With the advent of more specialist anglers, big fish are increasingly coming under more pressure and hence wising up quicker. To keep in touch with them requires an understanding of the quarry and by assessing their reactions to baits and fishing techniques. A strategy can be formulated to catch them when it is not possible to observe them.
For several years I experienced some wonderful summers on the upper Bristol Avon. The river is fairly shallow and runs over good gravel for most of its length and is generally clear enough to spot fish in good conditions. The business of location is reasonably simple as any expanse of weed or overhanging bushes or tree is usually a banker. Then it was a simple case of piling in hemp and corn at the head of the swim until the fish showed an interest and then fishing over the top. It usually only took a short while for the fish to find the bait and by ensuring that there was ample bait in the swim at all times, preoccupation was achieved quite quickly. As the seasons wore on, it became increasingly difficult to get the fish to respond. Instead of a dozen barbel crawling over each other in a wriggling mass of bodies devouring the hemp, it became more commonplace to see the odd fish ghost in and out of the swim, usually taking only a mouthful of bait away from the main baited area. Obviously my catch rate started to drop off and in order to increase it again I fished less early mornings and more night sessions. Fishing after dark saw my catch rate rise again, but it wasn't the answer I was looking for as I find stalking fish absolutely fascinating.
Then a couple of winters ago, I had two days available for fishing. The conditions looked very good, a dropping river with a healthy tinge of colour and a reasonable temperature. I fished a venue I knew very well and chose six swims in a two-hundred yard stretch that had all produced fish at one stage or another. The swims were initially primed with a hemp and corn mixture, comprising one tin of corn to four gallons of hemp. I rolled a bait through the swims a few times during the day to familiarise myself with the features but didn't flog them as I wanted the fish to have as long as possible to find the bait and gain confidence so they would be immediately receptive to my bait after dark. I fished in several other swims during the daytime but regularly returned to the baited area to keep them topped up. Although I hadn't caught anything during the daytime, I was very confident as I walked to the baited areas with darkness rapidly closing in. The first swim I fished was an overhanging bush on the far bank, which is generally a shallow area with a deeper channel behind the bush. I fiddled in my pocket for a 3/4oz. lead, which I had found earlier just held bottom with an upstream cast. A large chunk of meat was hooked on and the cast landed just short of the bush, inches from the far bank. I felt the lead tripping over the gravel with the line which was held in my left hand. The lead inched down the run until it reached some streamer weed, which is an excellent place for barbel to lie up against, before it came to an abrupt halt as the line snagged against it.
I held it there for several minutes, and with no sign of a fish, lifted the rod top and twitched the line with my left hand and started walking backwards, keeping in constant contact with the falling tackle. It stopped several more times and by now I was about 10 yards behind the bush. I felt a slight tug on the line and the tension on the quivertip released. I struck into a scrappy little barbel of just over 4lbs. My confidence was now sky high, my first proper cast and a fish in the bag. As the fish had come from a fair way down the swim, I decided to bait that spot as well as directly behind the bush. That decision may have proved crucial. I fished on into the darkness until at about one o’clock, when tiredness got the better of me and I retired to my van. Surprisingly I hadn't had another bite, although I felt confident in all the swims and conditions remained perfect.
When I woke the next morning, I had a good breakfast before walking back to the swims with a couple more gallons of hemp and corn ready to bait all the swims again. I felt sure that the extra hemp going in would tip the odds in my favour. I had proved to myself several years previously that baiting swims for several consecutive days spurred them on and I was sure that would be the case. All the swims from the previous day were baited as well as the spot that produced the fish. I fished away from the baited area for a few hours during the day without putting in any loosefeed but never had a twitch. I also regularly commuted to the baited swims to keep them topped up and returned to them at dusk for another night's fishing. In the half-light I saw a friend walking towards my swims. He stopped at a productive swim at the bottom of the field and a torch shining in the distance a few minutes later told me that he had been successful. I saw the torch a bit further up later on before he reached me. I was still biteless. We chatted for a while before he went back to the swims further down and later on in the night I saw the torch shining again. At midnight I was still biteless and so went to find him for a chat. I told him of my plight and it transpired that he had stopped using hemp and his results had vastly improved. I thought back to the summer with fish avoiding the baited areas and suddenly it all sunk in. I had probably scared all the fish off; the fish from the previous evening had come quite a far way from the baited area and now I was baiting its swim, I didn't have another touch. The technique of heavy prebaiting in winter had given me the majority of my best fish and to suddenly realise it may have worked against me was a shock. Although the fish were undeniably spooky of hemp in the summer, I assumed that the clarity of the river also conspired against me and the advent of high coloured water would give them confidence to feed on it again. With that we both drove about a mile downstream and in my first swim and without any loosefeed, I had a bite within two minutes and another small but nevertheless welcome barbel was landed. I was angry with myself for not twigging earlier but the lesson was certainly there. I fished on for another couple of hours but tiredness beat me and I drove home in a reflective mood.
I had relied on hemp for so long to bring the fish to me or spur them into a feeding spell that I didn't want to abandon it straight away so I decided to experiment. The next time I went fishing I would again fish six swims in rotation but this time I would bait the first, third and fifth and leave the second, fourth and sixth. The results were inconclusive and so for the rest of the season I didn't bother using hemp. Another advantage of not using any loosefeed is that it is far easier to chop and change swims and not feel tied to them if a move is decided on.
The following season the fish were initially feeding on hemp but it was noticeable how quickly they turned off it. Other people were experimenting with cocktails, which included tares and various small seed baits mixed with hemp, and these were proving more successful. The actions of the barbel were similar to that experienced by carp and bream anglers. At one stage carp anglers were firing hundreds of baits into swims before the trend went full circle and now some use none at all. The idea is that the first bait the carp inspects is the hookbait and it has less chance of realising this than if it had twenty or more freebies to compare it against. Bream anglers
at Queensford started off by filling in swims with groundbait but after a while some believed that the fish were associating it with a bad experience and avoiding the baited areas.
At the end of the day it is hard to make hard and fast rules about whether to loosefeed or not. I try to base any decisions on what I observe in the summer and keep tabs on the fishes response throughout the autumn until the clarity of the river is such that I can no longer see them. The rest of the season is then guesswork based on the observations and experiences. With all branches of angling, you have to regularly adapt and follow your instincts to keep in touch with the fish. Perhaps that’s what makes fishing such a fascinating and rewarding pastime. A winning method one-year turned out to be working against me the following year. If I had been fishing on my own that night it would have been too easy to put it down to the fish being fickle but that obviously wasn't the case. I certainly won't fall into the trap of being too stereotyped in the future.
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