If another lockdown feels slightly ominous and depressing, there’s at least the saving grace that we can still fish! It could be tricky for anyone without a car, and nor can match fishing go ahead. But let’s be grateful for now.
Actually, with the chaos of a US election and some quite unpleasant stuff to deal with in the digital world this week, I was going to call this post “The Good, the Bad and the Fugly”. But actually, why not be a little more upbeat and describe one of the brighter aspects of fishing, that of taking off for a few hours with a good mate?
Which is exactly what I did with David West Beale. While I bite my tongue about some of the trolling and general pettiness that takes place online, one of the far better aspects is the friendships that are made. I don’t mean the odd “like”, but the people you end up meeting up and fishing with and feeling a genuine kinship with.
Well, one of these is David. Similarly keen on fly and lure fishing, we have equally unusual tastes and itchy feet. And so a big wander across the Levels for a day and a bit seemed a cracking idea. Our timing was spot on to beat lockdown by just a day, albeit not so great with conditions.
Cold, coloured waters
It’s almost become a running joke when David and I meet up that the climate has a habit of conspiring against us. Coloured water followed by a sudden temperature drop is about the most destructive combination since Twitter and Donald Trump (sorry, I said I was going for a diversion from toxic politics!). So, as we set out on a semi-frozen River Tone near Taunton, we did expect a bit of a battle.
Still, it looked beautiful. First choice method for both of us would usually be the fly, but with murk and stronger currents to contend with we opted for drop shot fishing. David is always a bit of a tinkerer, and I was intrigued to see him using not the usual minnow sized jelly, but a fake scented worm.
At least with perch, the spots are fairly obvious. Any slack under the near bank would be likely to hold fish, so we used short casts and slow retrieves. The theory was fine, but nothing seemed to work! I never had a sniff the first hour or so, while David lost a small chub on the way in. What were we doing wrong?
Not a lot, I felt. The fish just didn’t appreciate plummeting temperatures and cloudy water. Until we changed tactics. Amazingly, even a Ned Rig didn’t yeild anything more than a tentative nip, but my switch to a straight jig head and 2″ Komodo Shad struck lucky with a lovely perch that looked not far off the pound mark.
Very welcome, but that was it for the morning. I get the feeling it was that one lucky cast when the lure went right past the nose of a fish! Enough was enough, and after a bite to eat we headed out onto the Levels.
So often on the Somerset Levels, it’s an adaptable approach that works. Rather than slogging it out with dirty water or a spot that’s not producing, a quick move can work wonders. And so it turned out with our next drain. I half thought about switching straight to pike gear, but the wide end of our next venue looked bang on for perch.
Within ten minutes of searching, David then hooked a good fish right by the bank and it was game on! When you’ve been fishing for three hours or so with no reward, that contact is especially exciting- and at first we thought it must be a jack pike. Not so, because a lovely pound plus perch surfaced. Cue celebrations and then that funny elbow bump that has taken the place of the handshake in the Covid era!
Within the next five minutes I added another of a similar pleasing size (below). We were both using simple soft jigs (bleak/roach lookalikes around 5cm) with light, balanced tackle.
As is so often the case with coloured, cold water though, the action was not very consistent. After finding a few bunched fish it was time to hop onto the next drain. This time it was just a half-hour pop at a tiny water, literally 3-4m wide. While these seldom contain anything above half a pound, we quickly added another small perch and satisfied our curiousity.
How quickly the mood can change on a fishing trip, David reflected. All it takes is a cast to lift your confidence- but until that first catch happens you can feel like it’s the wrong spot or conditions, or your luck is out.
Blowhards and rule breakers…
With a bright, hot sun, we then headed even further out onto the drains. Confusingly in Somerset, there are drains that are called rivers and vice versa. And to be quite honest the information is so crap, you have to hunt for who owns the water half the time (although generally you can’t go too far wrong with a lot of the Bridgwater Angling Association and Taunton AA waters and there must be over two dozen drains and slow flowing rivers to go at). My apologies for not naming more waters in this regard, but if you’re prepared to walk there’s no shortage of cheap, fun fishing (and finding your own favourite spots is half the fun).
Our next venue had more tow and in spite of being a very healthy walk, we soon found other anglers also getting a last cast in before lockdown mark 2. One of these was invisible at first, although we found his sea fishing rod and livebait, which had been cast out to fish completely unattended!
I don’t know if I was a bit harsh, but I gave the guy some quite forthright information, reeling in his bait and calling out to see who was there. Soon a chap came to the call, as I unhooked his live chub bait (also illegal) and returned it to the water. Did he know that it was illegal to leave rods unattended? No. Did he intend to deep hook and kill a pike? No answer. Did he have a net or any means of unhooking pike whatsoever? He didn’t have so much as a pair of rusty pliers!
“I’m sorry” came the answer from a sheepish, elderly Englishman. “I’m just doing what I used to do as a boy.” I explained as firmly but politely as possible that unless he stuck to the rules, he shouldn’t be fishing. He duly packed up.
Also watching on was another local angler just ahead, who immediately assumed the unattended rod was “Eastern European”. Not that he felt any need to find out! He was casting a massive great lure, and also reporting a lack of action, and so for the next few yards we kept casting and chatting for a bit.
What is it with some anglers and the need to try and impress? He was a pleasant enough chap, but just bursting with stories of fish that sounded too big to be quite credible. When it wasn’t the tale of the day he had a thirty pounder, two twenty-twos and two nineteens all on the same day (on the King’s Sedgemoor Drain, allegedly, and not Narnia) he also claimed he’d recently kept seeing a perch that was “easily six pounds”. What are you supposed to say to that? I never want to argue, but it can get quite wearing.
With the action still slow, this at least introduced some welcome rib-tickling. Actually, our best catch was a completely fresh and unopened Cadbury’s finger of fudge just sitting there on the grass, which I ate (yes, I know. I am like a human pike when hungry). We then took turns to deliver merciless blowhard angler impressions.
“In this spot last season, I had a Curly Wurly, six Wagon Wheels and a Double Decker that had three tiers,” I told David.
“This place used to be full of confectionary” he agreed. “Until the bloody Polish came and ate it all.”
“Yeah, all the king-sized stuff is gone, thanks to those buggers” I reminisced. “I used to regularly get metre-long Toblerones. It’s all just fun-sized now, but the bailiffs won’t do anything. Possibly because I prefer just banging on about it rather than calling anything in.”
The rest of the day was a better occasion to be a photographer than an angler to be quite honest. David managed to lose two small jack pike, while I couldn’t buy a single bite, let alone a creature of fantasy proportions.
Tough times on the River Tone
The next day, we had just a few hours left to try and catch a few fish before returning to civilisation, or what was left of it. The US election was still neck and neck. Or redneck and neck, by the look of it. I was glad to be out fishing instead of sweating about the possibility of four more years of Trump. Heaven help us if this level of culture wars rubbish and utter dishonesty comes to Britain.
It was icy cold again, though, and we struck it hard on the River Tone. It’s a lovely venue, but one that has got noticeably harder. I cannot complain, having had some great days on it and also helped a few others discover it. But the known hotspots are now tougher to crack, especially when the waters are still high and cold.
Could this be a pattern on pike waters all over the country with a mass spike in angler numbers and the huge popularity of lure fishing? Who knows, but recent catch reports from friends, including some very capable anglers, have been notably weak. It will likely pick up again, but the fishing does appear to be getting harder.
I have mixed feelings about this. It’s great to see natural water angling come back to the fore and more of us casting lures. However, natural water predator fishing just can’t take the hammer that the commercials do and still remain the same productivity. All the more reason to walk further and use the fly, I suppose, which I maintain is still a great method even where the fish have taken a bit of a battering. In fact, if I had just two methods for hard pike venues, they would be fly fishing and wobbling with coarse baits, as any of you who’ve got my book Tangles With Pike will probably know already.
We then ran into two anglers who’d been bait and lure fishing and picking up the odd fish, but generally working hard for the odd take. They were refreshingly honest and nice guys though, lacking the tiresome bluster of unlikely claims. I also felt that with freezing temperatures again overnight, their bait tactics were possibly more likely than my fly rod. Or at least, I couldn’t win a take for love nor money, even by trying sinking lines and all manner of flies.
In fact, the best catch was an epic fry up. Rather than waste the dawn picking up breakfast from a takeaway, we’d decided to fish on an empty belly and cook on the bank later. Nothing beats coffee and smoky bacon to revive the spirits, but I was desperate to beat the blank and show David a glimpse of what the Levels can offer!
Last chance saloon
Out on the Levels, the objectives are very different to big reservoirs or noted specimen waters, it must be said. Perhaps the main reason the Levels lack the fame of say the Fens or Norfolk Broads is the small average size of pike. That’s not to say there aren’t some bigger ones, but you don’t come here to land leviathans. Unless you carry magic scales, the typical pike is between one and four pounds, with a “double” being an excellent fish. But they’re all so beautifully wild and well-conditioned you don’t grumble.
Even so, it’s as much about the experience of seclusion and getting off the beaten path. I can’t think of many better places to share with a friend, in fact, taking in the amazing, wide-open scenery and huge skies on a cool day. It really is quite a magical place and I would honestly rather fish here than join ranks of other anglers all trying to catch the same monster pike (although I do occasionally hit the big reservoirs, as you can read in my recent blog for Turrall Flies).
Anyway, I digress, but not fancying the Tone with the fly, I advised we quickly hit one of the smaller drains where the pike might be modest but tend to be more reliable. After a short drive in convoy, we were casting and searching quickly, knowing that the clock was ticking.
Confidence, rather subdued just an hour earlier, soared as we witnessed several pike attacks at the surface. In shallow water packed with panicking roach and rudd, this was magical stuff. We literally could hardly send the fly out fast enough.
It always looks a formality to catch these hunting fish, but it can be tricky when they have a lot of natural choice. Regular readers might remember our adventures before on the Tone, when the pike were clattering bleak but our offerings just seemed lost amidst thousands of real prey.
Luckily on this occasion, we managed to strike into a few takes. I could go on about clever pike flies, but I have to say my current favourite for these waters, especially where the pike are hitting silver fish and not super wise, is a very simple, large tinsel pattern with exaggerated, oversized eyes.
They weren’t huge, but a couple of jack pike spared our blushes and fought superbly on light tackle. The fish above must have been no bigger than three pounds or so, but was electrifying, breaking the surface to make a grab right at the end of the retrieve, before going off like an explosive!
The clock beat us in the end, then, but it was great to lose ourselves on the Levels for a day and a half. If conditions had been bang on, it would have been a poor return- but given our timing, we were grateful to get a bend in the rod and catch up. These are never waters to win specimen prizes in all honesty, but for my money (i.e. a fiver and whatever I can find in the glove box) they are what fishing is all about: fun and adventure in truly gorgeous surroundings. Perfect for a wander with a mate.
Take care out there, stay safe and look out for another blog soonish, featuring a roundup of current angling books and other stuff. Angling Times is also worth a look for further predator action from the South West and a warts and all piece on a couple of embarrassing little angling disasters I’ve recently endured!
If you enjoyed this blog post, of course, you might also enjoy my hardback book Tangles With Pike, which has a whole selection of my best writing on the species, with a mixture of evocative tales and some fresh ideas to add to your pike fishing arsenal!