The wind is blowing a hoolie outside, making the trees in my neighbour’s garden sway alarmingly. The rain has been hammering down for best part of the day, but I don’t care. I love my winter fishing and here’s why.
The banks are quiet this time of year and securing a decent swim is seldom a problem. The rivers have had a good scour out and the weed has all but gone, opening up access to many spots on some of my favourite stretches that are virtually unfishable in the summer. Best of all, the small fish have disappeared, the poxy signal crayfish are half asleep and my target species – chub, roach, dace and grayling are in peak fitness and a pleasure to catch.
This winter (2021/22) has been a strange affair so far. A cold dry spring was followed by a reasonably wet summer keeping river levels up well into the autumn. Since then it’s been a case of feast or famine with floods over the Xmas period messing up my holiday fishing plans followed by the driest January for years, which allowed the rivers to fine down nicely delivering perfect conditions for chub and grayling. Neither species enjoys coloured water – unlike the roach, which, for once, have not yet appeared on my New Year wish list. However, there’s still a month to go and today’s rain could yet see me breaking out the roach gear and heading south or west for a specimen redfin. The problem I’ve got, and it’s a good one to have, is that I and my friends can’t stop catching chub at the moment.
Last backend saw some exceptional chub captures from my local rivers – the Thames, Kennet and Loddon. I recorded a new personal best Thames fish of 7lbs 8ozs and I know of at least five other chub over eight pounds that came out during this period. A friend of mine had seven pounder from a Reading & District AA stretch of the Lower Kennet and some of those big, moody, Loddon chub finally decided to put in an appearance before the season ended. And it should be remembered that from January to March 2021 we were restricted to fishing locally – not exactly a hardship for those of us living in the Thames Valley – but it did mean less competition from traveling anglers. Or at least from those who decided to follow the rules.
Lockdown Lunkers from the Thames. Top) A new PB of 7.08 for yours truly. Bottom) An 8.11 backend beauty for Reading angler Jamie Andrews.
Winter is the time when chub fishing on the Hampshire Avon and Dorset Stour comes into its own and last season saw some spectacular bags of big, brassy Wessex specimens. Fishing these rivers at the back end usually means taking a float rod, six pints of red maggots and patiently building up a likely swim until the fish can no longer resist the prospect of a free feed. I love trotting for big chub and working out the tiny adjustments to tackle and presentation which can turn a three fish day into a bumper haul of ten fish or more including, if we are lucky, a couple of sixes amongst them. Just to give some idea of what a golden period we are witnessing for specimen chub, I know of several Avon anglers who are not bothering the weigh their fish unless they look like going over seven pounds. Personally, I think that’s a bit disrespectful and I fully intend to keep on weighing my sixes but I’m afraid these days I have been guilty of of not troubling the scales with five pounders – something that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
This fine Avon chub was one of a ten fish haul on a day when constant adjustments to feeding and float tackle were necessary to keep the bites coming
Now a glut of big fish doesn’t mean a healthy river, in fact it is often the opposite. As the wise and knowledgeable Pete Reading has remarked on more than one occasion to over excited barbel anglers obsessed with their tally of doubles – “fishing in an Old Folk’s Home is unlikely to last for very long.” Whilst some rivers are still worryingly short of smaller chub I’m pleased to report a good number of fish in all year classes now appearing on the Avon and Thames in particular which is a good sign for the future.
All of this success last season meant that this winter was greeted with more anticipation than usual by those of us still on a chub mission. As the flood waters receded I targeted the smaller tributaries first catching chub of all sizes and guiding a couple of mates to some rather special fish. I also had my annual winter trip to the Warwickshire Avon – you can’t fish too many Avons – in the company of former Midlands match aces Andy Burt and Paul Newell. We opted to trot breadflake and I was pleased with my catch of eight decent chub taken on a 6 gram loafer float fished well across the river thanks to helpful wind off my back. Andy was convinced he had landed his first ‘Wavon’ six pounder but two sets of scales stubbornly refused to go past 5.15. Still a fine fish for the river.
Chub Study Group Member and former matchman Andy Burt with a new personal best from the Warwickshire Avon
The Thames in particular can be challenging at times but January saw the water turn that lovely bottle green colour as the flow dropped and the cold weather meant the hordes of bait robbing roach would be absent leaving us able to fish bread without any problems. I opted to concentrate on the river between Reading and Oxford fishing old school tactics of bread and cheese in its various forms. I know a good few specimen chub come out to boilies and ‘carbarbelling’ tactics with heavy leads and bolt rigs. And yes I do catch chub as a by-catch when targeting barbel or river carp but there’s little skill to it and even less satisfaction as far as I’m concerned. I love catching my fish by design wherever possible and on tackle that makes the experience enjoyable.
My tackle for the Thames is simplicity itself. A 12ft, 1.5lb test curve rod with either a two or three ounce glass quiver tip, 8lbs Daiwa hyper-sensor mainline to six or seven pound hook links below a running ledger or cage feeder. I often carry a shorter 11ft set up for fishing down the edge or in amongst the trees and bushes where a longer rod is a handicap. Hooks are invariably the ever reliable Kamasan Wide Gape Specialist B983s in sizes 8,6 & 4 with the stronger Kamasan Animals for the lower sizes when bread punch or smaller baits are required.
Perhaps it’s a result of the successful marketing of modern baits or maybe it’s my age but I never cease to be surprised by the number of anglers who are unsure how to fish bread and cheese or who lack confidence in these finest of winter chub baits. In order to answer the regular stream of questions we produced what I hope is a helpful little video which can be viewed here:
Hopefully, most people reading this know how to knock up a decent cheesepaste and we explain in the video, and in others on the RDAA site, how to fish it effectively. Basically, if it’s stiff enough to hold on your hook on its own then it’s too stiff. The late and great Thames angler Peter Stone was known for making paste so soft that the fish all but “drunk it down”. I’ve got great confidence in cheesepaste wrapped around a piece of crust and fished on balanced tackle but my mate Andy prefers to hair rig cheese cylinders on a heavier set up generating wrap round bites on the right day. Both methods work and despite my general dislike of hair rigs for wary chub I can’t fault Andy’s results on the river this year with fish to 7lbs 2ozs so far. He’s got us using Red Leicester which is the perfect consistency for this style of fishing and a brand which the chub seem to like.
“Cheesemaster” Andy Dodd with his 7.02
A Perfect Day
For several years now I’d heard stories about big chub from this stretch of the Middle Thames. It was not known for barbel and involved quite a long walk so when I finally decided to take a look for myself I wasn’t surprised to see very little signs of angler activity despite the season being more than seven months old. I’d been told the area to try and had traveled light. Just one rod and net in the quiver, a small chair and everything else in my ruck sack.
I bashed my way into a likely spot opposite some modest far bank cover. The flow had dropped from the previous week when I had needed 40 grams plus to hold over a few miles further down the river. I was able to balance a 25 gram cage feeder just nicely at three quarters distance across with addition of a small strip of lead and feeding a decent downstream bow into the line. As usual I started on breadflake on a No8 hook and third cast in the tip pulled forward and sprung back just like it says in the books. Chub number one was a pup of barely a pound but as pristine and pretty as a new penny piece and for me, yet more proof of successful recruitment. A couple of casts later the same thing happened with the same pleasing result before the swim died. Now bread is usually an instant bait and since the fish were clearly on the munch and this was a new bit of river to explore I was keen to try my luck elsewhere. A little way downstream the river narrowed somewhat with the flow running past some enticing willow roots and overhanging branches. This just had to be chub city.
Chub City in a Winter Wonderland
And so it proved. I flicked a few pieces of cheesepaste across with a catapult followed up by a couple of casts with a feeder full of liquidised bread and chopped up Red Leicester. After ten minutes to let the swim settle down I judged it was time to try with some bait on the hook. A few casts later and a feisty chub of a couple of pounds was in the net. I had switched to breadflake smeared with cheesepaste on the hook, or ‘cheese flake’ as I now call it. Next up was a heavier fish that held deep in the middle of the river before charging into a near bank snag that was clearly bigger than I first thought. Despite picking my way downstream through the trees to get below it wouldn’t shift and the hook link parted. I resolved to be extra careful with any subsequent chub and try to tire them out in the flow for as long as possible before bringing them towards the net.
By now I was on my paste rig featuring a No6 B983 with the cheesepaste wrapped round a small boilie, hair rigged tight to the bend of the hook. The bites were more positive and I was happy to have a good sized hook should I have to bully a big fish out of those nearbank branches. A little while later and a chub just shy of five pounds was battling it out in mid river before obligingly heading upstream and away from danger. Even so it still had a good go at doing me down the inside but the tackle held firm. 15 minutes later and another decent sized fish put up a repeat performance. I was loving this new bit of water and had had a good day already. But the best was yet to come.
Things had slowed down a touch and it was several casts later before a couple nudges on the tip indicated that fish were back in the swim. I left the bait in position for a little longer until out of blue the rod carted over and the reel screamed as a heavy force headed for the far bank willows. I was glad of the eight pound line at this point and was able to clamp down hard and guide the fish into mid river. Unfortunately this particular beast knew all the tricks and promptly charged towards me and the nearbank jungle. This time I was more prepared and although it brushed the edge of the snag I was able to get it high enough in tbe water for the line to ping free and away from danger. A few more plunges under the rod tip and she was mine.
One of the big girls to complete a perfect day on the Thames
You know when a chub is big not just by the weight of it as you swing in the landing net but by the width of its shoulders. And just like my 7.08 from last year this was a chub that looked as though you could comfortably fit it with a saddle and enter it into a gymkhana! Sadly, I’ll never know precisely what she weighed as the battery flickered and died on my scales. I got one reading of 6.06 so have stuck with this but to be honest I would not be surprised if she went a good deal heavier. Anyway, it’s only a number at the end of the day and I will always have the memory of great fish from a new stretch of my favourite river.
A brace of sevens – Dave Cowley’s 7.03 from the Thames and a chub of the same weight on the same day from the Kennet for Jem Fox.
I fully intended to end this piece here until news came in last night of two more exceptional chub to local anglers. Dave Cowley is having a purple patch on the Thames at the moment winning matches with some great bags including chub to 6.10. He went one better yesterday landing a 7.03 on maggot feeder. A fish of precisely the same weight fell to Jim Fox a few miles further south on the Kennet. Like me, Jem prefers to rove around using bigger baits but clearly both methods work. There’s a month of the river season left and if the weather is kind the best is yet to come.