I’ve said it before that die-hard anglers thrive on adversity, but this January I mean it more than ever. Conditions have been yo-yoing dramatically, with hard frosts one week, gales and temperatures into the mid-teens the next. This can make it much harder to catch, but let’s face it, if we were to sit tight and wait for a more settled scenario to coincide with our free time, we might spend weeks on end not fishing at all.
So, what have I managed to catch lately? Some days, a surprising amount. Other days, little or nothing! I see it almost as a responsibility to reflect this in my Angling Times column and other writing, because a world with no challenges or failure is simply detached from reality. Nor does the constant tide of social media fish porn help here! In fact, it is one of my 2024 resolutions to spend far less time on Instagram, Facebook et al, which I increasingly see as a negative influence- whether it’s stoking ignorance and division or simply encouraging needless comparison.
Which brings us back to winter fishing. Seeing someone’s huge fish 100 miles away is not only irrelevant to your own unique set of challenges, but can be galling if you’re sat there blanking. After all, angling should not about winning likes or impressing others, but doing what you enjoy and making the best of what is available.
This is especially true for those of us who tend to have only short sessions to spare. Like anyone else, I daydream about big fish, but spend most of the winter simply happy to get bites once it’s really cold. For instance, I spent a very cold afternoon in Brixham, foolishly thinking I’d catch a load of wrasse and mackerel. I was there to take a look at a second-hand piano, randomly, but it seemed silly to expend all that fuel without having a look at the sea.
Hmmm… gusts of wind to 45mph had closed the breakwater, ruined the water clarity and made my LRF gear seem a bit pathetic. And so, instead of launching metals into a gale, I broke out the tiny hooks and Isome. While much of the water was churning, I found some more sheltered spots around the Freshwater Car Park. Even so, it was only well after an hour in, while the words “what in God’s name am I doing here?” echoed through my head, that I had so much as a tremble.
Thank the Lord for smaller fish, that’s all I’ll say, because it was a handful of small gobies that finally gave me some action. These fish not only make me grin, but have a knack of convincing you that something much larger is biting. The piano, a beautiful 1980s Rosewood Yamaha, turned out well too, I’m pleased to say, with no Laurel and Hardy style calamities getting it back to Exeter the week after. Any fishy requests, anyone?
Moody winter pike
Away from the coast, I’ve also been putting my pike head back on lately. Sport has been challenging to say the least, however. Even when conditions seem to be improving, you cannot always bank on these fish to be active. And why should they be? I get the distinct impression that they’ll often feed for only short periods of time before shutting up shop completely. Should you miss that window, you need to be smart or lucky enough to land right on the nose of one with your fly or lure- to provoke a response that may have more to do with aggression than hunger.
After a blank on Exeter Canal (the two things seem synonymous at times!) last time out, I headed onto a stretch of Exe I hadn’t fished for a while. In spite of a dryer few days, it was still up and coloured. Drat! Much as I’m happy to fish bait, I had been foolish or optimistic enough to only pack a fly rod. I felt the best chance of anything hitting me was to pick a big, glittery fly. And it did the trick! I had only one solid take, and it resulted in a gorgeous, if slightly pale, six-pounder.
I wish I could say that my guiding had been more of a stroll in the park. I’ve had a few pike guests over January, but as often as not the fishing has been decidely poor on the canals and Somerset Levels. As the host, this can be very frustrating- especially when you see that your guidees are no slouches, but are covering the water really well.
I might not be able to guarantee fish every trip, but I will always give 100% to put folks onto the right spots and tactics. Fish are ultimately the most tangible measure of success, but very often it’s other lessons and skills that are the real gold I can hopefully pass on. Ironically, it can be the tough days that provide the best lesson, as we’re forced to try different things. Like messing about with faster or slower retrieves, sizes, colours and locations.
One good tip with any winter pike fly fishing trip is to switch from a middling-sized fly (2/0 and 4″ long would be a staple for my fishing) and go either much bigger and brighter, or a fair bit smaller. The thinking is that if you just want to catch a fish of any size, a smaller fly might just tempt that reluctant pair of jaws, or simply appeal to that jack that doesn’t feel up to gobbling up a fistful of tinsel. Of course, by doing so you also increase the likelihood of getting a big perch!
Tim Eldridge had this absolute cracker by doing just that on a recent canal session. It was his only bite of the day, but what a fish to save the blank! You can of course also target these fish by design, but that’s another topic altogether- and one I investigate in Flyfishing For Coarse Fish.
Before I sign off with this first fishing blog of 2024, I’ve also taken the step to get into citizen science mode for the Angling Trust’s Water Quality Monitoring Network (WQMN). So far so good with this- and I’ll be writing a special report in the Angling Times shortly. Suffice to say that even as someone with a mortal fear of techy stuff and printed instructions, it’s been surprisingly easy and (yes, honestly!) quite good fun so far.
With so much anger over our rivers, it’s easy to feel powerless, but this is something anyone can do that’s so much more productive than doomscrolling or Facebook wars. I’m already finding it a great conversation starter with people in and around Exeter- and with any luck it will provide real-world data and interesting to share. You can also make it part of your fishing day, of course, as it takes no more than half an hour to measure pollutants. And let’s face it, so often the authorities either don’t have the resources or the appetite, while our major water companies are to environmental stewardship what Harold Shipman was to patient care.
If you fancy joining me and getting your own kit to use here in the South West or indeed anywhere in the country, it’s well worth getting involved- and angling clubs are the best route. Find out more at: https://anglingtrust.net/get-involved/anglers-against-pollution/wqmn/
If you lack the time or inclination, though, please consider making this the year you back Fish Legal and the “Anglers Against Pollution” campaign by joining the Angling Trust. In many cases, the worst offenders would never be brought to book without them, while they are also battling hard on so many other issues, from river abstraction to loss of fishing rights and depletion of sea fish stocks. I’ll spare you any further lecture, but less than 60p a week is surely a price worth paying? And aside from playing a blinder for angling, you also get some nifty discounts on tackle, clothing and bait. CLICK HERE TO JOIN
And that’s about all for now- although you can catch my other recent adventures and news features every week in the Angling Times. Coming up, I’ll be looking at all manner of topics, from the desperate measure of ice breaking to go fishing, through to the latest news and entertaining angling stories from across the country.
Oh- and if any of you are headed to the 2024 South West Fly Fair at Roadford (Sun 25th Feb), I will be there giving a talk and taking a selection of flies, books and other bits. CLICK HERE for further info.