The banks of some small rivers are so rich in vegetation they wouldn’t look out of place in a jungle. Graham Marsden tells you what you can catch.
More often than not small rivers are full of character. They wind their way through the countryside like sinuous snakes slithering through the grass. Because of this winding – sometimes so severe that the river goes back on itself – the current hits the bends with considerable force. This is especially so during high water.
The current undercuts banks, exposes tree roots and piles debris against overhanging branches. With every thousand gallons of water that pours through, the river’s character changes subtly. This is good news for the angler because it means that every swim is like a fingerprint: unique – not another one like it anywhere on the river. This makes for exciting fishing because you can try perhaps half a dozen very different swims within the space of a morning or evening’s fishing.
What you’ll find
You can find a wealth of different species in small rivers: roach, perch, pike, chub, dace, barbel and, in the cleaner rivers, even trout and grayling. But it is a mistake to think that because a river is small the fish are small. Far from it – most small rivers are capable ofproducing fish at least equal to, if not bigger than, those found in larger rivers.
Get to know your river
The best way of becoming a competent small river angler is to get to know the river as intimately as you can. Speaking to other anglers is a start, but there really is no substitute for walking along the river bank and fishing it at every single opportunity.
One of the essential features of these small rivers is that when the water is low and clear you can often see the fish — some- thing that you can’t usually do on larger coloured rivers. With the aid of polarizing glasses you can spot fish and even identify them if you can creep up close enough.
When you are not actually fishing but merely rambling along the bank it is perhaps more important to pay attention to features rather than fish. Make a note of where the weed beds and other snags and likely fish-holding areas are – where the water deepens, if it runs over sand, gravel, or silt, for example.
This kind of knowledge stands you in good stead when the water is slightly high and coloured. These conditions can produce the best sport but they hide many of the features visible under normal conditions and make fish spotting impossible.
There is nothing worse than fishing an unfamiliar river when it is high. Coloured water makes it difficult to tell the difference between deep and shallow water without plumbing, and to some extent you have to fish blind.
Every swim imaginable
Every type of river swim you can imagine can be found on a small river and countless varieties of each type of swim. Deep holes and glides on the outsides of bends are very common. Here you find roach, perch, dace and chub. Lurking not far away -usually in the slack water on the inside of the bend – you’ll find pike on the lookout for an easy meal. Many of these deeper holes have trees and bushes on the outside of the bends. Their roots strengthen the banks, allowing the current to undercut them deeply without the bank collapsing. This is where the bigger chub live. Fast, shallow water is always worth fishing in summer, for here the water is well-oxygenated and weedy, offering the cover fish need so as not to be exposed to predators. This is a favourite haunt of barbel.
Where willows and other trees overhang, trailing their branches on the water’s surface, debris collects – twigs, branches, dead weed, leaves and anything else that floats down the river (especially during high water) – forming a raft that becomes a roof over the heads of fish. Chub are very fond of these places. Floating crust fished tight up against these rafts of rubbish is well worth a try – especially on summer evenings. Where the current leaves a bend it often forms a glide that gradually shallows to faster water below. These glides are good for roach and chub. Where the river bed rises -just before the faster water – is often a winner for dace.
Weirpools are excellent in summer for all species. This is because water tumbling over the sill drives oxygen into what might otherwise be stale water.
Directly under the sill you’ll find barbel, while in the calmer water below are chub and roach. Pike and perch inhabit the slacker eddies at the sides of the pool but they are quite willing to venture into faster water to seek prey if no prey has come to them. Dace are to be found in the faster water as it leaves the pool.
How to catch them
Although many small rivers respond well to the light-line, small-hook approach, there are plenty that give up their best fish to a heavier, bigger bait style.
One favourite method for summer chub on small rivers is a simple, free-lined slug on a size 4 hook to 5 lb (2.26kg) b.s. line. Sneak up to the river and spot your chub, then cast a little upstream of it so that the slug tumbles past it. Strike when you see the gills flare and the slug disappear. The same technique with a large lobworm is good too – for both chub and barbel.