Steam rises from an igloo-sized mound of cow muck as it pumps out heat into the crisp January atmosphere. All around it Jack Frost has left a faint white crust – on the fields and the footpath that borders the River Dove near Marston.
Hugh steps down from a stile and follows the footpath, looking for a decent spot on the river. He looks a bit like a Sherpa loaded up with gear, big boots crunching in the frost – come to think of it, apart from the lack of snow, conditions are decidedly Himalayan.
The water is crystal clear and running pretty fast. ‘In summer you get barbel round here – you can see them lying on the bottom,’ says Hugh. There are other species in this stretch – chub, trout, grayling, the odd good roach and even some big bream on a few pegs, but the best target of all in sum-
The original plan was to go for a well established Dove bait for chub – bread. The freezing weather is worrying, but Hugh decides to stick with the traditional approach.
About half a mile along the footpath from Dove Bridge, Hugh spots a peg he fancies and sets up on a pebbly spit formed on a bend. Getting out his powerful 13ft (4m) float rod, he attaches a heavy float and a 5g Olivette to 3lb (1.4kg) line and adds a 2lb (1.2kg) hooklength and a size 12 hook. His chunky maroon float is a Dove Chubber designed by local angler Roy Walker.
A couple of balls of groundbait, then the Dove Chubber hits the water with an indelicate plop – the ploy is to get the bait where you want it straight down on the bottom: ‘With this rig you just chuck it in so it lands in a lump.’ No joy this time.
We move on, crossing a double stile near the disused railway bridge. Hugh is looking for a different swim, something with a bit of pace to the water that might just harbour a hungry Dove chub.
The complete lack of any sign of a fish is frustrating and it forces Hugh to keep on the move, lobbing his flake into about a dozen different swims in the hope of finding a chub that’s interested. ‘I’ve not done this since I was a kid,’ he reminisces. ‘There are a million fish in it. I used to pick a spot, cast in and get one a chuck type of thing.’ But today it seems to be just too cold. There’s not a sniff of a fish.
Herons, cormorants, shelduck and swans all make an appearance overhead. Surely some of these are finding something fishy to eat in the river.
There’s a bit of sun out now and the smaller tits and wrens are making a fuss in the trees behind Hugh’s spot. The float dips firmly and Hugh joins the racket. ‘Fish!’ He strikes. ‘At last, it’s a fair fish -1 thought it was a chub but it’s a flippin’ grayling.’ Hugh guides the fish towards the steep bank — he climbed down it earlier to find a better position to fish into a superb swim between two willows opposite. ‘They don’t half smell funny,’ says Hugh, sniffing his hands after unhooking the 12oz (0.34kg) capture. In fact grayling are supposed to have a faint aroma of thyme – at last a sniff of a fish. ‘It’s funny but they usually come in pairs, grayling,’ Hugh offers hopefully. Sure enough, next cast his float disappears and it’s another grayling, just a bit smaller than the first. Two minutes after that and the float vanishes again: ‘It’s kicking about like another grayling – looks like they come in threes after all.’
On this occasion they did come in threes. The bitter cold had changed the normally generous nature of the Dove. In the end Hugh’s roving technique and breadflake had located some feeding fish – the trio of raspberry-tinged grayling tempted out of their torpor in difficult conditions.
No question about it – Hugh felt robbed by the hard conditions – he just had to have another crack. A couple of weeks later we’re back on the bank under a light blue sky peppered with puffball clouds and a lingering criss-cross of vapour trails. It could be a summer scene, except it’s very blowy and nippy – and just to stick the boot in, it rained overnight, bringing cold water down from the high ground.
Convinced that there are reluctant fish in the two-willow swim which produced his grayling the last time, Hugh climbs down the bank and positions himself opposite the two trees – if anything’s going to feed at all today then it will be here.
Out comes the Dove Chubber set-up with flake on the hook, but an hour or so produces nothing but chubless memories.
Time for a change – this time Hugh has brought along about three pints of bronze maggots: ‘The bread fishing isn’t like it used to be, everyone used to fish it but it’s more or less played out now. Maggots have taken over, but if you do catch it right on bread you can have some great sport.’
Thanks to his mate, the local butcher, Hugh has also packed half a pound of mince and a juicy piece of stewing steak — not for an impromptu barbie but as a change bait. Steak is getting popular with anglers in this area, according to Hugh: ‘It’s amazing how they’re catching on the Trent with steak now. The fish have got on to it straight off.’
A couple of catapults of maggots join Hugh’s float with bulked shot and a single maggot on the hook. He’s using a lighter balsa and a closed-face reel to fish the maggot. His line is 2lb (0.9kg) with a l!4lb (0.7kg) bottom and a size 20 hook. The float lands just in front of the left hand tree. As it flows to the right it goes under: ‘Look at that, straight away— it’s a good fish,’ says Hugh, grabbing his landing net. The silver shape makes a bid for freedom under the net but eventually it comes to the surface. In the cold, clear water there’s a beautiful sight – a robust Dove chub.
Inspired by the Mb (0.7kg) fish Hugh soon recasts and feeds more loose maggots -the swim reeks of chub.
Hugh continues feeding the swim with loose maggots every few minutes. He’s also been putting in tangerines of mince mixed with brown groundbait, hoping some fish might come on to it. A gentle underarm cast sends the float between the trees close to the far bank, where it rests in a calm area, it seems to go under, but perhaps not, then: ‘Hey up! It’s a greedy little minnow, pity they don’t grow to 2lb, those – they’ve got lovely markings though.’ Sure enough the tiny mottled tiddler that Hugh swings in to his hand has attacked a whole maggot.
A few minutes later and another slightly larger minnow has a go, but comes off as Hugh reels in. At least minnows are a sign that the water is clean.
Hugh’s fishing double maggot now. ‘No, I’ve hit bottom, I thought there was something there for a minute,’ he says, lifting his rod up high to try and free his line. The red-tipped float steadies and flows on and then shoots under decisively.
He strikes. ‘I was right first time,’ he says, winding in a little. A fish splashes on the surface and lunges downward, gleaming through the crystal water as Hugh tries to persuade it towards him. He reaches behind for his landing net and scoops out a vigorous chub of about 1lb (0.45kg). Hugh looks down the fish’s cavernous gob. ‘They sometimes look as if they’ve got half a pint of maggots inside them – you wouldn’t think they could fit another one in,’ he adds, bringing to mind Mr. Creosote – the gluttonous Monty Python character who eats one wafer thin mint too many and explodes in a frenzy of gore. But this fish certainly had room for Hugh’s double maggot and joins the other fish in the net.
There’s a period of nothing, then Hugh considers a change of plan. ‘The river has come up a bit and you can see how it’s altering all the time. One cast your float hardly moves and the next it bobs down and rides high with the power of the current. ‘The trouble is all that rainwater has gone in, lifted the water and it’ll be a bit too cold.’
It’s time for the steak to make a show so Hugh changes up to a size 16 hook, puts on a small slither of the meat and casts in. After half an hour or so there are no takers and Hugh’s heart isn’t in it – he decides to go back to maggot.
Next cast the float goes round the back of the dipping branches and holds still in a slack. There s a delicate take and Hugh strikes – no contact. ‘I’ve been getting little touches,’ he says, and strikes again. A fish stays on for a few seconds, shimmering as it comes up, then it’s gone.
As chaffinches chirrup and flitter between the trees, Hugh changes the maggots on his hook and casts just short of the first willow – the float vanishes. A grayling fights all the way to the net and then Hugh gets hold of it. ‘They never stop fighting – look at that,’ he says as he trys to get a disgorger into the wiry capture, which is bending like a cellophane fish out of a Christmas cracker. The graylingjust about wraps up the session.
Hugh works for an insurance company and has to get off to do his accounts. The final fish’s tenacity matches Hugh’s never-say-die approach to fishing. With two diabolically cold dates on the River Dove, big bags were never really on the cards. Nevertheless, he’s managed to prise some lovely fish out of the chilly water where many would fail to do so. In fact many wouldn’t even have bothered trying.