Enjoy the River

Apologies for the radio silence over the last few months. I had a load of family stuff to deal with this summer, on top of a big workload, and to be honest I just couldn’t seem to find the time or the energy to summon up the creative juices. Anyway some much needed rain has arrived to refresh my favourite rivers, the trotting rods have been dusted down and I’m starting to catch a few. There’s nothing like a couple of decent bags of fish to rekindle the enthusiasm for both fishing and writing about fishing.

Regular readers of this column will have heard me rail against the doom-mongers who keep talking down our sport. How many times have we heard that river fishing is finished, or will be finished, by the end of this decade? What I find incredible is that some of the characters who spout this stuff make a living either out of guiding or catching fish for the cameras and then writing about their exploits. And then, with no sense of irony, we read about their mouth watering catches of chub and barbel from the same rivers that are supposed to have been all but fishless!

Riverfest Roll Call

Back in the real world we see that river fishing in Britain, far from being ‘finished’, can still provide some great sport and some truly memorable fish. Of course there are plenty of problems and too many rivers that are but a shadow of their former selves, including my beloved Kennet, but there’s much to celebrate. The success of Riverfest, the brainchild of my mate Dave Harrell, has demonstrated what great fishing there is to be had in rivers in every region of the country. Despite low flows and a blistering heatwave some impressive weights were recorded in the qualifying matches and in other contests held on the same rivers. There’s no doubt that the roach are making a comeback on the Severn and the Thames with some clonking bags coming from venues as diverse as Stourport, Bewdley, Abingdon and Medley. The Trent continues to deliver for both match anglers and specimen hunters alike. Master floatmaker Andrew Field sent me a picture of his first 13lb plus barbel from the river – caught deliberately on float – and the sheer size and number of barbel to be found in the Trent these days remains incredible. I’ve also heard of some great catches of roach and chub from the river this season in conditions that have been far from ideal.

Floatmaker Andrew Field with a personal best float caught barbel of 13.06 from the mighty River Trent

Yorkshire’s River Swale was on sparkling form for the Riverfest qualifier in June with the top two weights totalling close to 100lbs. In July, some 200 miles to the south, Deron Harper won on the Bristol Avon with 153lbs of bream – a record for the competition. August saw some good weights from Norfolk’s River Yare and the Don near Sheffield.

September is always a good month on the Thames and I was delighted when the Angling Trust agreed to hold a third qualifier on my favourite river just upstream from Reading. Months without rain meant the flow was virtually non existent and us locals were concerned that a couple of early frosts might see a nosedive in the sparkling form that river had been showing all season. We needn’t have worried as Riverfest records were rewritten again in a quite incredible contest. Barry Chapman won with 156 lbs of big bream but that was not the only netbusting catch. Pat Newman was second with 145 lbs and Dave Harrell is still wondering how he could land 135 lbs of fish and still not qualify for the final. In total the top four anglers weighed in 545 lbs and even on sections where the bream didn’t show there was good spread of roach weights including a 25lbs bag for river ace Hadrian Whittle which won him his zone and a place in the final.

Riverfest was not the only showcase for the quality of river fishing to be found in our green and pleasant land. The Tidefest Championship held on the tidal Thames in London once again threw up some impressive weights despite a difficult tide and very little freshwater in the river. Second time winner Mike Martin-Davies took the honours with a 44lbs bag of bream and again small barbel, chublets and even baby bass were in evidence on this remarkable waterway which will only get better when the Tideway Tunnel is completed and the storm water sewage overflows no longer discharge into the river.

As this year’s Tidefest demonstrated there are plenty of fish to be caught on the tidal Thames in London

Barbel Boost

Talking of baby barbel there have been some encouraging signs of recovery for a species that has been hard hit by both otters and reductions in spawning habitat in recent years. Mini barbel have been reported to me this season in rivers as diverse as the Teme, Wye, Trent, Lea, Severn, Hants Avon, Kennet, Thames and even my local river Loddon. Whereas the low water conditions 2012/13 were very good for fry survival and have undoubtedly fuelled the the boom in roach numbers that we are currently enjoying, the reasons for the sudden appearance of small barbel appeared somewhat more complex. However, a call to some friends in the EA Fisheries Team confirmed what a number of experienced barbel anglers had told me. The high water and floods of 2014/15 had cleaned and scoured the gravels enough to compensate for years of sedimentation to recreate the spawning habitat that the barbel need. Contrary to popular belief barbel are not prolific spawners and, if the conditions are not right, they can go years without any successful recruitment. This is why the work that the Angling Trust is doing to tackle sedimentation and other forms of agricultural pollution is so important.

You can read more on this here: https://www.anglingtrust.net/news.asp?section=29&itemid=4407

How good is it to see barbel of this size back in so many of our rivers?

Whilst I’ve not found the time to go chasing these little whiskers myself I did get my mate Trevor Harrop from the Avon Roach Project to take me barbel spotting one afternoon after we had concluded a meeting on our Cormorant Watch campaign. And sure enough, exactly as Trev had promised, we found a shoal of bonny barbel from a few ounces up to about about a pound happily feeding on some golden gravels close to a weir sill. These fish were living proof that if we can get the water quality and habitat right then Mother Nature will do the rest. A few weeks later, and some 230 miles to the north east, I witnessed another barbel miracle. I was meeting John Bailey – a guy who has done more than most to promote river fishing – to do a feature for Angler’s Mail and asked him to show me one of his favourite stretches of his beloved River Wensum. Now John took a lot of stick a few years back for claiming that the river still held a small population of barbel. The stretch we visited was one of the few areas of the Wensum that had been spared the ravages of the dredger and the river ran clear and swift over clean gravels. The walk upstream was fairly uneventful save for the occasional chub and trout drifting in and out of the swaying fronds of weed. We came to a rickety old footbridge at the tail of an inviting looking pool and John announced that this is where barbel were to be found. I gave him a decidedly quizzical look before venturing onto the bridge to peer into the depths. Within three minutes all doubts had dissolved as first I spotted a pair of pearl coloured pectoral fins slowly propelling a dark torpedo shape up a gentle grave slope before the full outline of the fish became clear. It was a barbel for sure, probably about six or seven pounds, and close behind it was its twin. I watched a while, mesmerised by the little bit of barbel history I was witnessing, before they drifted across the pool and disappeared under some far bank cover.

Proof positive of successful barbel spawning on the Hampshire Avon

The boiling hot summer we experienced this year, with its echoes of 1976, may have made for uncomfortable fishing conditions but my goodness it did wonders for spawning. In my local lake the carp went through their nuptials on three occasions and I’m told the same was true for chub and other river species. Just as the 76 heatwave led to that massive explosion of chub that delivered a memorable decade of fishing in the 80s on the Severn, Wye, Thames and many other rivers, so 2018 may go down as the moment the cycle repeated itself with river fishing taking an upturn as a result in the 2020s.

I am far from complacent as I spend a huge amount of my time challenging the authorities over issues that damage our rivers and the wildlife they contain. The incidents of farm slurry pollution are nothing short of scandalous as is the over abstraction of groundwater sources by water companies who have failed to invest in reservoir storage. As mentioned previously, agricultural pollution, sedimentation and habitat destruction remain huge problems. But we seem to have secured a promise in the Agriculture Bill that farmers will, in future, be paid not for owning land but for managing it in the public interest. That means buffer strips beside riverbanks and proper soil management.

However, despite the almost constant challenges of pollution, predation and abstraction our rivers show great resilience. In the south my local River Blackwater has come back from the dead and now offers great sport with roach, dace and chub. In the Midlands the Tame, once the most polluted river in Britain is now producing good catches and further north the revival of the Mersey in Liverpool and Sheffield’s rivers – the Don, Rother and Dearne – has been nothing short of remarkable. Improvements in water quality, fish passage and habitat – delivered through partnership working between the EA, Canal and River Trust and the Don Rivers Trust – have seen both game and coarse fish stocks return to these Yorkshire streams in abundance. We now have salmon back in Sheffield for the first time in 200 years – how good is that!

You can read more on the Don revival here – https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/fishing/related-articles/the-fisheries-and-angling-team/the-rebirth-of-the-river-dons-fishery

Happy Days on the Avon

Living in Reading I count myself fortunate to have some lovely rivers within comfortable driving distance. None of which are more famous than the beautiful Hampshire Avon, a river I’ve fished since the 1970s. Back then there were certainly more barbel around but the chub fishing was distinctly ordinary. The big roach boom of the late eighties and 90s was something to behold before the wretched cormorants wreaked their havoc and there is no doubt that for a while the river was in the doldrums. However, a combination of hard work by river keepers and the wonderful folk at the Avon Roach Project, together with natural cycles that govern the ebb and flow of fish populations, have certainly seen the Avon turn the corner.

The young roach are back in numbers in a fair few stretches and some of the old warriors survived the ‘Black Death’ long enough to produce offspring now large enough to attract specimen anglers back to river. This year’s Avon Roach Project fundraising match produced an absolute belter of a roach to none other than Dr Mark Everard, a man who has caught more two pounders than most. Mark’s 3.02 redfin not only won the trophy for best fish of the day it gave us hope that perhaps the Avon now has a fighting chance of returning to its former glory.

A stunning three pound roach for Mark Everard. Could the glory days be returning to the Avon?

For a variety of reasons my own river fishing was curtailed this year and it wasn’t until last week I found myself on the banks of the Avon on a swim with a bit of form for chub. I wasn’t expecting to get anything as large as the float caught 6.05 I had in March, a few miles further downstream, as the section I had selected is known more for numbers rather than specimens. For me, and for most of my friends, chubbing on the Avon is all about float fishing. For sure a few big fish will come along to barbel or feeder tactics but there’s nothing to compare to working up a shoal of big brassy chub with regular loose feeding and then running a carefully presented bait at them underneath a stick float, bolo or waggler.

The swim I had chosen was at the top end of a long run of goat willows that stretched several yards into the river from the far bank. In the past I had fished it with a three gram bolo float but the clear water and reduced flow saw me reaching for a 3AAA crystal waggler. With the fish unlikely to move more than a few feet out from that dense far bank cover I opted to fish 4lbs Drennan Supplex straight through to a size 16 Super Spade hook with just two No6s and two No8s down the line. I fed the swim with red and white maggots for about 20 minutes while tackling up and then had a couple of runs through with no bait just to check the depth. Although there was plenty of weed in mid-river it was pleasing to find six foot of clear water on the far bank, giving me the option to present the bait at different depths.

Second run through and the float buried and after the obligatory tour of the weed beds chub number one was in the net. Two pouchfuls of maggots every cast soon had the shoal lined up and the first five fish came quickly enough. They were all strong, fighting fit chub between three and four and half pounds. Rather than trying to crank them away from the trees I found it easier to keep the rod high on contact and walk a couple of yards backwards until the fish was clear of the snags. All was going well until the bites suddenly ceased. I’ve learnt from past experience that these Avon chub are more wary of hook size than they are of line diameter. Stupidly, I’d left the 18s behind so I went down to a 20 but kept with the 4lb Supplex straight through. Just like flicking a switch the bites returned and every ten minutes or so another golden Avon chub slid over the landing net. There was a period when they came up in the water and it was easy enough to slide the waggler down the line and catch a few at half depth. Not having a hooklink knot or a swivel on the line meant that even when a fish got its head in the weed the shot could slide around as I piled on the pressure without jamming up and causing a break. Inevitably I lost a couple off the 20 due to hook pulls but by and large it was a trouble free session.

There are only so many fish a man needs to catch to call it a Red Letter Day so I stopped when I got to 20 chub and went off chasing roach on bread. I have no doubt that those final two hours, as the light faded, would have seen plenty more chub landed but I was more than happy with the haul. I’ve said it before but it’s worth reminding the river sceptics out there that whatever problems this great river has had in past, right now, most of us can’t remember a time when the Avon chub fishing was this good.

Just some of the 20 chub that came my way on a recent trip to the Avon

And it’s not just the Hampshire Avon that raised a few eyebrows in recent weeks. The Wye in Hereford is in sparkling winter form. There were some magnificent weights in the first round of the Wye Winter League and the good form continued into the pairs festival this weekend. Dave Harrell had a very enjoyable match, catching 33lb of mainly roach on stick float and maggot but it got him nowhere on the day. The main list was nothing short of incredible in the cold, clear conditions with top five weights of 67-4-0, 63-0-0, 51-14-0, 47-3-0 and 44-1-0. Try telling these guys that river fishing is finished!

My advice is to ignore the doom-mongers and get out there and enjoy your river fishing – it might not be the same as it was 20 years ago but there’s still some great sport to be had.

Angling Trust Ambassador Dave Harrell with a fabulous match catch of Wye roach to just shy of two pounds

4 thoughts on “Enjoy the River

  1. It’s good the Barbel of the middle and lower Trent are thriving. In the upper Trent they have been decimated by otters. The EA have delivered a returns report…but conveniently its only in areas where the population is booming. They have purposely missed the areas where we know the Otters are an issue to make sure know one finds out. The knock on is that no stocking will be done and miles of rivers will be devoid of fish for decades. How can we expect our kids to be interested in fishing when the agency that governs our sport takes our money lies to our faces and allow stocks to be decimated. Kids won’t fish if they aren’t getting bites.

    1. Stocking rivers is, and always has been a complete waste of time and money on rivers. Done it, measured it and it rarely works, other than kick-start stocking following a complete wipe out. Protecting and improving water and habitat quality is the only sustainable route to improved fish stocks. Stack the odds in favour of the fish over that of the predator and fish populations will respond.

  2. The weights caught in the matches Martin describes are truly superb. There is so often a tendency among anglers to hark back to the so-called ‘better’ old days, but more and more this seems to be based on very little evidence, I’m old enough at 56 to know that the bream and roach weights quoted by Martin for the Thames have hardly ever been common in the past, and the fishing was often far poorer. The roach comeback on the Thames is nothing short of fantastic where I’m based, and in many other areas. And to acknowledge positives like this is not in any way to dismiss or be unaware of the pressures our rivers face on many fronts, just an attempt to present a balanced overall picture.

    However, how can more anglers can be persuaded to either come back to river fishing, or even take it up for the first time, as I am sure Martin would like? It’s a tough one for so many reasons, and it would be so easy to be defeatist about it. Well done to Martin for continuing to promote the joys and rewards of fishing on flowing water.

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