Reading the River by Neil Wayte
With the new season just a couple of weeks away and many of us looking forward to the opening of the rivers, lets walk down the river and point out some of the features that we should be looking for. Every river in the country is different but there are certain aspects that transfer from rivers, as diverse as the Thames to the Itchen. These rivers may differ in size but that is the only major difference.
It would be impossible to cover all aspects of a river in one short piece so Iíve tried to select a small selection of features that you will find on your local river. Most of these will be visually obvious to any one who looks such as weirs or rafts but others, such as under cut banks or drop offs, may not stand out as easily.
Letís start off with weir pools, loved by some, hated by others. Personally they are one of my favourite places to fish because of their wildness. At first glance their surface is a boiling cauldron of foaming water, but if you take the time to stand back and take the time to look you will be able to read the surface of the water. The fast white topped flow from the gates of the weir will slowly flatten out and calm down as it reaches the tail of the weir pool. Around the sides will be calmer water that is often flowing back on its self, as it circles the out side of the weir pool. Right at the bottom of the weir pool the water will become shallower, as the gravel that is pushed towards the tail by the force of the water builds up.
Weir pools can be tremendous places to fish at the beginning of the season, because the fish in the river tend to hold up in and around the pools because of the extra oxygen generated by water flowing over the weir sill, also lots of fish migrate up river to spawn on the gravel that builds up at the tail of the weir and once they have finished their annual reproduction they stay in the oxygen rich water to help build up their strength.
Try standing on the weir and watching the way that the water flows after it has passed over the weir. This is also the way that any food being carried by the water will travel, and it will help you imagine where any fish may be lying waiting to intercept it. Food will be carried to the back of the weir pool and then some of it will be carried round the edges of the pool on the water that is flowing back on its self. Taking this further one of the most likely spots will be at the tail end of the pool where the water calms down; this in turn makes it more comfortable for the fish to wait to intercept the food. Once the water has hit the back of the pool it turns back on its self and flows back along the edge of the weir pool, so this is a comfortable area for the fish and therefore a good area to target them.
As I mentioned earlier the tail end of weir pools tends to be shallower so if the water is clear enough it should be possible to see if there are any fish present. Both the barbel and chub should be visible on the gravel.
Because of the flow of water in weir pools it is difficult to bait up accurately so the best way to tackle them is to either use a small PVA bag of pellets each time you cast out, or to use an open ended swim feeder packed with ground bait. By doing this you are introducing a small amount of feed to attract fish to your hook bait. My method for tackling weir pools especially ones Iím not familiar with is to use two rods, one is fished on one spot and the other is moved around with each cast. The static rod is usually cast down the side of the pool where the water flows back on its self and is recast every thirty minutes to try to build up a bed of bait for the fish to find. The second rod is used to search round the pool. I start off right up in the fast water in front of the sill and then move down the pool each cast until I get to the end of the pool and then itís brought round the edge until I reach the static rod. By searching for the fish this way I hope to establish where they are lying up.
At the tail end of the pool in the shallower water it can pay to introduce some bait with a bait dropper, preferably some hemp and pellets and sit back and watch. If there are chub and barbel around, they will soon find the feed. If you find the fish feeding on your bait then you will obviously want to cast to them. This will inevitably spook them. Now if youíre serious about your barbel fishing itís about time that you invested in the most expensive bait dropper around. Iím not talking about your usual Thamesley bait dropper but the match anglerís favourite tool, a roach pole. By using a pole cup on the end of the pole you can place your rig in it and then with the bait runner engaged on the reel slowly feed the pole through your hands until it is over the baited area and then gently tip the rig out into the river. By using a pole to place your bait you can eliminate any splash that would normally spook the fish. There is a chance that the shadow of the pole over their heads will spook them but nothing like a large lead and PVA bag crashing into the water directly above them.
Before we move off down the river I must mention the other fish that can inhabit weir pools because itís not just barbel and chub. The calmer water down the side of the pool will invariably hold roach, perch and possibly bream. One of my favourite weir pools on the Kennet has some cracking Roach living in it. There are also some big Perch and one day when I was just standing on the bridge over the weir sill I saw big perch coming out of the fast white topped water to chase minnows that were in the shallow water on top of the concrete sill. This particular pool has also seen the occasional carp caught and Iím sure that there are resident fish there. Tales of big fish being lost are usually put down to big barbel but Iím convinced the odd rouge carp is responsible. On the opening day a few years ago I hooked a right lump of a fish that I could not shift from the bottom of the weir, eventually impatience got the better of me and the hooked pulled. Two weeks later one of the regulars landed a 19lb mirror from the very same swim, which makes me think I had hooked the very same fish.
Rafts of rubbish that build up on the bank side vegetation attract both anglers and fish. All species of fish feel safer if they have some sort of cover over their heads to protect them from predation. The lower light level cause by the cover over their heads is Iím sure also a factor that attracts them to reside under these canopies. If the raft is in the middle of a length of river with very little else in the way of cover then there can be surprisingly large numbers of fish hiding underneath them. There used to be a large raft of rubbish built up on a fallen willow tree on the Kennet that Ian Welch and I used to call the feature swim because, if we ever needed to catch a fish for the cameras then that was were we headed. Fish either up or downstream of this raft and you might get a bite, but fish just above it and a dozen fish were on the cards. A couple of years ago the summer floods washed the willow away; and now sadly the fish have spread out again.
If youíre targeting barbel the best way to fish these rafts is to position yourself 15í or so above them. Introduce some hemp and pellets using the bait dropper, or preferably a roach pole, directly in front of you and then wait. The scent trail from the bait will draw the barbel upstream from their safe haven to the bait. Donít be tempted to cast a bait right in front of or under the raft its self because, whilst you will get a bite, Iím willing to bet it will just be the one bite. When you hook the fish you will spook every other fish under the raft. By drawing the fish upstream to your baited area above the raft you will not spook as many fish as you hook them and they will keep on coming up to the baited spot to feed through out the day.
If youíre chub fishing then there is nothing better than loose feeding maggots well above the raft and then trotting a float down to it. Chub will respond to a constant stream of maggots coming down stream towards them. Bites will either come as the float passes just by the outside of the raft or as you hold the float back as it gets to the front of the cover. By stopping the float the maggots on the hook will rise up enticingly in front of any chub sitting just under the raft.
Alternatively you could bounce a lob worm under the raft using just a single swan shot to see if there are any big perch lurking in the shadows, but beware everything of any size in the river will take a lob worm, so use strong enough tackle to cope.
Depth changes in the river are also excellent spots to fish but they can be harder to spot. On smaller rivers it easy to see where the water deepens off after it has passed over shallow runs. But on bigger rivers it really needs the use of a boat and an echo sounder. Not everyone, and I include myself, can afford a boat and an echo sounder, but the serious anglers on the Thames or the Severn can gain a huge advantage by spending time travelling the river just watching the echo sounder. An excellent example of this can be seen on the barbel video ďBarbel up even closerĒ featuring Stuart Morgan and Guy Robb. On a certain stretch of the Thames the guys have located a deep hole in the middle of the river with the echo sounder and on the video it even shows fish registering on the screen as they pass over the hole.
There is how ever a cheaper alternative and that is the smart cast system. Although not as effective as a boat mounted device, this little bit of kit can give you a general depth reading. Basically the small transducer is cast out on your line and allowed to float down the river whilst you watch the hand held screen, this shows the depths and make up of the river bed.
Back on the smaller rivers it is not just the areas where the river deepens off in general that are of interest. Often in the shallow runs in the river there are deeper gulleys that may run for just a few feet or for many yards .This small difference in depth is all that the fish need to feel more secure and again there may be numbers of fish holding up in them. On the shallows there are often beds of weeds, and even though the water may only be a foot deep fish, and barbel in particular, are masters at hiding under the weed. Put your sun glasses on and watch carefully to see if they slip out from the cover to intercept any food passing them by. Donít just give the area a cursory glance and then move on, spend 10 or 15 minutes carefully studying every inch of the river beds it may take a while but your eyes will become attuned to what you are looking at, suddenly you will start to spot fish. Barbel often give themselves away by just showing an orange tipped triangular fin poking out from under some weed. Chub on the other hand will often be seen scooting about all over the place.
There is no more exciting way of fishing than trundling a piece of luncheon meat down between the weed beds, watching and feeling for a pull from a barbel. Some people use a swan shot or two to weigh the line down, while others use plasticene moulded round the line as a weight. A great trick Iíve used in the past is to mould some critical mass around the shank of the hook to add weight to it and then pass some shrink tube over the critical mass. Steam the shrink tube down so that it holds the critical mass tight to the hook to prevent it from falling off. The weighted hook is then pushed into a lump of luncheon meat and cast out, doing it this way there is nothing on the main line to snag up in the weeds as the bait is carried down between them by the flow of the river. The shrink tube that is sold in tackle shops isnít big enough to do this job but the shrink tube used by electricians comes in much larger sizes that will do the job. If itís the chub you can see out on the shallows then the best way of catching them is by using a float rod and a waggler. Float companies these days make some excellent short bodied wagglers in clear plastic that just right for this job. Try to use the ones that have a weight in the base of the float that is almost enough to cock the float, all you then need is two very small shot to lock the float on the line, and a small shot down the line to help sink the hook. You can either use caster or maggot as hook bait, my preference is red maggots .Using a small match catapult start feeding 20 or so maggots every couple of minutes to get the chub interested and once you have them charging about trying to grab every maggot coming down the river, cast the float above them and let it run through. If you havenít tried this then it is some of the most exciting fishing you are ever likely to enjoy. You can almost see them taking your bait but watch out when you hook one because they fight like mad on the light gear.
Another feature you will see mentioned a lot when it comes to rivers are creases. Although they are not as obvious to the eye as the other features mentioned creases are easy to spot once you get the concept of what you are looking for. The best way to try and describe a crease is would be to say that it is a visible line on the surface of the river that marks the line between a fast and a slower current. This difference in speed of current may be caused by an obstruction lying in the water that causes the main current in the river to be pushed away from the bank towards the middle of the river. Down stream of this obstruction there will be a slower current closer to the bank and a faster current towards the middle of the river and the line between the two is the crease. There may also be creases caused by weed beds out in the river that deflect the main flow of the river to one side or the other and this will have the same effect. So when you a re walking down the river you are looking for a difference in speed of the current.
Why are these differences in river speed such good features to look for? Fish like to lay up in the slower water because they can conserve energy by not having to swim against the flow of the main river but they also have the benefit of being in a position to intercept any food that is being carried down the river and are in a position to swim out into the main current to grab any food items that are coming their way.
Creases can hold all types of fish from barbel to roach and are a favourite haunt of bream. The best way to tackle creases is to introduce some bait above the crease and let it be carried down the current. Your tackle should be cast out into the main flow and allowed to swing round and settle right on the edge of the crease. The real trick is to use just enough weight on the line so that it is carried by the flow until it settles. If you use too much weight this will take your rig down to the bottom of the river still out in the main flow which is isnít ideal. Too little weight will cause the rig to be pushed right into the slower water. By fishing above the crease you will be able to see where the line enters the water once the rig has settled and ideally the line should enter the water right on the line of the crease. Too much weight and the line will enter the water out in the main current, too little weight and the line will be entering the water actually in the slower water.
You should start off by fishing right at the top of the crease and then gradually reposition your bait further down the crease line each time you recast, so that you thoroughly search out the length of the crease.
My favourite way to tackle these creases is to use some form of leger, either as a straight lead or a swim feeder. For barbel fishing a straight lead and a pellet will be hard to beat. For chub or roach either use a swan shot or two, or a swim feeder loader with liquidised bread and bread on the hook. Once again donít forget the humble lob worm because as I said earlier every thing eats lobs.
I suppose an extension of the crease, is these are the slacks that are caused by trees or bushes that are in the water at the edge of the river. On the larger rivers there may also be slacks behind the supports of bridges that span the river. If the river is wide enough then there will be a central support for the bridge, behind that will be an area of slack water. This also happens if you have islands in the river, with the flow of the river going around each side there will inevitably be slack water at the very end of the island. With normal water levels there are always fish sheltering in these slacks doing exact ally as the fish on the creases, staying away from the main flow but keeping an eye out for passing food items.
Fishing slacks on your side of the river is easy because all you need to do is lower bait quietly into the slack. Obviously being quiet is vital so tackle up well away from the river and then creep quietly into place. There is no need for chairs or even bank sticks because these will create noise of some kind. All you need to do is creep up quietly and lower the bait in and then just lay your rod on the floor.
Slacks on the far side of the river however require a different approach. By far the best way to approach a far bank slack is to fish with your rod tip way up in the air so that you keep as much of your main line out of the main flow of the river. By doing this you minimise the pressure on the line that will pull your lead or feeder out of position. To reduce the risk of your bait being pulled out of position ever further, you can feed a bow of line out into the river once the lead or feeder has settled. This allows the line to be carried down stream and below the lead or feeder, and thus minimising the pressure on the line. Bites are simple to spot because you will get a couple of taps on the line, and then your rod tip will spring back as the pressure on the line is reduced, because the fish has hooked its self against the weight of the lead or feeder and dropped down stream. Once again getting the correct amount of weight on the line is important. Ideally you need just enough weight to hold bottom once the feeder has settled on the river bed but not too much as to produce too much resistance when a fish picks up the bait and backs off. Too much weight is not a problem if you are barbel fishing because they tend to pick up the bait and bolt as they feel reistance.However chub, roach and perch are all more susceptible to feeling resistance when they pick up baits so the need to keep the weight used to a minimum is important.
With all mid water or far bank slacks, it is possible to fish directly opposite them but it is far easier to position yourself slightly down stream from them. This helps to allow you to feed the important bow in the line out in to the flow and helps to hold bottom. Also being down stream it makes landing the fish easier, as you can draw the hooked fish down stream and away from the snag or support that is causing the slack.
Whilst Iím talking about features on bigger rivers, I must mention two other features. The first is any form of structure that is in the river. By structure I mean things like landing stages for boats or old metal moorings that have been abandoned or perhaps sunken boats. All of these will attract fish because they provide cover for them. On certain stretches of the Trent there are walls in the middle of the river, quite why I donít know but for the local carp anglers and barbel anglers they are hot spots. Secondly, there are the boats that are on the rivers. I know, and river regulars will know, that boats can be a total nightmare when youíre fishing if they are on the move. Cutting through lines and creating washes that erode the bank side as well as swamping tackle if they are travelling to fast, once they moor up, and lets face it many of them donít seem to move from one year to the next, they provide cover for fish to hide under. Small fish shelter under them because they feel safe and bigger fish prey on them once they are there. Inhabited stationary boats can provide the river angler with ready baited swims to fish. Food waste is often just chucked over the side to cut down on the rubbish that has to be disposed of and fish are not slow when it comes to exploiting a food source.
Obviously baits fished close to, or even under these boats will produce fish, but please be careful when casting towards boats because bouncing your 3oz lead off the side off an occupied floating gin palace, will result in conflict!
When rivers are in a state of flood, then the above mentioned slacks really do come into their own as hot spots. All species of fish will take shelter from the heavier flows in the main river during times of flood and these slacks provide then with just that. The only exception to this will be the barbel who seem to be just as happy to remain out in the main flow even when the river has burst its banks, but look at the way they have evolved with their slopping heads and broad fins that when the river flows over them it pushes them down to the bottom of the river. Most anglers seem to be scared of a raging river when Barbel fishing and look for the slacks in the margins, however those of us who look forward to these flooded rivers will be digging out their larger leads.
My personal best barbel came from the river Kennet when the river had burst its banks along the majority of its course. I found an area of slightly higher ground roughly 6í square where I could place my chair and using a lead of 8oz to hold the bottom in the middle of a weir run off caught my 17lbíer. I have also hooked barbel on the tidal Trent, when there has been 18í of flood water on the river and my 8oz leads have failed to hold bottom, but by using a 12oz feeder in the middle of the river I was able to get bites. These are obviously exceptional conditions but in the slacks other fish will be willing to feed.
I could carry on but I have run out of space but there are many other features to consider such as marina entrances, marginal weed beds, river confluences and back waters to name but a few. Hopefully this piece will give the less experienced readers an idea of what to look for when we venture out to the river banks on the glorious 16th!
For more information on Neil Wayte, including tuition please visit: www.neilwayte.com