An angling acquaintance once told me that his life’s ambition was to retire to a town with a river running through it. That made me realise how fortunate I was to be brought up within casting distance of the Suffolk Stour where I cut my angling teeth. Many a season has passed since my debut on its banks, but I remember as if they were yesterday the trips in a leaky old boat with my father and uncles. The intervening years have seen change. Some beautiful spots on the river have disappeared for ever, victims of the dredger. But although my fishing interests have diversified into still waters, I have never lost my deep love of fishing in streams, tributaries and rivers throughout the country.
There is a world of difference between rivers and stillwaters. Having spent much time fishing both, I have no hesitation in saying that rivers generally are more interesting and more demanding of skills and techniques. They require a wider diversity and know-how along with a deeper understanding of watercraft.
There is a line of thought contending that Stillwater fish are harder to tempt because they have unlimited time to inspect the bait closely, whereas river fish must make up their minds before the current sweeps the tackle downstream. I do not share that view: good presentation is vital in both spheres. Stillwater fishing mostly is about ensuring that bait behaves naturallyland offers no resistance to a taking fish, and I believe those requirements are more easily achieved with only the specific gravity of the water to consider. Baits trotted along a river must be continuously and expertly controlled so that they appear natural to the fish despite the vagaries of current speed, depths and flow patterns.
There is more to think about in river fishing. The current is stronger on the surface than at the bottom, and the difference must be accounted for in your arrangement of tackle. The bait must ride over bottom debris without snagging or appearing suspicious. Tackle needs coaxing, controlling and manipulating to allow the bait to rise Or fall naturally into or over irregularities in the river bed. Bait must travel through the swim at the same depth and speed as the groundbait. Good presentation of legered and static baits entails manoeuvring the tackle through or into spots where food is naturally washed by the current. If only one of the many factors is wrong or ignored, the bait will be rejected by all but tiddlers.
No two swims on a river are ever alike. Rivers differ in size, character, depth and speed according to gradient and geology. Because of the vast differences in the terrain of Britain, the angler may find himself on the banks of a big, clear gravel bottomed river, or beside a sedate, silted, coloured flatland stream. Every river itself varies in character between its upper and lower reaches. Versatility is therefore the keynote for the all-round river coarse angler who must continually change approach and tactics in order to get the best sport from the great variety offered.
Reading the water, or watercraft, is second nature to the experienced angler and is the most important skill to culti- vate. Regrettably, watercraft is very difficult to describe and even the best writers have failed to put the message across with the clarity it deserves. However, it is always obvious whether a fisherman has the skill or not: it is an amalgam of observation, experience and sixth sense that tells the gifted angler which swims are likely to hold different species of fish, what sizes they will be, and how they should best be tackled.
In this post I have tried to convey some impression of the sorts of swims to look for when you hunt particular species, but there is still no substitute for developing your own sense of water-craft; and the only way to do that is by going to the river as often as possible, and noting the structure of swims which do or do not produce fish.
Part of watercraft is knowing when to fish for which species. It is no good saying that next Saturday you will fish for bream, or whatever, then sticking to your decision regardless of conditions. They could prove hopeless for bream but perfect for another species, another stretch or even another river. Instead, watch the weather pattern and plan accordingly. Then your catches will soar.
Assuming that the reader already has some background knowledge of fishing, I have not dealt with the elements of tackle and technique. This is not about specimen hunting specifically (although I believe that becoming skilful enough to catch good numbers of fish will lead in due course to a few specimens in your net provided the river holds them), nor does it claim to be an encyclopedia of river fishing in all its aspects. You will find no reference to game fishing, to grayling, to tiddler snatching or to match fishing. Instead I have confined myself to the major river species, and the tactics described are not necessarily those that catch most fish. Rather, they are the ones I know to be enjoyable as well as successful. After all, it is enjoyment that takes us fishing in the first place.