Angling in a small fast river in winter

Top angling writer John Bailey loves fishing small rivers in winter. If you see him crawling on hands and knees don’t worry – these are his special fishing tactics!

England is riddled with small streams that are easily overlooked. Yet, says John Bailey, they offer good fishing all year round and, in winter especially, can be really dynamite.

It is true to say that small, fast flowing rivers can provide fishing in the most atrocious weather conditions. Even when there’s not a ghost of a chance elsewhere these waters can be productive.

Whether there are floods or shivering hard frost, rapid streams yield chub and dace, often with grayling and roach, and sometimes decent pike and perch. But you need to keep quiet and low!

A good read

One beauty of the small river is that it is easy to read. Even in the bleak mid-winter, when frosty winds moan, the swims scream for your attention. Once you have found them, the swims are so small you know fish won’t be far away.

Any mill or weir pool is worth immediate investigation. The extra depth gives fish security in low, clear water and in floods offers protection from the full force of the current.

Such a friendly environment encourages a lot of fish to remain in the pool throughout the winter, and it is rare that you leave such a place completely biteless.

Almost as attractive are the sharper bends where the depth increases and the flow steadies a little. Chub and roach like these bend swims particularly, and grayling are found there too when the winter weather is very bitter.

Any snags, such as fallen branches, make the swim even better. Always remember that in small rivers, fish feel very vulnerable and flock to any feature that provides cover and an illusion of sanctuary.

Narrow thoughts

Often small rivers narrow dramatically and where the banks come closer together a stretch of deep water is produced. Roach, grayling and the bigger dace love these areas – especially if the current steadies up a little.

Average sized dace generally congregate a little lower down where the water shallows and speeds up again. Good nets of 4-6oz (113-170g) fish can be amassed quickly until the shoal takes fright.

The only trouble is that native brown trout often share these swims — and catching them so soon after they have spawned can do them harm. If you catch one, put it back into the water at once.

Keep on moving

Since different species like varying areas, they are not all going to flock to your swim. You need to go and find them.

Small islands, ditches or dyke inflows, moored boats — in short, anything out of the ordinary – can attract the various small river fish stocks.

This is why it pays dividends to keep mobile on these streams. Make sure your gear is light and portable and visit as many likely looking swims as possible.

Be prepared to walk miles in a day and give each likely looking swim ten to fifteen minutes before moving on again.

In small swims, bites are generally pretty immediate and there is little point in trying to build a swim up if the fish are hundreds of yards away. A chub, in particular, often takes a bait the moment it hits the water -provided it hasn’t been disturbed in any way.

Special tactics

Your approach to a small river swim is, therefore, absolutely crucial – especially when the water runs low and clear.

It pays to walk slowly and carefully, and to keep well away from the bank. Also make sure your shadow never falls on the water. It looks stupid, but John always moves into the swim on his hands and knees. He never sits on a box either, preferring a cushion, or a piece of plastic sheeting, that gives him a much lower profile against the bank.

Hustle a hooked fish from the swim as quickly as possible – leave it for too long and it scares all the fish in a small, shallow piece of water. This type of fishing demands great physical and mental awareness – so keep alert.

Selecting baits

Without doubt, the most likely method to catch on a small river is the trotted maggot. The perfect combination is a 12ft (3.6m) match rod, 3 lb (1.4kg) main line, 2 lb (0.9kg) hooklength and a light float, set to trip one or two maggots on a size 18 hook along the bottom.

Dace, roach and grayling all fall for this approach. You can spend a bit of time building up the swim, introducing just half a dozen free feed maggots into the water each cast.

In very cold weather – when day-time temperatures rarely creep above freezing -a bait fished hard on the bottom is often preferable.

A sensitive quivertip, a tiny swimfeeder and a single maggot on a size 18 hook often prove necessary to entice fish in these Arctic conditions.

Open the flood baits

When the weather swings and the river floods, then larger baits can be used. Three maggots on a size 14 hook, or a piece of breadflake on a size 12, should take all the small river species. If the water is really coloured, leger them hard on the bottom, just out of the main current – in an eddy, or behind a fallen branch. Meat, worms and cheese – all flavourful baits – also do well in these conditions.

A river that is settling down after a flood offers the best possible chance of a really notable fish. Choose a slow, deeper swim and settle in this an hour before darkness. Feed in two or three slices of mashed bread and then, as the light fades, leger a good sized piece of flake on a size 10 hook. You might have to wait a while for a bite, but when it comes, it is very positive – and an excellent roach, chub or dace could well be the result.

If there are any present, you can even hope for a stray barbel to set the cold night alight.