Heavy plant growth at the edges of lakes often promises rich catches—but can be frustrating. Learning how to read the margins of lakes clearly will double your effectiveness.
I first realized that it was possible to read lake margins in the early 1950s. One facinating summer’s study led me to believe that all species of lake fish spend a great deal of time in the marginal shelter. Carp fishing was becoming recognized as a worth-while pursuit and ‘margin fishing’ was soon to be developed by Dick Walker. His object was to present a surface crust immediately below the rod tip, close to the bank, so that no line lay on the water to worry the carp. It was simple, and like many simple methods, highly efficient.
At that time I was studying the behaviour of tench throughout the season, and found myself reading the lake margins for signs of them. By watching the rush stems I was able to recognize the difference between the activities of feeding tench and those of cruising rudd.
When the baited swim stopped producing tench, and as the sun rose higher, I noticed activity in the thick marginal rushes and when single stems bent towards the water, fish of several pounds were clearly responsible. During the heat of the day I fished the thick margins with small baits and caught tench at intervals until evening.
There was no other indication except for the occasional ‘kissing’ noise in the thick rush beds and, while eels make such noises and barbel make similar sounds in streamer weed, I had a hunch that tench were sucking food from the rush stems. Also, their continual brushing against the rushes possibly had the function of dislodging food from the stems. I am convinced that tench do not like strong sunlight and that they retire to the shelter of marginal rushes to feed once the sun is high. My marginal catches bear this out and, today, presenting a slowly sinking bait is as deadly a method as any for daytime tench fishing.
When I was catching these marginal tench, big rudd put in an appearance from time to time and their near-surface flips and swirls were easily distinguishable from the more determined delvings of tench.
As I have learned since, bream often behave in a similar way. One dense bed of giant reed-mace on a large lake has yielded countless bream over 6lb since I realized that they were making regular trips into the thicket. There were defined paths—channels just wide enough to permit the passage of a fish, and further exploration with a boat showed this lake afforded many similar areas. Each had narrow channels leading into a clearing where the rushes thinned out and almost completely disappeared. On other bream waters since then, those narrow channels have been an absolute giveaway. There is no guarantee though that all bream waters possess such obvious characteristics.
A wide, clear area in what appeared to be a completely overgrown margin. This area was sheltered from the wind, fairly deep, teeming with snails and other small creatures, and those bream had little cause to investigate a heavily baited swim nearby. Their main food source was obviously to be found in the margins.
Marginal carp signs are even easier to read. Where large numbers of big carp are present, the reeds sway and shudder as big fish move close to them. There are also areas where their constant foraging has completely uprooted the reeds. If you see them uprooted and lying on the surface, close to intense fish activity in the thicket, big carp are working the area. Swans and other water fowl probably dislodge rushes too, but I believe carp to be responsible for most of the uprooting that I have seen.
Sure signs of carp I was told that no carp existed in a certain lake and I was puzzled by the uprooted rushes. I later heard that carp were present but that they were never caught. However, only the open water had been fished. I could not wait to get a bait into those ripped-up, marginal reeds and at the first attempt extracted three carp and lost two more. There was nothing magical about it: the rushes were simply the logical spot to fish. Marginal reeds and rushes bent and broken during the summer offer a further indication of big fish. Later in the year, when the stems weaken, green bulrushes fold over and die off, but where healthy plants appear suddenly flattened (and it is not the work of a dog, otter or swan) big fish may be responsible. I have actually seen Norfolk rush stems collapse at the water line when carp have been active, and a late spawning drive will have this spectacular effect.
If doubt remains regarding the cause of the uprootings, and time is on the angler’s side, there is a simple ruse to employ. Fish, whether they be carp, bream or tench, having caused marginal plants to flatten or uproot, may be assumed to be feeding, and bait introduced to the margin can be watched for several days to make sure.
Baits for bream
The bait should be in the form of big hook samples—pieces of well pinched bread flake, small potatoes or any other easily visible portions. In shallow margins these food items show up well and, in the absence of swans, it may be assumed that it is big fish that are responsible if they disappear.
Soft groundbait or meal, sweet-corn and other small particle baits, may well disappear overnight, but there is no guarantee regarding size of the fish responsible. Drifting shoals of rudd are capable of clearing up a great deal of ‘small’ food as indeed are skimmer bream. It usually takes a big fish to clear up a ‘potato patch’, and if small half-cooked potatoes are taken, it is usually a sign that carp are present.
Big bream shoals tend to follow a defined course around a large lake and, although they do not always venture into the very shallow water in search of natural food, they may well be encouraged to do so if the area is baited. By taking careful note of their timing it is sometimes possible to be present with a hook-bait in place ready for their subse-quent visits. It does not always work (and it cannot be expected to immediately), but a careful study of the margins over a period of weeks may well bring about the catch of a lifetime. I once caught three bream over 8lb in three casts as a result of such a study. They came from marginal water no more than two feet deep and their backs were out of the water as they foraged.
Pike, too, love the margins, but a pike quietly awaiting its prey does little to betray its presence until it strikes out at a passing fish. Then there is no mistake. The whole area often explodes with action and the marginal plants may be seen to shudder and sway as the pike returns to eat its meal. Pike anglers often fish the edges from a boat, and it is common practice to beat the rushes with paddles before fishing livebaits in open water. Pike do not stay in the margins when the wind is high and waves are lapping the shore. Then they are more likely to be found in open water. It has been suggested that they feel some kind of discomfort in the swaying rushes.
When there is no sign of fish in the near-bank rushes, it makes sense to use the wind to advantage and, from a boat anchored well out, toss in some loose crusts and let them drift naturally to the edge. Tossing them in directly from the bank may work, but usually takes longer. Drifting crusts are often attacked by rudd very quickly and the noise they make sometimes causes carp to move out and investigate.
Tench and bream also investigate marginal disturbance. I once watched a big tench cruising slowly around a floating crust while rudd continued their attacks. Finally, it pushed it right into the marginal thicket. The crust disappeared with a carp-like slurp. In some waters it is not at all unusual to watch tench rise slowly from the depths to suck in large chunks of floating crust. Through polarized lenses I have watched bream take slowly sinking portions, broken off a larger piece by surface-feeding rudd.
Although we tend to think of rushes and reeds at the mention of margins, there are, of course, many where no plant life grows at all. The dam ends of some traditional lakes and reservoirs are deep and usually free from obstructions. Where there are structures of any kind, perch are likely to gather, and one way of ‘exploring’ these areas is to spin with small vibrating spoons or spinners. Perch will come up from the depths to investigate the source of these vibrations and although this does not always result in positive takes, these ‘follows’ prove that the fish are indeed there.
The last kind of margin to be con-sidered is the swampy area that can-not be reached from the bank. It is overgrown with vegetation that has encroached over the swamp and into the lake itself. Many such areas exist in Ireland, but only boats or jetties give access to them. Attempts to wade or cast to them only scare the fish away and spoil a wonderful opportunity, for many of these margins hold fish in large numbers. Many fish, tench in particular, do not venture out from under the vast cover of tangled branches and herb-age. Their retreat may lie several feet back in a jungle of greenery. I have swum into one such thicket and found water, some four feet deep, going back three yards from the apparent bank line. These areas must be approached silently and with care. Anchors should be lowered quietly and casts made from long range. Light groundbait thrown first on top of the cover so that it trickles through, and later into the water at the bank line, should bring fish out to feed.