Fishing always brings out the optimist in me. Odd, because by nature I tend to be a glass half empty sort of person. I don’t buy lottery tickets; I anticipate weather forecasts to be wrong; when my team go one-nil up, I fully expect an equaliser to arrive with every opposition attack. For some reason though, fishing is different. I see a cold snap and still go to the river. I assume the fish are hungry and act surprised when they’re not. Even when all the signs are wrong and I’ve had no joy for hours, I believe the next bite could come at any second.
This fantastic lack of realism is good for getting me out of the house, but can also be troublesome. I go for long shots rather than reliable options, or go fishing when the odds are completely off. Of course, most forms of angling media tend to fuel this blind optimism too. 90% of the time, we are all so selective in what we share. When was the last article you read that said “the secret rig didn’t work today”? Blogs and Facebook posts are full of amazing catches rather than tales of cold soul-searching. If you’re one of those who bucks this trend and tells it exactly how it is, you have my total respect.
In short though, this winter has been one of the toughest I can remember. But I haven’t helped myself. There’s a reason the locals call my local cut the “Exeter Sh** Canal”. There are some good fish but it’s tough going and can take a lot of time and faith- and at the moment I only have the latter. Other speculative recent pike fishing trips in search of the big one have been just as duff. Stafford Moor’s Lodge Lake (above) being a prime example. The pike seem to have dwindled in size and numbers since silvers were netted and carp took over, not that I can blame the new management because carp are where the serious dough is. I didn’t get a sniff from crack of dawn to last knockings.
Thank goodness for other, easier waters then, even if the rewards are a bit more down-to-earth. South View Fishery is one good spot for quality roach and perch in dependable numbers, which features in my next Angling Times column. The Tiverton or Grand Western Canal (above) is another that is brilliant for bites from silver fish too. I had a nice net fishing pole and punched bread around Sampford Peverell in the space of just a short afternoon session. After several blanks I didn’t much care if most of the fish were small, it was just gratifying to get bites at regular intervals. I always fancy this section in the winter; being a bit more sheltered and urban perhaps the water is that tiny bit warmer?
The only weird bit was not getting a single touch on a deadbait I’d put out for pike on a second rod. Just an off day? We seem to have sorted out most of the poaching by patroling the banks more regularly (including the weird event of three years ago when two chaps ran and left a mountain of crude tackle behind as I called the Head Bailiff). The locals are also reporting a family of otters doing the rounds, but I can’t believe for a minute they have cleaned the place out- slow days do happen it’s always too convenient as an excuse.
I had several swims in mind and higher hopes for one of my guided fishing trips the very next week, anyway. James Hone was my guest, taking a Christmas break from far flung Australia of all places. Even with big saltwater game species in his new home, I think he’d missed some of his favourite British fishing- and was pining for a pike or two. The original idea was to get them on the fly, but this was tricky with gale force winds in prospect! He did indeed manage a jack on the method in one of my favourite sheltered sections of canal though.
Every guide worth his salt has a plan B, and with winds of up to and over 40mph, dead baits really proved their worth in the roughest of the weather. The odd run came on the bottom, but the real revelation was a drifted deadbait. This is a great way to use the elements to your advantage rather than fighting them- and I use just a simple float set up with just a single catfish hook through the back of the bait (for anyone who’s curious, there’s a whole article on this highly underrated method in Tangles with Pike).
It was the drifted bait that got most of the action then, but it was a static, popped up mackerel head that had the biggest pike on the day. Indeed, most fish were small, but a couple of them put a better bulge in the net. James also hit a couple on a jointed plug though, bringing his total to six pike on four different methods. A good all round bit of angling and an excellent result given the conditions, not to mention a good advert for keeping active rather than sitting on your backside because the pike were not all in the obvious or easy spots.
With yet more rain and blustery conditions since, it was very much a case of pragmatism with my next trip too. I had hoped to tackle the Somerset Levels for some pike on the fly- but with chocolate brown waters I didn’t fancy it. Instead, I opted for a crack at some trout at Simpson Valley Fishery, North Devon. It’s a fishery I like a great deal in the difficult depths of winter, with good variety and staff who are always friendly and helpful. I dragged my dad along too, which tends to be an achievement in itself when it’s cold (his hands tend to seize up a bit).
It proved to be a good choice too, with the fish on Jenny Wren lake fairly cooperative. With the cold and unsettled weather, I fancied the deeper water around the stone “monk” to produce bites. I kicked off with small lures (Kennick Killer and Cat’s Whisker), counting to a good ten to fifteen seconds to let the fly really sink well. I only had a floating line, so this was a must. It didn’t take long for the line to pull tight either. The first was a rainbow, followed by a pretty blue trout- always a bit of a novelty.
The only slight annoyance was the sheer rudeness of another angler on the lake. Seeing that I was getting bites, a lad started clumsily hauling his line literally right across where I was fishing, from the other bank! I suggested that if he was that desperate to fish there, he should just walk round and take the next peg. He looked sheepish, but pretty much carried on being antisocial and casting right across me (if you’re reading this, please either take up a different sport or learn some basic manners in future).
Sometimes the fishing gods seem to have a sense of fair play perhaps, and he only managed one fish while I kept catching. Not that the trout were super easy- but when the lures stopped working a bloodworm got a response too (always a good get-out-of-jail fly for winter- as you can read in my article with Devon fly fishing guide John Dawson). Meanwhile, the old man also managed to get a bend in the rod. Having blanked as drastically as me on his last trip or two, this was good to see.
All in all then, the past few weeks have been a victory for pragmatism above huge expectations. I’m hoping to take some longer road trips soon though, to add some variety and, who knows, one or two surprises into the bargain. Either that, or I’ll just get semi-frozen and catch up with some friends.
Good luck for your next session- and don’t forget to keep an eye on the Angling Times and current edition of Fallon’s Angler for the best of my current writing. Issue 11 of the latter is especially worth a read, with highlights including the General’s latest rant on otters (below). Whichever side of the debate you’re on, I guarantee you’ll chuckle if you have a single funny bone in your body.