Fishing Frozen Rivers

Its odds on that sometime each winter we’ll experience at least one spell of Siberian weather. Your favourite carp lake may be totally icebound, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t catch some fish. The answer is to switch to a river which, especially if it’s a fast-flowing one, will rarely freeze over completely. With mini-icebergs floating downstream you may not rate your chances, but in fact in one respect fishing is then easier, simply because a lot of water can be discounted.

Timing is important and fishing the day or so before an abrupt drop in temperature is often particularly worthwhile – somehow the fish seem to know that severe weather is on the way. The first day or two of a freeze-up generally brings slower fishing, but once the water temperature has stabilised, chub in particular come back on the feed. On the other hand, when the snow melts and finds its way into the river, fishing running water is often a complete waste of time. Not only does the lying snow become de-oxygenated, but it also picks up all the accumulated road salt etc. when it melts. In fact, these “snowbroths” are perhaps the worst conditions a river angler is faced with, and certainly I’d then advise switching to a stillwater.

In very cold weather many species seem to go into a state of semi-hibernation, and thus become very difficult to catch. Whilst pike are a possibility, you’ll find the most willing to feed will be chub and dace and, if you’re lucky enough to have them on your local river, grayling. Chub are found in most rivers, so let’s assume for the sake of brevity that these obliging fish are going to be your target.

As ever, the first step is location, and whilst in warmer weather the chub are often on the edge of the main current, in cold conditions they’re not going to have the energy to fight the flow. As a general rule, the colder the water, the slower the area the fish will move to. They won’t move far, usually just a few feet on small rivers, but these few feet can make all the difference. Remember, however, that any chub interested in feeding isn’t going to be too far from the main current, which after all brings the fish its daily bread – mine I hope! Don’t worry too much about the depth as long as there’s some form of cover such as an overhanging tree or ice in the margins – I’ve often had big chub in daylight from just 9 inches of water in these conditions. Undoubtedly, this sort of swim, where there’s cover plus a pronounced crease between fast and slow water, would be my first choice. Otherwise, I’d be willing to try the nearest slower water to swims I’d fish in normal winter temperatures.

Talking of icebound margins reminds me that rolling a light leger under the ice can often be very effective for chub. The fun starts when you hook a fish! However, just remember to poke your rod under the water and you should avoid your line being snagged or cut by the ice. Whatever you do, remember that although you may not be able to see the fish, they’ll find you easy to spot through the ice unless you keep below the skyline.

Nearly every book or article I’ve ever read states that you should use very small baits in cold weather. Naturally, many readers follow this advice and the odd fish is caught. Eventually just about everyone is fishing identically, which means of course that nearly all the fish reported are caught on small baits, and so the myth is perpetuated! Let me assure you that, on most cold days, you’ll definitely catch a whole lot more with bigger baits!

Another chub in icy conditionsA chunky chub like this makes it all worthwhile!

I once spent three whole winters fishing just for chub, both on rivers and also on a stillwater. On the latter I could fish two rods efficiently, and so I was able to carry out several controlled experiments. One was on bait size, and it soon became apparent that big baits were definitely better in cold weather. Interestingly, the reverse was true during very mild spells when large baits were often picked up and dropped, whilst particle baits such as maggot and caster produced a string of fish. I’d stress that these experiments weren’t confined to just one water, and a number of other members of the Chub Study Group were able to independently confirm the results.

Indeed I feel that the idea is likely to apply to every species and not just chub. For instance, my former fishing partner, Nigel Witham, once asked my advice about big river roach. These days he’d not need my advice as he’s developed into a better roach angler than I’m ever likely to, but at that time the teenage Nigel had yet to catch his first two pounder. The weather had been bitterly cold for some time and there was cat-ice in the margins. I suggested that he fished a section from which I’d had a roach of just under 2½lbs that summer, but that he choose the next peg up, which was somewhat slower. I also recommended that he fished a whole lobworm as bait. The result? A monster of 3lbs 4ozs!

I believe the reason for this preference for big baits in cold conditions is that the only fish that survive are those that spend less energy in finding food than they get from eating it. Those that don’t, for whatever reason, simply die. In summer, food is everywhere and so the fish can afford to use more energy, as it doesn’t take much to find lots of food, both big and small. In winter, the few food items that are available are scattered far and wide, and it therefore makes sense for the fish to have one large meal if they can, rather than go chasing about for a series of small ones. That’s not to say that the fish won’t eat small baits in cold weather – it’s just that they won’t move very far to take them.

This is why it’s worth thoroughly searching out your swim in cold weather by moving the bait a yard, or even a foot if it’s very cold, every ten to fifteen minutes or so. A good way of doing this if you’re legering is to use a link leger made up with AAA or even BB shot instead of the usual SSGs, and take one shot off each cast until you find the fish.

Being cold-blooded, fish will also eat less in cold weather, and therefore it pays to cut right back on groundbait, especially on the larger items. For instance, if you normally use mashed bread, substitute it with liquidised bread or fine breadcrumbs instead. In other words, as the fish won’t eat much now, make sure that what they do take has your hook in it! Flavourings are particularly good at this time of year, as pioneers such as Archie Braddock, and more recently Matt Hayes, have shown. In fact Archie Braddock has been experimenting for a great many years, and I’d recommend every angler reads his book “Fantastic Feeder Fishing”, which contains several chapters about flavourings.

I’ve found myself that strong-smelling baits are especially effective in cold weather, and I’m particularly fond of whitebait and flavoured bread. Perhaps these work so well because the smell rouses the fish out of their torpid state. It’s always dangerous to compare cold-blooded fish with humans, but I know I’m far more likely to be roused out of a warm bed by the aroma of bacon and eggs than by the smell of cornflakes!

Traditionally, static baits are recommended in very cold weather and here I am in complete agreement. You’ll soon find that, with the possible exception of grayling, trotting a float is rarely productive in such conditions. Both laying-on and strett-pegging work, but I find it more versatile to leger. I use just sufficient weight to hold bottom, and most importantly put this weight no more than a couple of inches from the hook. This holds the bait perfectly still rather than waving about above the fish, which are likely to be hugging the bottom in their almost inactive state. Having weight near the hook also means that the tiniest of touches will be very quickly registered and you’ll find that, especially with big baits, any takes in these conditions are likely to be nice and slow. Only if you fail to connect on the strike or find that bites don’t develop should you try moving the shot further from the hook. Having said that, in my experience, cold weather doesn’t mean tiny takes so long as you’ve got those shot very close to the hook.

I like to be mobile when river chubbing and so all my tackle is geared to travelling light. Terminal tackle plus scales and a compact camera are permanently in my fishing jacket. Bait plus food and two small flasks of tea (a single bigger flask gets cold much more quickly) are carried in a small ruckbag. This has a compartment for a round landing net, which I much prefer as you can push down weeds with it, and it also doesn’t get caught so easily in undergrowth. This compartment also takes an unhooking mat that I sit on rather than a chair so as to keep low and off the skyline. A chair also adds weight and even a model with adjustable legs is fiddly and disturbing to set up. In any event, I’d always recommend you use an unhooking mat to protect your catch, especially on frozen banks

Steve Burke with a nice 5lb 1oz chubAnother chub, this time 5lb 1oz, falls to Steve.

I prefer to play fish by backwinding, and thus I have the reel’s anti-reverse off when I ‘m actually fishing. It’s engaged only when I move swims so as to avoid tangles. To prevent accidents, I want to know immediately whether the anti-reverse is still on when I make the first cast into a new swim, and therefore I insist on a reel with an audible ratchet. One of the very few that fits the bill is my old DAM Finessa, which offers the choice of a silent or audible anti-reverse. A small point maybe, but it’s just this sort of thing that can make the difference between success and failure.

The rod I use is the Fledger from Caliber Tackle, which is a little over 12ft long and is in 3 pieces so that it fits into the boot of my car for after work sessions. The extra length allows me to sit well back from the bank to avoid spooking the fish and is also useful for reaching over marginal ice or weedbeds. The rod has a choice of up to 6 top sections (although you can buy these one at a time) with test curves of 1lb 2ozs, 1lb 4ozs and 1lb 6ozs, both with and without quivertips. Rather than push fit quivertips the whole top section is interchangeable to avoid flat spots and thus lost fish. For small river chubbing I usually just take the rod already made up with the 1lb 2oz quivertip top. To the quivertip is whipped a small length of silicon tubing to take a Starlight for after dark use.

Invariably, I’ll fish on into the evening as I’ve found dusk and the hour or two after sunset to be particularly productive, for roach as well as chub, especially after a sunny day. So often the only decent fish I’ve had in freeze-ups have come in the dark – even though ice may have formed in the rod-rings. This may be because the fish feel more confident after dark, especially in the low clear water, but certainly if I’ve only half a day free for fishing in these conditions, I’d always choose the afternoon and early evening.

To sum up, as long as you can get to the river it’s always worth going fishing, even in the worst of freeze-ups. You may have to change your tactics – but one thing’s for certain – you won’t catch anything if you stay at home!

Q You’ve mentioned that you prefer big baits in cold conditions. But how big is big? I’m thinking especially about bread baits.

A For chub, I prefer flavoured flake or crust and use sufficient to cover a number six hook (i.e. about 10p piece size), which then swells up in the water. For roach, I’d usually start with a bait about the size of a 5p piece matched to a number 10 hook. However, it’s surprising how often 1lb. roach will take chub-sized baits!

Q You referred to lobworm as a big roach bait but most other writers recommend bread as being best. Have you any further comments.

A Most specialist roach anglers fish clear rivers such as chalk streams and here I’d agree that bread is probably better. However, most of my local waters are clay based and I’ve found that lobworm is then preferable. Additionally, the river referred to was rarely fished, and it took some time to wean the roach onto such an unnatural bait as bread!

Q I’ve tried using whitebait but can’t keep it on the hook. What’s the secret?

A Firstly, buy individually frozen whitebait – most fishmongers stock them in 1lb packs at about £2 per lb. Fresh whitebait is almost as good, but avoid frozen blocks as when they’ve thawed out sufficiently to break one whitebait off, the bait is rather too soft to use. Secondly, put the hook, a size 6 or 8 is about right, in through one eye and out through the back of the head.

Q I’m after some specimen roach from a small river but I’m having trouble hitting sharp taps on the quivertip on warm days let alone frozen ones! Have you any suggestions?

A Small river roach bites are notoriously difficult to hit, but there are several things that may help. If there is little wind you could pay out some line after casting so that a distinct bow forms and then watch this bow for bites. Normally, it would also help to move the weight further from the hook, but as mentioned in the article a short hook length is usually better when the river’s very cold. However, perhaps the best solution is to leger upstream and use as little weight as possible. The slightest touch will then show by the quivertip springing back, and the fish will feel little or no resistance. Alternatively, you could switch to the float and lay on slightly overdepth. Once again pay out some line so that there’s a little slack between the float and the rod top.

© Steve Burke