The river here is wide and the far bank is lined with ivy-clad oaks and choked with brambles. About a dozen pegs below the ferry – on the far side – an oak has split in two, and one half of the tree has fallen into the river. Still anchored to its shattered trunk, the broken tree has managed to resist being swept away by two years of winter floods and now the ink-black waters beneath it are home to a shoal of roach.
It’s a chilly, overcast December morning and we’re in the centre of ancient Chester – or ‘Deva’ as the Romans called it. Judy intended to fish next to the old green suspension footbridge which spans the Dee here, but after a trial run the day before, she’s decided against it (she never had a bite)! And that is the trouble with the Dee -it’s notoriously fickle…
Eccleston Ferry is about five miles upstream – on the Duke of Westminster’s Estate – and you couldn’t wish for a more scenic spot. The question is: are there any fish? Judy says that the day before, a lad had a good catch of roach and someone else caught a 4lb (1.8kg) bream – so there are upstream of the tree – is the hot spot. Says Judy: ‘It’s next to the peg they call the ‘Bench Peg1 – but someone’s pinched the bench.’
Judy tackles up at the bottom of the steep sThomas bank. It’s comfortable here. There’s a snug little bay with a ledge about 1.8m (6ft) wide where she can sit with her thermal boots in only an inch or two of water. Secluded from adjacent swims by a couple of gnarled alders, the peg focuses the angler’s attention on the deep, steadily flowing waters ahead.
Judy fishes in the Welsh region of the Winter League and with four fixtures on the Dee – two at Eccleston and two at Farndon – her team has perfected tactics to suit the venues. ‘There used to be loads of dace but the roach have taken over – the dace have done a runner. Up until about five or six years ago it was a float river,’ says Judy, as she looks across the water.
The received approach now is to fish brown crumb with large bronze maggots and casters in a modified feeder – blocked at one end only. ‘We fish the first three hours with maggot on the hook and then change to caster,’ explains Judy, as she selects a glass-fibre quivertip.
A pint of bronze maggots and a pint of fresh casters are ample for a five-hour session. Judy makes a dryish mix of three-quarters of a pint of brown crumb, puts it through a riddle to remove the lumps and then adds about a quarter of a pint of casters. She baits the size 20 hook with a single maggot, drops about ten maggots into the feeder, then plugs the end with groundbait.
A controlled, overhead flick sends the bait flying out to a spot beyond the middle of the river — about 15m (16yd) upstream of the tree. Judy leans the rod against the rest, so that it points straight out in front at an angle of about 45° to the horizontal, and props the butt on the box beside her – so she can bring her hand quickly within reach of the reel.
Having to look up to watch the tip is a bit uncomfortable — ‘I prefer to fish with the rod down,’ says Judy – but she hasn’t really got a choice. With roach you have to use a light feeder. Having the rod lower puts more line in the water, and the extra pressure of the flow on the line would drag a light feeder away from the feature. ‘I’m doing a Terry Wogan [’Blankety-Blanking],’ says Judy, grinning. She hasn’t had a bite yet. The tip is quite still against the woody backdrop – where a grey squirrel is rustling among the dead leaves. Somewhere in the field opposite there’s a fire and occasionally a cloud of thin white smoke drifts lazily down the middle of the river.
Judy is quick but not quick enough. The bite comes out of nowhere — a sharp rap. She winds in, rebaits the hook, primes the feeder and casts out again. About 4m (13ft) below the surface the feeder falls on to a bed of black leaves and bounces a little way towards the oak before coming to rest. Judy is having to wait a while for bites but expects them to come more frequently as the session goes on. ‘You have to wait much longer with an ordinary block-end feeder.’ ‘Now that was a good bite…’ beams Judy as the top section of her rod bends into a healthy curve. ‘A little touch and then a drop back.’ She draws the fish up patiently through the deep water towards the ledge. It darts frantically from side to side in a last ditch effort to free itself before finally sliding safely over the landing net. It’s a solid-looking, crimson-finned roach of about 8oz (225g) – a very handsome fish. ‘This river doesn’t get the credit it deserves,’ says Judy as she concentrates on the tip. ‘Chub have started to show in the last couple of years and there are bream too – though I’ve never caught one. They’ve probably come from the Serpentine at Eaton Hall – there’s a channel which connects it to the river.’ She misses another bite. ‘That’s the trouble,’ she says as she winds in. ‘You never know when the bite is going to come.’
The feeder drops right on target and the tip straightens as the feeder touches bottom. It shifts a little way down the swim looking for the slight depression that will hold it. As it does so, the line gradually tightens, putting a bend in the soft tip. ‘I’ll just try twitching it,’ says Judy, as she gives the reel handle half a turn forward. This dislodges the feeder, moving the bait. ‘It does work here – and it’s usually a good fish.’
The response is fast but Judy is ready. As the white-banded quivertip jumps back and the line slackens, she sweeps the rod back, holding it high to keep the fish away from snags. It is a good fish too – another roach but this time about 12oz (340g). ‘It’s a beastie,’ says Judy as she slips it into the net. ‘I’m made up!’
After losing two other good fish – one of which actually snapped the line! – Judy has gone up to a 1.7lb (0.77kg) hooklength and a double maggot on a size 18 hook. She’s playing another roach when the inevitable happens. To the right, beneath the root-bound hump on which a twisted alder stands, there’s an underwater cavern – a pike’s lair. Just as the lively little roach appears over the top of the ledge, the predator shoots out. With the fish clamped firmly between its powerful jaws, it gives a gentle waft of its tail and sinks down to the riverbed like a big black log. ‘There are some excellent twenty five-pounders in here,’ says Judy, as she ties on a new hooklength.
With two more good fish in the net and one lost, the ratio still isn’t right, so Judy tries a short spell on a size 16 hook. ‘I normally fish with two hooks,’ she explains, ‘but not today – get one of those roach on and the other hook goes straight in a snag.’ She’s right, the waters are snaggy. At the edge, to the left, a long crooked branch – as thick as an arm – juts right into the middle of the swim. Visible only from the very top of the bank, it has already accounted for a fish.
Judy is getting more bites than ever but she’s missing them, so she goes back to a size 18 hook and buries it in a dark caster. If ever there was a magic ingredient, then this must be it!
On the first bite she’s unlucky. The big brassy-scaled roach heads straight for the keepnet. When Judy sees it swim away from the net while her rod remains still, she’s puzzled. In fact the cheeky fish has shed the hook into the net!
On the next bite she lands a belting roach of about 10oz (280g). But on the third the pike is back again – this time in the middle of the river. ‘I dragged it all the way back to the bank,’ says Judy as the pike lets go.
On the fourth and fifth two more roach follow and by the end of the day she’s got about thirteen fish in the net.
It hasn’t been easy. Judy lists the conditions which had to be satisfied before each fish could be landed: ‘One: see the bite. Two: hit it. Three: keep the fish off the snags. Four: get it past the pike. Five: stop it swimming into the keepnet!’
If you can do all these things then you might just end up with a catch to match Judy’s – 7J4lb (3.4kg) of some of the finest roach you are ever likely to see! mer is the Dove dace – plenty ofthem and a decent size too: ‘You get some lovely dace, hundreds ofthem, you can see fish jumping all over the place.’ However, summer seems a long way off at the moment. The river has been chilled by the frost-bound ground and by fresh, icy cold water flowing down from the Peak District.