Mid February isn’t exactly the most comfortable time of year to go fishing, particularly on a raw, blustery morning. But Joseph Stone, respected specimen hunter and experienced all-round angler, is made of stern stuff, and if he says he’ll catch winter chub from the Cherwell, then he will, come hell or high water.
After a few days of showers, the sun’s making a brave attempt to beat the clouds but it looks as though it’s going to be a pretty mixed up day. The rain means the river is up a touch on its usual winter level, but not enough to colour the water, and probably not enough to matter.
It’s certainly not a day for faint-hearts but Joseph’s well insulated against the cold and ready to go. Out comes a loaf of crusty white bread. ‘It’s hard to beat crust for winter chub. Maggots are also good, because they use them in matches, so the chub are used to them. But with the water so clear I reckon we’ll get ‘em on crust.’
Joseph’s rig is a simple link leger, with a piece of anti-tangle tubing on the link and a short (15cm/6in) hooklength of 5lb (2.3kg) double-strength line. He puts just enough swan shot on the link to hold bottom. ‘If you stick a string of heavy shot on when you don’t need to, you might put a wily old chub off. I also like the bait to bump slowly around until it finds somewhere a little more sheltered – which is what the fish expect food to do, you see?’
Joseph’s using a quivertip rod with a 3Aoz (21g) push-in quiver – ideal for legering rivers. At 1VA ft (3.5m) long, it’s useful for fishing the far bank. By holding the rod tip high, he can keep most of the line off the water and out of the main flow. ‘I think I’ll start here. My sources tell me that these two swims are the places they’ve been catching.’ He mixes up some extremely sloppy white crumb – it looks more like milk than feed – and squeezes it just hard enough to hold together to reach the far side of the river. He feeds a little upstream of his hookbait, so that both end up together on the river bed.
On days like this he feeds three handfuls every ten minutes or so, but if it’s really cold, he cuts back on the feed. ‘When I used to fish this stretch about twelve years back, it was full of four-pounders (1.8kg). But now the roach have come on, and I don’t think we’ll have much over 3lb (1.4kg) today, so that will have to be my target.’
He dips the crust to add casting weight and casts towards the white stain of groundbait drifting downstream by the far bank. His tip bounces around and a few seconds later he’s bringing his gear back in. ‘I’ll have to put another swan shot on, I think, if I want to hold bottom.’ Next cast, the bait slips into position in the current.
An hour later and Joseph hasn’t had a bite. ‘When I saw the river today, I thought I’d get two or three fish. I don’t think that has changed. But I do think I shall have to try a different swim.’
Joseph moves upstream to fish under the bough of an overhanging tree. ‘When I used to fish here at this time of year, I caught a lot of fish in the Swimming Pool,’ he says, referring to a deep pool a short way downstream, not a top bathing spot. ‘But let’s give these swims a proper try.’
Three handfuls of sloppy crumb go into the far bank swim. The leger settles down and the line tightens in the flow, producing a nice curve in the quiver. Joseph sits intent, holding the rod high, feeling the line and watching the tip with a beady eye. It’s more work than putting the rod in rests, but it’s the best way of keeping in touch with your bait and spotting slight indications.
Ten minutes pass, and Joseph strikes to relieve the hook of its burden of crust — a curious chub investigating the crust might be more than a little surprised and put off to see it go whizzing past its nose as Joseph retrieves. Besides, you never know… ‘I’ve had a few chub over the years from striking before the retrieve, and I never saw the slightest touch.’
He hooks up another piece of crust and casts it back to the same place. A few fruitless casts later and lesser anglers might have stopped concentrating, but Joseph’s still intent on his quiver.
The tip yanks round and Joseph strikes before he has time to say, ‘Now that was a proper bite,’ and ‘it’s a good fish too.’ The rod bends and thumps as a chub’s powerful tail slaps the line – then straightens as the fish bumps off. ‘I don’t believe it,’ says an amazed Joseph. ‘I thought I had him good and proper.’
But, as he explains, this is something that happens occasionally when you’re fishing crust. With a fairly tough and bulky bait there’s always a chance you won’t hook them properly. Crust softens after a while in the water, so the problem is worst when you’ve just cast.
With the fish pricked and put down, he returns to his original swim, but the chub show no interest in either crust or his homemade cheese paste. Joseph stands up and retrieves his tackle. ‘It looks like it’s time to try the Swimming Pool then, doesn’t it?’
The Swimming Pool is a lovely swim – a deep-water bend in the river, where the flow slows down, forming a big eddy on the inside of the bend. Joseph fancies the eddy, where a bankside tree’s roots make an ideal chub haunt, so he throws in a little crumb.
First off it’s time to give the cheese paste another try. The rig’s the same, though with a longer hooklength – about 30cm (12in). Joseph drops the set-up into the edge of the eddy, and lets it find it’s own stopping point on the gravel bottom.
Ten more minutes, and Joseph changes back to crust. ‘In coloured water, cheese is often a killer, but when it’s clear like today, I think crust usually does better.’
Sitting like a statue, Joseph waits for a bite – fisherman at one with nature. This is the way he likes it. You’ve got to find the chub and then winkle them out with stealth and a well placed bait.
The quiver tip trembles and twitches. Joseph strikes, but meets no resistance. ‘I think we’ve found them,’ he says. ‘But they’re not being very definite.’ Next chuck he’s proved right, as the pattern repeats itself. ‘I think I shall wait to see what they do with the bait this time.’
The tip trembles and twitches. It twitches again, but Joseph doesn’t move. A second later, the fish gives a definite pull, with the tip moving about an inch (2.5cm). Joseph strikes and the chub is on.
It bores for the sanctuary of the tree roots, and when it doesn’t make it, it turns into the main current. But Joseph’s got the measure of it, and it isn’t long before he steers a fine l’^lb (0.7kg) chub into the net. ‘Well that’s broken the duck. Let’s get ourselves a big ‘un now.’ A few photos and the chub is back in the water a couple of swims downstream, so it can’t spook any other fish lurking in the same place.
Another piece of crust goes on, and Joseph sits and waits for the next bite. He doesn’t have to wait long. It follows exactly the same pattern — twitch, twitch, pull – and shortly after, a slightly larger 2lb (0.9kg) chub goes back downstream. ‘Well I think we’ve got some smaller fish shoaled up in these roots. There may be a bigger one, but it’s a real job getting through the littl’uns. I think I might try just under that bush over there.’
The bush in question is on the far side of the pool in the main flow, and a lot more difficult to cast to. In goes the feed, then the crust hookbait. After a minute or so Joseph retrieves his tackle. ‘I wasn’t really happy with where I put that, and if you’re not confident, you’d best do something so that you are.’ So saying he recasts slightly upstream of his position to the head of the deeper water.
That kind of accurate casting only comes with years of patient practice and quite a few brushes with branches, but it pays off now. The tip appears to do nothing but Joseph strikes and bends into a fish. ‘I thought it was a bite, but I’m not sure how I knew. The tip almost moved…’ Joseph, who lives and dies by the maxim ‘If in doubt, strike’, proves his point. ‘It’s a better fish too. It might even be the three I promised.’
With the full force of the current to play with, the fish is not going to make life easy. Its first thought is to get under the bank, but it’s never going to win that battle, so it settles instead for a rush downstream. Joseph chuckles. ‘I’d be very surprised if this wasn’t the one we were after. Very surprised indeed.’
Out comes the net. In slides a tired chub, and Joseph relaxes. On the bank he examines his prize. ‘Yes, this is what we’ve come for. I’d put this at about 3lb 4oz (1.5kg). Let’s see, shall we?’
The scales are calibrated and Joseph puts the fish in a wet sling. The needle wobbles and makes up its mind – 3lb 3oz (1.45kg). Not bad, not bad. ‘Twelve years ago that would have been an average fish. But these things come and go. There’ll be fours in here again someday.’
Joseph fishes on, trying maggot and feeder, hoping for a big winter barbel, but only small perch and gudgeon oblige. An hour or so later, he decides to pack up, and who can blame him? He said he’d have two or three fish, topped by a three-pounder (1.4kg), and he has. The urge to prove himself right, and the creeping chill are incentive enough. ‘You know, it’s funny the way the Swimming Pool produced. I reckon that the water being just a shade up made all the fish drop back into the slower, deeper water. That’s why there wasn’t much in those first swims.’
Whatever the reason, the River Cherwell has been kind. Okay, she hasn’t yielded up one of her big winter barbel, or any of the fine roach. But we came for the chub, and Joseph Stone and the Cherwell contrived to give them to us.