Slim Pickings & Winter Coarse Fishing in Devon & Somerset

Is it still worth going fishing when the weather is bitterly cold or totally unsettled? It’s a tough question at times. Experience will often give you a hunch, for better or worse, whether there is much chance of action, not to mention  which fisheries fare best when it’s brass monkeys. But it’s never an exact science; most of us have to make do with the free days we’re given and, yes, tough days are normal in January.

Not that you’d always guess this looking at the pages of Facebook or so much of current digital media these days! I do sometimes wonder whether it is healthy that on any given occasion, a couple of clicks will reveal a dozen fish bigger than most of us will catch all season. Are we all just being fed a fantasy that makes each of us feel like we are missing out? Do we celebrate what is “normal” or “typical” enough, or has it all just become a gloat-fest? And, perhaps most importantly, how does this make the “average” angler feel in the long run?

I’d like to think I’ve challenged the whole “my fish is biggest/ my way of fishing is better than yours” culture of modern fishing in some small way. Because I firmly believe the greatest achievement in fishing is not hauling out massive fish all the time; it’s being content with our own lot and enjoying going fishing regardless of whether we catch a little or a lot! It’s not a statement that will get anyone a gazillion likes, but there is a lot to be said for simple contentment and some balance in our lives.

Even some of the daft things I do, like Fishing with the General, are an attempt to celebrate the small victories, add humour and puncture the whole big fish bubble. Because while the digital world encourages one-upmanship and instant gratification, these are values that go against the very heart and soul of angling as far as I’m concerned.

On the subject of realism though, I had a strong hunch it would be tough for my first session of 2017, in the company of Adam Aplin. A cold snap is never great news, especially when your day off coincides with the start of it. The usual bleak winter headlines have been relentless (what the heck is thunder snow?). But we were both keen to get out and try for bites- and I still fancied the free stretch of River Tone in Somerset would be worth a crack.

I do like running waters when it’s flipping cold. You suspect that fish which live in river currents cannot go totally dormant. And I’ve yet to fish this stretch with maggots and not get the odd bite from something. That said, with the mercury at -3C in the early morning it took something like 40 minutes to get a single bite on this occasion!

River Tone trout

Adam fished the quiver tip and maggot feeder, while I tried pole fishing, scaling right down to a 0.08mm hooklength, size 20 and single maggot. A handful of small grayling (including Adam’s first of the species), chub and just one very pretty trout obliged, but never have I experienced such tough fishing here! In fact the real highlight of the day was not a fish at all, but a rather pretty gray wagtail, which slowly built up the confidence to come and grab some free maggots. I never set out deliberately to spot birds, but I do love these close encounters; perhaps if I’d never picked up a fishing rod I would be a twitcher?

Grey Wagtail Somerset

Otherwise, my efforts have been focussed on pike fishing, with little reward if I am perfectly honest. Exeter Canal continues to be a tough nut to crack, with blanks very much the norm at the moment. Again, I feel like part of the issue is simply getting that precious day off when the conditions are bang on!

Exeter Canal pike fishing

I had another two fruitless sessions, with lots of other anglers about reporting exactly the same. It has to come good at some point I guess, but in the shorter term I just wanted to get some bites, never mind if the fish were jacks, so off I hopped to the Somerset Levels with Russell Hilton, where the pickings tend to be rather easier, even if the monsters are absent.

Circle hooks for pike

Nice to finally get a few runs when you’ve struggled badly! Like me, I’ve also been interested to note his continuing use of single hooks . For a while now, Russ has been trying circle hooks and finding these work quite well- albeit requiring some adjustment. Instead of striking like you usually do with a lift of the rod, you must wind down and tighten into the fish more progressively.

We managed a handful of pike in the end. Sadly though, even on the less busy Levels, the best of the day had a snapped off trace well down its throat! Another good reason to try singles- because even with two of us and a long handled set of bolt-croppers we simply couldn’t retrieve some muppet’s trebles they were that far gone. Any hook is bad news when it’s deep in a pike, but trebles can staple the throat shut- and are horrendously tough to remove! In the end we managed to cut one hook, but could not get the other. A real shame and probably a big part of the reason I’ve been compelled to cover pike care and pike fishing dogma in my weekly Angling Times column lately.

So, an up-and-down time of it so far in 2017 for me and in fact the best session of all was one where I didn’t fish myself. I always enjoy coaching sessions, whether it’s fly fishing or coarse fishing lessons in Devon and Somerset. I had an incredibly keen and excitable two brothers who wanted to try out the fishing tackle they’d got as Christmas gifts. In this case the venue was South View Farm, which tends to be one of the most consistent coarse fisheries near Exeter, not far from my neck of the woods in East Devon.

Coarse fishing lessons Devon

I am always committed to keeping these sessions fun and affordable. I also try to go for venues where bites are pretty much guaranteed, because although it is indeed fishing and not “catching”, it’s quite important for youngsters to get action early on. The starter kits they had were not too bad at all, but the one glaring thing missing were the nice small hooks (down to 16s, 18s and 20s) and fine hooklength materials that are so important to winter coarse fishing.

I set them up on a bank with deep water close in, feeding a little pinch of six or so maggots every cast and fishing one or two on a small barbless hook and adding a 3.3lb hooklength to their slightly thick mainlines. Nor did it take long to get some bites and pick up all those all important basic coarse fishing skills, from accurately testing the depth, to loose feeding, striking and unhooking fish safely.

Within no time at all, I hardly needed to tell them where to cast,  when to strike, or to wet their hands when handling the fish. Both had plenty of bites and plenty of fun, with roach to a nice size (several in the 8oz-12oz stamp), besides perch, a chunky gudgeon and a very welcome net-filling bream to really make their day. Mission accomplished I’d say- and hopefully two more keen anglers in the making!

South View Farm Devon Fishing

Otherwise, here’s hoping things settle down a little and the season ends on a high. The only other catch news of note is probably the announcement of the winners of the 2016 Fly For Coarse competition. It was a great year for entries and truly surreal to correspond with two of my angling heroes, Matt Hayes and John Bailey, to decide the overall winners again.

John Tyzack took top spot in the end with a fine barbel on the fly; but there were many other great catches. Click here to view the full results and get some tips and ideas for 2017 on the Turrall Flies Blog. In fact, even if you’ve never cast a fly rod in anger, do have a look because there were some cracking catches and terrific surprises. More of the same this year please!


Finally, there is also cause for current concern on my local River Exe, with the proposal of a hydropower scheme on Bolham Weir. As per usual, I suspect that the developers will claim “free”, “clean” energy. Pound signs tend to distort the risks of these plans quite quickly- but I intend to get to the heart of the proposal and help rally round fellow anglers to stick their oar in. After all, even careful modern hydro schemes tend to have a big impact on river ecology and migratory fish such as salmon.

At the very least, it’s vital we are heard and that even if a scheme goes ahead it is done with sensitivity and some degree of responsibility from the developers, should it come to that. There is a meeting in Tiverton Town Hall from 2pm-5pm on Saturday 21st Jan for anyone who wants to find out more and give the planners a reality check!

I would welcome anyone to join me- because we cannot just think “that’s someone else’s battle.” I am not a regular salmon angler at all, personally, but it would be a terrible shame to see the species disappear in Devon. I’ve also been in touch with the Angling Trust on this matter. Watch this space for more information.


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