In fact, it had a devastating effect - I was unable to visit any of the rivers that I normally fish for roach, as the various authorities forbade access, whether or not there was any livestock in the area. I can understand a need for caution but I have to say that in some cases I consider this reaction to have been a little over the top - I even know of parks with swings in them that have been closed… However, I did still manage to get out fishing, albeit to venues with far less potential than I would have wished. And there would be one saving grace, another go at the grayling, booked for March 14th. At least then I would have a chance of one personal best this season.
I have fished the Thames locally on a few occasions this winter, and have caught roach to nearly a pound, plus some quite big bream and chub. The stretches near to where I live are urban stretches, and as such have remained fishable. So instead of fishing the Hampshire Avon for possible three-pound roach, the first weekend of March found me in a roadside Thames swim. And a rather dead one at that. By midday I hadn't had a bite, and neither had my friend Edward. We moved further up-river, fishing a small swim that I had caught some good carp from some 10 years ago. This is definitely a near bank swim, on the inside of a bend and with very deep water right under your feet. In fact I have caught carp there no more than 6 inches from the bank. But this was at night, in summer. Today we would be grateful for anything. Well, almost anything…. (see later). Within the first half-hour I'd had a few bites on quiver-tipped bread, and lost a reasonable fish, probably a chub or bream. A little later I landed a bream of around 4lbs, then bites dried up completely. But Edward was getting bites every cast on maggots, and kept missing them, often losing the maggots. I had my suspicions about this, and these were confirmed when he landed an eel of about a pound. As he had no real plans to fish again until the last day of the season, it then began to worry him that his last fish of the season might be an eel. It very nearly was too. Just as dusk came on I landed a pretty little half-pound roach. I wonder if these fish ever do get to two pounds?
As I have said, access to all three of my normal river venues was forbidden, so for the next trip, an afternoon only, I returned to the Kennet, fishing a semi-urban stretch in the hope of finding some roach. "They have to be there," my friend had said. I must admit I was dubious. Actually, the original plan for the day (or half day as this was an afternoon excursion) had been to go elsewhere, to fish another river. On the basis of that I had taken my 15-foot rods. It was only when I arrived at my friend's house that he informed me we would be fishing the Kennet. This stretch of river is considerably overgrown, making it quite unsuitable for long rods, and I spent a fair amount of time nervously untangling my delicate quiver-tips from the trees. The first two hours I spent religiously feeding liquidised bread and trotting flake. I didn't have a single bite. Changing the hook bait to bread punch didn't improve things so I switched to the quiver-tip, fishing a small feeder filled with a combination of liquidised bread, crushed hemp and Sensas groundbait, and a hook-bait of bread-flake.
Things remained pretty dead for about half an hour, then the tip twitched encouragingly, knocking twice in quick succession. I hit the second movement, and whatever I'd hooked moved out of the swim and shot off downstream like a rocket, completely destroying my 3lb hook-link. I wonder what that was? I stepped up to 4lbs, which was the strongest I had - remember, I was supposed to be roach fishing! Forty minutes later I had another bite, a huge bite, the rod just wrapping right round. I hooked another good fish, and gingerly began working it upstream towards me. As I got him about half way it felt like I was winning the battle, the worst seemed to be over. But just at that moment the hook pulled out. Hmmmm… I wonder what that was too….?
There have been some big perch caught in this area recently. My friend had come equipped with lobworms in an effort to catch one. He fished the main swim for some time, but it seems the perch weren't there, or weren't feeding. During the late afternoon, after vacating the swim, he was slightly miffed to see another angler move in and almost immediately take a beautiful perch of 3lbs 8oz. The barbel of 4 and 6lbs my friend caught later on were little consolation. However, he did move back to the perch swim at dusk and within minutes had a nice fish of around two pounds. Something about perch and dusk?
March 14th was drawing ever closer. My planned finale was to spend two afternoons fishing wherever I could, then, as already mentioned, the last day fishing for grayling. On the first afternoon I would return to my local stretch of the Thames. I left for work that morning in beautiful weather, mild, sunny, no wind. But the forecast was for heavy rain all afternoon. And I just knew that this precipitation would commence just as I reached the river. It was around 2pm by the time I had collected my gear from home and parked just 20 yards from the swim. The sky was threatening, but as yet the rain hadn't started. I walked to the swim and took out the rods. At that precise instant the heavens opened, and to make matters worse the downpour was accompanied by a cold breeze that blew straight at me.
This is a very difficult area in which to put up an umbrella, the banks being concrete. The fact that the rain was being blown straight at me made things even more difficult. I had to sit and hold the umbrella for the duration of the downpour, which lasted about an hour. However, this bad start was soon forgotten when on the first cast the quiver-tip pulled around and I landed a chubby roach of about 10 ounces. In fact, apart from one further shower lasting about half-an-hour, the rest of the afternoon remained dry. The cold wind however did not give up. It was the coldest wind I could remember all season, and for the first time this winter I put on my over-trousers. I caught two more roach of about half-a-pound, the inevitable bream, two of them actually, between 3 and 5 pounds, a 3-pound plus chub, and, at last, a small perch. I say at last, because despite fishing maggots on several occasions, neither Edward nor I had caught a perch. We found this quite unusual, and not a little worrying. What is also a little disturbing is that I seem to be getting quite good at catching bream!
As dusk gathered I began debating on whether or not to put the beta-lites on the end of the rods. I never want to actually reel in to do this, always saying that I'll do it next cast. But then I forget, and keep forgetting until in the end I have to reel in especially to fit them.
I don't know if it's just me, but I find there is something childishly pleasurable about having a little light at the end of the rod; a similar thing to having a torch to read under the bedclothes when I was very young. There's something about lighting up the dark. I always look forward to the time it gets dark enough for the light to show up. Then there is the debate as to whether to use actual isotopes, or starlites. Certainly the starlites show up better, but then if I'm only fishing for an hour I'm reluctant to use them, and if I do always take them home so the kids can keep them by their beds for the night and share a little in that same juvenile delight I felt on the river bank.
I left the river just after dark, by which time I had been joined by another angler who intended fishing well into dark. Though I didn't recognise him he said he knew me, and it turned out that he was the young lad who used to come and fish a lake where I used to pursue the carp some 15 years ago. At that time he was probably only 8 or 9 years old. Like many small boys he used to turn up to fish with a huge float and hook on 15lb line and wonder why he couldn't catch anything. I remember setting him up with finer tackle and helping him catch some small roach, rudd and perch. Although he wasn't a member of the club that leased the lake, he used to turn up quite regularly to fish. As fishery manager at the time, I didn't object to this - he was doing no harm. Unfortunately the local busybody swan-lover (a long-time frustrated widow - I'm sure you know the sort…) brought about a premature end to those activities - she didn't like the lad, and complained to the club. I had neither seen nor heard of him since, but here he was, all grown up. It was nice to see he was still fishing.
The following afternoon I returned to the Kennet, this time with shorter rods and stronger line. I had in mind two goals. One was to land one of the big fish that had escaped me on my last visit. The other was to catch a big perch. A personal best would be nice, but would have to be something quite special as that currently stands at 3lbs 8oz, twice. I dropped into the perch swim first, a surprisingly small and very tight area of water. If the fish are there you normally get one quite quickly. I don't think they were. After a half-hour and no bites I moved to the swim where the two monsters had eluded me a few days before.
Again I fished a small feeder with a bread-based groundbait, and bread-flake on the hook, this time tied to 5lb hook-link, brand new Super Shinobi, a bit extravagant so late in the season, but hopefully to be worth it. There were a few bits of rubbish coming down the river, and the tip nodded occasionally as they brushed the line. Then it seemed a bigger piece of debris had got caught up as the tip slowly dragged round. I picked the rod up in a sort of enquiring way, really just intending to clear the line, and was surprised to find a fish on the end. At first it fought quite well, but soon gave up. It was a bream of about three pounds, possibly my first ever from the Kennet though I do remember catching a roach/bream hybrid of around two-and-a-half-pounds some years ago.
Knowing that I don't especially like catching bream (though to be fair river bream are a little more exciting than lake bream) my friends think this is all rather hilarious, and are beginning to call me the Bream King! Thinking about the bite, if one were to imagine a typical bream bite then this would be it - no haste, no speed, just a slow lazy pull round, as I already said, exactly like a piece of weed hitting the line. I'm sure you know what I mean.
I returned to the perch swim through the day, giving it ten or twenty minutes each time, and also tried other promising looking areas, but it wasn't until late afternoon that I had another fish. Back in the main perch swim in the late afternoon the lob-worm baited float-tackle suddenly came to life, and after a brief but typically dashing struggle I landed a lovely perch of 1lb10oz. Not one of the monsters, but a beautifully marked fish with bold black stripes. Really big perch are impressive, but so often the stripes are rather faded. This one was perfect. Ten minutes later I landed another, almost a twin of the first, this one weighing 1lb 11oz. I haven't spent much time in pursuit of river perch, most of my perch fishing having been on gravel pits from whence came the 3lb 8oz fish (which I caught twice in 10 minutes!). My best Kennet perch stands at 2lbs 14oz, a fish which I caught after noticing some bow-waving in a slack area around dusk. That seems to be a good time for river perch, though whether that is general I'm not sure.
I didn't mention that I'd had some bad news that morning. The grayling fishery had shut down. Five of us were due to go on the next day, and this put us all in a quandary - where to go on the last day? Geoff solved the problem by buggering off to Florida. Steve went to work, and Andy went pike fishing. That left myself and Edward. I just couldn't think of anywhere, and neither could he. You don't want to end the season on a crap day do you. In the end we decided to return to the Kennet. There really wasn't too much choice. The chance of a personal best grayling had gone, but there were still the perch. I keep mentioning personal bests - I don't want you to think I'm obsessed with them. I just think it is nice if you can push one or two up each season. I have managed to do that in one species or another for as long as I can remember, but of course as the years go on, it does become more difficult. This season has been the first where I haven't bettered at least one best (unless you count personal best Kennet bream?? - a bit dubious that…). Catching a new PB is certainly not the be and end all of my fishing season, but it's nice to do just the same.
Although I had the whole day available on the 14th, I decided to have a fairly leisurely start, and arrived at the river at about 10.30. Any ideas I might have had of wandering about and dunking a lobworm in the various perch swims where soon scuppered by the arrival of three other anglers intending to fish the same small stretch. This restricted me rather, as did the persistent drizzle that began about midday, increased steadily all afternoon and was still falling when it got dark. It wasn't a day to write home about. The perch weren't playing, or nor it seemed was much else.
I had brought a barbel rod with me, and some of my barbel bait, which has been extremely effective wherever I have tried it. There is a proviso here though - it has to be fresh. I haven't fished for barbel for some time now and the bait I dug out of the freezer is at least three years old. Not only that, but being the last bag, I expect it has been in and out of the freezer a few times as well (and I hope my bait baron friend isn't reading this - he will kill me!). The bait had become so de-hydrated that it disintegrated into powder at the slightest touch. It was even difficult to mount on the hair. I did manage a few bites on it, missing two, and landing a chub that might at a push have reached four pounds. Mostly though I wound in after five or ten minutes to find the bait had gone. Whether it was self-destructing, or there were crayfish pinching it I don't know, but save the bites that I missed, nothing much was showing on the quiver-tip.
Just as I was packing up Edward returned from upstream, delighted that he had caught a fish. Not because it was a chub, and not because, at 5lbs 9ozs it was a big chub, but because it meant that his last fish of the season hadn't been an eel!
So ended the season, not one of the best. I hardly fished before November, the summer being dominated once again by my son's cricket. Then came the run up to Christmas, with all the varying conditions that time brings, time during which you are really focussing on the months of January, February and March. But January and February saw the rivers mostly in flood, with thick brown water swirling and boiling everywhere, even in the "Crabtree" back-eddies. Then, just as things did begin to settle, the foot and mouth outbreak curtailed nearly all river fishing, and much of the lake fishing too.
I don't coarse fish in the close season, and anyway, with rumours that the foot and mouth epidemic could well run until next Christmas, there might be very little fishing available for some time. I have hopes of doing some sea fishing, of catching some decent bass for which I might go to Ireland, the shore fishing in this country being so terribly poor. It's a great pity that. I really would like to think I could walk along some almost deserted beach with no more than a small bag and light spinning tackle, casting into the surf here and there and catching a few good fighting fish. I would also like to do some more salmon fishing, though whether that is any longer a practical proposition in this country I'm not sure. Maybe I'll try North America. I am getting to the stage in my life where I am beginning to count the things I might never do. I want to make sure that I do at least a few of them. As my old friend Vic Gillings said to me after he returned from a fishing trip to Gambia - "you should go - you are a long time dead". Vic was only 50 when he died the very next year….
Alan Tomkins - March 2001