River fish shoal tightly in the face of autumn gales, frosts and rain.
River fishing in the autumn – broadly speaking, the months of September, October and November — can vaiy between the electrifying and the disastrous. For autumn is a season of rapid weather changes, from the balmy days of summer to the harsh days of winter, and these changes greatly affect fish, which just hate environmental instability.
The first six weeks or so of autumn, however, are often settled, and when we do enjoy anything like an Indian summer, results can be brilliant. The oppressive heat of high summer has gone but it’s still pleasantly warm. Water temperatures are just dropping to a perfect level for sustained feeding and all species of fish are active. The sun is losing a little of its glare and fish feed all day long when there is cloud cover, especially if a very light rain is falling.
Fish somehow know the rich feeding they have enjoyed during the summer is nearing its end. Sensing harsher conditions are on the way, they stock up before the weather deteriorates and food supplies dwindle. This helps to explain the very large catches often made in early autumn. Big bags of bream, roach, chub and barbel can be taken from the same swims they inhabited at the height of summer.
It’s important to make the most of this golden fishing, for most years it ends abruptly in the second or third week in October. True autumn weather can set in very rapidly and within days all reminders of summer can vanish. Cold It’s about now you can expect the first frosts, and these have a dramatic impact. Water temperatures begin to drop quickly and this in turn starts to kill off the summer weed growth. At the same time, the leaves of the overhanging trees wither, die and fall into the water. Waterside rushes, reeds and long grasses also blacken and rot, and very shortly the greens and golds of September have all been destroyed. Windy Frequently this is a time of gales, and these worsen the effect of the frosts. Dead leaves and even branches are ripped off the trees and thrown into the water in £ vast quantities. Soon the river becomes a huge moving carpet of debris. The gales also help the frosts in bringing water temperatures down rapidly.
And wet Very often the strong winds bring rain, the third main factor to affect the late autumn river. Like the gales and the frosts, prolonged rain deadens water temperatures, which can easily fall 1-3°C each day in the worst conditions.
If the rain is heavy and lasts for more than 24 hours, the chances are the river rises and begins to colour. As the flow increases, more dead weed and rubbish is dislodged and swept downstream. All in all, this is a dirty process and the fishing does not benefit at all for a while.
Problem follows problem in the latter half of autumn. The leaves and weed that festoon the river make bait presentation very difficult. Floating leaves are a nightmare for good float control as they catch the line and pull the float off course. Even worse is the drifting, sub-surface weed that makes legering just about impossible. Blanket weed especially is a real curse. It breaks up into millions of scraps which stick to the line and clog the rod rings on the retrieve.
To make everything more difficult, the leaves frequently carry a noxious coating that has built up all through the summer from a combination of smoke, exhaust fumes and chemical-tainted rain. As this washes off it forms a cocktail that decidedly puts most species off for a while. Then the leaves rot and this process sours the water and uses up valuable oxygen.
Any port in a storm
After such a tale of woe, you might well wonder if there is any point at all in tackling rivers in late autumn. There is one great advantage, though: the conditions tend to force the fish together into large shoals. If you can find a congregation a massive catch is on the cards.
Places to look are around fallen trees, in deep, slow bends and in the slack areas of mill pools. In fact, any piece of slackish water is worth a try as bream, roach, barbel and even chub all look to get out of the main flow and into some sort of sanctuary. As the unpleasant conditions continue, more and more of their companions join them and soon the whole fish population of a stretch of river can be grouped in a few very hot spots indeed.
Having found them…
Of course, even when you have found the fish there is no guarantee they will feed. The ideal time for all species is when the river is dropping a little and the colour is fining down so you can see some 30-60cm (1-2ft) into the water. This is all made perfect if water temperatures have stabilized or are even rising a little. If you can find where the fish are holed up, then you can catch right through the day.
If the river is still high, coloured and cold you must work harder for your fish. In these conditions they usually feed either early or late, and dusk and dawn are the prime times. Your baits have to be tempting and well presented – both always important, but now essential. Your concentration must be hawk-like: a nudge of the quivertip or a dip of the float could be the wind, a leaf… or a very big fish.