Back End Beauties

I always look forward to the last couple of weeks of the river coarse fishing season. The fish are in prime condition, the days are getting longer and are usually a bit warmer. But not this year. It’s snowing as I write (March 8) and the last weekend will see strong winds accompanied by snow melt and road salt in the water. Not a great combination for a successful day’s fishing. Consequently, a number of planned trips have been cancelled, although I’m hoping the worst of it will be over by March 14 so that at least my friends and I can enjoy a final outing with half a chance of a fish or two.

Much of this season’s back end was spent waiting for the Thames to get into prime winter condition for chub

The Close Season Chestnut

As usual there will be those who raise the age-old question of why there is still a close season on rivers but not on stillwaters and this is something for which I have a degree of sympathy. It seems crazy to me that we can’t fish for chub and barbel when they are in peak condition at the end of March. Yet we can legally target them on June 16th when they’ve barely recovered from spawning a few days previously. With all the other pressures on our rivers from pollution, abstraction and predation I do want to see the fish given a break during the peak spawning periods but I genuinely feel that the dates are all wrong. However, it’s clear that mine is a minority view. The close season consultation in 2019 was poorly supported with only 9% of the 13,680 respondents opting for the reform option.

I know the Environment Agency are committed to maintaining a precautionary approach but I think they are wrong and I’ve set out my views before in some detail. The best summary of which is probably this piece:

There’s also a link in there to a excellent article by John Essex on the history of the coarse fishing close season and the circumstances leading up to the passing of the Mundella Act in 1878. Needless to say, the March 15 to June 15 dates were not the subject of any scientific evidence on fish spawning vulnerabilities but the result of a compromise solution to resolve a disagreement between the London and Sheffield angling associations. It is on such arbitrary criteria that our current fisheries legislation relies.

When the rivers are in flood Martin likes to use the opportunity to target perch in the Kennet & Avon Canal

Back End Perch

I realise that any heading containing ‘back end’ is going to prompt the inevitable titters so let’s move past that and take a look at how the last couple of months of the season went down. I arrived back from Australia just before Xmas to a cold snap followed by biblical rains that put all of my favourite rivers into serious flood. After a long dry summer and autumn we needed the rain for sure but it certainly buggered up my plans for fishing over the holiday period. Luckily, we’ve got the good old Kennet & Avon canal on our doorsteps here in Berkshire so I dug out the perch rods and enjoyed a few nice sessions on some favourite stretches in the Newbury area. It’s a good time to be perch fishing in these parts at the moment with two-pounders reasonably common on both the canal and the main Kennet and three pounders as a realistic target. And you can add a pound to that when it comes to the mighty Thames as will become clearer later.

My perch fishing is kept pretty simple – livebaits on the Thames in the summer and worms almost anywhere in the winter. I like to lay on with a lobworm under a good-sized loafer float in the nearside river slacks but on the canal I favour a light bomb rod cast to the far side of the boat channel rather than the usual pole tactics. This is because it pays to be a bit mobile in the winter – if I’ve not had a bite over my feed of chopped worms and red maggots within an hour I’m off looking for the next likely spot. And let’s face it, who wants to be packing and unpacking pole tackle, plus all the associated accessories, in mid session?

Personally I prefer a straightforward paternoster rig with either a couple of swanshot or a 3/8oz bomb tied on to a six inch link with a four turn water knot and a 14 inch hook trace. This is because casting a heavy bait, like a whole lobworm on a light ledger, close to far bank cover is a right pain with the weight and bait wanting to cartwheel all over the place and the link sliding up the line. The paternoster concentrates the weight in roughly the same place, makes casting simple and gives superb bite indication. The only other tip I would offer is to use as light a glass quiver tip as possible. I’ve got them from 1/2ozs through to 1.5ozs and trust me, it really does make a difference minimising the resistance to a taking perch. The little ones are easy but the bigger fish will drop a worm bait if they feel anything untoward. I had four sessions on the canal whilst waiting for the rivers to come back into their banks and had two pound plus fish on three of them. Nothing massive came my way this year but it was good to be out and getting some action. In any case the best was yet to come.

No monsters from the canal this winter but plenty of nice sized perch

Now I don’t get overly obsessed with numbers and weights of fish these days. Ideally I like to catch bigger than average fish where and when I can but as long as I’m enjoying myself I don’t really mind that much what comes along. My background includes both match fishing and specimen hunting so I guess there’s part of me that still wants to be fishing as efficiently as I can and to be adding to that tally of personal bests. And for me a personal best perch would be a long-awaited four pounder as I’ve lost count of the number I’ve had just a few ounces short of that magic mark. Earlier this year we had the first four pound Thames perch to my boat and I was delighted for my old friend Keith Elliott when that beast came over the side. However, I wanted to get there myself whilst these big fish were still in the river.

Come the winter many of the bigger Thames perch move out of the flow and into the marinas and backwaters. One such spot had produced some remarkable catches for some of my friends and I was keen to give it a go. It required a fair chuck with a feeder so I had to upgrade my tackle somewhat and opted for redworms and maggots rather than lobs. It took a while to get them going but I was rewarded with an amazing winter perch haul including fish of 3.03, 3.04, 3.05 and the one I was after – a beautiful stripey of 4lbs 1oz. This was indeed a very happy start to the New Year.

A happy Martin finally gets his four pounder

And few other big ones to go with it!

A long wait to go chubbing

A couple of years ago I persuaded my tench fishing buddy Andy Dodd to join me for some winter chub fishing. We started on the beautiful little Evenlode in Oxfordshire before targeting the bigger fish on the Thames between Reading and Oxford. Andy loved it – he quickly racked up some impressive fish and was keen to begin his chub campaign this year, as soon as the Thames became fishable again after the floods. Sadly for him the rain kept falling and we lost a good six weeks of prime time chub fishing. And even when it stopped raining and turned bitterly cold, the level remained too high on the Thames for a long time due to the amount of groundwater in the system.

However, we are blessed with a number of cracking Thames tributaries within a reasonable drive from Reading, my favourites being the Loddon, Blackwater and Evenlode. All of which run off pretty quickly and come into form long before the main river is a feasible option. Conditions were not right for roach so I decided to concentrate on chub until the end of the season starting with those tribs.

A frosty day on the Evenlode

It was minus 7 when Andy and I unloaded the gear from the car and walked down the hill and into the beautiful Evenlode Valley. The ground was rock hard, the ice lay deep in pockets in the fields and the frost barely left the trees all day despite the presence of some weak winter sunshine. But more importantly the river was in perfect conditions with a good flow and that lovely bottle green colour that screams chub. Bait was bread and cheese and we roved around in search of some feeding fish. It was too cold, and the water a tad too fast, to consider float fishing so we placed our baits in a number of likely spots, usually on the crease line close to cover. The fish were certainly not moving around looking for food but if we could present a bait close to where they were lying a bite would usually follow. We ended the day with two fish each and missed a few others. A decent result on a day when most venues would offer very little.

Andy Dodd with a sub zero Evenlode chub

The next week I returned with my friend Paul who seems to have an affinity with the Evenlode chub. He clearly hadn’t lost his touch as he managed a brace of five pounders from the same swim along with two other decent chub. That’s pretty special from a river where one or two chub from every third swim is par for the course.

Paul Tolman with one of a brace of fives.

The rains returned but the one Thames tributary that comes into form after a flood earlier than most is the delightful little Blackwater which straddles the Hampshire / Surrey border. My own Reading & District AA have exchange tickets with Hartney Witney AS who control most of the river around Eversley. Having checked the very helpful EA gauges we decided that the Blackwater was worth a go beginning with upstream stretches that would hopefully be dropping first. I reckon we were a day too early but I did manage to winkle out a decent chub at last knockings but Paul went home empty-handed. A few days later I was invited by Steve Sorrell to join him for some trotting further downstream on one of the few stretches of the Blackwater that I had never fished. The river was still pushing through and more coloured than I’d like so I opted to fish the tip. I’m glad I did as fishing my favourite combination of crust and cheesepaste I scratched out five bites from as many swims which converted into four lumpy chub on the bank. The best of which was a lovely specimen of 5.05 and a fine fish for such a little river.

A lovely 5.05 chub from the Blackwater

The Thames and the Avon are the rivers where I’ve tended to catch my bigger chub but the Thames was still running high and fast and the Avon was over it’s banks. However, the colour had dropped out and I knew that if we could get to the river then some big chub could be on the cards. My usual Avon companion is Sean Geer, a very fine angler and someone who has no compunction about standing in a flooded water meadow, inches away from disaster and running a big float down the far bank in search of a seven pound chub. Sean announced that the river was fishable as long as we took chest waders to cross the water meadows and a tripod on which to hang our gear. I’ve accompanied him before on these madcap trips and caught well so I took very little persuading. Funnily enough the car park was empty and we had the choice of swims. I opted for a spot where the bank was actually two inches higher than the river which made life much more comfortable. Happily there was little wind and I could work a 6gm loafer float down the far side without too much trouble. The fish were in a dour mood but by scaling down and tweaking the tactics I managed four fives which, although not the Avon monsters we were after, was pleasing enough.

‘Sean Geer – a man who knows no fear’ – at least when it comes to chub fishing!

Sean with a nice fish from Martin’s somewhat safer swim

Finally, the ever risk-averse EA decided it was safe to close in the weir gates on Old Father Thames and we could once again enjoy God’s Own River. I managed a few fish from the RDAA waters but nothing over four pounds. Andy did better by fishing into the darkness but it was slow going at times. Once the flow dropped off altogether and the water cleared the middle river in particular got very hard during daylight hours. I decided to try something different and target the upper river using maggots. I dug out the bait apron, some 3 & 4AAA wagglers and a selection of medium blockend feeders and headed for the Thames above Oxford where far bank float fishing remains a good tactic on the smaller river channel. It felt like I was back in the 1980s fishing the winter leagues, but this time there was only me and the fish in the contest!

The Upper Thames in winter on the Reading and Oxford club tickets offer some great chub fishing

I love fishing the ‘wag n mag’ and the river was cock on for it. A bit clear but with a good flow as opposed to the middle reaches which seemed stale and dead until dusk. I never took less than three pints of reds with me, plus a bit of hemp, and got through most of it on each of my four trips. Finesse was the order of the day with just three no 8 stotz and a micro swivel down the line. Occasionally, I’d get a couple of fish on double maggot on a 18 hook and 0.13mm hooklink but more often than not it needed 0.11 and a 20 with a single grub to get bites. You could get away with slightly heavier gear on the feeder but not much. The fish usually wanted it just off bottom and I never had a bite at mid water or by dragging through. As important as presentation was the key in my view to this style of chub fishing is the feeding. Twice a cast was favourite to keep a constant stream of grubs running through the swim to force those chub into having a go. ‘Feed and they will come’ is the chub fishers mantra on this and many other rivers. Chub are greedy bastards and in the end they can’t help themselves. Watching a free meal disappear off downstream is usually too much for the poor things to bear.

The best of a nine fish haul weighing in at 5.15 – a nice way to end the river season

So how did it go? Well whilst others were blanking on the middle reaches I’m pleased to say that I caught every trip, mainly on the waggler but with a few coming to maggot feeder and a long hook link fished down the same line and with loose feed still going in over the top via the catapult. The highlight was two days on the Thames below Newbridge, the first of which saw me land nine chub to 5.15 and Paul get five to 5.13 with a few more failing to reach the net. I returned the next day and had a completely different 5.15 and couldn’t help thinking that in a half decent winter, with more feeding opportunities, all of those big fish would have been sixes. But hey ho, it’s only a number and we were thrilled to catch them.

So I guess that’s probably it for now unless the last day confounds expectations. The conditions have been challenging at times but it’s been fun – and once again the Fish Gods have been kind.

3 thoughts on “Back End Beauties

  1. Thanks Martin for the usual, inspiring article! I should say ‘conspiring’ as they often persuade me to drag myself off to the water in horrid weather to try, but inevitably fail to emulate your exploits….

    Yes, the last two day of the season look good on the forecast front, so fingers crossed.

    I entirely agree with you as regards the (ludicrous, arbitrary) closed season dates -and I supported the ‘end of March- end of June’ vote at an EA meeting we both attended in the Lambert Arms a while ago.

    You may claim commission on my new membership of RDAA if you wish! I’ve also joined the Fly-fishing group. As a long-time member of The Gresham (who lease the Loddon and Lyde above Sherfield) I like a bit of ‘fluff-chucking’ now and then. We are allowed guests, by the way, should you ever wish to have a go – it’s mainly wild fish and can be great fun.

    We are lucky enough to live alongside the Thames here in Streatley – and to own 500 yds or so of it too. I keep my 14′ fishing boat and my beloved old 33’ Freeman cruiser here. And we spend a lot of time between Lechlade and Teddington every year. Goring weirs, the Beale Park and Pangbourne stretches are great favourites for the chub and roach from the little boat.

    I am really pleased that The BBC are giving Paul Whitehouse a real chance to highlight the dire condition of our once marvellous rivers. With a couple of pals, I fish the lovely Wye for barbel a couple of times a year and we’ve noticed its sad, steady decline. The Ba****rds!!!

    There you go! Keep up the good work, I enjoy your articles very much.

    All the best,

    John Palmer 07968971745


    1. Hi John

      As you have probably read I’m a boater too these days and love catching those big Thames perch.

      We should combine resources one day

      I’ve no interest in trout I’m afraid but I could be tempted by the chub fishing on that part of the Gresham water where winter coarse fishing is allowed.

      Tight lines


    2. Hello John , you sound very much like a chap (and his wife) that I met a few years ago in a well-known pub in Goring.I was on my bi-annual trip to The Thames with family members most of which do not fish.We are back to our usual rental in Wallingford from this Friday and I am looking forward to the decent chub & perch fishing that the river-frontage with the house can usually provide.Fingers crossed that I will not have to use snow shoes to approach the water.Best wishes, Roger.

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