Jim Marsden had decided to fish the Dane – a small, winding river in the Cheshire countryside. It’s a good all-round fishery, known for decent chub and barbel. There are tree-lined, undercut banks, overhanging bushes – everything a fish could want. Much of it is shallow, but there are deep holes where big fish shelter in winter…
On the bank it’s a cold and nasty December pre-dawn, the birds aren’t singing, and bed is calling. But it’s no use, the chub are there to be caught, and you catch only imaginary fish in bed. The river is slightly low, but it’s a only a week since the last flood and there’s a touch of colour.
The Dane is a popular river, even midweek in winter like this Friday morning, but it’s too early for all but the hardiest of anglers. So the river is Jim’s for an hour or so of stalking. Because of this, and the slight hint of colour in the water, he decides to start by legering lobworm, looking for a fish from each likely swim.
Jim checks out a swim from behind some trees a few yards back from the water. ‘Ifa swim might produce, there’s no point in telling the chub I’m after them.’ He likes what he sees and creeps forward, keeping below the level of the bank. That way there’s no silhouette for the fish to spot.
It’s still dark as he makes his first cast into a hole by an undercut bank, but even so, he keeps as still and hidden as he can. Never give a chub an even break.
The quivertip twitches. It’s hard to see in the pre-dawn gloom, but when the tip moves again, he strikes. No fish results, but the twitches continue, despite the disturbance caused by striking. ‘It’s a sure sign of small dace – but it’s time to change swim anyway. The big chub won’t feed after you’ve disturbed the swim.’
Jim stops at an unusual swim. There’s not much room at the bottom of a very steep bank, a tiny feeder stream enters the main river and there are trees all along the bank. ‘It’s not the easiest swim to fish,’ says Jim, ‘and I don’t often bother, but neither do other people so it’s probably worth a go.’
Jim casts slightly downstream into the crease. He’s still being bothered by dace which are too small to swallow a size 8, but which continually nip the ends off the worm. Then without warning, a more pronounced bite, and, ‘I’m in.’ The first chub of the day – and it’s early yet. It weighs about a pound and is quickly returned -you can’t use a keepnet when you’re stalking- and Jim moves on.
At one of his more often-fished swims, Jim casts to a hole at the far bank. Every three or four biteless minutes he tries farther down, but when a small dace crams the hook into its tiny gob, he goes in search of a dace-free swim. Finally, near the end of the day-ticket stretch, he sees what he has been looking for…
The perfect swim – deeper water drifting gently up to a dam of debris, an eddy swirling around to the side and each end blocked by fallen trees – appears through the half light. ‘In good conditions I’d expect two or three big chub out of a swim like this. But they don’t seem to want it today,’ Jim says, a little sadly.
Slowly the suspense builds. Jim casts as close to the raft of floating rubbish as he dares. No one breathes. Suddenly, there’s a tap at the rod tip, and the mood collapses. More dace! The swim loses its magic and Jim seems resigned to taking dace.
It’s time to change tactics as the big fish techniques clearly aren’t paying off. This river receives a lot of attention from pleasure anglers and practising matchmen so Jim decides to try the stick float with maggot hookbait. Fish can get very used to a regular free supply of maggot and caster, so they might just go for them when they won’t take lobworm.
In the light of the early dawn, he can see that much of the colour has run off. Jim reckons this makes the fish even less likely to want a big bait, another reason for the change. It doesn’t pay to carry too much gear when stalking, so it’s back to the car for the float fishing tackle and keepnet.
Anglers have been arriving while Jim’s been fishing, and all his favourite swims are full as he goes back for the other rod and his float gear. Returning upstream, of all the areas left available, only that tricky, rarely fished swim looks at all attractive, so Jim reluctantly sets up to fish it all over again.
As Jim quietly sets up on a small patch of muddy ground, he feeds a couple of stick-fuls of maggots. He’s gone the whole hog, from specimen hunter to match angler, and he’s using a wire-stemmed stick taking six no.6 shot, a 154lb hooklength and a fine wire, whisker barb size 20 hook.
He tosses the rig, with its cargo of double bronze maggot, out about one and a half rod lengths. Every time it nears the bottom end of the swim, he feeds about 15 maggots at the top end though he varies the amount according to how the fish are feeding.
Second run through, the float dips slightly. He strikes and he’s into a decent dace of about Hlb , but he still isn’t too hopeful of any chub. ‘If only I’d stopped at that big slow bend,’ he laments, ‘I’d have a sackful by now.’
He trots the same line each time – the crease he was fishing with the leger – but in the light he can pick out some deeper water underneath. It’s a sharp drop-off to about 1.8m at 6m out. This makes it doubly attractive to hungry fish.
Using the float has revealed another feature of the swim. The river bed rises slightly about 15m downstream and to prevent the hook catching on the bottom Jim holds back so that the bait rides over the bump. Just as he does this for the fourth time, the float dips positively. Despite the trees which hinder striking, he makes contact with a much better fish.
On the lighter tackle he can’t bully this fish into the net, and it’s only his use of sidestrain that discourages it from seeking shelter in some exposed tree roots. There’s not much room to run in this narrow river and for most of the tussle the fish bores, head down, into the deeper water. When it appears, Jim’s well pleased with a chub of around 2 Hlb .
Next cast produces a roach of around 12oz and then the swim comes alive. For the next hour or so, it’s bites galore! The fish are really going for it, so he increases the feed. Most of the bites come at the same place – the bump where Jim has to hold back. As soon as the bait rises up in the current, the float dips.
After lunch a swim right next to the motorway bridge becomes vacant when the angler fishing it gives up. He hasn’t caught anything all day – ‘This swim’s dead.’ Enter Jim Marsden, eyes aglow, brandishing float rod.
Within ten minutes he’s taking dace, and some big specimens too – up to 10 oz – so the swim’s not so dead after all. But there’s no more chub to be had, even though he fishes through the dusk. As it begins to get dark, Jim packs up slowly – it’s been a long day. The river waits peacefully for the dawn – and the beginning of the weekend hammering.
A check up on the other anglers who had fished the swims Jim wanted revealed one small barbel and one angler with two chub. Maybe the swim he chose wasn’t so bad after all, or maybe he’s just a very good angler who can adapt to suit the conditions.
After two slightly larger chub and a smaller one, another roach of 12oz and some nice dace up to 10 oz , the bites become more finicky. Jim dots the float down further in an effort to make contact, but the bites he does connect with result in small dace.
On top of this, every time he feeds, these little fish are jumping out of the water -even though it’s winter! The bait is also being taken on the drop under the rod tip by more of the tiny blighters. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that there aren’t any big fish left here.
There is nowhere else he can go – every other half-decent swim is occupied, so he decides to leave this one alone for a bit.
Half an hour later, Jim sends a couple of stickfuls of feed into the river, and follows it with the float down the crease. After two fruitless runs down, it disappears just as it reaches the shallower area. ‘I didn’t even have to hold back for this one,’ says Jim bending into another good fish.
This one is content to sit in the main flow, and Jim doesn’t have the line strength to budge it. For a few minutes it’s stalemate, but finally the strain begins to tell on the fish and it moves downstream away from the irritating tugging at its mouth. The resistance doesn’t last and Jim doesn’t have too many more problems coaxing it into the net; indeed the chub seems glad of the rest. That really is it as far as fish from this swim are concerned, so Jim goes off to scout for another.