Flatlands – fish from fenland drains

Fenland drains can provide great summer sport provided you know what to look for..

Fen drains are man-made waterways, built so marshland can be converted to agricultural land, or to help prevent flooding. You’ll find such waters in many parts of Britain. The most famous drains are those of the Norfolk and Cambridgeshire Fens, but there are also many in Lincolnshire, South Humberside, Somerset, Kent and Merseyside.

Types of drain

Fen drains can be divided into roughly two types – those which drain by gravity through sluice-gates and those which use diesel or electric pumps to extract the water. The sluice-gate type tends to have a more gradual run-off and is usually tidal, whereas

Sluice-gate drains can be very overgrown in summer. Many of them are no longer required for flood control and so aren’t disturbed for weed cutting or maintenance. Reeds, weeds and lilies abound.

The fish of the fens

These waterways are famous for two species of fish – bream and pike. Though pike can be caught in summer, they generally feed only erratically. Most anglers wait until autumn before fishing seriously for pike.

Bream live in large shoals which roam the drains in their search for food. Several areas attract these shoals on a regular basis due to the presence of food-holding features. Places where lines of gravel strata cross the drain – and where the bottom can be heavily contoured – hold large numbers of invertebrates. The bream are attracted to this rich food supply. Often these areas can only be found with the help of local anglers or by trial and error.

Another type of hot spot – where electricity pylons cross the water – is much more those with pumps can flow rapidly at any time. Fortunately, most drains are almost still in summer, making fishing much easier. A fen drain can be anything up to 20 miles long, 100m (109yd) wide and 5m (16Hft) deep, though they are usually shallower than this – sometimes as little as lm (3/41) in depth.

Pumping-station drains are frequently cleared of weed and so tend to be fairly featureless. Fortunately, weed growth is hard to control, especially lilies, and many pumped drains do have some weed. obvious. There is a certain mystery as to why the pylons should provide a bream hotspot -some people have even suggested that the large electromagnetic field close by is attractive to the fish. A more plausible explanation is that dredgers must work in a more restricted way underneath these extremely dangerous structures and so the bed is rougher and more contoured, much as where gravel strata cross the drain.

Whatever the reason, some huge catches have been made in the vicinity of these features. However, with the deaths of several anglers by electrocution, warning signs have gone up, and wise anglers cast into these areas from some distance away, rather than fish directly underneath them.

The key to finding bream is to look for fish rolling at dawn and dusk, or for areas of coloured water during the morning, where their rooting around has stirred up the mud. It is possible to prebait a swim, but feeding is much more effective as a holding tactic once you’ve found a shoal. Otherwise it might be days before they explore your section of drain.

Other species

Many fen drains have large stocks of the smaller silver bream. You can catch them in any area but they are most common in the same sorts of places as their larger bronze relatives. Roach are also common but the catches are usually better in winter.

SpeciesLocationBest techniques
BreamDeeper water, especially in open water or along the old course of the brook.Legering or swimfeedering with maggot or worm.
CarpAlmost anywhere from shallows to the deeps. They like to patrol margins and around lily beds.Legering sweetcorn or boilie, or floater fishing with crust.
PikeShallows in warmer weather. They like inlets or the valve tower or wherever there are fry.Spoons, spinners and plugs, or sink and draw deadbait.
PerchDeeper water, in bays, reedy areas and close to snags such as sunken bushes.Small spoons and spinners, or legering lobworm or fish.
RoachDeeper water, near the dam wall or in open water.Floatfishing maggots or swimfeedering maggot,worm or bread.
RuddShallows, especially in bays and around reeds or lilies.Floatfishing maggot or bread on the drop.
TenchShallows, especially around weedbeds and lilies.Floatfishing on the bottom or swimfeedering maggot, bread, worm, sweetcorn or paste.

Fair but featureless

Reservoirs do not usually have many visible features, but if the following are present, they can provide clues to the location of the fish.

Weedbeds, if they are present, attract all species of fish, especially tench in the shallow water at the margins and around any islands. These fish spawn in shallow weedy areas early in the season. The sport can be exceptional just after this, while they are feeding up to replace the energy and protein used up in the breeding process. Valve towers and stream inlets – usually rich sources of food, shelter and oxygenated water – attract and hold a variety of small fish and fry. The presence of so many small fish draws the predators – pike and perch. Old valley features, such as hedgerows, fences, roads, trees and the remains of buildings which became submerged when the valley was flooded to create the reservoir, also hold many fish. These are best located using an old map of the area, though sometimes asking other anglers can be fruitful. In the absence of either of these two sources of information, try working your way round / the reservoir with a plummet – seeking out snaggy or uneven areas. The original course of the stream is another feature found on old maps. If it is within casting distance, it can produce big catches of the bream which patrol along it regularly, searching for food.

Tench are popular fish in the summer and some drains provide an ideal habitat for them to grow to 4-5 lb (1.8-2.3kg) in weight. Look for them in the shallower weedy swims which are particularly common in sluicegate and side drains. Again, coloured water is a good sign of tench feeding as are the tiny bubbles which make the water ‘fizz’. Some drains also contain stocks of carp. Lily beds are a very good place to start looking for these, though fish rolling or bubbling, especially at dawn or dusk, are the surest signs. A pair of polarized sunglasses is a great help in spotting fish at the surface.

The weedy areas also yield good bags of rudd in the summer, so watch for them feeding at the surface, especially in the evenings. Eels are inevitable in this type of water. They are mainly bootlace eels, but there are some larger fish, with the odd giant of 3-4 lb (1.4-1.8kg). They can be caught anywhere, but side drains and weed beds can be very productive.

Although fenland drains have unique features, it is also worth looking for overhanging bushes, or junctions between drains, as these features attract and hold the fish in drains, as in many other types of water.

Flatlands - fish from fenland drains