A dace’s delicate lips are more seductive to an angler than its vital statistics, for although it is smaller than roach or chub, its shy reserve and nervous nibbles are an endearing challenge The dace (Leuciscus leuciscus) is common throughout England and Wales, except in the extreme West. It is rarely found in Scotland, and until recently was not recorded in Ireland. It is essentially a river fish, flourishing in the swifter, well-oxygenated reaches along the barbel zone, extending upstream into the troutrzone, and downstream into the roach and bream zones. It is unusual to find it in lakes, and when found there its presence is often due to pike anglers having released unwanted livebaits at the end of the day; or because the fish have been cut off from a river by the formation of an ox-bow or horseshoe-shaped bend formed from a meander.
In Lancashire the dace is generally called the graining, and, as such, was once believed to be a different species. Modern authorities on fish do not distinguish it from the dace. In the West of England it is known as the dare or dart—a name probably derived from the manner in which dace forge their way upstream against very swift currents by a series of darting movements.
It is a slender, graceful fish, generally brown or green coloured on the back, with dorsal and tail fins to match. The flanks are of a striking silver, and the underside is white. The lower fins are white or grey, sometimes with pink or yellow tints. The head and mouth are small and the eye has a distinctly yellow iris—never the roach red.
Confusion with roach or chub
The dace is sometimes confused with young roach or chub, but usually the sparkling metallic silver of the flanks distinguishes it from both species. Roach and chub are coloured either like pewter or bronze, but dace have the white lustre of freshly polished silver. Older chub are sometimes mistaken for dace, usually due to wishful thinking on the angler’s part.
Dace are a small species, the average run of fish being less than 8oz—a fish of 12oz is a good one, a pounder a very much-sought-after specimen. Chub of this size are common and the angler can be forgiven for hoping when his mixed bag of small dace and roach contains a chub of lVzlb.
However, such confusion should not last, for chub bear distinctly convexedged dorsal and anal fins, while dace have fins with concave edges. Chub also have a large head and mouth, which contrasts with the small, oblique mouth of the dace.
Dace are at their best in small streams, or in the swift upper reaches of the river where the water is shallow and clear. Here can sometimes be seen large shoals dar-ting from cover into the streamy runs for a morsel, or moving swiftly downstream when scared by an anglers’ shadow on the water. In waters such as these one occasionally spots a grandfather dace, attended by one or two similar-sized companions. To have attained a weight of nearly 1lb such dace must have long outlived the rest of the shoal with which they grew up, and have developed in isolation.
Best dace are in trout zones
Any angler anxious to catch these fish must fish fine and far off, and yet be swift in his reflexes when a fish takes. The best dace specimens of all are often found among trout zones, where their superb quality often goes unnoticed by the fly fisherman seeking trout, and it is such waters that the specimen-dace hunter would love to be allowed to test his skill. Dace are also common in large, broad, slowerflowing waters, where they often appear in roach swims. They usually feed higher in the water than the roach shoals, and tend to predominate in the centre runs, where the stream is swiftest. Although they are generally con-sidered to be surface and middle-water feeders, in fact they do con-tinually change depth, feeding alternatively at the top and on the bottom, as well as in-between.
Good-quality dace are taken on most of the major river systems —the Thames, Trent, Ribble, Severn, Hampshire Avon, Dorset Stour, Kent Stour, Waveney, Ken-net, Windrush and many others. They are loved by anglers because, size for size, they fight far better than roach or chub, and perhaps above all because they take the bait so swiftly that the angler can pride himself on being able to hit every second bite.
The seasonal movements of dace shoals are similar to those of roach. With the opening of the season they are found on the gravelly shallows, where swift, streamy runs predominate, or scouring in weirpools and shallow, fast-moving stretches. Within a few weeks, usually earlier than roach, they move into the main river, seeking out the swifter reaches, and patrol continuously in search of food. Like roach, they lie under the cover of overhanging weed tendrils and fringes, usually close to the surface, where they intercept food items passing down and then flash back to cover again. As autumn approaches, they work into deeper waters, except during the flood or spate, when they seek refuge from the main torrent in oxbows, lay-bys and back eddies, or in holes under the banks. They still forage into the turbulent waters, but the shoals divide into smaller groups to move around. With winter, when the floods have gone, they work into deeper waters and re-form shoals.
The dace usually spawns between March and May, although it may be earlier or later depending on the season. The species breed communally, moving to spawning beds in feeder streams over sandy or stony bottoms. At this time the males develop spawning tubercles all over their bodies. The females each lay, on the river bed, between 3,000 and 27,000 eggs of ltt-2mm in diameter. In temperatures of about 13°C (55°F) these hatch after some 25 days.
The young grow to about 6cm in a year, reaching maturity—with a length of 10-20cm, and rarely exceeding 25 cm—after two to three years. The current British record fish weighed 1lb 4oz 4dm when caught in 1960, although specimens of over 1lb are rare.
The feeding patterns of dace are also similar to those of the roach, but have a different emphasis. Like roach, they live on insects, plants, crustaceans, and molluscs, but the proportions differ. Roach take about half their food from plants, but dace only a quarter. Their main diet-about a third of their total intake-consists of insects.
The rest is composed of crustaceans and molluscs. Like roach, they are able to live for lengthy periods with little or no food, subsisting on body reserves during the leaner winter months if they have too.
Baits for dace
Dace will take most baits offered to roach at one time or another, accor-ding to prevailing circumstances. Bread baits, including paste, crust, crumb and flake, are popular, and cereals such as wheat, hemp, or tares also account for large bags, especially in winter, when insect life is less easily found by the fish. Many anglers like to groundbait the swim with hemp, while using elderberry on the hook. This is worthwhile, as the fish hang on to the bait a little longer, giving the angler fractionally more time to synchronize his strike with the disappearance of the float.
In summer, maggots, caddis grubs, woodlice, earwigs, or fresh-water shrimps and worms are all good dace baits, and the angler must experiment to see which best suits existing conditions and the whims of the fish on a particular day.
Almost any float or ledgering method can be employed, according to preferences and the water fished, but the sparing use of groundbait is always useful for attracting shoals to the vicinity.
The fishing style for large rivers
On large rivers such as the Thames, Severn, or Trent, where the stream is both broad and deep, float fishing fine and far off is an excellent style, well-suited for taking good bags. Tackle must be carefully selected: the float should be as light as possible to suit the weight of the current and the distances to be cast. It must also be heavy enough to be controllable at a distance and at the same time provide good visibility when it suddenly dips out of sight. In such situations most experienceed anglers prefer to use a centrepin rather than a fixed-spool reel. This is because it maintains closer contact with the float, permitting a more immediate reaction and a swifter strike. A 4in diameter reel drum is suitable, and this must be smooth and free-running to allow the line to trickle freely off as the pull of the stream dictates. Once contact is made with the shoal, the angler can usually take several fish before the bites cease. He must then adjust his float to locate the depth at which the shoal has settled, and be prepared to repeat this throughout the day as these fickle fish alter their level in the water. In a shallow river, especially where the water is clear, the angler must take good care not be seen. A favourite strategy is to locate feeding shoals by eye and then select a suitable pitch well upstream, preferably with a good weedbed between the angler and the fish. A few maggots are tossed in as groundbait and the angler then wades out a little, pegs down his keepnet in the margins and starts to fish. If he can wade as far as midstream he does so, stirring up the bottom gently to get a little colour into the water downstream. The maggots are held in a cloth bag with small holes in each end, which the angler ties to his waist to provide a regular trickle of maggots into the stream.
Cast lightly downstream
The angler then casts lightly downstream a few yards to enable adjustment of his tackle for depth. Once the tackle is properly set, he casts downstream, trotting the bait down to the fish. As it approaches weedbeds he checks the line momentarily to swing the bait up over the weed, then resumes the trot down to the waiting shoals. Bites are fast and furious so long as the fish do not suspect his presence. He makes sure of this by retrieving line swiftly with taps on the drum, rather than by winding the handle, in order to remove hooked fish from the shoal with as little disturbance as possible to the other dace.
A further alternative, both in deep, heavy water or in shallow streams, is to use ledger tackle. A light swivelled pearlead, stopped by shot 18in from the hook and used in conjunction with a fixed-spool reel, enables accurate casting to the fish. In shallow waters the angler casts above the shoals, raising the rod tip so that the ledger weight rolls down toward them, although ground-baiting will bring the fish up towards the bait if necessary. The rod tip is kept in direct contact with I the light line, and, fishing by touch, ° the angler prepares to meet the swift 2, bites with an equally speedy strike.
Fly fishing methods
The fly can be fished upstream or down, according to conditions or to the angler’s skill and preference. Both methods are productive, but require swift reflexes from the angler. The fly can be fished wet or dry, and some anglers like to attach a single maggot to the fly for dace. Sometimes this not only improves the number of takes but also pro-vokes the fish to take firmly.
The predatory, patrolling chub will also rise to the angler’s fly on occasion, and this is when you must remind yourself that chub have convexedged dorsals, whereas the dace’s is concave.
This method is very effective in very heavily weeded waters such as the Kennet and Avon. It also offers all the variation of a rolling ledger if necessary and has the added advantage that it can be employed equally well from the bank or from a wading position a short way out.
The free-lined worm
Perhaps the most effective and skilful way of taking good dace in shallow waters is to fish a worm unencumbered by weights of any kind. The worm simply rolls downstream, the angler feeding off line as required. Bites are registered by a swift movement of the line, sometimes also seen at the rod tip. A swift answering strike should secure one fish out of every three.