes to the potential of piking this part of the river.
For the rest of the decade I returned regularly in the winter months to this stretch of the Kennet and was soon catching Pike in numbers. It wasn't unusual to catch half a dozen in a session and it wasn't long before I was introducing Paul to this bit of water. In those early days we hardly saw another angler (and rarely anyone piking) despite it being a Reading club water and we had the feeling of having 'discovered' a venue.
My P/B quickly went up in 2lb leaps to 14, 16 and eventually 18lb and it became a venue where you could practically bank on a low to mid-double. I would take friends and relatives there with the promise of pike. My younger brother, who hadn't fished for over a decade, caught 6 including 2 x 13lbers. On another day Paul and I had 5 mid-doubles between us in a session when we had 10 on the bank in total, and all this in only half a mile of river. But that was before the crayfish.
In December 1994 I caught my first crayfish here, the following year their numbers had reached 'plague' proportions on this part of the river. Wherever you cast, within 5 minutes there was the familiar tap-tap-tap as crayfish got to work on your dead-bait. Reeling in slowly usually revealed a mass of nippers attached to your bait - I think the most I ever had was six. Almost piranha-like, they would strip a bait to the bone in minutes. The American Signal Crayfish had arrived!
In the last couple of years this insidious creature has infested the whole river. There is nowhere I now fish where I'm not affected by their presence. Originally stocked by trout farms to keep the bottoms of stew ponds clean of dead fish, once escaped into the river systems, they have spread at an alarming rate. The damage they are likely to do to fish stocks (they could consume prodigious quantities of fish eggs) can only be guessed at. Last year, I heard that the first attempts were made to 'manage their numbers'. A licence has been granted to harvest them around the Kintbury area and I hear they are being collected at the rate of over 4000 per month from just a small stretch of the river system. The mind boggles at how many there must be in total along the entire length of the river, and how futile a removal programme is likely to be.
Some anglers reckon that the chub and barbel in the Kennet have been getting bigger and many have linked this to the spread of the crays. Whilst they are undoubtedly predating on this new food source (I caught a 4 pound chub last year which sicked up part of small claw) I believe that damage is being done further down the food chain. Silver fish in the lower Kennet appear to be in the decline and unless this can be reversed there will be no fish 'coming through' to replace the mature stocks.
This spread of crayfish has all but put a stop to my dead baiting days on the river and as a lot of the waters I now fish ban live-baiting I catch a lot fewer Kennet pike than I used to. Last year someone suggested trout as a dead-bait as they resisted the attentions of crayfish better. Not a bit of it! The only thing on a trout a cray can't consume quickly is its head. In just over an hour I got through a whole packet of dead-baits reeling in nothing but eyeless trout heads time after time.
This winter - more for 'old times sake' than any thing else - I've decided to have a more concerted piking campaign on the river.
This November has been notable for heavy rains and flooded rivers though I did manage to squeeze in a final night barbel trip before the floods got too bad. Fishing a coloured river, I had an 8lb 6oz fish on the bank within 5 minutes of arriving at the water! Alas, that was my only barbel of the session though I had a couple of good chub. The first, my best of the year at 5lb 2oz, the second just half a pound or so lighter before the onset of more heavy rain prompted an 'early' bed time!
That heavy rain was the start of a real deluge - many places in the south received a months worth of rain in the next 24 hours yet the following week we suffered from too little water - let me explain.
Paul and I know of a spot below Newbury which is an absolute pearler in flood conditions. At the point where a carrier joins the main river a large eddy appears. This is big enough to accommodate two anglers and the water is a flat calm compared to the rest of the Kennet racing by. However this eddy only appears at the top of the flood and as it is the only bit of slack water for hundreds of yards up and downstream it is usually stuffed with fish. In the past we've had good chub, bream, perch, roach and pike out when the rest of the river is completely unfishable.
The date had been pencilled in for some time though we'd agree to leave it till nearer the day to decide where to go. The prospect of a flooded river decided us on this swim though we were worried that it might be too flooded! Imagine our disappointment at arriving at the bank to find the river only a little above summer levels, very coloured and definitely no sign of our slack. Very mystifying and the worst of all worlds!
Not surprisingly, the fishing was a bit of a struggle. Paul had a 2lb chub on his first cast, followed quickly by a small roach. I had about dozen small roach plus a couple around the pound mark but after the first hour everything went 'dead' and by lunch time we had packed up and switched to a nearby lake. So for my 2nd trip in a row to this part of the Kennet, I've left pondering the same 2 mysteries - Why was the water level so low? & Where have all the dace gone?
The last weekend of the month saw me back at Padworth for the first time in 7 seasons with a packet of dead-baits for some piking. The place had a neglected 'air' about it - with fallen trees, broken fences and the debris of the recent floods scattered across the fields. Now I know I've given the impression through my articles this season that the Kennet is littered with fallen trees and whilst this is patently not the case they do appear to have come down where I want to fish! Sure enough, on arriving at the bank I found 2 of the 3 'bend' swims which were practically 'bankers' for pike a decade ago unfishable for this very reason.
Still, the rest of the water looked very pikey and as I a lowered a smelt into one of the many slacks I felt sure I must be putting it right on a pike's nose and that it wouldn't be long before I'd be hauling in my first fish. Alas it wasn't to be, I tried half a dozen likely spots but all I turned up were the pessky crayfish. By now it was raining hard with a driving wind and I was beginning to think that 'I'll be glad when I'm fed up with this(!)' when I was hit in the face by a wind blown twig from a nearby willow. That decided me! Worried that one of the, still standing, trees might have my name on it, I was packed up in 10 minutes and scurrying, ruefully, back to the car.