A large coloured river is one that is rain-fed and becomes the colour of stewed tea when in the height of flood.
Apart from the Severn, Trent and Great Ouse, other popular large coloured rivers are the Thames, the Wye in Wales, and the Ribble, Swale and Ouse in the north.
Rain-fed rivers never run with the same sparkling clarity of chalk streams such as the Hampshire Avon or Dorset Stour. Even when no rain has fallen for some time there is always an undertone of green, grey or brown, subtle as it may be.
This colouring can be an advantage to the angler because his movements on the bank are not as obvious to the fish. This means they won’t scare so easily. But the colouring can also be a disadvantage because, by the same token, the fish are not so easily seen -choosing a good swim becomes more of an educated guess.
All the usual coarse species are present in large coloured rivers. These include dace, roach, chub, bream, barbel, pike and perch in the middle and lower reaches.
Brown trout and grayling can be found in the upper reaches of some rain-fed rivers, and the mighty salmon will run nearly the length of the river – from the sea virtually to the source.
The upper reaches of these rivers are narrower, with faster, shallower, water that winds its way through the hills. Any trout or grayling present inhabit the fast water, while coarse fish living in these sections seek out the slow glides and the deeper pools on the bends.
The middle and lower reaches are generally wider and deeper. The river does not wind as much, and there are high banks and deep undercuts where surging flood-water has gouged the soil. As the river nears the sea an increasing number of tributaries join it. Heavy rain has a greater effect in these stretches as the tributaries fill the mother river with heavily silted coloured water. There are times when fishing becomes impossible.
Finding the fish
When the river is flowing at its normal level there are certain things to look for in choosing a swim, according to which species you wish to catch.
Roach prefer smooth glides 4-6ft (1.2-1.8m) deep, that meander beneath the bushes overhanging the river’s edge. Hawthorn and elder bushes seem especially attractive to roach – years ago elderberries were a popular roach bait.
Dace like a slightly faster current, particularly where it shelves up from the deeper to shallower water, just before it breaks up and tumbles rapidly.
Perch love slacks on the inside of bends, where they can chase the minnows. Pike are also partial to such swims, but they are not averse to hunting in faster water if their prey can be found there. Barbel are very fond of weed. They like to lurk in strong-flowing – but not too fast — water, over clean gravel. Wherever you find a snag, such as a sunken tree branch or a boulder, you can generally find barbel. In the warmer months, smaller barbel are also found in numbers in the shallow, fast, weedy lengths.
Chub favour water of medium pace, specially where there is a ‘crease’ that divides the current from the slack water at the edge. Rubbish rafts, too, are among their favourite haunts. These are accumulations of debris collecting around an overhanging tree branch trailing in the water. In fact chub love anything that provides a roof over their heads, be it a raft, an undercut bank, a thick weedbed, or a tunnel of weeping willow.
Bream thrive in the deep, slow, lower reaches of a river – where the river bed is mainly mud or silt.
It is in times of flood that waters such as the Severn and the Ouse really live up to their label of large coloured rivers. The increased water and disturbed silt give them an unmistakable character. Where tributaries meet the main river excellent swims form during times of high water. The main river backs up the tributary, forming a slack in which many fish take refuge. Close to the bank at such hotspots – among the reeds and rushes where sediment usually builds up – predators like pike lie in wait. During severe flooding such retreats are used by both the hunters and the hunted. All the species can be found holed up together because their normal swims are under threat.
Where one river is joined by a slower-flowing river, which frequently happens to coloured rivers as they near the sea, an eddy forms. The swirling water carves out a depression, which bottom feeding species appreciate.
Fishing rain-fed rivers
Smelly baits, such as cheese and luncheon meat, are effective when the water is coloured. They are easier to detect at times when the currents have disturbed the sediment and the fish have to rely on smell rather than sight.
One non-smelly bait, a large lobworm, also proves very effective in coloured water.
There are various different methods of fishing coloured rivers. One is trotting with a stick float. This method, using maggot or caster as bait, catches all species, but it is particularly good for such fish as dace, roach and chub.
When fishing a crease, or a glide, of slow or medium-paced water within two rod lengths of the bank, a stick float can be unbeatable, but remember to feed regularly.
A swimfeeder, packed with hemp and caster, is effective for barbel. Don’t be afraid to use a really heavy feeder so that you can hold the bottom in the centre of the river. Cast and feed regularly.
Yet another excellent way of chub fishing large rain-fed rivers is to visit the water an hour or so before darkness, when most other anglers are packing up.
Tackle up a quivertip rod with a simple leger rig, then wander along the bank, using bread crust or paste, luncheon meat or cheese. It’s rare that chub won’t feed at this time. Bites are usually very positive, even when you are using tackle heavy enough to land fish through snags. The best time to fish is during the three or four hours from dusk. The idea is to catch one or two fish from one swim, and then move on to the next.