The pike angler, Neville Fickling, once said to me that dead baiting was simply about “drowning a dead herring near the surface, in mid-water or on the bottom. Simple as that”. Well, perhaps not quite as simple as that for me. Knowing the best level to fish a bait, fly or lure in the water column is a key part of angling, but it’s not always an easy decision to make.
It’s true that fish will come up for or go down to pick off what we present them with, but they won’t always. And that’s especially so when pike fishing at this time of the year when temperatures drop and when rivers and stills begin to colour up from autumnal rains. Cold water fish are more lethargic than summer ones and in stained water, sometimes they just can’t see what we are offering them. Now is the time we just have to be more observant than ever and read any signs that the waters are telling us.
This 28lb pike was Bob Mortimer’s first ever and was caught by presenting a live bait shortly after we saw the fish swirl in the upper layers. Not a bad start to your piking experiences!
The lower column
I don’t pick up a fly rod as often as I’d like to, but I did a couple of weeks back. I was involved in filming and the pressure to catch a trout was on. For two days, despite occasional fly hatches, I’d barely seen a trout move up top, on the surface. But it wasn’t until I got onto a bridge and, through binoculars, got to see fish in detail that the leger weight, if you like, actually dropped.
Those trout were absolutely glued to the river bed. Items of food were coming down in the current but the fish weren’t shifting up or to either side to intercept them. The only nymphs that I saw taken were right in the line of a trout’s vision. If a nymph came right to a nose, a mouth might open. This is how it had been for the whole time I’d been fishing and I could only think that the trout were responding to sudden cold nights and cool days.
I put on a heavily-leaded nymph that I knew would sink like a stone. I fished it over depth, under a strike indicator, Czech-style. It might not have been a pretty way to fish but that fly, nailed to the bed, caught two trout in half an hour and saved the entire show.
The middle column
More recently, I found a submerged tree on the Wensum close by Norwich city centre. The whole structure was absolutely full of perch, teeming with them. I began like we all probably would. I laid a worm hard on the river bottom under an over-depth float. I caught absolutely nothing. That float never even had a tremor.
So I took the worm off the bottom and trotted it dead slow in mid-water. There was still no action. Then a fistful of fry dimpled on the surface, just out from the trailing branch fronds. I pushed the float down until the selfsame worm was riding just 18 inches down from the surface. Then it was a bite a cast with over 20 perch coming in an hour. They were all crackers and simple observation and use of the water column had saved the day once more. Watercraft was definitely the winner on that day.
The upper column
Let’s go to pike where we started. They can be dour and bad days can seem never-ending, but if you read the signs they give out and if you’re not asleep on a bed chair, fishing for them can come alive. And that’s especially the case when you realise that pike use the water column just as much as any species.
Perhaps the biggest giveaway is a rolling pike. You’ve got to be alert to pick this manoeuvre up, but it happens more often than you think. They don’t create much of a splash and sometimes all that you see is a glimpse of a head, a back or a tail. But the clue is there and the fish are feeding high in the water and a quickly-placed spinner or plug can do the business.
Look for roach shoals moving, especially in thick marginal weed beds where they feel safe. In a situation like this, I don’t think you can beat using a dead roach and fishing it sink and draw. Cast it out, retrieve it high in the water column and then let it flutter down to the bed of the lake or river. Mark exactly where you pick up a pike or even register a take. Sometimes, the fish will be high in the water column and sometimes right down deep and success can depend on pinpoint presentation.
Reading the water
One of the biggest giveaways is a large flat area that sometimes emerges in the middle of heavily rippled water. This is very often created either by a pike levering itself out of the silt and releasing gases, or by diving into that silt to capture an eel or a fleeing fish. In either case, the message is the same one and that is that the pike at that moment are down deep. If you put a dead bait out immediately and let it sink to the bottom in the middle of that flat, you can sometimes achieve instant success. So, it might appear it’s not quite as easy as Neville made it sound.
The more you observe, the more you become tuned in to what the water is saying. And the more you listen to that, the more confident you are, the more approaches you try and the more fish you catch. To me, it’s all about being the best sort of fisherman and that’s the fisherman naturalist, the fisherman who catches and understands the reasons why.