Friday, 17 March 2017

Somerset Levels - Closing Time

It seemed a shame to completely waste the leftover bait from the Wye, so I took it down to the local river on Sunday evening, to see whether I could locate some more chub. It was a humid day and, whilst the river had risen a good foot or more since my last visit, it was no more coloured.

Of course, I started where I had caught the chub previously, however a 4oz roach was responsible for my only bite in half an hour there. I decided to take a long walk downstream but found little to encourage me at first. That was until I turned around to walk back and heard a loud crash in the river behind me. My immediate thought was that a salmon might be responsible, but the fish then jumped three more times, revealing itself as a fat, golden carp, of decent size.

I had a few trots, on the off-chance it was accompanied by a few big chub, but gave up pretty quickly and made my way back upriver. I stopped upstream of a tree on my own bank, which seemed as likely as anywhere to hold my target species. The flow was steady and it looked a chub-or-bust kind of swim; however, I was soon into a steady succession of roach. With time running away from me, I upped the loosefeed considerably, to try and make something happen. The roach faded away and when a bite eventually came, the rod hooped over and a heavy, ponderous fish moved into mid-river. I thought at first that it might be a huge chub, as I didn't really expect to hook anything else of size on a stick float, but as the fight went on, I drew the logical and correct conclusion. It was a large, bronze bream - 4lb 10oz - and was swiftly followed by another one, just a bit smaller.

I was out of time after that brace so, with plenty of bait still left over, I threw in around two pints of maggots before leaving. The next day, I returned for another very short session, but this time with a bomb rod and some worms I'd dug from the garden. I had roach, chublets and two more bream from the previous days swim. I also took a walk to where I'd seen the carp and cast in a lobworm. The tip was bouncing around all over the place as a result of fish brushing the line. As the night drew in, large bream began rolling. There must have been hundreds there, but I never caught one, in twenty minutes or so of trying. I'm looking forward to targeting them next season, when there is more time.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Wye Barbel - Barbless

I had much to mull over on the drive home from South Wales today after my second visit to the awe-inspiring Wye Valley. The kit required, both in terms of larger items like rods and banksticks, as well as the business end of rigs, is the sort of stuff I just wouldn't need to possess for my local fishing in Somerset and Devon. But after spending most of the day on the banks of the Wye and picking the brains of Ben Hennessy - a man with something like a hundred Wye barbel to his name - I have a good idea of what to expect and how I'll prepare for a return visit (hopefully) in the summer.

Barbel are not the most reliable feeders during the winter months, but the recent mild conditions were sufficient to lift Ben's optimism enough for him to persuade me to join him for a full day session. Well, I didn't need too much persuading, really. We shared a swim, employing heavy feeders packed with groundbait and maggots on one rod, and a secondary rod offering a large hookbait such as a lobworm or piece of luncheon meat.

Ben was first to catch after building the downstream area of our shared swim for an hour or so; a 4lb+ barbel offering encouragement to us both. The perfect host, he then insisted that I take the downstream swim in case more were in the area. A little while later I missed a thumping bite, having been too sidetracked nattering. The rods were very quiet then for the remainder of the day and we pondered moving several times. In the end, it was a tough session for most on the river, with catches of 1 or 2 barbel as good as it got for the eight or nine anglers seeking one final rush before the curtain closes on another season. I got something approaching that on two occasions as the secondary rod tore off - once on meat, the other time to a whole lobworm - however, the result was an unintentional, albeit still welcome, chub of around three pounds, on each occasion.

What a stunning setting though.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Canal Rudd - Blown Away

Often, the sort of fishing I want to do and the sort of fishing I think I should be doing are not compatible and, all too often, I submit to the latter. The driving force is usually a desire for a big fish or, on an annual basis, the impending closed season. Being the last day of a three week break from work before I started a new job, I put all that aside and went fishing for the sheer fun of it on Sunday, even if it meant enduring a real battering from the wind and heavy showers.

I've missed the joy of a regularly dipping float and the satisfaction that comes with building a single swim over the course of several hours. Truth be told, I'm also hearing the familiar but unidentifiable (to me at least) calls of the birds I associate with spring, and I'm gagging for it to begin in earnest.

A seat and a keepnet ensured that I'd be pinned to the same spot on the canal for the afternoon. I set up a 1g Drake crow quill waggler - a float which I rate for whip fishing in a range of sizes, but which I'd never previously rigged up on running line - and tied a size 18 Drennan Super Carbon Maggot hook to 2lb line at the business end. I started out with the float locked by a couple of number 1 shot, a small bulk and two droppers. The colour of the canal was just as I like it for bread fishing with the bottom visible in the margins and the track a tea green.

Small roach and rudd bit freely for an hour or so, but the strengthening wind made presentation very difficult. The locking shot were removed and replaced with a couple of number eights, with the residual shotting capacity then being added to the bulk. The result was some positive bites. I would cast across the canal and slightly downwind before sinking the line. The float would lie cocked at a 1 o'clock position with the antenna protruding several inches, before slowly submerging and then flying back out of the water again as the fish intercepted the hook bait.

The wind then dropped and the surface became still. It was the eye of the storm. Within minutes, I was rushing to stuff my least water resistant items into the bushes and under as much cover as possible. As I did so, my chair nearly took off and the keepnet was thrashing in the margins. With everything zipped up tight, I sat back down in the shallow puddle which had formed in my chair and cast again. This time the heavy bulk shot told and the float came to rest with half an inch visible. A slight lift and soon the bristle was steadily cutting through the ripple as it moved from right to left.

I had no reason to suspect a better fish but, on setting the hook, the resistance was much greater than that which had been provided by the 1-3oz culprits I'd managed until then. The fish made for the reeds to my left and I could see it was a good rudd. Tightening the clutch, I managed to just keep it at a safe distance, but was unable to force it to the surface on such a light hooklength. After several more dashes for the inside, I regained enough line to ease it into the landing net. I didn't do much rudd fishing last year so the sight of a decent fish was refreshing, after they'd started to become a bit too familiar the previous summer, to be truly appreciated.

Back out again and the float wouldn't settle. My strike this time saw me connected to something even heavier, although it was difficult to feel everything that was happening with the force of wind also pressing against the blank. The fight was nowhere near as splashy, with the fish staying deep and making a series of powerful runs, peeling line off the clutch and persuading me out of the comfort of my seat as it headed up the canal. I wanted to ensure that I would not have to reclaim too much line at an awkward angle and, mindful of the vegetation extending from my bank, I knew that having to try and drag the fish away from it on 2lb line might be fatal.

The fish threatened to rise three or four times, but on each occasion I could not catch a glimpse of it. Then it rolled mid-canal. The thickness of it was evident from that brief sighting and I started to not so much talk to myself as contract Tourette's. Here was a big rudd, attached by the lightest hook/line combination I would ever dare use on this canal in a pleasure session. Still the fish wouldn't yield and the fact that the force of the wind against the rod was greater than the fish at the end of it was unsettling.

I had never played a rudd for so long and never battled a specimen fish of any kind in such atrocious conditions. After what seemed like hours, the fish came to the top and I was able to keep it there at last, but the journey from where it had risen to where I had the net waiting was a fraught one, as it did not skim toward me on its side as I would have liked, instead I had to tease it upright through the water where it seemed that at any moment it would turn and run again. But it never did, and the tackle held firm as I lifted the frame of the net through the water, enveloping the rudd in the mesh.

I had no doubts that the rudd was well over two pounds, however, my scales were at home, having somehow fallen out of my bag before I left. Fortunately, Beth was able to locate them and bring them out to me. I took out the first big rudd and weighed it. It had been dwarfed by the second fish in the bottom of the keepnet, yet still registered 1lb 10oz on the digital scales. I thought about a quick picture, but it seemed relatively unimportant compared to the greater fish, and I was desperate to see just how heavy that one was.

Although the rain had lightened to a drizzle, the wind was still fierce and we had to huddle around the sling and shelter in the lee of a large bush to maintain the integrity of the weighing process. The pounds column did not even flicker - the fish was a solid "two" - but the ounces column took a moment to settle. "Two pounds..."

"...ten ounces."

I didn't carry on after that.

Friday, 3 March 2017

How to... Catch Your First Zander

Zander; the enigmatic, Marmite species of our waterways. Maligned and revered in equal measure, I once read an article in Match Fishing magazine, where the author referred to them as "vermin". For other anglers, however, the zander provides unrivalled levels of fascination and intrigue. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, unless you catch one, you are unlikely to ever see one in the flesh, for they hide in murky waters and seldom make their presence known.

For those of us who live in the Westcountry, hitting the M5 is essential if you want to catch yourself a zed. The Gloucester Canal and the Severn may contain the real brutes, but for almost guaranteed success, I can recommend nowhere more highly than the Midland canal network, where this species has thrived and multiple catches are not just a possibility but actually very likely.

A lot of nonsense has been written about the zander over the years, ever since the days when it was considered a hybrid of pike and perch. Lure fishing was once considered a non-starter, yet today it accounts for eye-watering numbers of zander. Indeed, the erstwhile pike-perch is the very backbone of much of the canal fishing offered by the Warwickshire-based Lure Anglers Canal Club.

Mick Newey shows what is possible from the Midland canal
network, with this 7lb-plus specimen. You can expect the average
capture to weigh much less however, and a zander of more
than five pounds would require no shortage of luck and a good
dose of local knowledge to track down.
Whilst those old wives' tales are now widely accepted as fallacies, the zander still has attached to it the misconception that it is a pernickety feeder; resistance-shy and only willing to accept the freshest of baits. My own experiences, and those of my angling pals in the Midlands, suggests otherwise, at least in relation to those fish which inhabit the canals in those parts. I have heard stories of days when zander have been caught on the mankiest pieces of old fish. Idler Jeff Hatt even boasts of having caught zander on deadbaits which have been used (yes; cast into the cut), refrozen, and then used again, whilst half of my own captures have taken a liking to fish baits caught half a week previous, which were simply kept in the boot of my car.

But what of the tackle required to fish for zander? Ledgering certainly works, however my own approach is to use a pair of Avon rods and a couple of overshotted loafer floats taking eight grams of shot, attached bottom-end only. The float is fixed to a monofilament mainline of 10lb breaking strain, between a couple of 2SSGs. The mainline is then tied to a swivel, which is attached to a 12lb wire trace of around 12" in length. Immediately above the swivel is a third 2SSG shot, which would be enough to submerge the float. The depth should therefore be set such that the final shot is laying no more than a couple of inches on the bottom, so that the float is visible.

The key components of my zander float rig
Zander tend to pick up a bait and move off with it quickly. It is not difficult to imagine the sequence of events playing out between the biter and his shoal mates as the float zips off in different directions before sliding under. The Benny Hill theme tune would be a fitting accompaniment. A bite which sees the float submerge purposefully and without diverting its course provides even greater excitement, for it is characteristic of a much better fish.

I have yet to mention hook selection, and this is because the choice of hook is the most contentious issue in a zander set-up. This fish has an exceptionally hard and bony jaw which is difficult to penetrate with the point of any hook. We must therefore seek to position the point of the hook in the most fleshy area of the mouth prior to striking - the "scissors'. In my mind, there is only one way to do this, and that is by using a circle hook.

To set a circle hook, an angler does not "strike" in the traditional sense, but merely points the rod at the fish and steadily takes up the slack until resistance is felt. This ensures that the hook is pulled to the front of the mouth (the in-turned point prevents it from catching before then), prior to it rolling around the jaw and finding purchase as the fish turns away. The behaviour of a feeding zander and the visible aspect of float fishing enables you to determine the fish's direction of travel before tightening. As soon as a run starts to develop, I will pick up the rod and then position myself on the towpath in such a way that I create the greatest possible angle between the fishes direction of travel and that of the line being reclaimed by the reel. An angle of 180° is optimum for a successful hook-up, which means that the fish is swimming directly away from you, however it is not essential, and the setting of the hook must not be unduly delayed if this angle does not perfectly present itself.

I do not recommend livebaiting on these canals for the simple reason that catching a fish of the right size can take some time and eat too far into your zander session. My own first foray into canal zandering saw me include a whip and half a pint of pinkies in my arsenal. Two hours later, I was still without an indication and so committed myself to the two rod approach with a half a small dead chublet on each (dead bleak is also a bait I have had a lot of success with). Within half an hour, I'd caught my first canal zander.

Exploring the canals is great fun
The bite from that fish came in a turning bay, seconds after a boat had passed, churning up the bottom and leaving the canal with less clarity than a Louis van Gaal post-match interview. Yet this event had provided the perfect environment for this unusual predator to hunt in; its large, glassy eye giving it the advantage over its prey in the gloomy depths. Boat traffic and locks in operation may be a nuisance where they constantly require you to reposition a bait, but the angler should also consider these incidents as opportunities to capitalise upon; the catalyst by which a previously inactive fish is spurred into feeding.

Fishing early or late in the day will help you to avoid boat traffic, but as zander will feed throughout the day (another myth debunked), then you may want to find ways to avoid the boats when they are at their busiest. Look for barges moored on the near bank - zander can be caught extremely close in - or consider crossing the canal and fishing in the overflows of lock flights. The latter feature will also give you the added draw of regular turbulence which, as already discussed, can often prompt a pack of zander to start hunting. Other features are the same as you would expect for the other predatory species; overhanging trees, junctions, turning bays, and the like. Often zander will respond very quickly to a deadbait dropped nearby, so keep moving until you find the fish and, when you do, you can expect more from precisely the same spot.

This article is not for those who wish to know exactly where to catch their first zander - that information is already easily accessible via a quick Google search - but to give an overview of my own approach to catching zander and point you in the general direction of where I feel your best chance of grappling with one lies. Hopefully, the advice contained herein will give you the confidence you need to give this beguiling fish a go for yourself.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Drain Pike and Perch - "Just popping out with the dog..."

I was only after a few opportunistic casts when we took the dog out for a walk on the Levels this morning, but found the pike in a such an aggressive mood that half an hour of jigging on a small waterway soon became several hours of experimental lure fishing across a couple of drains. Starting out on a micro diving plug, it soon became apparent that I could not reach the depths where the fish were lying, so I switched over to a small Fiiish Black Minnow and had a good wallop first cast.

As an occasional, perhaps even reluctant, lure angler, the Black Minnow is one of those bits of kit I bought because I loved how it looked and felt, without really having any serious intention of putting it into action. It boasts a flaccid, hollow rubber body mounted on a large single hook, which is attached to the jig head on a swivel, enabling all the components to move freely and enticingly. It certainly has a great action in and out of the water. My one concern was whether I would be able to set such a large hook with my ultralight rod. After missing two solid bites in two casts, my doubts were being strengthened, however the hits were arriving with such regularity that I stuck it out with the Black Minnow and was soon rewarded with a trio of jack pike.

Each of those fish had been nicked through a small piece of skin, and when the landed/lost ratio evened out after three more pike shed the hook, I decided to switch to a simple Mepps spinner with a rotating silver blade. The Black Minnow had slightly redeemed itself however, with a nicely marked perch of 1lb 14oz, before I made the change.

I then had three takers on the spinner in twenty minutes or so; all pike and all landed easily enough, to a best of maybe seven pounds. It was then time for a move as Beth fancied some lunch, the dog fancied a kip, and I wanted to try and catch a few perch.

The next venue was much wider, deeper and holding a good deal more colour than the first, which had been gin clear. I therefore pressed into action my favourite lemon tiger micro-jigs. A curly tail grub was first out of the bag, as I thought it a better target for the fish in the stained water, but after catching just one small perch and receiving lots of plucks and rattles, I replaced it with a micro-fry. The perch responded well across the short area I was working and I had six, although the tentative bites continued. Five of the perch were small swingers, with one better fish, around the pound mark, being grabbed by a pike on the way in. A brief tug-of-war ensued before the pike's jaws opened and I could bring the perch to shore and inspect the damage, which consisted of a few split fins and a hole in the dorsal but, fortunately for the perch, no serious open wounds.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Somerset Levels Chub - Seven Chevin

I set out late this morning with the rather ambitious aim of catching a 5lb chub from the Somerset Levels. Whilst such a fish is a rare thing on these silty, lowland rivers, I am in no doubt that they do exist, even if I am yet to see one. Location can be a bit tricky, particularly on the lower River Tone, which can be mile after mile of featureless channel, contained within steep muddy banks.

I prefer to float fish. Not for the challenge, or because of some discriminatory views I hold towards ledgering, but because it is what I feel most confident in doing, and it allows me to search out unfamiliar stretches more quickly. When the fish holding areas are so inconspicuous, a float travelling up to 40-50 yards downstream is a useful way of establishing where the fish are (and aren't).

The water levels can be a bit of a lottery in this part of Somerset, due to the number of pumping stations. I decided to try a new area today and arrived to find it depressingly low. The water was also very clear, however there was a decent bit of pace to it. I only grabbed a rod, net and bait tub from the car to start with as I was not at all confident. Positioning myself on the outside of a bend, I was able to negate a troublesome downstream breeze and was soon sending a seven no.6 stick float on its way down the peg.

The first trot was a clean run through, so I pushed the float up six inches and tried again. This time the float made it almost to the very end of the peg before submerging. Clonk! Chub on. As I'd hooked the fish a good forty metres down the peg, I walked a third of the way to meet it and safely netted an immaculate chub of around 1¾lb. I grabbed the keepnet from the car and then, next cast, the same result. Given that I was catching good quality fish and they would no doubt run out at some point, I didn't push the swim too hard, instead resting it a while between trots.

I had seven chub to maybe 2¼lb this way before declaring the swim officially 'dead'. A car journey to a couple more areas was fruitless, before I found myself on the tidal stretch near Athelney for the last hour and a half. I still had plenty of maggots, so fed these liberally in the hopes of stirring any large chub that might be present into feeding. It was a fish a minute - roach mainly - but there was no sign of anything bigger, before I decided to call it a day.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Backwinding - Beginnings

Following the capture of my first fish, a bleak from the Lee Navigation at age 4, my early fishing life was a somewhat contrasting mix of club match fishing and a more basic, traditional, schoolboy's journey, visiting the surrounding waterways with the lads from my street. It was the club fishing that really defined the sort of angler I became, so it is the very start of that part of my upbringing that I'll be focusing on here.

My dad was a member of the Waverley Angling Society; a club with a small but talented membership, and quite a rich history. I believe that they once had the fishing rights to the famous Fisher's Green stretch of the River Lee, long before either of us were on their books. By the time we joined, the society had none of its own waters, but was affiliated to the Lee Angler's Consortium (LAC), London Angler's Association (LAA) and was part of a syndicate of clubs which could fish the woodland lake on the Forty Hall estate; a wonderful carp fishery, the like of which I have not encountered since those days of living in North London.

I remember the palpable excitement whenever my dad returned home from a Waverley outing, even before I understood that when he spoke of pounds, he was not referring at all to money. I was about 7 when he decided that the time was finally right for me to join him to fish a club match. I don't think that the venue for this particular match was the basis for his decision, as the Hertford Union Canal at Victoria Park was hardly the epitome of paradise. I recall well, the angler on the end peg retrieving no fewer than seventeen carrier bags from his swim throughout the day. Little did it matter to me though, as I had been told that there were tench in the stretch, and I'd yet to see one in the flesh.

No tench came my, or anybody else's, way that day, but I did land my first eel on an elasticated whip that I fished at four or five metres for the entirety of the match. Combined with two small perch, my offering to the scalesman was a paltry, but very satisfying, six ounces. I don't recall what fish anyone else had. I guess that I would have had to have stayed close by my dad whilst the weigh-in took place, as he no doubt had to do the majority of the packing away. It is only now that I appreciate what an almighty pain in the arse it must have been for him to have me sat right next to him every trip during those early days, and having to set up and pack away two lots of gear must have been tiresome, but I can honestly say that I never recall him bemoaning this situation even once, although I know I did get the odd clip round the ear when I whinged about things not going my way!

That match at Vicky Park was actually my second outing with dad to a club match. The first was to the lily-lined River Beult in Kent, another venue reputed to hold a viable stock of tench. I believe some were caught on this occasion, but again, I did not witness them.

I was supposed to be watching and not fishing, but dad temporarily handed me the pole whilst he rummaged through his box for a plummet or some such small item of tackle. A dip on the float and an instinctive strike resulted in a vast and unfamiliar quantity of pole elastic streaming from the tip. I managed to bring the fish under control and towards the net which dad had waiting. A 1lb 2oz pike was the result - probably my biggest fish ever at the time - which baffled me, as I had been told that pike didn't eat maggots. Unfortunately for dad, it weighed more on its own than his collection of half-ounce chublets and he was also to endure a painful moment after snagging a bankside tree. Whilst pulling for a break, the line snapped below the float and the sudden retraction of the elastic propelled the whole lot back at him at such speed that the pole float bristle went into his finger and straight out the other side. A dramatic day on the bank indeed; my first pike and a gory incident. I probably couldn't wait to get home and tell mum.

In those days we would often fish on after the club match had finished, such was our mutual enthusiasm. I rarely slept well before a fishing trip, even though I caught a fraction of what I do now, and I sleep like a log these days. It saddens me slightly to think that, as much as I still love my fishing, I will never get that same thrill or sense of adventure again. Perhaps this series of Backwinding posts can help me recapture that perspective. At the very least it is reassuring to know that some of these early memories are still residing, with such vividity and detail, in the still accessible recesses of my brain.