15/04/21 - Catching spotties in Shakespeare country

Growing up in Birmingham my early fishing experiences were mostly centred on the numerous park pools we had at our disposal, but occasionally dad would take us out to the Birmingham Anglers Association waters on the River Severn to get beaten up by the resident barbel. Whilst I later escaped Birmingham to go to university and didn't return, my brother never left. Lockdown was therefore a difficult time for us, having to put family celebrations for his 50th on hold and then him getting diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, thankfully now successfully treated. I was therefore prompted to buy a BAA ticket at the start of this year with a view to reconnecting and dragging him away from the golf course.

Instead we were plunged into lockdown III almost immediately, unfortunately putting an end to any travel for the remainder of the coarse river season. Fast forward three months, not wanting the ticket to go to waste and now with freedom to travel, I had a look at the BAA website to see if there were any suitable places where I could take the fly fishing gear. Spotted a water on a tributary of the River Avon that looked promising - in the middle of nowhere and with a decent head of brownies according to the reports. 

Booked a day off and, after a leisurely drive down the M42, I arrived at the venue mid-morning in bright sunshine. Hadn't really known what to expect, so had taken two outfits - my 7' brook rod and a heavier 8' 6" rod to give me a bit more reach if required. As it was I carried both and mixed & matched during the day as it allowed me to have two slightly different set-ups and therefore didn't have to change flies all the time. Was pretty cold despite the sun, so put on my quilted jacket and woolly hat. In fact I didn't take them off again until it was time to go home! 

At first glance the river next to the parking spot wasn't particularly inspiring -  shallow, clear and featureless, with the snotty, brown growths of diatoms that are prevalent at this time of year. However, not far away I could see the sunlight reflecting off some riffles and the gleam of some clean gravel. With the stretch effectively split in two by a road bridge I started off by heading  upstream. As there was obviously nothing moving yet I tried flicking a gold-headed GRHE nymph up into the faster, broken water and letting it trundle back towards me. However, by the time I was nearly at the upstream limit I'd not had a sniff. Came to a small pool at this point, so changed tack and flicked a size 10 mini-streamer (apologies to the purists!) downstream alongside the tree roots . 

Jinking it back along the bottom with short erratic strips it got hit twice before I hooked the culprit - a small, but  perfectly-formed and colourful Warwickshire brownie. A few casts later I had two more in the net, albeit even smaller than the first, so headed back downstream to try the same tactic in the pool under the bridge where I'd left the car. Flicked the streamer into the shadows under the bridge with a bow cast and let it swing alongside the brickwork before again jinking it back. Had only moved it a couple of times when it got whacked by a better fish. After a couple more casts it seemed that he was the only one in residence, so I went back to the car and had a sandwich and a cup of coffee before heading downstream. 
In contrast to upstream, this section of river had a little more depth and a lot more features. As there was still a distinct lack of any insect life visible I therefore decided to continue with the streamer rod. Again, actively working the fly around the tree roots and the structure in the deeper pools was the winning method. By the end of the afternoon I'd had eight wild brownies, the best fish coming right at the end - a proper small stream bruiser with a nicely marked adipose fin. Had to slide down the bank into the water to land him and it was a shock to feel how cold the water actually was, even through my waders. However, back at the car, having not seen anything move all day and having packed away the rods, I saw at least three fish start to rise just a few yards downstream - Sod's Law! Failed to identify what they were feeding on as they stopped rising almost as quickly as they started, but filed their location away for potentially another visit.

Ten minutes later I was having a cup of coffee with the brother on his patio next to the Straford-upon-Avon canal - a nice end to a very enjoyable sesson on a new venue. 

01/03/2021 - Back on the predators

Decided a change was in order after struggling a bit for the grayling, so dusted off the pike gear, emptied the freezer of dead baits and headed to my local River Soar. Got there for first light, but in contrast to the previous few mornings it was dull and overcast, with a bit of mist in the air.

Before I'd left the house I'd chopped up the more tired-looking of my dead baits and as I walked upstream I flicked the pieces into the near-side margin, hopefully to act as an appetiser to the main course that would come later. River had been over the top of the flood wall not so long ago, but was well down and with no sign of the extensive beds of pennywort that were present on my previous visit - probably now all in the Humber! Visibilty in the margins was also good. Got both rods baited up, one with a smelt and the other with a joey. 

Intention was to use the downstream rod to fish the near-side margin and the upstream rod to search between mid-river and the boats on the far bank. Got off to a slow start and had moved the rods around a couple of times when I saw a another car park up at the end of the lane. Watched the occupant start lure fishng downstream of me and a couple of casts later he was into a fish! However, didn't have to be envious for long as the float positioned mid-channel bobbed and then headed off, resulting in my first jack of the morning. By this time my fellow angler had walked upstream to say hello - turned out to be one-time fellow blogger and member of the Soar Valley Speciment Group, Leo Heathcote. Had a good natter before he headed off to try a little further upstream. By the time he returned a bit later neither of us had added anything to our respective tallies. However, shortly after he left I had another pick up over near the boats.  

Unfortunately the bait was dropped before I could wind down, something that would happen a few times throughout the morning. Had another small one down the nearside before the float in mid-channel went off again.This is an area that I have neglected in the past, always concentrating on the margins, possibly to my detriment. Wound down and felt an obviously much better fish that actually took some line off the reel on its first dash, but after a few seconds the hooks pulled! Found that two of the points on the top treble had opened out. I'd had to bend them back into position after the first fish did a crocodile impression and had caught the hook in the net, so they were obviously weak and had probably cost me a decent pike. Needless to say I changed the trace after that. Carried on leapfrogging the rods back downstream and had a couple more before the wind started getting up. 

Blowing straight upstream it was making it difficult to see the first indications on the float (usually I'm onto the rod at the slightest knock and feeding line off the reel), which again cost me a couple of fish as the increasing tension on the rod tip before the line pulled out of the clip was apparently enough to make them drop the bait. By the time I'd got to the end of the section I'd had a total of six pike, but I wasn;t happy with the lost fish and dropped runs. Even those I had landed were only lightly hooked by one of the two trebles, so they were obviously being a bit finnicky. Luckily they had all decided to come in like wet sacks! With about 15 minutes left before I had to leave for lunch I popped a mackerel over to the far bank and a lamprey down the margin. A few minutes later the mackerel developed a life of its own as it headed downstream. However, before I could wind down the bait was dropped yet again! 

Popped the now mangled mackerel back in the same spot only to have the float waddle off once more. This time I managed to set the hooks into a fish that gave a good scrap for a change, all the time me thinking I was going to lose it. Had just unhooked it in the net when I heard the indicator on the other rod hit the back rest and the bite alarm start shrieking. Luckily the fish on the end of this one wasn't giving up its prize and was on its way to the Trent! After another spirited scrap I had him lying side-by-side with his companion in the net.That mad few minutes had not only served to flatter the scorecard, but had also pushed me well into borrowed time, so I didn't find out whether that was the start of a bit of a feeding spell or I'd found a group of fish. I'd almost exhausted my bait supply anyway, so chucked everything back in the car and got home just in time for a bite to eat before my first work call of the afternoon. 

With regards to those fussy pike, there's an interesting article by Dominic Garnett here, which suggests that we have created the most cautious generation of pike fishing ever through relentless fishing pressure. Food for thought, but the old saying has always been that pike thrive on neglect. Unfortunately there just aren't any wild, pristine venues in my neck of the woods, so I'll just have to up my game next time!

26/02/2021 - Staying local

Bozza's published his eagerly-awaited "roadmap" now, so there's light at the end of the tunnel for us all. At the risk of putting the mockers on it, we can possibly even contemplate organising a much-needed holiday at some point (I've been missing the sea!). However, for now the message is that we still stay local and that will certainly apply to my fishing for the rest of the river season. 

Therefore skimmed the casters off the top of my week-old maggots to give to the birds and found that I'd still got the best part of a pint left, so decided to go back to the Derwent again. Had to scrape ice off the windscreen first thing, but when I arrived to find an empty carpark (bliss!) it was already bright and sunny and promised to be a fantastic morning. Opened the car door to the sound of a skylark doing his vertical mating dance and the smell of freshly-applied cow shit, the farmer having taken advantage of the frost to get on the fields.Turned left at the end of the footbridge this time and walked downstream a short distance to the cattle drink swim, knowing that as the sun moved round it would be shining straight upstream and into my eyes if I left it any later. 

The river was still up slightly, but had been at a steady level for a couple of days and looked pretty decent. Waded out to mid-shin and was soon tripping a double maggot over the gravel at the bottom of the shelf. Didn't have to wait long for the float to bury and the first grayling come to the net, fighting all the way in the clear water.

Had to work hard for an hour for half a dozen more, all similar in size, before I decided to move. Flushed a kingfisher in front of me as I walked upstream, so he must have been glad when I eventually dropped into the swim where I'd had a few last time out. Ran the float down into the same general area as before. However, after half an hour I'd not had a bite, so I was on the move once again, but again drew a blank in the next couple of spots. 

Eventually had a couple at the pipe bridge, but rather frustratingly I bumped off what felt like two good fish in consecutive casts - the rod arcing round with the strike as the float disappeared in virtually the same spot both times, followed by a couple of big head thumps and then they were gone. 

Carried on searching away in various swims, but could only manage one or two small grayling in each. Once again I failed them in any numbers, with the bigger ones also eluding me on this occasion. Had managed to put a dozen in the net before I ended up back at the footbridge and it was time to head back home for lunch and then unfortunately work in the afternoon. Left scratching my head thinking where all the fish could be holed up, particularly as I'd caught all manner of species on the float before Christmas. 

No parakeets this time on the way back to the car, but heard a bird of prey calling and spotted a peregrine flying low over the trees before it caught a thermal and then spiralled away out of sight. Hopefully be out again soon with this settled, mild weather continuing for a bit, but perhaps a change of species is now in order.

15/02/2021 - Out fishing at last!!

Really have to struggle to remember the last time I went a whole month without fishing. Had planned to have a few trips in between Christmas and New Year, but that went out the window when I did my back in on Christmas Eve. I've had a weakness in my lower back ever since I put it out lifting sugar beet by hand whilst doing crop trials as a student with the Ministry of Agriculture. Whilst I try to be careful, there are occasions when just minor, random movements are enough to leave me contorted and hobbling for days - luckily a good physio lives down at the end of our road! 

By the time I was on the mend, Bozza had announced another lockdown, although some effective lobbying by the Angling Trust meant that us lucky anglers were allowed to continue to pursue our hobby, albeit "locally". However, I didn't really have time to wrestle with my conscience about what this actually meant as the weather decided to put the boot in, firstly an "exceptionally wet" January with both the Soar and Lower Trent catchments receiving more than 200% of the long term average rainfall and then a freezing start to February. When the forecast signalled a return to more normal temperatures I therefore decided on a trip to my local River Derwent - within justifiable distance should I be stopped by the overly zealous local plod and with a decent head of grayling to go at. The only spanner in the works was the risk that the rising temperatures would result in snow melt affecting the river. 

The river up until this point had been dropping steadily day-by-day, but when I checked the levels again before heading out in the morning I saw that it had indeed risen a few centimetres overnight. Undaunted I was soon river side and a quick check out of the car window before committing to unlocking the gate to the club car park confirmed the river was at a fishable level and carrying just a tinge of colour. The temperature upon arrival was 5 degrees Centigrade, so it felt positively warm compared to the previous week. 

Walking upstream to my starting point I scared off a couple of goosanders, so took that as as sign there were some fish about. The lack of any footprints other than my own also showed that I was the first person to visit since the floods had subsided. However, in truth the river was a bit higher than when I'd fished it before, so many of the usual spots were out, being too fast or "boily" for the fish to be sat out in comfortably. I was also expecting them to be shoaled up, so it would be a question of fishing the quieter spots in order to find them. As it turned out I dropped onto a little group straight away, running the float down the side in what would normally be just a few inches of water. Had eight small grayling in quick succession out of an area the size of my dining table - all like peas in a pod - before hooking and landing a much better specimen of just over a pound that gave me a good scrap in the current. 

Possibly spooked the remaining fish in the shoal with that one as I didn't have another sniff, so moved downstream. Tried a few more likely-looking spots, but failed to find the fish again in numbers, just taking one or two individuals out of each. By the time I had reached the footbridge back to the carpark I'd made every bite count and had a baker's dozen of grayling, including three over the pound mark. Decided to finish there for lunch as the strengthening wind was making things tricky and returned to the car, spotting my first ring-necked parakeet on the way (apparently now established in a few spots around Derby). Pulling out of the carpark the thermometer was now registering a balmy 13 degrees Centigrade! Back at home I checked the river levels again and saw that it had continued to rise while I'd been there. Was therefore happy with the result, particularly as I'm now looking the weather forecast and thinking that the rest of my week off will be spent decorating rather than fishing!

08/02/2021 - The River Mease re-visited (another COVID-19 special)

I suppose it was in the early ‘90s that I first started thinking of myself as a “specimen” angler, having become an avid reader of authors such as Phil Smith, Tony Miles and Peter Stone.  However, my first proper “big fish” campaign wasn't on the River Ouse or a big Midlands gravel pit, but on the tiny River Mease on the Leicestershire/Staffordshire border. I’d just started work as an Assistant Biologist with the National Rivers Authority, based at Fradley near Lichfield. At the time my commute back home to Nottingham saw me cutting across country from the A38 to the M42 through the numerous villages along the Mease valley. One late summer’s day, just out of curiosity, I happened to stop and stick my head over a bridge and instantly spotted a massive (well, to me anyway!) chub drifting through the cabbages. A sign nailed to a tree indicated that day tickets for the stretch were available from the local pub, so I had a venue and a target! The first few trips in daylight that Autumn resulted in very little, so I decided to change tactics and fish into dark, thinking that the fish would be more confident. 

This was a perfect arrangement as it turned out – I was able to finish work and then drive to the venue to bait up a few swims before starting to fish as the light faded. Tackle and tactics were nothing fancy. A cheap Shakespeare quiver tip rod coupled with a Mitchell reel (bought second-hand off my friend Dai Gribble – not quite as well-known as he is now, but already a very experienced angler), which was loaded with 6lb Maxima. 

At the business end, a simple link leger and a size 6 hook to accommodate a big lump of garlic sausage. At the start of each session a few freebies were flicked into suitably chubby-looking spots, which were then fished in rotation. With no isotopes or head torch, bite detection was achieved by keeping the rod high and propping up a torch at an angle on the ground to illuminate the white quiver tip.

Fishing after dark with big baits did the trick as straight away I had a string of 3 - 4 lb chub. My notebook started to fill with information, including details of the best swims that, in budding specimen-hunter style, were given names including “the cattle drink”, “the willows” and “the straight”. With hindsight, I was a bit overly keen to share my early success and I invited my friend Tim to join me for a session, only for both of us to blank on a cold, wet night with the river carrying extra water. 

However, a few days later, Tim gave me the news that he’d been back and, you’ve guessed it, had caught exactly what I was after – a fish over 5lbs! On one hand I was absolutely livid having done all the legwork (I didn’t talk to him for days!), but on the other hand this was confirmation that bigger fish were there.

That Christmas I saved my pennies and treated myself to a Tony Miles “Quiver Supreme” from Scottie Rods and the following February I resumed my campaign with renewed enthusiasm. By the end of March I’d had two fish over the magical barrier and several back-up 4lbers, all but one coming after dark on a big lump of good old garlic sausage. Needless to say I was back the following autumn and things got even better in the shape of a chub of 5lb 15oz – a fish that is still my PB! 

That capture is still particularly memorable as I’d arrived to find a chap and his son, who was sat in a swim that I was intending to pre-bait, already fishing. After a quick chat and some subtle intelligence gathering I therefore headed further upstream. Much later, after catching just a couple of small fish, I wandered back downstream in the dark to find that they’d gone.

I was in two minds about fishing the spot where the lad had been sat but, as it usually produced, decided to drop a bait in for a bit anyway. Turned out to be one of my better decisions as a few minutes later I was looking at a mint, deep bodied, monster of a chub in my landing net. Just an ounce shy of the 6lb barrier it coughed up a load of red maggots undoubtedly provided by the previous occupant of the swim but, luckily for me, it had obviously fancied a more substantial main course! 

Two more 5lbers followed before the end of the year. However, my association with the River Mease ended abruptly after the section was taken over by a small club from Birmingham.

Whilst they were happy for me to join our relationship went South after I turned up to find the banks cleared, tree branches removed, the banks dug out for seat boxes and – worst of all – two freshly killed pike left on the bank. Almost immediately after that the opposite bank was leased by another club – all this happening on a river barely twelve feet across. Disillusioned, I didn’t bother fishing after Christmas and never fished it again.

By all accounts the fishing went rapidly downhill, possibly due in part to issues with water quality, but the angling pressure wouldn’t have helped. However, that might not be the end of the story. Mid-pandemic, but under the more relaxed circumstances of the summer, I found myself travelling along the River Mease valley once more. Again, out of curiosity, I stopped at a bridge and peered over into the water below. The river was clear and weed-filled with a clean gravel bottom and, whilst I didn’t spot any monsters this time, there were a few small fish dimpling on the surface further downstream. Enough to re-kindle some interest? We’ll see what the rest of lockdown brings!