Early one February morning, Hugh White and friend Thomas Turner set up on the point of the east bank. Known locally as the Half Moon, it’s a renowned section where the prevailing south-westerly wind is in your face. Today a stiff southerly breeze is brewing and it’s overcast and mild. Conditions couldn’t be better.
The reason for the early start, explains Hugh, is that it can take a while to get the roach going. But the wait is worth it – they average 1lb (0.45kg) here. Ten fish each is the target. ‘Bites will be few and far between, especially to start,’ he says.
The water here is shallow. It’s only about 60cm (2ft) deep some 15m (16yd) out, where it drops abruptly to around 1.5m (5ft) deep where the bank used to be when the level was lower. Then it slopes away to about 4m (13ft) deep some 50m (55yd) out – and that’s where you find the fish.
Tackled up, Hugh prepares his ground-bait – equal amounts of brown crumb and Van Den Eynde Beet, mixed dry so that it comes out of the feeder quickly.
Baits are a pint of casters, a pint of mixed pinkies and a pint of mixed large maggots. These he adds to the groundbait a bit at a time, on one side of the bowl only, as needed. Each cast, before filling the feeder, he stirs this part of the bowl to get a fluffy, even mix. ‘Squeeze just enough feed into the feeder just firmly enough to hold,’ he says. ‘If your feeder comes back with feed still always puts the maggot on last.
Hugh leaves his box on the bank and sits on his platform 5m (5!4yd) out from the water’s edge. A bush growing out from the bank on his left gives a degree of shelter from the wind. He wades out another 5m (5%yd) before casting fully 50m (55yd). Moments before splash-down, he feath- ers the line to soften the impact, then lets the feeder sink straight down, only closing the bail arm and tightening up once the feeder has hit bottom and he has returned to his platform. If you tighten up as soon as the feeder hits the surface, it falls through the water in an arc towards you and you are immediately fishing short of the feed that exits the feeder as it sinks. He tightens the line until he has taken up all the slack, then draws the feeder towards him by about 30cm (1ft) to straighten the hooklength and leave the hookbait in the groundbait.
Finally, to allow for tow on the line, he slackens off a bit at a time until there’s just enough tension in the tip to register drop-backs as well as pull-rounds. ‘If the bottom’s snaggy, though, I use a short link and fish a tight line so the fish hook themselves,’ he says.
Hugh keeps his eyes firmly trained on the tip while he continues his lesson on feeder fishing. ‘Always have the anti-reverse off, otherwise when you hit into a big fish it could break you. And never strike too hard, or you could crack off. Roach are fast biters and too many anglers react with a strike that’s in direct proportion to the violence of the bite, when they should just lift quite gently into the fish.’
The tip pulls round a couple of inches and Hugh lifts into a fish. Pumping and winding smoothly, he draws it slowly but surely towards the shore. As it nears the bank it seems to wake up to its predicament and fights doggedly under the rod tip. But Hugh is in full control and after one last surge the roach keels over and flops into the landing net. A mint 12oz (0.34kg) redfin – what a start!
Minutes later 12oz (0.34kg) roach number two is circling under Hugh’s rod tip in the clear water. ‘They’re so fit these fish, they’re magnificent,’ he enthuses.
Next chuck in, the tip pulls round a good 10cm (4in) and a 14oz (0.40kg) roach is on its way in. Cast number four and he’s in again! A real beauty this time – 1lb (0.45kg). ‘I thought it were tow, so I slackened off a bit and it went round again. I didn’t expect so much action so early! It’s a bite a cast, confident bites too. They’re really feeding well.’
Bailiff Thomas Burton turns up on his moped just in time to see Hugh net his sixth big roach, the best yet at 1lb 4oz (0.57kg). He doesn’t seem very impressed. Doubtless he has seen it all before.
Thomas Turner is getting a few roach on the feeder as well now – he’s fishing several swims away, so it must be a separate shoal. It’s feeding time for the Wintersett roach all round. ‘It might be mild enough for tench and bream today, but I think there’s too many roach out there,’ muses Hugh, watching his friend net a roach.
Three swans cruise into the swim. They hang around pretending not to notice the groundbait. The biggest and boldest one -Dad, presumably – is just starting a furtive glide towards the bowl when Hugh preempts the raid by throwing the birds generous handfuls of groundbait. Three white heads plunge gratefully into the water and for a while there’s much splashing and snapping of beaks. You can imagine there’s similar carnage taking place out where Hugh’s feeder is landing. ‘That’s the secret -1 bet that cast wasn’t a foot off the last one.’ Shame he misses the bite! He recasts, but a sudden gust of wind catches the feeder in mid-air and it lands off-target. He winds straight in again – ‘I’ll never sit on a bad cast and think it’ll do.’ ‘There’s some fish out there now,’ says Hugh, lifting into another one. ‘I would like to catch twenty quality roach today.’ He has already had 13 and the bites show no signs of slowing, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable. The wind is growing stronger and stronger and few other anglers would still be landing the feeder bang on the button virtually every cast. ‘When fish are coming well, like today,’ he continues, reeling in after a few minutes without a bite, ‘recast regularly to keep the feed going in – feed to your bites.’
Hugh gets his biggest roach yet, a cracking fish of 0.68kg. He’s casting to the left now, allowing for the wind, then feathering the feeder into the killing zone. ‘Never be put off by strong wind on big still-waters. That’s when they often fish the best.’ Indeed.
A grebe is diving over Hugh’s swim. ‘I don’t mind it taking the odd ‘un,’ he says. The next few bites are liners. The grebe has unsettled the roach. Meanwhile, the swans are back for seconds. In no time they polish off the whole bowl of ground-bait.
No matter. ‘We caught it just right today,’ says Hugh, wading back to shore. Something of an understatement, that.