Fishing in moats

From the 11th to the 16th centuries many of the largest manor houses and castles in Britain were built with defence rather than comfort in mind. Fear of civil war and peasant uprising dictated the design of great walls, towers, keeps, drawbridges, portcullises and – best of all from the angler’s point of view today – moats. Over the centuries most of the buildings have decayed and many moats have dried up, but some survive and they can offer fascinating fishing prospects.

Beautiful and historic

A plan view of a traditional moat shows a regularly shaped piece of water. They are generally around 10-15m (ll-16yd) wide and square in shape – the four sides following the line of the castle or manor house walls. Sometimes one side of the moat opens out to form a decent sized lake but this is not usual.

Moats tend to be fed either by underground springs or by streams draining from surrounding land and they are sometimes sited in exotic landscaped gardens. They have a great deal of atmosphere – especially after darkness has fallen.

Many-featured waters

Underwater the moat generally has a good deal of character, and hotspots are easily identified. Moats were obviously built deep to prevent invading armies from simply wading across, and unless a lot of silting up has taken place, then there is generally a good depth right under the rod tip.

Over the decades masonry and refuse have fallen into the moat, and now provide perfect shelter for many species of fish. The foundations of the building’s walls have often been eroded through the centuries, creating large fissures and undercuts. These also provide a safe haven for fish -especially in bright weather.

In the peaceful 20th century, most moats ‘• are only ornamental, often filled with lily beds for summer displays. These again attract tench, rudd and especially carp. In short, it pays to spend time walking around the moat, plumbing the depths and noting any fish-holding features. A drawbridge gives shelter in bright sunlight and the kitchen window is often a favourite gathering place as fish wait for discarded titbits.

A kettle of fish

One of the attractions of fishing a moat is that you never know what might turn up next. Because they are extremely old, there’s often the chance of finding traditional fish species in them.

Wildies’ The original, English fully-scaled carp may inhabit the moat. These fish differ from their much fatter, mirror-scaled European cousins which are generally imported these days. Wildies are now pursued by experts as a type of cult fish. Though they are smaller than mirror carp they fight much harder pound for pound and their runs are lightning fast. Rudd may be present too. These delicate, vividly coloured fish were once very common but many of their old habitats have dried up, been built on or polluted. Today their preserve is limited to a few traditional strongholds – especially where fishing pressure is only very fight. Elvers and bootlace eels sometimes find their way into moats via feeder streams. Often these streams are too small to allow the large adult eel back out when it wants to return to the sea. The water becomes what is known as a ‘prison water’. The eel is effectively captive in the moat and has to stay there for the rest of its life — sometimes growing quite enormous in the process. Tench are traditional moat fish and were quite often introduced centuries back as food for the castle garrison on a Friday. Perch, pike and roach inhabit many moats and there have always been legends of massive moat pike attacking waterfowl -some of these stories have proved to be quite true and the occasional big predator is always a possibility.

Unusual species are always on the cards if the moat is a high-profile water – much like a huge garden pond. A variety of ornamental species, such as orfe, golden tench, grass carp and catfish, are typical of some of the curiosities you may encounter. Some may have been in the moat for many years.

Moat strategies

Typically, moats are filled with crystal clear water and it is vital to sit well back from the bank so the fish can’t see you. Heavy groundbaiting rarely works and loosefeed-ing is far better done with scattered pieces of bread, sweetcorn or pouches of maggots. The waters are often weedy and you may have to strike a fine balance between tackle heavy enough to pile on the pressure and tackle that is not so clumsy as to be obvious to shy fish.

For tench, carp and rudd the best times are at dusk and dawn and then – if fishing is allowed – throughout the hours of darkness. This does not mean that daytime is useless – it isn’t – but it can often be vital to get a bait hard up against the side of a tower, right next to a crack in the masonry, in the shade of a lily pad, or in the shadow of a drawbridge.

This approach is especially important for eels. In the daytime they are often hidden right in the footings of the wall itself, with tail anchored firmly inside some crevice, and perhaps just the head poking out into the open water – waiting for the opportunity of a meal to arise. A juicy piece of dead fish placed no more than lm (3ft) from them may tempt them into the open, but then of course the trouble starts as you struggle to keep them out of the rubble!