Clear water conditions and relatively low fish populations tend to deter all but the keenest and hardiest anglers from venturing on to the banks of gravel pits in winter.
But enthusiasm and hardiness on their own aren’t enough. Only by thinking about your fishing can you cut down on blanks and make the most of your time at the water.
Sometimes you can catch bream, carp and tench – and even very occasionally rudd and eels – but to all intents and purposes gravel pit fishing in winter means roach, pike and perch. The other species just don’t feed anything like often enough to make pursuit of them worthwhile to any but the most dedicated single-species fanatic.
Your first and foremost consideration must always be the weather: it’s absolutely critical on all still waters in winter.
The worst conditions occur when an area of high pressure settles over the country, bringing clear skies, frosty nights and bright, cold days. Usually there’s little or no wind, and when there is it tends to be an icy northerly or easterly.
There are no hard and fast rules, of course, and pike especially sometimes feed on the coldest of days, even during a long freeze when you have to smash holes in the ice…but don’t count on it!
The period after a cold snap can be very productive, particularly two or three days after any ice has thawed and the water has warmed up, even if only very slightly.
Ideal conditions, however, occur when an area of low pressure passes over the coun- try. Constant cloud cover keeps light values down by day and temperatures up at night, while lively winds bring warm air from the south or west. It’s on such days that you really must try to be on the bank.
Gravel pit roach, pike and perch tend to feed in spells in winter, even during the most favourable weather. If you don’t know when these feeding times are you might sit by the side of a water for hour after biteless
I hour only to pack up just as the fish are about to come on the feed. Roach can feed on and off at any time when the weather’s mild but generally they feed best from when the light starts fading late in the afternoon until early evening. Pike tend to feed at very fixed times. These vary from pit to pit but are generally at first and last light. However, many pits also see a late morning to lunchtime feeding session. A change in weather or light conditions can also trigger an unscheduled feeding spell. For example, a bank of cloud passing across the sun often prompts a pike or two to feed. Perch can come on the feed at absolutely any time during the day from before it gets light until after darkness falls.
Feeder-fishing can hardly be bettered for roach. To find a likely swim on a mild day, rove along the bank, casting out a large empty feeder until you feel it being swept around by a strong undertow.
When the water is clear, as it usually is in gravel pits in winter, pike feed mainly by sight and livebaiting is impossible to beat. Deadbaiting is usually only the best method when wind and rain colours the water and the pike feed more by scent than sight.
Drifting the bait under a large, vaned float is an effective way of covering a lot of water, increasing your chances of intercepting a roaming pike and — if you are lucky — finding a hotspot where a pack of pike has gathered. Generally, baits suspended in mid-water work better than those fished on the bottom.
A small, free-roaming, floatfished live-bait is a good method for big perch but a leg-ered deadbait is more likely to catch the fish of a lifetime. Always use a wire trace in case a pike takes the bait.
Where to find roach
In mild, windy weather, roach tend to be found wherever there is a strong sub-surface drift; depth is of secondary importance. They wander far and wide looking for food carried by these underwater currents, which are commonly found over relatively shallow plateaux or bars or in gently contoured bays around the margins.
When the weather is cold and still, roach are much less active and tend to shoal up in the comparatively warm water of deep holes, which can be anywhere from the middle of the pit to right under the bank.
Tracking down pike
Pike, too, are most active in mild weather, when they roam the pit, following the gullies in a slow, steady search for food.
Frequently a pack of pike gathers and settles in a particular area and a hotspot is formed. This may be where there is a concentration of small prey fish, or where there are features such as snags.
Often, though, there is no obvious explanation for a hotspot and the more water you can cover the greater your chance of finding one.
Traditional wisdom is that perch sit out the winter in the deepest parts of the pit. This may be the case in very cold weather but in milder spells the striped shoals roam all over the pit searching for food. It’s common to see a perch chasing a small, skipping single fish along the surface, its distinctive dorsal fin proud of the water.