Fishing in Floodwaters

The prospect of floodwaters is enough to deter even the most dedicated angler. Yet this would be a mistake, for if you know whereto look, floodwaters can provide good swims, rich in fish.

Floodwater fishing can pose an exciting and possibly rewarding challenge, but many anglers have a negative approach to it. They regard it as hit or miss, salvaging what they can from the disruption of a familiar scene.

Memorize the bank

The key to successful floodwater technique is a thorough knowledge of a river in all its moods – particularly when it is not in flood. Learn about your river when it is within its banks. Rather than relying on your memory, it pays to note and sketch the important features along any stretch. Learn the composition of the bank, its slopes and contours, the position of undergrowth, rushes, bushes and poten-tial snags. Take particular note of areas likely to form attractive lairs for predators, and hideaways for other species in times of flood. These include cattle-drinks, ditches, troughs or craters in the middle of a field, or holes in the bank where roots of trees or bushes have been pulled out. I have taken three specific swims in order to point out salient features at summer and winter flood levels.

My first example is located on a stretch of the middle Thames where the river is about 30 yards wide and 14ft deep in the middle. At full flood level – anything between some 4ft and 6ft above the summer depth – there is a tremendous push of water and most species will turn out of the full force of the current into a calmer lay-by. Whereas in summer it is a high and dry clean gravel bank, the swim is a classic lay-by during floods. This bay has been eroded away over the years by flooding, in spite of attempts to contain it with wooden piles and bags of concrete.

Barbel and chub pull into the layby in flood conditions, preferring the downstream or tail-end. Presumably they tuck themselves behind the sandbag-shaped slabs.

A back-eddy often forms at the upstream end of the lay-by, and I suspect that the downstream end of the eddy is the haunt of good roach. The cross-section shows the bank to be slightly undercut, and it is hardly surprising that the odd chub is found tucked in hard against the bank under your feet.

In this type of classical floodwater swim ledger tactics are invariably my first choice. In flood conditions, when there are more snags on the bottom than usual and more rubbish coming down the river, I try to avoid the use of long links attached to the lead: if a link is used it is a very short one of an inch or two, no more. Usually, I use an Arlesey bomb sliding direct on the line, sometimes attaching an additional link swivel to avoid twisting-up.

Always experiment with the amount of lead you use in flood conditions – on occasion you will be surprised how little you need to comfortably hold bottom. There are lots of occasions I can remember where an angler has used perhaps half or three quarters of an ounce when two swan shot have been quite adequate. Whilst on the subject of swan shot, there is another useful tip that you may care to note. If you feel that a link rig is preferable to a running lead ‘direct’ and you do need quite a lot of lead to hold, try and avoid a long string of swan shot if you are fishing a snaggy swim or a swim you don’t know particularly well. I know a string of swan shot tends to hold bottom more effectively than a single lead, but it also tends to snag itself up more frequently – the gaps between the sandbags in this swim are a good example.

The island in my second example is also located on the Thames, 30 miles upstream from my first swim, where the river is 12-15 yards wide. Islands always promise good flood fishing when the main push of water flows to one side, leaving slack or almost static water on the other. The angler should opt for the bank on the slack side.

Drowned rushes and deep holes

In summer, the water between the bank and this particular island is fairly dead except for small-fry and occasional small perch. A large area of rushes dominates the area parallel to the island, but it is passable with waders. In flood the whole rushy area is well submerged and the little summer pool becomes a relatively deep hole – a haunt for roach. The occasional big pike lurks in this rushy area too. The remains of a cabbage patch downstream also harbour roach. A steady run, about 7ft deep, forms between the cabbages and the island. This is overhung by trees and bushes and forms a natural bay, ideal for chub. At the tail end of the island the river is 8ft deep in flood, with a strong flow. When the water colour and temperature are right, the edge of this flow is a barbel hotspot.

My final example is on the Dorset Stour and is a typical cattle-drink swim. A constriction in the river upstream results in the flooded river ‘pushing out’ into the cattle-drink. A back eddy forms adjacent to the bulrush bed. This eddy, in combination with two small submerged bushes, often creates a raft of rubbish mingled with froth, foam, and cow-pats. This is a natural chub hotspot and in warm conditions they can often be seen (or heard) clooping morsels of food trapped in the debris.

Big roach shoal among the dead bulrushes where the current is steady. Big perch also collect in the cattle-drink, staying close to the ‘pipe’ beds most of the time, but just occasionally the back eddy will also yield one.

When fishing floodwaters, your timing is important. A river that is rapidly swelling and full of suspended solids does not encourage fish to settle or feed. A flooded river is usually more productive when it has reached its peak and stabilized, or when it is on the way down. Any sudden fluctuation in the level of water is to be avoided, so bigger rivers lend themselves to this sort of fishing better than brooks which quickly rise or fall.

A liking for water colour Water colour is also important, and some species are more sensitive to change than others. Different rivers tone down to a variety of colours. The River Thames, for example, is greenish-brown in flood: the Kennet fines down to a greyish-brown, while the Stour reverts to a sandy brown. In my experience, chub and roach least sensitive to heavy colour, barbel are rather fussy, while most pike are put off by it. Perch do not like colour either, but are more unpredictable. Shallow-water dace thrive in well-coloured rivers.

Unfortunately, there are conditions that spell gloom from the outset. A rising river swollen by a thaw is almost certainly useless. So is any swim that looks thick, viscous and the colour of oxtail soup (especially if these features are coupled with a hard frost). The angler who fishes under these conditions is fighting a losing battle.

In general terms it does not pay to stick in any one flood swim too long. The worse the conditions and the dirtier the river the more it pays to move about. In these conditions the fish, be they roach, chub or barbel, tend to stay put. So it is a question of you finding them.

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