For quite a few years now, the staple rig for a UK catfish angler travelling abroad to fish the continental rivers has been the 'bottle rig,' otherwise known as the 'buoy method'.
There is no doubt at all that this is a red-hot method of presenting a bait. In fact, for a long time I thought it was probably the only method which could safely be used for bivvy-on-the-bank fishing, especially when using a large livebait. (For 'large' read 2lb plus). The down-side to the bottle-rig is the huge amount of fuss and nonsense needed to get the rig out there in the first place.
You need a boat, and a mate holding the rod and a load of stamina. The first two I can manage, but even after giving up smoking, at age 50 the last element is now in short supply. I wanted an alternative to the bottle rig, a rig I could 'cast-out' easily and alone at 3am after striking and breaking off the weak-link (again) after yet another aborted take. That surely is the biggest pain when using bottle rigs - it's a once-a-night rig deployment method. Miss a take on it, or even a desire to change your bait, and you are stuffed - at least until daylight, when you can re-present your rig. Only a lunatic with a death-wish would entertain the idea of re-setting a bottle rig in the pitch black on a river as dangerous as the Lower Ebro for instance.
My latest trip to the Ebro gave me cause to re-think my preconceptions about bottle rigs being the 'only' method - and it laid the foundation stones for a serious alternative at last. Last week I fished for the first time with a planer, or 'otter' board on the Ebro. Although I'm still in the early stages of playing with it, it's obvious that the method has a lot to offer and I can already foresee a dozen variations on the method, other than the way in which I have been using it.
I first became interested in planer boards about 6 years ago when I held some interesting email chats with Eric Edwards about them. Neither of us had used them at the time but both of us saw the potential in different areas of predator angling.
I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself here - first of all, what is a planer board? Well, for those of you who don't know, it's best thought of as a water kite. A floating board that you can 'fly' though the water, sideways on. The water pressure hitting the angled board on it's inside face provides the 'lift' and forces it away from the user, in just the same manner as a kite acts in the air. But it's wet, if you see what I mean! Never mind, the principle works, and it's been around for ages.
I first found references to 'otter-boards' in old 18th and 19th century writings, where riparian owners in Ireland were complaining about local poachers using them on the giant Loughs to nick the odd trout or 50. The poachers would launch these 4ft boards and walk down the shoreline, adding a hooklength with a spinner or whatever, for every ten foot of line they let out. A very efficient fish-catching machine, picking off fish 100 yards distant.
The problem became so intense that, I believe, a law was passed stating that to even be in possession of an otter-board constituted an offence. I'm pretty sure that law is still in place, falling in under the 'fixed engines' bit, which still today, it could be argued, makes even a rod-rest illegal. Whatever, these days you are as unlikely to have a problem with the legality of an otter-board as you are with owing a rod-pod.
As I delved further into the planer-board research (sounds impressive eh?) I spoke with a couple of guys who had worked on trawlers - and guess what method they use to spread the mouths of their nets? Yep, Otter boards.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the pond, the Septics had been busy. The freshwater boat-fishing scene in the States has been using planer-boards for decades, allowing an angler to run up to 6 planer-boards on either side of the boat to fish a wide spread of lures - though God knows what he'd do if he had 12 hook-ups at the same time! Commercial boards are sold for just this purpose, and 5 years ago I asked Pat Kerwin in the States to buy me one and send it over. Good man that he is, he did just that, and I still owe him $20.
The Sideliner Planer-board duly arrived and I fiddled with it. Picked it up. Put it down. Scratched my head. And rejected it. I thought it would be too light for the purpose I had in mind. I wanted something which could 'fly' out from a static bankside position in a stiff flow, and would be able to hold a 2lb river-carp baitfish in place whilst I put the rod on a tripod. Naturally this little piece of plastic would be insufficient. A planer board to do the job I wanted it to do would have to be 2ft long and an inch thick. Impractical perhaps. I wasn't sure. So I built one out of wood and, with Jim Hicky shouting abuse, tried it out on the Thames.
It was a joke. Forget it.
Then, three weeks ago, and 5 years later, an article from Eric Edwards arrived in my inbox. Eric had also acquired a planer board and had been using it to troll the far bank of his local canal in search of pike. In his photo's, the planer was towing his float, and the float was taking the weight of the bait. Eh? Say it again The float was supporting the bait, the planer was just positioning it! Obvious, in retrospect perhaps, but I hadn't thought of it.
Last week I fished the Ebro delta with Ian Wakeford and Gordy Howes in Derek Curzon's new boat. As usual, when I explained what I was up to with the Sideliner, I was the butt of the joke. The lads hooted with laughter at "Maynard's latest nutty idea". Okay, so I have had a few dodgy ones (!) but, after I demonstrated what the planer can do, their initial scepticism was soon replaced by intense interest.
Fishing from a static position (a moored boat, though it could as easily be managed from the bank) I managed to present a 2lb mullet at least 50 yards from the bank, 100yards downstream, in a flow equal to that of the Thames at Waterloo Bridge.
The rod was left alone, able to fish itself. Any takes on it would be as easy (or as difficult) to register as with a bottle rig. The bait can be changed for a fresh one at any time with minimum disruption and little stamina is needed to fish the method. Probably the only drawback is that a half-way decent flow of water is needed to launch the board - you can't really fish an eddy or a slackwater swim with it.
A serious alternative to the bottle-rig has arrived at last.
Were the boys impressed? Well, a large US mail-order house has four more boards en-route the UK as I write. Only one of them is for me.
Give it a go, you'll like it. And, cheers, I'll have a Bud!
Note. More reading: Eric Edwards article on planer-boards for pike-trolling on canals can be found here.