I'm always looking forward to fishing after Christmas, but this is tempered by the fact that by then I only have about 10 weeks of the season left. Generally, being mostly restricted to weekends, that means ten days fishing, and if you consider that on average, for the weekend angler, conditions are only likely to be right for roach for one Saturday in ten, you can see why fishing for these enigmatic fish can be so difficult.
December hadn't been a great success. Quite a few roach were caught, but the really big ones were absent. I had been unable to fish at Oxford as the river remained in the fields through most of the month. M's river was up and down, rising and falling very quickly, producing quite a few fish, but few above a pound and a half. I was hoping for better things in January.
I did fish a little around Christmas and the New Year, but due to a combination of commitments and bad weather, I mostly stayed local, fishing the Thames in the Windsor area, in freezing conditions. The first trip to a fancied swim showed some promise. I fished with Edward, and we had quite a few bites on the quiver-tips, though many of them didn't develop properly, stopping after a few short sharp twitches and jabs. The area we were fishing had many conflicting currents, currents that seemed to change by the hour - you had to keep an eye on it. We didn't start until around midday and this being a casual reconnaissance trip, it was without high expectations. More a case of getting some fresh air. But we were quite surprised to find ourselves getting bites, though we weren't too successful at hooking them. I caught two bream of around 4lbs during the afternoon, while Edward had the same 3.5 chub twice. Then as dusk fell I landed a roach, not a big one, but at fourteen ounces big enough to keep my interest in the area alive.
I went back a few days later, taking my two young sons with me. The river had risen by almost a foot, and the ground rung hard with frost. Once again that deadly combination of dropping water temperature, and a muddy river. We blanked. On the third trip the river had come up even further, though the weather was a little milder.
Edward and I kept getting flurries of bites, usually within a short time after casting, but they wouldn't develop enough to strike. But at least we landed our first fish of the New Year. We caught a gudgeon apiece, and oddly neither of us had seen the bite, but were just reeling in to check the bait. I'm not sure if it was the same fish. At dusk I landed a roach of about ten ounces. They are there, and I will return.
I had just one more trip over the holiday period, to the stretch of the Thames near to my house. My friend Andy joined me for a few hours, bringing with him his four-month old daughter, wrapped up in various baby-grows, and huddled in the depths of a pushchair. You have to be pretty keen to fish this area at all, but to bring a four-month old baby complete with feeding bottles, dummies and nappies when there is three inches of snow on the ground takes some beating!
I did catch a roach, a plump little fellow of about half-a-pound, which as usual I returned immediately, much to the chagrin of a pike angler who sat blanking further along the river, desperately trying to catch some live-bait. The only other thing of note was the visit of a ruddy duck (no, really, they are called that, it wasn't a tufty!) to the swim. Odd looking immigrant birds with blue beaks. They make a really strange noise too.
The cold weather continued through the weekend, and as the Thames had dropped a little it seemed like the ideal opportunity to go up to Oxford and fish Edward's stretch of the Thames for pike. There are some big fish there too. Three of us set out shortly after first light and spread ourselves along the bank of a small side-stream not far from the main river. Stuart immediately visited both mine and Edward's swim, on the scrounge. He had come with neither bait nor traces. In fact he had even forgotten his coat and I had to lend him a one-piece suit.
It was a bit obvious then who would get the first fish. And so it was, as after about an hour a jack of a few pounds snaffled Stuart's borrowed sardine. The landing was somewhat traumatic as Edward's landing net broke in the process, and a disproportionate amount of chaos surrounded the eventual capture of a three pound pike.
We worked hard for fish that day, but despite our efforts, caught very little. Stuart had another jack (I won't tell everyone it actually came off before you got it on the bank Stuart ;-) ), and Edward too had a small one of about four pounds. I had two runs, bumped fish on striking but failed to connect. Unusual on sardines, and I suspect they too were small pike. Never mind, conditions weren't perfect. We will perhaps try again when they are.
For three years now I have bought a ticket for a stretch of the Hampshire Avon, and not fished it. It does produce good roach, but the pull of the Oxford river had kept me away. Matthew's river had been another distraction, but with the Oxford river too high, and Matthew's river not high enough it seemed a good time to try the Avon. Four of us went, converging on the river in three cars and from various parts of the country. The whole trip down was a disaster. The journey takes no more than an hour-and-a-half, even with a breakfast stop. It took us two-and-a-half hours! The café we were due to meet up at was about 20 miles away from where we were told it was, and on a totally different road. We missed it completely, ending up in a Little Chef. Not that I regret that - their breakfasts have come on apace and I had a superb fried breakfast that set me up for the day. I never even finished my sandwiches, and they are usually gone by midday!
Billy was late for the meet, but thanks to the wonders of the mobile phone we were able to tell him where we were. Back on the road, he decided to shoot off ahead. Not a great idea as he was the only one who knew the way. So we got lost, and took about a half-hour getting back on track.
I'd hoped to be fishing by 9a.m. but in the event it was nearer 11a.m. before my float sailed out. It was nice to be back on the Avon, but this stretch has always been fairly difficult, and today was to be no exception. Apparently it had hardly produced a fish that week, and that despite the regular presence of a local expert named Fred the Bread. I wasn't too bothered. I was there as much to re-acquaint myself with the river as to catch fish. I decided that one half-decent roach would make my day. When asked what size that should be, I replied "Around 1.12".
We tried various swims, which looked like they should hold fish, but either didn't, or the fish weren't hungry. I wandered off to the top of the river with my float rod and after trying a few swims had my first bite of the day. The fish felt quite big - a chub maybe. But then I saw the red fins. It looked very big, around two pounds I thought. But it must have been the water playing tricks on me - it went 1.10.5. I was not at all disappointed in that though, a nice roach, and I think my first Avon roach since the early seventies. It was unfortunately my last on that day, but I hope there will be more to come. As always in winter, the day went too quickly - there is so much water to cover here. I fished here and there, landing just one dace of eight or nine ounces, again on the float. I had planned to fish the swim where I caught the dace with the quiver-tip at dusk, but there was so much weed coming down it made it impossible to keep the bait out. A bit strange that I thought. After all the floods we have had I thought the weed would be gone by now.
We met up in the car park just after dark. Geoff had already gone having caught two small roach and a small chub. Billy caught a chub covered in spots, and Stuart had a jack on one of Geoff's roach. Not a great bag, but certainly not a wasted day. It has renewed my enthusiasm for this river, and I will definitely be spending more time there from now on. It has the potential to produce very big roach indeed. Five years ago, a friend caught one of three pounds seven ounces! It is hard, but no harder than the Oxford river. The difference is that on the Oxford river possibly the best you can hope for is a roach of just over two pounds. Here there be monsters!
I returned to the Avon the following week. I might have guessed it would be one of those days when the shoulder strap on my bag broke as I climbed over the fishery gate, but it was a while before other things started to go wrong. The river was higher than it had been the previous week, which wasn't good, and in many places the banks were like a quagmire. I'm very much learning this stretch and to find boot marks and rod rest holes on the bank in the areas that I think should hold fish is comforting. I tried quiver-tipping in two swims that had a crease about five yards out, and slackish water near the bank. They should have held fish, but if they did, they weren't interested in my bread flake.
I dropped downstream and switched to the float, hooking a fish within a few casts. It didn't feel like a roach, the thuds on the rod top were too dull. It had to be a chub, but didn't feel that big. Despite that, it gave a good fight. It weighed about two-and-a-half pounds. I was puzzled by occasional sharp dips of the float, which looked like very fast bites. I didn't think it was the hook catching on the bottom as it didn't happen on every run through, and didn't always happen in the same place. If it was fish, I couldn't hook them. I felt a bit embarrassed and was glad no-one was watching. I even began to worry about advancing years slowing down my reactions. I only solved the riddle when I switched to the quiver-tip, and after a few trembles on the tip eventually foul-hooked a tiny minnow. So it had been minnows I was missing - that made me feel much better!
Again I moved downstream and settled into a swim reputed to have produced a three-pound roach within the past month or so. I put out one rod, quiver-tipped bread-flake fished with a small feeder. The first bite came quite quickly, caught me unawares, and I missed it. The second bite came as I was pouring a cup of tea from my flask. Missed again. The third time I was ready, struck a very roachy looking bite and retrieved my end tackle minus the hook.
Being unable to find a replacement for my beloved Gamakatsu 6318 eyed hooks I have, somewhat reluctantly, switched to spade ends. It seems all the best fine wire patterns are only made in spade ends these days. I have always had reservations about the actual spade cutting through fine lines, and yes I am aware the line should come from beneath the spade, and am careful to do that. Maybe the line did cut, I'll never know, but as I have a tiny shot positioned a couple of inches from the hook when I am fishing flake in a flow, I was able to tell the line had gone right at the knot.
I sat in the swim for another half-hour, but it seemed the loss of the fish had spooked the area completely. I moved on, planning to return later. This is where things did start to go wrong. You know the kind of thing; when you pick out one split shot from a tin, put the tin away in the depths of your bag, then find you've picked the only shot out of hundreds that doesn't have a split in it. Or you tie on a new hooklink, and instead of cutting off the spare end, you cut through the actual hook-link and have to tie it all over again. Or in attempting to pass your line through the eye of the hook twice (a two-turn knot), you in fact put it through once, then back out again, so when you let go of the hook to complete the knot, thinking it is attached to your line, it drops into the grass never to be seen again. And why is it that when you put down a rod holdall, no matter how careful you are, that when you want to take the rod-rests from the outside pocket, they are always underneath? Or is it only me these things happen to?
This swim was a far bank swim, immediately giving me a problem with my light quiver-tip rod. It's a compromise really, for while this rod is fine in a moderate flow, in fact most flows where roach live, when casting right across the current to a far bank slack it is pulled right round by the flow in midstream. I suppose I should carry a stiffer rod for these swims, or at least change to a stiffer tip, but how many of you actually do that when you are only spending a short time in each swim? You don't, do you? You make do. And anyway, in some swims you'd need a carp rod if you wanted it to remain straight. I suppose the best way to go about it is to leger upstream, but in some swims you can't do that. Err actually, I could have. Hmmm… why didn't I think of that then?!
The first cast dropped perfectly, just a yard from the far bank. It had only been out there for a few minutes when the top started knocking violently. I hooked a fish, which kited across the current, then came off. It wasn't on long enough for me to judge what it might have been, though it didn't feel big.
Next cast I misjudged and ended up with my hook in a bush on the far bank. I managed to do this three times, each time losing the hook. Not good fishing. When I did get it into the right place, I wasn't able to keep it there for long as there was quite a bit of weed coming down on the current. Unnoticed by me, one of these pieces of weed wrapped around the rod tip. This jammed the line, and when I tried to wind in, the tip folded over and snapped. That was enough for me, I moved to a near bank swim. But things went really quiet after that - I didn't get another bite, despite staying on into dark.
Dusk was once again an anti-climax. Just to round the day off nicely, as I was packing up I dropped the rod, only onto soft grass, but somehow the beta-lite fixed onto the quiver-tip smashed. It must have hit the only stone for miles. And the day didn't quite end there either. Trying an alternative route on the way home I became totally lost, and managed to turn what should have been a seventy-five mile trip into a hundred-and-twenty miles…
I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go for my next trip. Matthew's river was too low, the Avon would be higher than the previous week, and the Oxford river has been virtually unfishable since November. Then a friend mentioned he was going to fish the Ouse for barbel, but that the stretch was reputed to hold some good roach. In fact, the club handbook told me that roach were the predominant species. No really big ones apparently, but plenty around a pound, and up to almost two pounds. That would do me. Reports were of a lowish clear river. That didn't sound too bad - I would spend the day trotting, picking up roach here and there. It all sounded very pleasant - I liked the sound of it. But on arrival just after dawn on Saturday morning, I certainly didn't like the look of it.
Heavy overnight rain and snow had combined to put the river up two feet or more, and to drop the water temperature to thirty-seven degrees. It was very muddy, and visibility was virtually nil; the sort of conditions where nothing will feed, except maybe the anglers. There were about ten of us on the river, and eight of us never had a bite. I was one of them. John had persistent bites on lobworm (though oddly maggots were ignored) and couldn't hook the culprits. Minnows or other tiny fish were suspected. Stuart managed a three-inch roach on a lobworm tail. I just made offerings to the riverbed all day, losing nine feeders. The problem was, having never been there before, it was hard to tell where the river actually was. Casts into smooth slow flowing areas generally resulted in you not being able to retrieve your tackle when you went to re-bait.
I have mentioned before how time flies on a fishing day. There is an exception to that. When you know you are wasting your time, then time can pass very slowly indeed. Today was one of those days. I think I also said, though I might have been quoting someone else at the time, that time spent on the riverbank is never wasted. Well I think on this day I would have been wrong! It was that bad that by midday, most people had gone, and by three p.m., the rest of us were in the pub. As I write the rivers are still in flood and highly coloured. Good for barbel. But we also have a high-pressure system, bright sunny days followed by sharp temperature-dropping overnight frosts. I think it's going to be a struggle for a while…
Alan Tomkins - January 2001