If dace weighed 3-4 lb, I have little doubt that they would be at the top of many a river angler’s list of favourite species. But of course they do not grow so big: a half pounder is a good one, yet still a relatively little fish. Thus dace tend to take a back seat compared to larger-growing river fish except to some discerning anglers who have discovered that what dace lack in weight is certainly compensated for in spirit. Size for size they fight as hard as any chub.
HABITAT AND BEHAVIOUR
Dace fans also appreciate that where they are found, shoals are quite big. Almost to the extent of chub they are prepared to continue feeding merrily when river conditions have ruled out sport with the more temperature conscious species. Offhand I cannot think of a river anywhere in Britain where dace do not occur, though in the middle and lower reaches of slow flowing streams the shoals tend to be rather isolated and take some finding. On the whole, dace prefer shallow, cleaner, swift-flowing sections.
As rivers are subjected to more and more abstraction, so flow rates fall, resulting in a deterioration in the quality of dace fishing compared to that of several decades ago. Nowadays the upper reaches of rivers, sidestreams and small tributaries are far better places to look for quality shoals.
Above the main areas of pollution, the river is characterised by a livelier and more consistent flow. It runs clearer and cleaner over greener and more luxuriant weedbeds, and there are plenty of glides, gravelly shallows, small pools and tree-lined runs – the perfect habitat for dace.
You may think it strange that while I deliberately refrain from writing about ways to catch larger than average specimens of other species, I feel compelled to emphasise the capture of bigger than normal dace. I make their small size my excuse. Whatever the reason, those intimate headwaters and sidestreams are the best spots to seek out the better shoals which may well have dace averaging 8 -10oz or more depending on the river’s quality.
Dace over a pound, once an attainable target on many rivers, are becoming almost as scarce as mermaids. The current record fish weighed 1lb 4oz 4dr and was caught from the Little Ouse near Thetford in 1960. Larger fish than that have been recorded, including the one-time record held by R.W. Humphries at 1lb 8oz 5dr, hooked from a tributary of the Hampshire Avon in 1932. (The fish was removed from the record list in 1969 due to insufficient proof of its capture.) The Bedford Ivelonce produced huge dace such as L. Cookson’s specimen of 1lb 8oz, and the Eden in Carlisle produced a 1lb 6oz fish.
Being realistic I have to conclude that it seems unlikely the record will ever be broken, yet there are still a few rivers capable of springing a surprise and certainly able to produce dace of over a pound. Even the Little Ouse could do the trick. Other rivers include the Norfolk streams
Thet, Wensum, Tud and Tas, the Berkshire Kennet, the Herefordshire Wye, some of the Hampshire chalk streams and my home river the Suffolk Stour. at one time a Mecca for outsize dace and still holding a few big fish in some stretches.
Most specimen dace I have heard about were caught by accident, usually by an angler fishing for roach or chub in slower deeper runs than those generally preferred by ordinary dace. The biggest specimens tend to isolate themselves from smaller shoal fish, and the spots to look for them are deeper glides, pools and slacks, preferably overhung with branches or vegetation. Perhaps they think they are chub!
Little chub are often mistaken for large dace, I recall a classic example when Pete, a fishing friend, legered for chub after dark one very cold winter’s night. Baiting with a chub-sized lump of cheesepaste he had one belter of a bite. His strike met only token resistance from an apparently very small chub, which was unceremoniously wound in splashing back across the surface, lifted from the water, unhooked and was about to be thrown back into the pitch dark river when Pete noticed a decidedly un-chublike feel about it. Torchlight revealed a dace nudging the one pound mark.
Even in daylight there is confusion between small chub and big dace, for there is so close a similarity that at first glance many anglers are fooled into thinking they have caught a specimen dace. A second look will show clearly that they have clear identification points. The anal and dorsal fins of the dace are distinctly concave, while the chub’s are convex. The dace’s ventral and anal fins are pale coral pink instead of orange/red like the chub’s. The dace’s tail is a translucent pale green; the chub’s is dark grey, sometimes nearly black. In any case, the slim delicate shape, narrow head, large eye and small mouth of the dace characterises the species quite well enough ifyou compare it to the thick-bodied chub with its broad head, thick lips and large mouth.
TACTICS AND TECHNIQUES
Summer dace fishing on small rivers can be frustrating but enormous fun. Most minor streams are little fished, and consequently untrodden and heavily overgrown so that an angler is likely to find himself crawling around among nettles and bracken as he attempts to sneak up on a shoal. Dace are extremely difficult to approach without triggering the alarm and scattering the shoal. With utmost caution it is possible to inch your way into place well upstream and, by sending a few maggots or casters downstream, to get the shoal darting about in the current to intercept them.
Once they are seen to be feeding confidently, a trotted bait on l 1/2 lb line beneath a tiny float will tempt one fish, rarely two, but hardly ever three before the shoal becomes visibly agitated and finally departs the swim amid frantic bow waves. Summer dace are great opportunist feeders that readily intercept all sorts of insects, grubs, caterpillars and berries (especially elderberries) as they are carried down in the flow. Sometimes these natural baits outfish more normal offerings like maggots or casters, and they work particularly well if the fish are a bit choosy. There is great satisfaction in leaving the maggots at home and relying on what baits can be rummaged from the bankside.
Summer dace fishing is very much the same as chubbing in that the fisherman will do better to keep mobile, travelling light and taking a dace or two from each swim as it is located. Generally, dace of a size shoal together so that in one swim there will be nothing above a few ounces, yet the next may often hold much larger fish. If the water is clear enough, you can bypass the babies and concentrate on the specimens.
By donning waders and getting into the water you can avoid upsetting the dace too much. Because you are under the skyline and below the angle of the fish’s vision, you will not be seen so easily if you keep your head down, wade quietly and approach from downstream – that is, from behind the fish which lie with their heads to the current.
Flyfishing is for me the most enjoyable way to fish, and one of the most effective as well. Dace rise freely to artificials and provided care is taken the shoal may not prove so timid as usual. Sometimes several fish can be hooked from the same spot.
You could catch dace on an AFTM 10 reservoir fly rod, but such over gunning will dampen the dace’s fighting spirit and spoil the fun. A nice flexible rod 7—8ft long and balanced to a 3 or 4 weight line is far more appropriate. Match the rod to a double taper floating line which allows accurate short range casting and featherlight delivery of the fly on to the surface. A splashy cast on heavy tackle is almost guaranteed to clear the swim before you can hook a single fish.
I like to use as long a leader as I can safely cast, though branches in the casting area and other obstructions are the limiting factor on small streams. Wind also limits the safe leader length, but I still recommend at least 8-9ft whenever possible. A long leader reduces the chances of an inaccurate cast dropping the fly line instead of the leader on top of the dace. That also is sure to spook the shoals. I find it convenient to buy ready-made tapered leaders, but it is easy enough to make your own by knotting together lines of reducing diameter to produce the right taper. I prefer a point breaking strain of about 3 lb.
Dace take wet flies and artificial nymphs fished below the surface, but 1 would rather catch them on dry flies. Perhaps it is the enjoyment of making a perfectly judged cast and watching the floating fly drift downstream towards me, then seeing it disappear in the splashy ring of a dace’s rise. The fly’s pattern does not matter very much provided it alights, floats and travels downstream naturally. Presentation is far more important than exact pattern. Most dace are taken on small flies tied on hooks size 16-12, though there are times when bigger flies also work well. Observe the sizes of any naturals that are hatching or are being blown into the water, then match your fly size to them.
Although, as I say, fly pattern is not critical, dace do often show some preference for something black. If I had to choose one fly and size it would be 16 black gnat. Besides black, small brown flies like Coachman, Alder and Coch-y-Bondhu will catch plenty of dace.
Treat the leader with floatant to within a few inches of the point, and the fly as well. Approach the shoal, keepingyourself low, wading without disturbing the water – and taking care to avoid disappearing with a shriek into any unsuspected deep hole.
Cast upstream and diagonally across to the shoal and, as the fly rides down with the flow towards you, recover loose line but be careful not to affect the fly’s natural progress. Dace usually rise to a surface fly with a resounding splash likely to startle the angler just enough to make him miss the bite. Delayed strikes nearly always miss this quick-biting species, but after a few swims and a few takes your reflexes sharpen and you will start to hook fish. However, you never will hit them all: dace ily fishermen are philosophical about missed fish – it is all part of the game.
With very accurate casts, and providing you can see the fish, it is possible to offer the fly to the dace nearest you. The hooked fish is drawn directly away from the shoal and with luck will not scare the rest. Casting first to the head of the shoal means playing the dace past the others, with obvious results. For similar reasons try not to let the dace splash as it fights. Keep the rod tip low, which pulls the fish down rather than up to the surface. However, dace are splashy little fellows and sometimes in shallow water can foil any attempt to make them behave themselves and come quietly.
Of course you do not have to use fly rods to fly fish for dace. Use a match rod and float to present a natural fly or any other type of insect. I well recall that one of my favourite pastimes as a lad was to stand on the bridge near Brundon Mill on the Stour trotting down big, speckled grey flies which I had caught as they sunned themselves on a wooden gate. Extracting them one at a time from the matchbox I kept them in was quite an art, and having one escape my fingers and buzz free was a disaster. They certainly took some catching. My chums and 1 soon discovered, cruelly I admit, that if we pulled off one wing, escapees just buzzed around in circles and we could grab them again. Fishing then was extremely basic, but would still work just as well today. No shot on the line, just a small float lying flat on the surface, fixed about 3ft from the fly on the hook. We let the tackle drift downstream to the waiting dace, who always obliged.
Flyfishing will take dace in the depths of winter too, but I neglect the method then for no other reason than that I would not enjoy it as much as I do in summer. Cold days are better spent trotting, a technique which is effective in both smaller streams and the wider stretches lower downriver. The extra colour and depth of the river in winter means that probably you cannot spot the shoals. One way to locate them is to feed a generous helping of floating casters downstream, whereupon anything like reasonable weather conditions should have the dace rising to the surface. If no fish appear, then the day is too cold and they are lying near the bottom of deeper, slower runs. A good rule of thumb for winter dace is to go for the shallows in milder weather, and fish the deep swims when it is really cold.
Trotting picks up large bags of dace on the right day, using similar tactics and baits to those of summer. Stronger currents demand suitably stepped up floats and more weight to provide the necessary control. Most swims can be loose-fed with free samples. Feed little and often – it is important to get the feeding rate just right.
Overfeed and the hookbait is ignored; underfeed and you risk losing the shoal. A general rule is to feed liberally with maggots or casters until the dace are confidently accepting them, then reduce the rate to a dozen or more every trot down. If bites trail off and the fish have not been spooked, there is a good chance that too much feed is going into the river, so reduce it accordingly. Coloured water and the additional flow of winter means that dace are not nearly as easily alarmed as they are in summer. They also seem little affected by water temperature and light intensity, often coming to net one after another on bright, cold days that invariably put off other river species. Strangely enough, dace usually stop feeding during the last hour of daylight, just about the time when roach start to come on. Which is very convenient for us.