The roach may be a small, unspectacular and extremely common fish, but roach fishing offers the angler the chance to fish in many different waters using a wide variety of techniques.
You will very rarely hear an angler speak of the roach in terms of fishy ‘battles’ or ‘rod-benders’. He cannot stretch his arms apart to describe this fish. The average mature roach is between 8in and 10in long, and the vast majority of roach are considerably smaller.
It is very difficult for the non-angler to appreciate what impels anglers to rise at four in the morning in search of this humble and extremely common fish. Yet any Saturday or Sunday morning will find thousands of them deserting their beds in a passion of anticipation for a 10 in fish which most people find inedible.
Few anglers could explain such enthusiasm. It is more an act of faith, almost a religion. Those who tried would probably describe the spell the roach casts in terms of variety – variety of shape, colour and size, variety of waters to fish, variety of baits and methods, and the ever-changing and endless variety of landscapes and environments to which the angler is led in his quest for excellent roach fishing. More than any other species, the roach shows that fishing is not just about catching fish.
Roach are not much to look at, but their variety does begin with colour and shape. There are two extreme forms of coloration in mature fish. Most anglers are familiar with the bronze flanked roach found in the Kennet or Hampshire Avon, as well as with the more common silver flanked fish found in most waters. Both varieties are nevertheless found side by side in many waters. The body shape of mature fish varies in that most roach are slim and streamlined, reminiscent of the dace, while, also found but less common in southern Scotland and eastern Wales. It is less common in the North and West, and not found in the extreme West of England and Wales, nor north of Loch Lomond.
Roach are not indigenous to Ireland, but coinciding with the coarse angling boom in southern Ireland over the past two decades they were introduced and are now established in the Foyle river system, and in Fairey Water and other places. No doubt further introductions .will occur. The rudd, which is common there, has always traditionally been called ‘roach’ by the Irish. Anglers fishing in southern Ireland would therefore be wise to and treat the local use of the term ‘roach’ with some reserve.
A roach of a pound is a good fish in any water. Over this it is excellent. Two pounders are not common, and specimens above this size are, for most anglers, the fish of a lifetime.
It is tempting to suppose that the slimmer fish are found in swift streamy waters such as Thames, Avon or Stour, where their streamlining would be advantageous. You might also fairly expect that the fuller-bodied variety would inhabit the sluggish rivers, lakes and other stillwaters. Nothing could be further from the truth for both shapes are found not only in the same rivers or lakes, but also in the same shoals. Clearly, these variations of colour and shape are due to genetic and not environmental factors, the characteristics being transmitted from parents to offspring.
Anyone examining a roach for the first time would probably notice the lack of teeth, which would at least establish that is non-predatory. A closer examination, by dissection, reveals that like all fishes of the carp family (to which roach belong) the roach has pharyngeal teeth set at the back of the throat. These, bearing on the upper hard palate, enable the fish to grind up food before swallowing it.
Dissection also reveals that the roach has no stomach, the gullet extending from the throat, thickening, and then folding upon itself to pass directly to the vent where wastes are expelled. The digestive processes are carried out by enzymes and bacteria lining this gullet. As with most non-predators, the diet is mixed and, while over half the roach’s food consists of plants and such algae as silkweed, it also eats insects, crustaceans, molluscs and diatoms.
The haunts of roach are as variable as their shape and colour. However, they prefer gravel, rock or hard bottoms and will settle over hard clay or mixed sand rather than silt or soft mud. Often they have little choice as the waters in which they are found vary from the swiftest chalk streams to the most sluggish and coloured lowland streams and small ponds. To survive, shoals must locate good feeding. For this they turn to the weed beds, not only for their plant food but for insects and other creatures. Roach, therefore, often shoal within easy reach of such natural larders, which also offer them protection from predators.
In rivers the current forms an endless conveyor belt bringing food along to waiting shoals. Roach will sample almost any suitably sized morsel brought down by the stream. They can sample and reject incredibly swiftly any item which arouses their suspicions, as anglers well know.
In this kind of habitat the shoals lie below the overhanging weed,beds reaching up to the surface, often on the edge of a run between the weed. From this vantage point they regularly sally into the clear runs to take other foods.
As the need arises, fish will cruise from one weed bed to another. From time to time they must cross open water, cruising on to the bottom, hugging the deeps, probing the mud or gravel for mulluscs and larvae. Adventurous fish on the fringes of such shoals patrol the outer cruising area, occasionally rising to snatch a surface morsel.
In stillwaters the absence of a stream means fish will be found in or hovering over weeds, or cruising. They cover the marginal waters at depths between 5ft and 15ft, foraging into marginal reed fringes and weed. Here, the angler hopes his groundbait will allay their natural suspicions, hold them in the vicinity, and get them to take his hookbait.
During the closed season roach move into the gravelly shallows, seeking a compromise between the gravel they love and the silt and mud inevitable in weedy fringes and shallow margins. Between March and-June – later or earlier according to the severity or mildness of the season – the concentrations of fish build up until spawning occurs. Individual fish dart in and out of the dense mass, jostling and splashing. Prior to spawning, the male fish develop temporary warty growths or ‘tubercles’ on the scales of the head and shoulder. These enable fish to distinguish the sex of their neighbours and no doubt play a part in courtship preliminaries. Spawning is communal, often as if at a given signal. Then the quivering mass of fish discharges eggs and milt into the water in large clouds. The eggs are fertilized in the water, sinking slowly to adhere to reed and weed stems until hatching later in the season.
Such indiscriminate spawning gives rise to hybridism with other species. There is always considerable competition for suitable spawning places on the shallows, and it is not unusual for shoals of bream, rudd, dace or chub or even bleak, to be spawning in close prox-imity to the roach shoals. Fish on the edges of the shoals sometimes intermingle, and eggs from one species are then fertilized by milt from another. The result is hybrids, usually with characteristics intermediate between parents. These give rise to occasional problems of identification for the angler.
Recognizing a hybrid
Every year the current roach record is assailed by claims for fish which, upon examination, prove to be hybrids. The bream/roach hybrid is usually the culprit. Such fish should be recognized immediately by any angler of experience but, regrettably, they are not. The angler should be suspicious when he takes a good fish which seems to be slimier than usual. Its identity can be established by counting the number of branched rays in the anal fin. Roach have 9-12, bream 23-29, while the hybrid is intermediate with 14-19.
By mid-June when the fishing season opens, the roach shoals have forsaken the shallows for the streamy runs, weirpools and swifter reaches, where the well-oxygenated water restores their lost condition within a week or a month according to locality and the weather. By July or August they have moved into deeper waters, lying in the swift current between and under weed beds. In lakes, they will be farther from the margins. Now they must make the most of high summer and plentiful food.
By October, the onset of colder weather and shorter days cause roach to settle in the depths. In shallow lakes their choice is restricted, and in very deep ones they seldom penetrate below 20ft or so as food supplies below this depth are limited. A lessening of activity coincides with the fall of leaves into the water.
In winter Stillwater roach only become active during mild spells, when they temporarily resume feeding. By now the best of lake fishing is over. In rivers, there is a resumption of activity after autumn when rain arrives and the river is flushed. When flooding occurs the shoals will often follow the levels over the banks to flooded meadows where food is replenished by the new pastures, and where lay-bys are favourite places to take refuge, or rest from the force of the river in spate. When levels fall again, the fish instinctively seek deeper water to avoid being left stranded. Throughout winter they cruise in the deep and feed as they can to attain a superb condition. In spring the cycle starts again.
This varying pattern of feeding and movement dictates the range of methods that the skilled roach angler must be able to command. In the early season he must often use fine tackle to tempt fish from their weedy strongholds in gin-clear water. Silkweed is a good bait then, and he must wield this light tackle with precision and finesse to present the bait in a natural manner, and so produce a take. He needs swift reflexes to hook this flighty fish, and angling skill to keep it from the weed in order to land it.
By the end of the year, with vastly different conditions, he must use heavily-shotted tackle to cope with the river in spate. He will cast accurately and surely to the shoals, or perhaps fish lay-bys or eddies with ledgered tackle. Between the extremes he must practise a wide variety of methods at different times of year and in differing waters.
The angler must also relate his baits to his knowledge of the natural feeding habits of the fish. Fortunately, the maggot is similar to many underwater larval forms, and the worm, which resembles other water creatures, is also found by roach grubbing on the bottom. Wheat, barley, hemp, tares, corn and other cereal baits are familiar to fish in their natural form at harvest time, during high winds, and in flood conditions. The enterprising angler will always find suitable baits. Caddis fly, bloodworm, freshwater snail and shrimp, mussel and woodlice are all effective alternatives to the more usual baits. Silkweed too can usually be had at the fishing place. Bread baits such as paste, flake and crust, are all proven and easily obtained. The prime consideration is that all baits must be presented in the right place at the right time.
Where roach are found
You can confidently expect good roach from any major river system within the areas where roach are found. Specimens of 3lb are recorded from Hampshire’s Test and Avon, and the Dorset Stour. In the south of England they come from the Thames, Medway, Kennet and Essex Stour. In the Midlands and North, the Trent, Colne and Great Ouse produce big fish, while the Norfolk Bure, Waveney and Broadland lakes offer excellent prospects. Many reservoirs and gravel pits, to be found all over the country, also produce good fish.
The angler may fish in silent reed-fringed fenland dykes with a very fine line and a matchstick float to take a good bag. He may stret-peg the Thames, Kennet, Ouse or Trent, or shot-ledger in gravel pits and ponds. Long-trotting in quiet streams bordered by the Dales or rolling a ledger on the northern border rivers will take roach too.
But this is not a typical fishing situation. Trout anglers find it necessary to use casts that taper from a high breaking strain and diameter down to the finest one suitable for the water being fished. To make up such a cast, three, four, or even five dropper knots are required, although only one knot may actually have a dropper attached. Such knots must be very carefully tied and tested if the angler is to have real confidence in his tackle when a big trout takes.