I don’t think there is a river I’ve fished that isn’t wonderful, that doesn’t demand unique skills or individual approaches. A man who is tired of fishing rivers, is tired of life, as someone once put it. We live in dangerous times, however. Rivers and river fishing aren’t what they used to be. they demand out love, our respect but also our care and loving attention.
I was brought up as a kid in the Northwest, in a house around a mile from the River Goyt. Then, back in the ‘50s, it ran whatever colour dye the mills pumped into it. It was dead, lifeless but still beautiful, thrilling, pulling me to its banks every weekend, every day of my holidays. Okay, I was forced to fish the nearby canals but in my mind and in my heart, I longed to fish rivers, feel the flow of water and fulfil a lad’s Crabtree dreams.
Since then, I’ve fished the Wye in the west, the Avon in the south, the Wensum in the east and the Tweed and Tay in the north with everything in between. My tally of UK rivers fished is somewhere around a hundred and I’ve fished them all from the Arrow to the Yare. I only need to fish the Xun Jiang in China and I’ve got the full house!
THE RIVER CLOSE SEASON
We can’t avoid it so let’s get the thorny issue out of the way first up. Should we keep, abolish or modify our river closed season?
If the choice is either to keep or scrap the river closed season, I’d feel like never paying for a licence again. It’s no way as simple as a yes/no decision. You’ve got to remember that rivers are not the same, just because they are full of flowing water.
Big rivers like the Trent are doing well. On smaller rivers like the Kennet, my friends tell me that barbel stocks are on their knees. Rivers like the Wye can have several hundreds of barbel and chub in a shoal. The Wensum hasn’t a hundred mature barbel or a thousand mature chub along its entire length.
The fact is that smaller rivers are hugely vulnerable, as i discuss in this article about baby barbel. In early May till mid June when all species head to the gravels to spawn this becomes even more critical. The fish and their eggs are threatened by canoeists, floods, wading birds, otters, crayfish and even foxes and badgers at this peak time. Angling pressure could be the last straw.
Believe me, it would serve me well as a guide if the rivers were open year round. Believe me, I’m exasperated they’re shut for so long, especially on long April evenings when I feel that to fish would do no harm whatsoever. I feel the obvious answers are, first, to keep the closed season for ‘lesser rivers’ or to let club and riparian owners decide on the issue, river by river, even stretch by stretch.
But this, by far, is my favoured option. Let’s fish till the end of April and then hold off till, yes, June 16th. That way, we’d get most of the best of the spring fishing, show we are guardians of the rivers, that we don’t regard fish as commodities and we save our vital spawning period.
Can I finish by saying I’m a river man to the core, passionate for their future and know what I’m talking about only as I’ve fished them, walked them and observed them over so long a fishing life? And I’ve loved them all. Now let’s see why.
BIG OR SMALL?
On big rivers you can better get away with big approaches. It’s on waters like the Trent and the middle Severn that the feeder and tip approach can still work its magic.
Remember, though, on smaller rivers from the Avon to the Wandle, you have to be more cunning, more touchy-feely, more in tune with the spookiness of the small river. Set up on the Teme like you would on the Trent and you’re courting disaster.
On small rivers, observation is key. You can’t beat watching the swims, making sense of what the river is telling you.
Strategising is all part of small river fishing. You’ve got to analyse every swim for its snags, depths and flow patterns. You’ve got to come up with the perfect method on the day.
You’ve got to consider the Splash Factor. The one thing never to forget is that a feeder going in can kill a small stream swim for the rest of the day.
Your bait is critical, you can’t afford a stereotyped approach. How much to put in will make or break your sport.
Small rivers are all about a softly-softly approach. Hammer a rod rest into the gravel and you might as well go home for the traditional early bath. Early season, care of fish is absolutely critical. They are tired from spawning and the early summer heat can be lethal.
Above all, remember that river fishing is fun. It challenges you and pushes you to the limit.
It always seems a shame when an angler occupies a single swim all his session. Rivers are built for exploring and even as a kid on the River Dane up in Cheshire, I was taught to keep on the move and try new approaches, new challenges and hone new skills.
Rivers like the upper Lee or carriers of the Avon are designed by God for stalking, for watching fish, for plotting their downfall. Good weather, clear water, decent Polaroids and, preferably, breathable chesties and you are good to go.
I take an Avon-type rod, reel loaded with five to eight pound line depending on species, bag of bits and a bucket of bait holding maggots, lobs, boilies, corn and bread. They are my Big Five, no mistake.
It’s all about taking your time and really looking into swims under trees, amongst weed, adjacent to rafts. It’s watercraft, in fact, that great traditional skill of reading the river and, the more you do it, the better you become and the more you love it.
Try dawn. Barbel feed in water only a foot deep, so creep close and put a double lob on a size 6 to them. Chub are in the upper layers so try them with a crust or slow-sinking flake. Roach are rolling if there is no wind so travel light and quiet till you find them.
Exhausting. Exhilarating. The cream of summer sport.
FEEL FOR FREELINING
Beware the Splash Factor on small to medium rivers. When the river is low and clear an SSG going in can empty a swim and that is when freelining is hot.
Use a big bait so you can keep in contact. Meat is great along with flake, or a small dead bait for chub, perch or barbel. Get as directly in line with the flow as you can. It is easy on a stream but you might need to wade a little – safely – on something larger.
Lower the bait in the water and let the current take it away. Pay out line and keep tight to the bait, mending, working the rod, avoiding any slack. In slower swims, lift the bait and let it go downstream in a series of hops. Watch for the line tightening, watch for the rod tip going round, feel for the line tingling between your fingers and then jerking hard.
What a way to fish!
RIVER FLOAT FISHING
The float, flake and the centrepin are the essence of summer river fishing for roach and chub. I couldn’t believe Steve Collett saying the pin doesn’t have a place in modern fishing, for this they are magic. A fourteen foot rod. A bucket of mash.
As tiny a float as conditions and flows allow, perhaps even a pole float or a stick taking one BB at most. All the shot up top, letting the flake on a size 12 to a 16 drift naturally down the water column and waft unhindered over the weed fronds. A pinch of mash and corn to get a swim excited and then you seek out those deeper, darker runs close to trees, reed fringes or under bridges.
Don’t hurry the strike but lift gently, calmly as the float buries. If it’s a roach, it will boil big on the surface. A chub and you’ll be hauling it from the tree roots.
A brilliant and absorbing way to fish.
RIVER BAITING APPROACHES
Rivers aren’t all about swim-hopping all of the time. On the Wye, I’ll bait a swim big time at dusk with fifty to a hundred balls of Vitalin, hemp, pellet, corn, boilies and shards of meat. I’ll set the alarm for three a.m. and fish for half an hour from four.
If there is nothing, I’ll start feeding bait in again but this time little and near continuous, like heavy rain. I use a twelve foot soft rod, eight pound line, a light lead or small method feeder and rotate the bait until I find a winner. Swims can go mental. That feed draws more and more fish in and if you can keep a swim going, you can blitz it.
I don’t. After six fish or so, I feel I’ve had my fun and I’m off. I’m done by breakfast mostly, letting the river rest and recover. How many barbel or chub does a man my age need to catch? It’s the adrenaline rush of the first fish that does it. The dawn. The pewter river. The ever-growing bird song. The homeward-bound badger. What a life. What a sport.
THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO RIVERS
Try light lures the Robbie Northman way. He’s always on the move, relishing every cast, every crank of the reel. Think about surface poppers for chub and for summer pike, or pulling back big streamers for perch, perhaps even on fly tackle. Touch legering is thrilling and productive.
Laying-on with a float in a deep slack is the best way to catch big river roach at dusk and dawn. Drop shotting on the weirs can produce wonder perch. Bouncing a worm down the shallows can slay the barbel. or mount a massive maggot attack on the streamy runs and trot a small float for chub, dace, roach, perch or barbel. Try a floating natural like a grasshopper, or let a slug meander its way downstream.
I think back to the kid that I was standing on the River Goyt and how lucky I’ve been to fish rivers all my teenage and adult life. They’ve taught me to let my imagination run wild, never to let myself be limited by stereotyped baits or methods. If you love your river, believe me, they’ll love you in return.