Over the past few years the number of river anglers utilizing the "rolling baits" methods of fishing has increased substantially. With the increased popularity of targeted species, the capture of barbel, and to some degree chub, has moved forward light years from the standard hemp and feeder or hemp and static meat/bait approach. Both methods, albeit still very successful, have proven to have weaknesses on many of the heavily targeted waters. Most anglers are aware that a number of fish are now very cautious when considering a static bait as food. Indeed, careful observation often reveals either total rejection of a static bait or, in some instances, the fish have been seen to move swims away from the offending object. A lot of the "taps" often put down to dace etc. are on many occasions larger fish testing/mouthing the bait to see if it is indeed "fixed".
The development of "rolling" baits, when the chosen bait is allowed to move along the bottom with a series of nudges to aid its progress, has been a revelation to a large number of anglers, special rods and reels being produced to assist the method. Yet, in my experience, for improved and consistent success the method needs still to be refined.
Natural, that’s the keyword to fooling the fish and improving catches. Much of my freelining style has been evolved through watching fish’s reaction to bait, and even now I’ve noticed the fish will frequently drop back and follow a bait down the swim as far as 10 yards before deciding whether to accept or reject the offering.
Make no mistake, there’s nothing new about the way I fish, it’s purely based on absolute freelining, ensuring that the bait follows a natural path over and along the river’s flow. Notice I didn’t say bottom. That is because probably for half of the time my bait is in-between the bottom and midwater. My view is that barbel, as well as chub, have no problem with feeding midstream when actively feeding; indeed I believe in many cases they prefer to do so. Just think of the number of times you’ve foulhooked fish when trotting. This occurs when you’re overdepth and dragging through fish, or when the fish have risen up in the water and are intercepting the shot as hemp. On some days I foulhook as many fish as those I fairly connect with. Changing to seedbait midstream does prevent this, I’ve satisfied myself of this on many occasions.
The number of times I come across anglers who believe that to be successful with rolling meat you need to cast out sufficient weight to hit the bottom and then drag the bait downstream through the debris and weed until it’s level with you. Hardly "rolling", more a tweaked leger approach that can be successful at finding where the fish are. With freelining you are searching for fish.
Unlike many, I do add bait samples into the swims to be fished. This may be as many as 20 pieces according to the availability of swims to be tried. When the bankside allows access to 3 or 4 running swims, I generally put all my prebait into the first one from the start to the lower section. The plan is to get the barbel and chub in a feeding mood along the full stretch and build up confidence. This will be dispelled if followed with a fixed lead chucked in the middle!
Now is the time to be brave. Dependent on the flow use just sufficient lead to allow the bait to hit bottom, level with you if cast upstream as far as you can. In the majority of cases on the Pats, Loddon or the Kennet you need no weight when the river is at normal levels. On the odd occasion when other anglers have been present or passing, they often see the bow in the line and the pace of the moving bait and frequently query this light approach. In the last two months I have had 3 separate anglers tell me to add more weight as I’m "off the bottom". That’s true for half the time at least, but more importantly the bait is moving exactly as the free samples put in earlier and in the truly natural manner of river brought food.
Of course, like many new "old" ideas you need to be prepared to try the method when you have a chance of a fish rather than in a snowstorm. To be more specific on the method, cast upstream starting with an underarm swing if possible, allow the line to run off till the bottom is reached then engage the reel clutch. Pulling the free line between the reel and first rod ring, raise the rod until you feel the bait on the tip. This has the effect of lifting the bait into midstream. Lowering the tip, whilst still holding the freeline takes the tension of the bait. Now the important bit - with the hand holding the freeline adjust the pace of the bait by pulling the freeline out when the bait approaches and releasing when it moves downstream. Don’t pull the bait’ work with it to match the natural flow. If fished correctly, you should only feel the bottom when the bait is level with you. To fish this method is far easier than explaining it!
There will nearly always be a significant bow in the line. Don’t worry - the free hand on the line will show you every touch, and most of these will be fish as you do not get the frequent "pings" caused by rolling a heavier end setup along the river bed. You’ll often need to add weight when the river is high or pushing through a shallow run, but try first without, even if halfway through the swim you can still see your bait. Chub will frequently take in the upper half of the depth, and so I promise you, will barbel.
Graham Elliott - 2000