Autumn Gold

I love this time of year. The colours changing with the season, the nip in the air and the fish on the munch before the really cold weather moves in and food becomes scarce. It’s surprising therefore, with so much good fishing to be had, that the tackle shops are emptying out and fewer anglers are on the banks. So for those of you who have packed your rods away far too early here’s a little taste of what you’ve been missing..

Tidal Thames Milestone

I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy some great sport recently on several of my local rivers but pride of place has to go to my first ever two pound roach from the Thames.

Martin's first ever two pound roach from the Thames - and in the middle of London !
Martin’s first ever two pound roach from the Thames – and in the middle of London !

I was checking out a new stretch of the tidal Thames in Chiswick, in West London, as a prospect for next year’s Thames TideFest Angling Championship in the company of good friends Will Barnard, Angling Development Manager for Thames Water and local writer and river specialist Sean Geer. The tidal Thames is a big, challenging place to fish with powerful currents and sometimes treacherous banks requiring specialist equipment and a careful approach. It really is a far cry from the gentle flows and comfortable grassy edges to be found further upstream on the middle reaches. The fishable spots are where there’s a sloping gravel shoal that gradually becomes uncovered as the tide drops. Google Earth can point you in the right direction but the only way for us to find out if the area we had in mind was suitable to host a match section was to get in the river and fish the tide down to slack water.

Having watched the tidal specialists at work at the last three TideFest Championships I knew better than to turn up with a seat box and all the usual match fishing paraphernalia. This is a place where the angler has to move every twenty minutes and across ground so hard and stoney that most bank sticks won’t even scratch the surface. I borrowed a tripod from my mullet fishing mate Paul and hung a groundbait bucket in the middle with all my other bits and pieces in a bait apron. This way I could follow the water down and be re-positioned within seconds without any fuss.

The tidal Thames is no place for comfortable seat boxes - the tripod is the way to go
The tidal Thames is no place for comfortable seat boxes – the tripod is the way to go

Sean and Will opted to fish the float while I went for the feeder. As it turned out this was the right choice for although the float can produce some tremendous sport with roach, dace and bream, on this particular October day the fish remained further out in flow. I began with a heavy, solid groundbait feeder with worm and maggot on a No12 hook and after a slow start I started picking up a few modest bream before the roach put in an appearance as the tide slackened off a little. I was missing too many bites on the heavier gear so I switched to a lighter cage feeder, shorter hook length and just three red maggots on a No14. This seemed to make a difference as I began to connect more easily with the tentative bites, landing first a roach/bream hybrid then a brace of specimen roach with the biggest a real beauty weighing in at 2lbs 2ozs.

Now I’ve been lucky enough to have caught two pound plus roach from 8 different English rivers but never one from my beloved river Thames. To be honest I never really expected to get one as although there’s some great roach fishing to be had on this river it’s rare to hear of fish in excess of a pound and a half much less to catch them. However, the Thames has been on unbelievable form this season so I guess if I was ever going to catch a two pounder from this wonderful river then this was the year it was going to happen !

Test at its Best

Being a river roach fanatic is a tough gig in these days of increased cormorant predation, although to be fair there are some signs that the fish are learning to adapt their behaviour to better survive the ‘Black Death’. There were nearly four years between my last two pounder and the one in October from the Thames but, just like buses, two came along at once. Not for me this time but to my Angling Trust colleague Dave Wales who joined us for a special guest day on the fabulous Broadlands stretch of the River Test in Hampshire. This was the same venue that produced a specimen roach last year for Jon Cruddas MP, another guest and great friend of angling.
I have a bit of a love/hate affair with the Test. It is a truly wonderful chalk stream but some of the fishery management practices further up the river are not a great advert for our sport. Sure enough cutting down most of the marginal habitat, mowing the grass to bowling green standard and stocking the river with over sized trout will ensure guaranteed action for the wealthy fly fisherman with more money than skill. Luckily, Jon and Neil who run Broadlands are more than just fishery managers. They are both accomplished anglers who understand and care about the river and who ensure that vital habitat is retained. As a result their stretch is full of truly wild fish of all species and provides some wonderful winter coarse fishing for chub, roach, dace and grayling.

This two pound Test beauty was truly a fish of lifetime for Dave Wales
This two pound Test beauty was truly a fish of lifetime for Dave Wales

Dave had been having a bit of rough time with his health of late so we suggested he went in a renowned roach swim which also had the advantage of being close to the fishing hut and car park. Despite a bright sunny day and clear water, more suited to chub and grayling than the shy biting roach, Dave managed to extract a couple of beauties by long trotting maggots and corn through the swim. The best went 2.04 and was his first two pound roach in over 50 years of angling. We all gathered around to witness the weigh in and the smiles say it all.

These moments are all better if shared with friends
These moments are all better if shared with friends

MPs at the Castle

I’ve written before of how lucky we are to have a group of MPs in parliament who are always ready to pick up issues on behalf of angling. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Angling is something I set up in 2005 with my Conservative opposite number Charles Walker MP and I’m delighted that it is still going strong. Two or three times a year I try to get a few members of the group together for a days fishing and to bend their ears regarding the Angling Trust’s current campaigns.

Last month we were extremely fortunate to be offered a chance to take them on the famous Castle beat of the Hampshire Avon just south of Salisbury. This hallowed stretch was made famous by the writings of the then Longford Estate river keeper, the late Tom Williams, whose regular Angler’s Mail column ‘My River’ was essential reading for those of us of a certain age. In addition to Shaun Leonard of the Wild Trout Trust and Avon Roach Project co-founder and organiser Trevor Harrop we were joined by Labour leadership contender Owen Smith MP and of course Jon Cruddas and Charlie Walker. For some inexplicable reason most of the guys wanted to join my boss Mark Lloyd in fly fishing for pike but I knew this stretch held a massive head of chub which should be a far more reliable target on a low clear river.

Once again our love of fish and fishing crosses all political differences
Once again our love of fish and fishing crosses all political differences

And so it proved as Jon Cruddas and I set about plundering a shoal that had taken up residence in the shadow of the Castle Bridge. I set Jon up with my favourite Drennan Acolyte rod and a dumpy waggler rig to catch on the drop as I fed a steady stream of maggots down the the run. I had a feeling it might turn out to be a red letter day when I ran the rig through without any bait to test the shooting and depth and the float buried as a chub took the bare hook !

One happy MP - Jon Cruddas with one of a huge chub haul taken in the shadow of Longford Castle
One happy MP – Jon Cruddas with one of a huge chub haul taken in the shadow of Longford Castle

We actually only fished the swim for a little over four hours but in that time Jon and myself amassed a huge bag of fish, and, when we got tired, we invited the struggling fly fisherman to have a go at trotting with our ‘young flies’ rather than the fluff they were chucking around with little success. Both Owen Smith and Charlie bagged their share on the float and Owen even decided to take advantage of my careful feeding by pinging out a fly that looked suspiciously like an imitation red maggot and promptly landed the biggest fish of the day at 6.03.

Three MPs (one retired), a bridge and a shoal of chub. What could possibly go wrong!
Three MPs (one retired), a bridge and a shoal of chub. What could possibly go wrong!

The keeper, Pete Orchard, was keen to relocate some of these chub further down the fishery so we used a keep net. By the time we packed up there were 36 chub for 140lbs ready to be loaded into the aerated transfer tank. A truly amazing day in great company that we will all remember for a long time.

Avon chub spectacular

I avoid writing about otters on rivers because all it does is bring out the knuckle draggers from under the stones. My own views are well know but for clarity let me state that otters are a real problem on some rivers where there is an imbalance between predator and prey or where there are other factors that have lead to poor fish recruitment. There was never any excuse for either rearing them or undertaking the irresponsible release programmes that we saw in the eighties and nineties. These are apex predators with a legitimate place in the food chain. They do not need humans to survive. If we stop poisoning them they will recover without our help and they’ve certainly done that.

We just have to accept that we live in a world where the vast majority of the public would rather see an otter in the wild than a fish so if anyone thinks that any government is going sanction any form of otter cull then they need a serious reality check.

The Avon has always had otters on it and nowadays it’s got a lot more. So how has this affected the fishing? There is no doubt that there are less barbel about, although they are a hell of a lot bigger than 20 years ago, and there are welcome signs this year of some successful recruitment which augers well for the future. I think the pike are less plentiful as one predator feeds on another. There’s plenty of dace about and, speak it softly, there’s the beginning of a roach comeback, partly due I’m sure to the great work of Trevor and Budgie at the Avon Roach Project. But without a shadow of a doubt the chub fishing on this river has never, and I mean never, been so good. My friends are landing some phenomenal catches on the Somerley waters north of Ringwood and now almost expect to catch a couple of six pounders in a bag of ten or so fish on any half decent day in a good swim. This really is as good as chub fishing gets.

Despite the otters the chub fishing on the Hampshire Avon has never been so good.
Despite the otters the chub fishing on the Hampshire Avon has never been so good.

To prove the point let me end by a brief description of my last outing. I needed to catch up with Trevor to discuss some work related matters and, since it was a nice day, I thought we could best do this on the river bank. We arrived at 11am at a spot with some form for good bags of chub. The wind was off our backs so I could comfortably fish alongside the far bank bushes with a three gram bolo float. Three pints of maggots and five hours later Trevor had netted 26 chub for me for over 80lbs. As we walked back across the water meadows in in the fading light he turned to me and said: “You know what mate? Those guys are right. The river is f**ked. The otters have eaten all the fish!”

So forget the doom mongers, get out there and enjoy some of the great autumn river fishing that we have in this country.

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