Fishing backwaters

Natural backwaters – areas of water lying beside, but fed by, a stream or river — are few and far between in Britain. The best example is probably the horseshoe lake – formed where the bend of a river has been cut through by erosion and by-passed. The isolated bend, still fed by the main channel, becomes a backwater until eventually it silts up.

Loosely speaking Anglers tend to have a less rigid definition of a backwater. Any portion of slack or stationary water which forms part of, or is connected to, a river, stream or canal is called a backwater.

One example is the split made in a river’s flow where an island occurs. Invariably the narrower or slower running fork of water is called a backwater.


Many backwaters are man-made – usually channels dug off main water courses. Although originally intended for a variety of purposes, they remain as fairly static, fishable waters.

Flood relief channels which by-pass locks and weirs – especially where the water is navigable – are prime examples of man-made backwaters. The larger ones are usually heavily fished. Other channels include those dug through the main river banks leading to boathouses and boatyards.

At the lower end of rivers used for commercial trading, channels were dug to enable boats to reach wharves to unload. Where these channels are no longer used some considerable and useful backwaters have developed.

Canalization Builders invariably took the most direct line when digging canals along a river’s course. This left winding and often narrow stretches of the original river cut off to become backwaters. Many examples of these isolated stretches can be found along the course of the River Lea in Hertfordshire.

Choked up

Slow-moving backwaters can gradually silt up and become choked – sometimes to the point of being unfishable.

Mud and silt accumulating on the bottom also encourage heavy weed growth. Don’t be put off though. Such swims can be worthy fishing spots throughout the year, particularly when boat traffic in the summer, or floods in the winter, make the main river difficult to fish.

Lucky dip

Many species use backwaters during times of prolonged bad weather, but there is always a resident population of fish that prefer a static environment. These include bream, with some bigger and better specimens where there’s any depth of water.

Roach, rudd, tench and carp often take up permanent occupation in backwaters fed by fast flowing rivers, and they can reach considerable size there.

Where overhanging trees and bushes are a feature then good chub are often found.

When fishing backwaters it’s important to keep a low profile. Most backwaters are narrow — making the angler easily visible against the skyline and quite likely to throw a shadow or reflection across the water. Most are also shallow, so keep splashes to a minimum to avoid frightening fish.

Aim to groundbait your intended swim at least the day before. Prepare more than one swim if you can – especially during the winter months, and always adapt your tackle and tactics to suit the season.

Early season

With clear water at the opening of the season and early summer, the emphasis must be on light tackle, geared towards fishing either on the bottom or on the drop Lift method This can be an effective technique for fishing on the bottom. It involves fishing with a short hooklength connected to a largish shot lying on the bottom. The float is set overdepth so that it lies flat on the surface, but cocks when you wind back a little – keeping the line tight to the float. When the bait is taken the shot is lifted, the float rises up and you should strike.

Crust, flake and paste make good hook-baits. Combine these with crumb-based groundbait and free offerings ‘little and often’.

Fishing on the drop using maggot or caster can be especially good where shoals of roach and rudd are known to be in residence.

Avoid worms and meat-type baits at this time of year unless you are content to tangle with eels.

Late summer and autumn

This is usually the most unresponsive period for fishing backwaters. It may be because water and oxygen levels are low that fish tend not to occupy or feed in them at this time – especially during a drought. But keep an eye on backwaters when the sun is high. Often a big carp or chub swims on the surface and it could be worth free-lining a surface-fished bait.

Winter sport

Winter is the season when the cream of the sport can be had. Cold weather kills weed and clears the water. Add some heavy rain and the backwater becomes a haven where fish can shelter from the river’s floodwater. Excellent winter pike are a likely target. These shelter-seeking predators swim up the backwater to feed and wait – often for weeks at a time – until the water level of the main river returns to normal.

Among the best methods to try are dead-baiting using a small float or, where the bed is especially thick with mud, a light float paternoster. Stick to the same area even though sport may be slow at times. A sudden feeding surge can occur at any time during the hours of daylight, and occasionally after dark.

Fishing backwaters