The continuous rattle of sleet on the windows woke me with a start.
A glance at the clock through the morning gloom indicated it was coming up to 7am and I needed to get moving to be on the riverbank before full light. To go or not to go, that was the question. A warm bed, with no need to hurry against the icy conditions and a chilling wind. Or a day on the bank. As usual the fishing won.
The tackle had been loaded into the car the night before, just a rod and reel, put-up chair, rodrest plus a few cage feeders and hooks. Bait was to be simply breadflake, and a pint of stale maggots. Chub were the target, as in winter they are generally reliable whatever the conditions; there was also the possibility of a decent dace or two.
The sleet had slowed, but the roads retained an icy sheen as I edged my way along the country road leading to Sonning and the Pats. No problem fitting into the club car park today, the only other car was a Landrover, recognizable as belonging to Chris, another diehard. For all the discomforts of winter, the fact that the banks were often empty and that you had to really earn your fish made the challenge worthwhile.
After setting up a simple cage feeder I decided to rove the Pats, trying out the preferred swims that the chavender takes a fancy to. These are often the textbook far bank undercuts and willow lined shallows. I have found though, on this particular river at least, that the bigger, solitary fish often seem to lay in the places one could pass without a second glance. There are for instance steady flows in midstream where one could imagine the chub saying to their smaller brethren " I own all this river and all the juicy titbits that flow down my alley".
Simple tackle is the keyword of most of my fishing, and so it was today, straight through 6lb line with a simple flowing trace, and a cage feeder stopped with shot.
4 day old sliced bread was mashed with icy fingers and a little added water to make either a thick gruel or soft porridge dependent on the water’s flow. A large piece of fresh bread onto the size 6 long-shanked hook completed the business end.
First swim and two cage-fulls of mashed bread swung downstream and pulled out when the bottom was reached is the norm for me, looking for quick bites on the move rather than try to build up a swim and freeze to the icy marginal bank.
In with the baited hook and often a response within minutes. Not today though, the Pats seemed lifeless as I moved from swim to swim searching for the odd group of fish. Many of the swims I classify as... a 2 chub swim, a 3 chub swim and so on. Today it seemed to be no chub swim everywhere!
An hour and a few swims later I made my way downstream to see Chris, who’s only success had been a solitary 2 oz roach, looking lifeless and frozen as it gave itself up.
We had a small tot of his hip flask, "sailors rum" he called it, but to me it seemed like warming cough medicine. I bade him farewell just as the hip flask was drained, not knowing where to try next. Almost in a dream I found myself walking across the fields towards the Thames. I could not tell you why to this day, as it had fished poorly of late with only a few dace and perch to the matchmen.
Over the stile, but not quite over as my back foot slipped on the wooded surface and I tumbled to the ground, the rod and fixed spool reel beneath me as I hit the earth.
Pain and more pain. I lay there for many minutes, breathless and doubled up, gasping and groaning for the hurt to go away. Visions of a rigidly frozen body being found in the next week propelled me to my feet, both arms hugging my chest.
I struggled alongside the fence towards the river, when the sensible thing would have been to head home. Still in pain I pushed the rodrest in at the nearest point of the river, unfolded the chair and baited up with bread two thirds of the way across the smoothly flowing Thames. The first cast met with a resounding thump and the hook came back with a large scale. Not any old scale though, this one belonged to Mr. Barbel!
I have caught barbel on bread, but not many, and so I changed to a bunch of maggots, still filling the feeder with bread, and cast back to the same spot. Nothing, and the pain was now enough to make me think that enough was enough, time for home. Then the rod moved waterwards, and I lifted into what could only be a barbel, the line zipping upstream and the rod bending to the fish’s fight. Whereas in the small St. Pats the fish can only go so far before they look for sanctuary, here on the Big River they just head off as fast and as powerfully as they can. Terrific sport. Finally the fish came to the net, around 5lb and in superb condition. Sport continued for the next two hours with 4 more barbel to just over 7lb, plus a chub and a bream, both around 4lb, before the sleet returned and it actually hurt to hold the rod.
Startling the robin that had feasted well at my feet I followed my tracks back alongside the fence, turning to say thank you to no one in particular, and was met with a truly breathtaking sight. The sun low in the sky had defeated the cloud and a shaft of light hit the glistening fields and startled a pair of swans and a gaggle of geese skywards. Silhouetted against the trees the effect was almost so magical that I wondered if I was on my way to " a better life!"
Carefully edging back over the stile I almost collapsed into the car and managed to drive back with one hand steering and changing gears, the other hugging my chest.
Later that day after the doctor had diagnosed two cracked ribs, I wondered on the fate that had led me to fish the Thames for the first time in many months and why the barbel were feeding on such a cold day.
Was it worth it? Well, you know the answer!
The river was lower and clearer than it had been for months. The late winter floods had abated and no significant rain had fallen for many weeks. Lying full stretch on my stomach I could just make out the shadows of the fish as they moved up and down the shallows and into the deeper glide on the far bank. The movements were almost circular; first the chub would appear, dropping back from the flowing ranunculus and allowing the current to drift them back five or six yards. Then with barely perceptible small twitches of their tails they would edge over to the bank at the bottom of the far glide, and then make their way up to start the whole journey over again.
Now and again you could spot the slight deviation as they intercepted the few hemp seeds catapulted over from my hidden spot. As I increased the feed marginally the movements became more aggressive, with the smaller fish and the few dace present dropping back. These were not big chub, the largest probably was around 3lb, and they were taking advantage of the offerings to build up their strength after the rigours of spawning.
A catapult of a dozen casters initially spooked the fish, allowing the dace and minnows to reap the harvest, but the third had them back in the lead, aggressively taking the casters practically from the surface. I fired in three full lots, and havoc broke loose with a free for all as competition for this bounty increased.
Then darker, larger shadows appeared from nowhere. There was no hurry as they edged, seemingly without fin movement, into the feed area. The smaller fish now edged away, but not before the new arrivals had lunged into them, flashing gold as they twisted and sucked into the mass of minnows. Barbus had announced his presence and the other fish, apart from the larger chub, stirred the water surface as they spun off left and right. Perch also joined in, appearing from the margins, fins bristling as they picked off the startled minnows.
I stopped feeding and watched the barbel holding station in the current, moving slowly side to side as their sleek forms adjusted to the flow. More casters initially dropped them back a few feet and they ignored the offering, intent on polishing off the remaining hemp on the bottom, twisting and rocking to pick out the trapped particles from between the polished stones. One of the fish rose to intercept the floaters, and this seemed to act as a signal to the others as they proceeded to take the casters aggressively. The largest fish was close to 8lb, and I noticed that it would suck in then expel the food before accepting it.
I rose on the bank, stretched aching and locked limbs, showing myself to the fish, but they did not charge off as expected but simply dropped back gradually into the deeper water. I walked along the bank, keeping low and as quiet as possible, but still managed to startle a stalking pike which shot out from the marginal lilies, creating a bow wave on the surface and an urgent scattering of the bleak it had been hunting.
Reaching the Cottage swim, the far bank slack was a mass of bubbles as the bream disturbed the muddied bottom, searching out the bloodworm. Many a quiet day had been enlivened here, with worm or sweetcorn, when the fish would suddenly come awake and feed avidly for a couple of hours. River bream these, with an average weight of over 4lb and the best at 8lb plus, they created a real challenge to bring them back through the stronger inside flow. The secret was to put your rod tip in the water and wind back steadily till they came to the net. If you tired them out in the far slack they would go sideways when reaching the main flow and rise to the surface when even 5lb line could break or more likely the hook would pull. A challenge of the sort their lakeland brothers could not offer. I leave them in peace once the white tubercles have appeared on their heads to show breeding time is nearly here.
With the natural bounty of spring, no robins followed my progress down the bank, no sharp chirped reminders of the need to see them through the cold winter. They are sometimes the only company on the bank, except for the swans that are not always welcome, at least until you pack up.
The effects of a couple of months of peace are more noticeable now, and the muddied paths that zigzagged across the grass areas have almost disappeared under renewed growth. Certainly the scented balsam, that had been gradually chopped down with bank sticks to allow rod access, had regrown and in a month or so will be flowering and the pods popping open to shower the waters surface with seed. Despite the general background chatter it is easy to feel at peace now with the river and renew old friendships and challenges.
I visited the river because I was twitchy. I missed my fishing, my bankside friendships and banter, and the sometime need to be alone with my thoughts. I still had two weeks to wait. The 16th could not come soon enough. I tingled with excitement as I retraced my tracks to the car, just stopping to see if the barbel had returned. They had, and there were even a few more.
I waved at them, wished them a good coming season and walked back, a smile lingering in my eyes till the decorating was recommenced.
I semi-dozed by the side of the river, the humidity of the day inducing a mild stupor. The weather hadn’t changed from the bright clear sunshine, so rare these summers, for more than two weeks. Today was different though; you could feel and also see it. Firstly by the heaviness in the air and secondly by the quietness of the birds and the sudden rush of insect life, spurred into hatch by the approaching storm.
During the hot and bright days the fishing had been poor; even the slightly milder evenings had not been successful, but now was the chance to even up the score.
A storm was brewing, bringing fresh flow and oxygen into our water starved river. Surely the fish would respond and repay our efforts of the last weeks.
The sky darkened from the west, and the first few drops of rain hit the dusty bank and disappeared into the soil. Umbrellas are too heavy, so I pulled on my jacket and unzipped the hood, or what was left of it after the rats in the shed had collected their bedding. It was full of 2 bob sized holes.
Refreshing at first and then startling in its power the thunderstorm hit, flashing sheet lightning and booms from afar and not so far (I still count the distance). My eyes watched the deep pool, the result so the story goes of a supposed bomb in the last war, for any signs of fish. My rod, a Tony Fordham 11’ auction site purchase was still in its bag, but the groundwork had been put in. At the front edge of the pool I had deposited 2 pints of hemp that had been boiled, turned off and then added to. Into the pot went some carp pellets to soften, and a half pot of Cajun spice. Once cold, this had been mixed with some binder to create the stiffness needed to gradually release the small diced meat particles within.
An hour later the water had changed from sparklingly clear to that of light greenish brown, my ideal colour. Time to reap the reward.
Another hour later, and the time was moving toward 7pm. After setting up the tackle and the bait, a simple 2 inch chunk of Cajun flavoured meat, I was confident of an early take. The only other significant change was the activity in the water. I had seen an apparently lifeless river awake as if a magic button had been pressed. More particularly, I had seen barbel, not one, not three, but aplenty.
They were as young children at play, porpoising in and out of the river, not just rolling but actually crashing like carp. They had no interest in feeding, but just wanted to enjoy the moment, a fantastic sight if it were not for the impatient, now dried out angler on the bank.
Billy " Golden.B........." shouted from upstream, followed by the screech of his reel; the jammy bugger was in first! " A good fish" he whispered very loudly, followed by a cursed expletive! The " barbel" had turned out to be a brown trout of around 4lb that zigzagged across the surface in a crazy dance before throwing the hook. Very uncommon to see trout on the Loddon, but not unheard of.
After the usual words of comfort from me, followed by a wink between friends, I returned to my swim. Expectation was high, the last hours of the day always kinder to me than the darkness that follows.
The rod tip nodded, and a swing of the arm felt contact and then a strange heavy fluttering. A trout to Billy and now a horrible eel to me as I swung a pounder onto the bank. A fish I guess, but these giant worms are creatures from another planet, and never give me satisfaction. I quick grab with a clothed hand subdued the eel, that had already started to slither back toward the river. How do they always know which way to go?
I replaced the roughened hook link with a fresh one and rebaited with a mini cube of meat, no bigger than 1/4". A longer cast this time to the tail of the pool, conscious of the need to be wary of line bites if the fish were still at the head of the pool. The line pressure simply lessened as the fish mouthed the bait, and an automatic strike had the rod plunging downwards until the spool released the line in a smooth flow. The fish, a barbel for sure, came upstream now with the reel collecting the line as it increased its pace until it drew level. A change of angle with the rod made it dive deeper and more powerfully toward the sunken log spied in the clear water earlier. Steady pressure just turned it, but it ran back downstream under my feet, fighting against my attempts to lift it upwards and capture its picture in my mind.
It turned when it reached the pool again, now burrowing down to find some hidden means of escape. Dogged now, the pace of the fight slowed, but it’s determination was still strongly felt. Edged along the inside it slowly yielded, with my now free hand fumbling for the net. One last dive, and then it was towed upstream allowing the net to embrace it on its return to the surface. Not a monster, just a beautiful fin perfect 5lber that had broken the succession of blank days that had preceded it.
Billy and Ian came to watch its return as it was held upstream for a few minutes in a slowly moving edge until it kicked to be away from its captor. He had caught two fish, both bigger than this one in the last 30 minutes. " Beautiful" he said, it was all he needed to say, we both felt the same way.
It was indeed a great evening’s fishing with many barbel being caught. They were still feeding avidly when we departed 2 hours later, but we’d had our share and there’s no point in being greedy, or selfish to the others that may come to fish later.
A summer’s evening, shared with a few friends tested over the years for company, honesty and inherited care for our sporting quarry.
Sometimes life is just perfect.
It was really too late in the year to hope for great success. The best month of September had long passed, and now in late October the nights had got colder and the chances of a good day had lessened. The weather was wild out there, with winds of almost gale force and sheet rain. The temperature however was good, around 15C, and the wind was changing from a north-westerly to a westerly.
We had arranged the day on the spur of the moment really, with Steve Randles and Stuart Eccleshall wanting to join me for a day on the Pats, a small river that runs into the Thames. Mike (Waterman) was planning to come along, not to fish but just to watch for a couple of hours.
7am came and as the rain hammered down I contemplated suggesting we change plans and fish the well secluded lake not more than a mile away. The guys, however, had wanted barbel, and I must admit the original confidence that I could assist them was now waning. Steve pulled up and we sat in the car and chatted, he burning with enthusiasm for all things fishy, just like myself. Mike soon followed, immaculately dressed as usual, like an advertisement for the best quality angling magazines. We couldn’t wait, and during a lull in the rain made our way to the river, Stuart arriving as we crossed the stile.
After the usual jokes as to whether he had brought lunch etc., we made our way along the bank, my experience on the water allowing me to point out hotspots and suggested swims and tactics (a fine balance between bigheadedness and advice!). Steve settled in my "Banker", the swim that had given me my best duo in a day of 13.1 and 11.6. Stuart took my advice and fished the willow swim, my pointed finger sending him to the wrong spot. Never mind, after he had deposited most of his hemp and bait in the wrong swim I put him right!
Mike came along the bank to watch " The Master". He was still watching two hours later in the third swim I tried, with only a quick rattle to show for my efforts! Meanwhile the strengthening wind and lack of bites meant that Steve and Stuart were probably having doubts about accepting my day on the Pats. In fact Mike departed, probably glad to return to his office sanctuary.
The swims where I had caught the week before were devoid of taking fish, so I tried a spot that runs quickly and is lined with streamer weed. The first roll through with flavoured meat induced a take at my feet, and a strong fish dived downstream under the overhanging bush. Into a snag and then a change of rod angle lifted it clear. It surged away to the far bank, stripping line until I tightened down to hold it firmly. With a full curve on the rod it was edged up until almost level and then with the fight approaching 5 minutes the hook hold gave. I cursed and fell over backwards, very deflated, whilst Steve looked on with genuine dismay. "Good fish" was all I could mutter, but we at least felt we were in with a chance.
Steve adopted the roving tactic, and we discussed the various methods and styles available, my suggestion being that I prefer to use a much lighter weight than most so that the bait flows naturally at the same pace as the water, rather than the stop and nudge tactics so favoured.
Within the half hour Steve was into a good fish that brought me running some distance to watch. A deep and strong inside flow made the netting difficult, and it was some time before the fish was safely in the net, an absolute pristine St. Pats barbel that scaled ex
actly 7.14. I don’t know who was more ecstatic, Steve or me. With the challenge half realised, I do know he never stopped grinning until I went home later!
After a quick chat to Stuart to share the good news and encourage him, plus some suggestions on known holding spots, it left me looking for my first fish. A shallow inside run provided this in the shape of my smallest barbel caught this year at around 2lb plus. A great little fighter that glistened in the late sunshine between the now lifting clouds. Life was looking rosier.
A return to where I had lost the earlier fish again delivered the tell tale blip on the finger-held line, and the strike met solid power as the fish raced off upstream against the clicking drag - another good fish was on! Holding in the flow, this fish resisted the pressure from the rod trying to lift and turn it and set off across the river towards the far bank. A quick change of rod angle changed its mind, and now it was a case of holding and gaining precious inches of line. Once lifted and led upstream again to turn towards the outstretched net, it looked a good 8lb. Yet once in the net, finely wielded by Steve, initial attempts to lift it showed its broad flank. A good 9 was the general opinion, yet on the scales it made just over 10lb. An autumn double! It took a while to recover after the photos and once released slowly settled on the inside to regain full strength.
In the meantime Stuart had cracked off on a fish and sensibly changed his hooklength upwards after seeing the hard fighting quality of the fish in the Pats. He was rewarded with a fish around 5lb, followed by a near 7lber caught just under the trees at the Marsh inflow. Meanwhile I had managed a portly 3lb chub freelining more than 30 yards off the "Point" swim. We now had some happy anglers!
Getting dark, and having all missed the odd chance to increase our catches, Steve wandered off to try some more meat rolling. Never one to miss an opportunity of a baited swim, I edged into his patch and a lump of meat bounced of the far bank rushes accounted for a tough old 9lber that headed for the sunken tree and refused to be turned until I was forced to walk backwards and tow it out.
Some fine fish, a chance for a chat and making new friends, all due to Anglers’ Net and the team that runs and contributes to it. I hope I can arrange something again, but I doubt if we can fulfill most anglers wishes so completely.
But that’s fishing!
Graham Elliott - 2000
Pictures courtesy of David Kennedy and Gray Catchpole / Thank you