Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A Roach Shoal more Silver than Ever

It is essential to keep moving-on, never to be satisfied, to look to progress by however tiny increments towards improvement. It matters not what the target is, it may indeed be moveable as progress is made, but progress must be made or all is lost and the prospect of gazing listlessly at the water's surface is the ultimate reward

The shoal of canal roach which had somehow eluded us, even though we knew they were there, just a week ago simply had to be dealt with. There was no way this could go unaddressed

I couldn't sleep, the alarm was set for four-thirty to be there at first light but I was up at four in eager anticipation. There were times in my life when four consecutive blanks would have knocked the stuffing out of my enthusiasm to such an extent that tiddlywinks would have been more attractive than getting on the bank but now, this time, it had only fortified the resolve; this was not a challenge requiring the avoidance of a blank to help a team, this was a longer-term campaign, the pursuit of big canal roach, and it was not to be taken lying-down

Sun rising on Big Roach potential 
Pre-planning is everthing and as I approached the water's edge down the steps by the bridge in the semi-darkness I mysteriously sensed another presence but looked the wrong way to see nothing then, double-taking to my right, a stout country-clad gentleman with two chocolate lab's wandered down the steps. 'I think we beat the others today!', blurted out, almost in self-defence, as I gathered my composure after this affront to my right to be alone at that moment. He chose to go left on his, no doubt also pre-planned, route as I went right with eyes focussed on the canal surface as I walked towards the soon-to-be-rising sun, intent on locating those elusive redfins. Mid-length I stopped to sit motionless on the bank waiting for that most natural of giveaways, the early morning topping roach shoal

I knew The Old Duffer would be another ten minutes, at least, but by then I had gleaned enough information and walked 7 or 8 pegs past last week's blanking spot to the epicentre of seismic rutilitude. The sun still was not apparent as I set my kit down and went back to guide my, now enthused, partner in crime to 'the spot'. My ability to describe the sight of a topping shoal of this type on the canal is limited, firstly I have hardly ever had the opportunity to view fish of this size behaving in this manner, usually in my past they would have been 2 to 3oz fish, and I have never stalked fish on a canal, but there is an undoubted serenity in the sight. The distant, apparently gentle, swirl and emanation of magically concentric rings captured in the early light againt the flat calmness of the waterbody, but with the contrasting splash of the tail-flick at close quarters...truly adequate words fail

The groundbait problem had reached a new level. Even my most trusted supplier no longer carried white crumb of the requisite coarseness for the task and, with a stated and measurable lack of confidence in straight liquidised bread, it was time for some more invention. Bread was liquidised but left to dry naturally and then mixed 50/50 with (very fine, in texture) 'punch crumb' and introduced to some canal water ('canal water - bread crumb, bread crumb - canal water', etc.) to swell to a sloppy consistency. Now this looked the part and, when dropped from a height of about 3 feet into the water just past middle, would land with a sloppy 'splat' to attract inquisitive fish to the commotion and have the flavour to bring them close, combined with the consistency to keep them sufficiently occupied

Meanwhile, back at the roachy ranch, topping had subsided - apart from the occasion perch-bait leaping clear

His Duffness soon had a 6oz roach on his trusted maggot and after ten minutes biteless a little doubt crept in but, literally as it was doing so, the first lift bite (which I am now just starting to cope with the shock of ) occurred. I was opting for stronger elastic (no.6) today to get the fish away from the baited area more quickly than I had managed previously and this was successful as only 6" or so emerged as a clearly chunky fish struggled against the inevitable conclusion - that we were back in business and the quest to break the 1-3-12 roach best had properly resumed with another pounder

The beginnings of a lift bite in action
I had only two hours before I would have to depart to deliver The Dog and Parps for cricket coaching, and then later the latter had a rugby tournament to attend for most of the day formerly known as the sabbath, so time was limited, however the water colour was perfect being clear to about 6-8" down as the sun at last burst over the horizon. A second big roach fell to a similar piece of flake suspended 2-3" off the deck, this was a monster I thought would go at least 1-6-0, but not before a minor miracle in the sparkly shape, I believe, of a pristine pure silver bream preceded it on the same method, all 11 ounces of it, and an undoubted p.b. to boot. What a beauty it was with its large eye comprising 25% of the snout to gill dimension; 47-48 lateral line scales; 7-8 scales between waist and tail and, finally, 23 branched rays of the anal fin. Now that I have seen one again I had certainly caught little versions of this fella before but this was somewhat outsized by my standards!

Perfect silver bream
A caster line to my right down the channel had simultaneously been nurtured. A first look with a light 'dibber' rig produced nothing but, following a brief spell closer to the far bank on bread which resulted in the capture of a greedy little 4oz skimmer, I gave it one last cursory shot while I wrapped some kit up in readiness for the sprint to Coventry via home. As is so often the case I looked-up from my partial pre-occupation to see no float, had I just missed it? I couldn't have because I only had 18" of line above it, it would be obvious if it were there, it must've gone! I struck into another meaty fish which, on this lighter gear, took a few more seconds to land and, if I am honest, I thought this would be a second over the p.b. in the same session, a longer fish than the second roach but not so barrel-chested

The three roach were weighed at the end after being hurriedly photographed at 1-3-0, 1-1-0 and 1-0-4...aaargh, still no p.b. breaker, but what a two hour session!! The method is refining as we proceed and with the advent of pre-session stalking I am increasingly convinced that the p.b. is looking ever more likely to go soon

Not a flattering shot but the thinner-bodied silver bream, at 11ozs on the right, gives some scale to the roach

Golden maggot: The Old Duffer 3 (roach, bronze bream, perch)

Parps' Rugby Team result: Won 2, Drew 1, Lost 1 

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Fight or Flight, stillwater distractions

 After three consecutive canal blanks on pegs with potential at least to throw-up big roach it is time for a change

You can see the bottom from here!

Last Sunday there were big roach topping immediately to The Old Duffer's left for the first hour and smaller ones near me but I went biteless and he mustered just two bites on maggot for one 10oz perch. I would go as far as to say I have never (or perhaps 'rarely') seen so many big roach showing early in the morning on a canal and yet they clearly weren't in the slightest bit interested in whatever we might've offered them as a distraction, unless the shoal was tightly packed. Admittedly it was very frosty, the car said 0degC on the way at 5.30am, but nevertheless those fish were very active. Other than the above I can only put it down to a spawning preoccupation given the time of year albeit I have continued to purposely avoid bites from blank-busting roach of less than about 10ozs by sticking to big pieces of flake

Apart from spending more time trawling through the old records to schedule big roach for future reference and comparison I have also been planning some stillwater trips which has helped to narrow-down the options by revisiting those I fished previously and took roach over a pound from, sometimes in reasonable numbers it seems, but, again, although this may have been successful to a degree, in a match-orientated kind of way, I was then still intent on catching whatever bit rather than narrowing it down to a smaller number of better fish. This process has reminded me that I had taken decent fish from at least four of the more natural stillwaters within the scope of my search, none of which were, nor are, 'commercials'. A few questions asked show at least two of them to be day ticket, which is good, and another is now a non-carp-orientated syndicate (with a waiting list)...I smiled nicely (difficult), explained that I used to fish there as a kid (true), said what a nice boy I was (hmmm) and now await a call...but am not holding my breath!

That these venues hold the potential for tench, bream, rudd and crucians as well, in varying degrees, adds to the new found allure conjured by memories drawn from the cardboard vault and some corresponding photographs

The fact I can take Parps to share a swim more easily and have the undoubted pleasure of enduring his incessant drivel also has a certain attraction and hopefully he might even catch the odd one in between words on the occasion he actually draws breath

Armed with this somewhat over-egged enthusiasm I headed-off in the frost on Saturday morning to a usually clear water which I hoped would have benefitted from some added colour from the week's afternoon rains...not so. Anyway, casters at the ready and a new reel to christen - thank you God for eBay - I persevered from 6.30 for four solid biteless hours of attempted roach fishing which turned into a brilliant birdwatching session as the realisation dawned that I wasn't there to catch anything! I sat for the second two hours with my binoculars permanently around my neck and alternated firing casters four to five rods out with viewing the avian action

A migratory common sandpiper was most confiding, coming to less than 20yds away for his portrait, as did a goldfinch collecting nesting material from the path behind me together with a similarly occupied grey wagtail, which eluded the too-slowly poised compact

Common sandpiper

Nesting goldfinch
Nesting birds were all around the phragmites & bulrush surrounded waters. At least four pairs of constantly conflicting coots, two pairs of mute swan a least one of which had eggs, two pairs of canada geese and the graceful pre-breeding ritual of great crested grebe together with skylark, willow and reed warbler song filling the chilly morning atmosphere with the passion of Spring

Two pairs of battling coots

Great crested grebes' courtship ritual
30 species were listed including all three hirundines, but amazingly not a single gull or tern, and it reminded me of the bonuses of fishing lakes rather than the limited potential of canals with their constrained linear marginal habitat. (I had the genuine pleasure in midweek of watching a pen swan raising her nest by 6" as protection from the swelling Avon carrying much welcomed floodwater around the raft she and the cob had carefully and painstakingly created on a mid-river small island)

So, as these musings run in danger of turning into something of a rambling epic, the irritation at failing to tempt a single individual of last week's shoal of quality topping roach on the cut to investigate my bait with abandon became more intense - an itch increasingly in need of scratching seven days later - as an immediate contrast interrupting the stillwater spell...already

[Sedge warbler, Willow warbler, Chiffchaff, Common sandpiper, Dabchick, Great crested grebe, Coot, Moorhen, Canada goose, Mute swan, Tufted duck, Grey wagtail, Swallow, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Carrion crow, Rook, Wren, Mallard, Reed bunting, House martin, Skylark, Raven, Starling, Pheasant, Goldfinch, Sand martin, Great spotted woodpecker, Buzzard]

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Big Canal Roach Conundrum (or is it the weather/bank holiday traffic/wrong bait excuse?!)

The Old Duffer and approaching Nemesis (not the name of the boat)

So, I'd the opportunity for three consecutive visits to the North Oxford Canal to plan before the bank holiday weekend and, despite the prospect of heavy boat traffic, was confident the early starts would negate any risk of poor fishing

The venues would be selected as follows:
- Likelihood of big roach (1lb+)
- Areas I had fished in the period 1975-96
- Moored boats might be avoided in key swims

Saturday saw me plan to walk between to the furthest flung bridges to seek-out areas which used to be match fished when access was available but which, due to changes in land ownership, are no longer possible. I was going to walk as far as I could manage and revisit pegs which used to produce decent roach catches to bread and caster and occasional skimmers together, as it happens, with good perch to maggot and worm

After walking about 20 pegs a narrowboat was moored facing the way I was walking. Now I'd encountered this before, and I hadn't forgotten the consequences, so did I walk past it and risk waking light sleeping holiday-makers who would then set-off early and pass me before I'd done much fishing on a venue (indeed - canal) which suffered badly from the after-effects of boat traffic due to low fish populations, high subsequent colouration and an associated difficulty keeping them together with regular passing boats?...no, I decided instantly to stop at the most suitable peg just short and out of view of it. This happened to be close to a former turning bay with plenty of overhanging bushes but, due to cattle being run in fields opposite in recent years the far bank was crumbled into the water resulting in very wide, shallow stretches each side of what had now become a spinney

I had recently bought some new white crumb which neatly set like a self-levelling screed on a previous trip and so had reverted to liquidised bread, a feed which I new from experience not to have great confidence in, but it was all I had

The first bite on flake, naturally popped-up about 2" off the deck, came at about 20 minutes into the session and, while it felt somewhat breamy and lethargic, it turned-out to be a big roach, a real beauty that I instantly thought might push my North Oxford p.b. to the wire. I have long held the belief that fish in a keepnet lose weight between capture and release and so, in another step away from match orientated thinking, I weighed it straightaway and was really pleased to see it take the scales down to 1-3-0 (I weighed it again at the end and it was the same...so much for that theory!). I had guessed in a previous post that my biggest roach from the canal had been 1-4-0 but, on checking back, found it to be precisely 1-3-12 - a fish weighed separately in a match on beam scales in 1993, so the record was still safe but with three roach of a pound from the canal in the past three trips it was suddenly looking a bit precarious...or so I thought...

A Cracking Roach (Gromit) made into a monster by my (girls) hands

  A small roachxbream hybrid of 6ozs was added but an early stream of expected boats put paid to any further action of a fishy type. It would be narrow-minded not to mention however the pair of reed buntings that flitted past, a particularly persistent chiffchaff and an unexpected fox which approached the water crouching low directly opposite and with which I had a 'who will blink first' stand-off as I tried to grab my camera and each time I moved it looked up as if thinking, 'I'm sure that thing just moved'...and it did, and each time it did he did it again until he or she was just out of view when the thing managed to get a picture of the end of it's brush!
In keeping with the natural balances associated with growing confidence in angling situations I then endured two consecutive dawn blanks on different stretches, punctuated only by a signal crayfish which I even failed to keep to the letter of the law with when it fell off as I swung it in due to it having only one claw!
So why was this apparent fishy disappearing act evident? Was it the excessive daytime traffic sickening the fish?; the spawning time drawing them to suitable locations?; was the bread not Warburton's (no! it was Kingsmill, the shop has nothing else)?; were there no big fish in the pegs capable of taking a large piece of bread flake?, was it the liquidised bread feed?, etc, etc

Cue one serious experimentation session...
When I got home I set-up a tank to see what effect various sizes of flake had on the three strung no.8's I had been using 2-3" from the hook as a lift-bite rig, see photographs

A 5p sized piece of flake settled with all 3 no.8's on the bottom

A 10p sized flake resulted in the third no.8 staying on the deck

A 50p flake suspended all 3 no.8 shot from the surface

I then compared this with my old light match rig with a 20 hook and a string of no.7 styls. What was interesting about this was that if I didn't squeeze the pellet of punch it floated up to be suspended off the bottom by the distance to the first no.7 styl - about 6"

This pellet of bread is stopped from floating to the surface by a single no.7 styl. The rest of the rig is hung over the edge of the tank but the bulked styls can be seen in the water, next the the float. This begs the question - how many fish did I catch in the past with bait well off the bottom when I actually thought I was laying-on? Admittedly I did habitually squeeze the pellet but not every time I am sure and often started a punch fishing session with the hook laid around 6" on, which would often produce the biggest fish before I came up off the bottom slightly to keep the 1-3oz fish coming as long as possible

All interesting stuff and logged for future reference. I just hope the prospects improve soon, perhaps a change of canal is due, or even a stillwater ('never thought I'd ever utter those words again!)

[Species list for three trips: Wren, dunnock, starling, robin, fieldfare, robin, blackbird, blue tit, great tit, long-tailed tit, chaffinch, bullfinch, yellowhammer, reed bunting, skylark, meadow pipit, green woodpecker, woodpigeon, feral pigeon, magpie, carrion crow, jackdaw, buzzard, indet gull, moorhen, mallard, canada goose, mute swan, fox, rabbit, signal crayfish, roach, roachxbream hybrid] 

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Angling-based Past v. The Angling-based Future, a Contextual Analysis...or skimmers, sticklebacks, stonechats and shrews

Sounds a bit rude really doesn't it?, but I thought it was about time I put some context to the plan

Between 1975 and 1996 I recorded as accurately as I could every single fish I caught. If I were to bother to add them up (which I will not...there's sad and there's terminal!) I could also tell you, a touch more approximately, how many of each species in that period. I appreciate I may have lost count from time to time but on the odd occasion, when I knew I may have done so, I would count them back at the end and invariably I had undercounted so I can say without fear of guilt that the recorded figures are, if anything, slightly below the true numbers

To give an example, if I check back, in 1990/91 season (bearing in mind they were proper seasons back then) the book says 4900 fish were caught at an average of 51.58 per trip for a total catch of 350.2.12 and a trip average of 3.11.0. I could tell you more but you may well begin to wonder if you might catch OCD from the words. I could tell you what the average weight of each fish was, in fact that would not be difficult at all, however what might appear quite surprising I am sure is that the average weight of each catch and each fish may seem extremely low and yet the number of fish caught on average seems quite high

It's all in this box. Originally in special books, then an A5 sheet per trip
 The reason for this is that from the age of about 12 I fished in matches and saw non-match sessions as practice for them. Consequently I hardly ever fished for big fish for a whole session even if they were clearly in front of me as I would almost always be looking to get some fish in the net by whatever (legal) means before I tried to catch the bigger ones at the very least in case they didn't feed and I was left blank, a disaster in a team match for instance

I recall, looking back, that in the early days we used to concentrate on certain rivers and later on canals often travelling with the Old Duffer's mates until he got a car of his own. Extended spells going to the Great Ouse, Trent, Warks Avon, Thames, Grand Union and North Oxford Canals are still quite vividly remembered combined with occasional trips to all sorts of other venues as widely drawn as the River Wye and Coombe Abbey lake. Eventually however I settled for a long period on the Grand Union between Crick and Leighton Buzzard followed by another period on West Midlands canals including the Staffs/Worcs, B'ham/Worcs, Shropshire Union, Stratford Canal and, again, the Grand Union, this time west of Warwick. During both of these latter spells of canal fishing the North Oxford featured most winters and, often, early season evenings too. Consequently I navigate by fishing venues rather than pubs and rarely need a voice to say 'take second exit' unless a new road has been built

Some Warks bloggers may recognise this venue from a Xmas 1983 photo of a photo?

From an earlier age than the above I had been birdwatching and avidly listing every species seen, even on the shortest of trips which could possibly fall into this bracket, and including any other species I might have been capable of having a stab at identifying such as the occasional butterfly or mammal (The Dog has always been particularly adept at attracting the latter since he appeared on the scene some 16 years ago. I fear it is due to his reticence to wash)

I had undertaken studies of a short length of the River Avon, east of Rugby, and another of Stanford Reservoir when at school and so the recording doctrine set-in early. When none of the above opportunities  presented themselves then the option of a jam-jar and net seeking-out bullheads and loaches under the stones of shallow brooks would always offer another option or, perhaps, tracking wasps back to their nests and then trying to convince The Old Duffer that we (he) really ought to go and dig it out under cover of darkness and then put the grubs to good use on the Trent ('never did happen). For the past ten years I have been involved in other forms of recording at a more structured and public level with bats, amphibians and reptiles and which I suppose have filled some of the gap while I have been away from fishing, birdwatching and generally being out there entirely for the pleasure of it

Fifteen years or so after quitting fishing part-way through a winter league series, when the urge not to go overwhelmed me, it has been like a new sport altogether to come back into it without the wish or will to enter matches and the prospect initially to concentrate effort toward bigger fish to see what can be caught from those same locations, from which I once averaged a much higher number of tiny fish, is quite a challenge. The cost of travel and available time keep me within certain limits now and to concentrate in the north-eastern end of Feldon seems quite appropriate and contained, although I am certain I will stray from time to time when a seemingly valid reason or whim presents itself

A typical catch of old. A team of footballers from the R Thames, 1983

What I do not yet know is where seeking-out bigger fish at the cost of tiddlers will end-up. I can't be sure but what I do know is that the quest to come-up with new or more refined methods, a mindset that constantly accompanied my approach between '75 and '96, hasn't gone away and already this has paid-off with some bigger canal fish in just three concerted visits. Everything can be improved somehow to suit a situation and for now that is keeping me suitably amused and excited. A heightened awareness of the natural world around me also adds fascination but, frankly, at this moment, the bite takes precedence! This new world will evolve into something more, or different, from there if it wants to I am sure.

Soon I think I will add at the side of my posts, if I can figure out how to do it(!), a list of my P.B's from the past world I describe above and perhaps another of the evolving New World list to compare it with. It (the old list) won't initially at least make for exciting reading for the onlooker but it will focus my mind and hopefully will get more interesting as we progress

Monday, 2 April 2012

A Frosty Reception

The frost was heavy at dawn this morning. I hadn't expected to need to scrape the windscreen before I headed to rendezvous with The Old Duffer at pegs the image of which I nursed in my mind all week. I was glad for the heavy duty winter gear The Lady Burton had invested in a couple of Christmases back but, as I stepped out from the warmth of the car, I was more concerned at the sight of those pegs being taken by narrowboats than the cold

I did make myself £5 richer however as I had bet myself that no matter how early I got up he would beat me there. It must be where my competitive instinct comes from, although I try to limit mine to the actual fishing where possible! Sure enough, given that we were going to be fishing together, he had done the obvious thing and walked past the boats to the next available swims. Sadly however the perceived potential was minimal so far from the bridge where he himself had taken roach of 1-15-0 and perch of 1-7-0 in the past. These pegs would produce 30-40 mixed small fish for just over a pound in matches when I was a teenager in about 1980 and by the time I left the scene again in the mid to late '90's, the zander having eaten those little chaps, it was ounces unless the odd netter interrupted the struggle

Consequently the optimism was not exactly oozing but the thick drifting mist hanging over the water, the lambs and young rabbits friskily frolicking in the field opposite, goldfinches again twittering in a tree nearby and the general feeling of isolation at dawn while the masses sleep were enough to make it worthwhile in themselves but, nevertheless, the prospect of a decent fish on the new-found method was always there and the confidence in it from last week's inaugural session was going to carry me through this one, even if it was blank

Plumbing-up it was predictably shallower here than where I fished last week but shallower still than I expected with the deepest channel only about 2m wide and then steeply shelving opposite. I planned to fish at the bottom of the far slope and put in a blob of bread crumb with some mashed bread at that point where a dark reflection also allowed a good view of the float tip

Unusually for bread, bites were not immediately forthcoming and the first came when resorting to a small cube of crust which, somehow, a 2oz roach managed to squeeeze into it's mouth and ended-up in the net. One more missed bite and it was time to top-up the feed. Meanwhile The Old Duffer (or TOD, as he might now be known, for short...but not for long) softly whistled and pointed out a big roach rolling halfway between us. Soon after this a proper exaggerated lift-bite caused the usual state of shock in me but I soon realised what this meant(!) and struck into something which took some elastic and then soon took on the feel of a struggling roach

Attempting an action shot while the fish approached the net with an imaginary third hand (me, not the fish) almost resulted in the camera disappearing in the mist but somehow all remained intact and a not exactly pristine roach with some blackspot around its head was engulfed by the net. Not a pounder, which is now the level at which satisfaction can be certain, but it looked around 12ozs and, more importantly, boosted confidence in having another

Ice, net, roach... the beginnings of a new fruitstone-counting rhyme
A lack of subsequent bites however prompted a further feed introduction, and while I wandered along to my fishing partner avoiding the punctuations of yesterday's dog walking laziness he too had a bite and landed an 8-10oz perch on a banker pinkie line, near-side of middle. (Last week I referred to perch as footballers...this week I discover there is a Newcastle United player called, wait for it...Perch). This short trip signalled the end of the fishing action for the early morning as a pair of skylark headed north-east overhead given away by their distinctive contact calls. I had tried a larger piece of flake but a touch of River Leam deja vue occurred when it failed to be sunk by the shot I was using. The far shelf deserved a spot of feed late-on but with no bites, and a boat approaching soon after, it was time to consider delivering Parps to his Rugby match

The roach, by now affectionately known as 'Spot', was weighed at 11ozs and returned to the water with the his little pink-finned colleague and we contemplated the pegs we couldn't fish plus a couple of others on the opposite side of the bridge (from which we would have had a host of big fish of course!) as we sauntered back

Not the prettiest roach you'll ever see but perfectly good enough when the odds are against you

This stretch, or perhaps the whole of the N. Oxford, was habitually electro-fished at least annually by British Waterways in the days when it mattered to them to ensure that people fished there, when stretches were leased and rents were due to be paid, and a commercials were TV ad's. The zander were removed if overpowered by the electrical current at about 12ozs plus and transported for eating in accordance with the law and the population of fish was fairly stable, if artificially so (having said that the population with zander present was artificially so too of course), albeit that it was an ageing cohort. Now I wonder whether if I were of such a mind to fish for smaller fish what would be present these days, I had caught 13ozs of fish while actively avoiding any littl'uns here? On my three trips to the canal thus far there have been a few small fish topping nearby each time, things will reach a new natural balance eventually just as we now see far fewer mink than in the late 70's and early 80's. A dusk wander along some of the more suitable stretches for 'bits' might answer the question more easily as they indulge in their late evening topping ceremony in mild weather, at least then the big fish hunt can continue without disturbance!

Despite the presence of some competition the Golden Maggot was not mentioned today nor did it need to be as we only scraped 1 species each anyway

[Species list: Wren, skylark, dunnock, great tit, indeterminate gull, mallard, carrion crow, mistle thrush, robin, blackbird, goldfinch, chaffinch, woodpigeon, rabbit, roach, perch.
1st swallow of the year at Dunchurch on the way home.]