THE MYSTERY FACTOR
Recent discussions, regarding tiny running water venues on the Fishing Magic forums, reminded me that I’ve always been interested in such places. I first got the bug for fishing small rivers and streams when I was a kid, mainly because you never knew what might be in them. I used to visit relatives in the West Country and loved exploring the tiny River Frome that meandered through fields nearby. I discovered a narrow stream that ran off this river and the only way to fish it was to take the middle section off my already quite short three-piece split cane rod. I then stuffed some paper into the ferrule in the butt piece, so the top section would fit. Trotting a mini float I caught some cracking roach. Later, when I got into club fishing, we used to have outings on a small tributary at Eaton Wick that ran into the Thames. It was stuffed with dace and provided great sport. This is another small Midlands river where I currently enjoy similar dace fishing.
BACK ON THE CASE
The upper River Witham is just up the road from where I now live. In some places you can jump across it and even in the slightly wider glides the depth is minimal. It took me a while to get to know this place and how to approach it. As is normal for just about everywhere I go, local anglers told me the venue used to be brilliant years ago, but has declined. I quickly found out it isn’t stuffed with fish, but if you do a bit of work, they are there to be caught. Location is important because there are some areas where it’s a proper struggle to get a bite, but in other spots swims will come to life with clever feeding. I’ve learnt not to dive in straight away with rigs, but to sit there patiently loose feeding with maggots or casters for a while. The fish are very skittish in such shallow water, so you need to get them feeding confidently, otherwise a quick flurry of action kills swims stone dead. I’ve had to revert to small floats, a bit like those I used as a kid.
LIGHTENING THE LOAD
With inches rather than feet to play with depth-wise, I modified some small stick floats to take even less shot. I did this by cutting the top part of their bodies down, leaving their heavy cane stems alone. At the same time, I glued on bright hollow plastic sight tips, because standard painted balsa ones were hard to see when long trotting. I discovered translucent tips remain highly visible, particularly when running tackle down long glides into dark water with lots of cover. I ended up with several mini stick floats, but they still carried more weight than I really needed. My solution was to position a couple of number 4 or 6 shot directly underneath the float, leaving just enough capacity left to spread out a couple of number 8 Stotz weights. This set-up allowed me to set the float slightly over-depth and run it through on a tight line, so the hook bait ran down in front of it. That extra weight under the float made tight control much easier.
Minnows can be a pain on small rivers and streams, where they normally thrive. It can help to get through them by using bigger baits, but that means bypassing species like dace, which I always enjoy catching. I also think if you can get dace active in your swim, it increases the chances of eventually pulling in much bigger chub. I did try hemp and tares by the way, but that combination didn’t work. My solution was to try and feed off, or work my way through the minnows. They usually fade away once you get something bigger chasing after your loose feed. Another trick I’ve learnt on my local small river is to pick swims with long glides, preferably running into bends or areas with lots of bankside cover. That’s where the bigger fish are likely to be and by feeding them up to you, rather than dumping tackle right over their heads, a lot more end up being caught. It takes a lot of patience, but sport lasts longer once it gets going.
I once caught a fabulous pound-plus dace from the River Thames, when it used to hold a big head of these fish throughout the middle and tidal reaches. This species was so prolific, it was the mainstay of many match catches. Big double figure weights were possible. It was busy fishing that I hugely enjoyed, and the same applied when targeting these fish on much smaller waters. The River Stort at Roydon, near the railway station, was a favourite haunt of mine. In some areas it was only a few inches deep, but somehow I managed to magic out lots of fish. I also remember a small tributary of the upper Thames, a tiny stream I used to explore, somewhere near Lechlade I think. I had to make up special 3 inch long all-balsa floats to cope with the shallow runs, catching loads of plump dace from narrow gullies you could easily step across. The water was gin-clear and I even caught a small barbel from there during one hectic, memorable session.
Back to recent times and exploring more of the Witham. Local rumour has it that this small river used to hold some double-figure barbel, but I’ve not seen or heard of any being caught since living in the area. Apparently, there were lots of good-sized bream resident in the bends and narrows below the ford at Foston, about the most unlikely looking area for this species you could imagine. But sadly, I’m told a pollution in the late nineties wiped these fish out. However, the same area now seems to have bounced back with plenty of dace, chub and grayling. Something I’ve learnt that works a treat when you can’t get bites on float tackle, is to work a small bomb rig down a swim. A stationary bait often brings savage takes. Another good thing about fishing below a ford, is when traffic passes through it and clouds up the water. This washes downstream for several hundred yards and tends to stir the fish into feeding every time it occurs.
One thing there is no shortage of in the Witham are trout. They are everywhere, from super-charged pound fish, up to several times that size. They are impossible to control swim-wreckers, which when hooked shoot about all over the place, often going airborne. I remember one crazy session when trout kept interrupting what was turning into a brilliant day catching dace. I must have put back over 20lbs of spotted fish, feeling sorry for a fly angler working the far bank at the tail end of my swim. He looked like he knew what he was doing but never caught a thing, while my float was trotting down close by and kept going under. I wondered if they do a trout fly that looks like a single caster? I’ve nothing against trout, but they can make me feel a bit ratty after carefully building a swim, only to go and hook one that decides to disturb every inch of a long run that was developing nicely. I’ve even experienced a big trout somersaulting over a weir.
I class this as a great catch from a small river or stream, where a 12ft float rod was almost too long for the job and a mini stick float set 18 inches above a size 18 hook, was a tad over-depth. To me this is the equivalent of catching over a ton of fish from a commercial, only better and more interesting. All I fed was a small tin of cooked hemp and not quite a pint of casters. I didn’t even try a maggot because the glide I caught these fish from was heaving with minnows. I had to use dark casters to try and avoid them. Several lively trout got in on the act, with a couple close to 4lbs. One roach turned up and the couple of bonus chub were latecomers, as is usual for this type of fishing. This catch came from a stretch that has a bit more cover than most, which I suspect is why it holds more dace. They probably feel safer from predators. It’s not all like this, there are many swims out in the open fields where you are lucky to see just one of these fish.
I hardly see a soul when out exploring small running water venues, apart from the odd dog walker. Parking can be a problem on many out of the way stretches, requiring some long hikes. I’ve thought about travelling light, but still tend to use a trolley that gets overladen with gear when I start to think about all the possibilities this type of fishing can offer. I rarely move once settled anyway, preferring to make something happen from my first-choice swim, even if it takes a long time. That’s the great thing about flowing water, keep the feed going in and eventually something will move up to it. I’ve lost count of the occasions when small river glides have come to life after several hours of running a float through. I think a hook bait constantly drifting past the snout of the wariest of big chub often irks them enough to eventually engulf it, while in other cases a shoal of big fish simply moves in. Occasionally catapulting bait well down swims can help this.
Grayling often inhabit small flowing watercourses. You normally know when one of these gets attached, due to that unusual wriggling fight they produce in fast flowing water, particularly when hooked at distance. I’ve caught a few over 2lbs in bigger rivers like the Kennet and Itchen, but a one-pounder is a good fish from the less wide places I fish now. Lots of small ones are appearing, which is nice for the future. I don’t know why, but I haven’t seen a perch yet from the upper reaches of the Witham, yet lower down where it joins the Fossdyke Canal and various Lincolnshire drains, big perch are common. As mentioned previously, big barbel have been caught in the past from some of the areas I fish. I haven’t heard of any since I have been frequenting the banks and worryingly, otters are now quite common. The tiny river was also heavily dredged years ago, looking more like a high-banked drain until nature put some vegetation back.
The species that makes it all worthwhile for me, after negotiating muddy fields, ditches and stiles is chub. They grow surprisingly big in tiny rivers and streams, but are also ultra-elusive, which is probably why they have survived the attentions of otters, mink, cormorants, and any other predators. These fish are like ghosts at times and I suspect they move around a lot. You might just be lucky and sit on a nest of them, while there are many outings where they are hard to find, or just don’t want to play. The best way I’ve found of catching the bigger fish is to find long straight glides that run into deeper water on heavily overgrown bends. Trees, bushes, brambles, reeds, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s good cover. The trick then is to sit well upstream and to feed the fish up to you. A combination of hemp and casters works best for me. I use tinned hemp, because I think the rich oils it releases interests fish quicker than just casters.
Catching fish this size from a small river, stream, brook, whatever people might call it, is a magical experience. They came from a far-off swim that was a killer to hike to over muddy fields, but well worth the effort. Depth was minimal, to the extent once the chub arrived, they were bow-waving the surface as they chased around for my loose fed casters. I had to fish on the light side to fool them, using a small hook tied to low diameter line. It was hairy playing these lumps on that kind of tackle in fast-flowing water, but a soft, through-actioned float rod helped a lot. I used a buoyant reel line and one of my mini stick floats, the latter working brilliantly with a couple of tiny shot spread out below. Despite featuring a strong current, the bed of the glide was covered in fine weed. This meant I had to keep a tight line to the float to get the baited hook running through well in front of it to avoid snagging, with the tackle slightly over-depth. Superb fishing.