We meet Roy Billing at a roadside cafe, have breakfast and then drive to the river. Parking near the Wissington Sugar Factory, our first sight is a convoy of lorries waiting to add to the mountain of sugar beets.
The plant is a cauldron of activity, billowing sickly, sugary sweet clouds of steam which can be seen for miles around the flat landscape. It’s hard to believe that the innocent-looking spoonful of brilliant white sugar which you thoughtlessly stir in your tea begins life as a mud-covered sugar beet, kicked about a conveyor belt.
Roy packs up his gear, and we hurry out of the busy industrial landscape (the factories remind us of work, and we’re here to fish). The route to the Wissey Pools takes us past a bridge under construction.
Torrential rain during the last week has given the rivers in the area the consistency of ox-tail soup. But this is what we want: soupy water means that the river’s pike and zander will gather in the pools (or backwaters) well upstream of the sugar factory, packing in so tightly that we’ll be able to walk across their backs – that’s our delusion, anyway. Why else would we want to brave the threatening December skies, freezing rain and the cold, cold wind that bites so hard it leaves teeth marks on the back of your neck?
Roy sets up camp on a narrow strip of land reaching into the pool located farthest upstream of the sugar factory. Not surprisingly, given the weather, no one else is fishing on it.
The brolly, an absolutely essential piece of equipment when winter fishing, is staked out first. His gear isn’t new or complicated -two lift (3.4m) Northwestern rods of 2lb (0.9kg) test curve and an all-through action. The reels are built like armour-plated tanks: they are sturdy old Mitchell 410s, loaded with 11lb (5kg) Maxima line.
Roy sets up one rod to check the depth of the pool with a loz (28g) bomb and a sliding float. ‘You’ve got to build a picture of the depth and bottom contours of the place you’re going to fish, rather than just fishing blindly.’
Although it’s remarkably shallow close in, the depth towards the centre of the pool is about 3-3.6m (10-12ft). As you face the tip of the strip the main channel of the Wissey is to your left with the pool on your right.
A float-legered roach livebait goes on to the first rod. Roy casts out, allows the bait and lead to sink and then pulls them in where the float, held in place by the stop-knot, sits just on the surface of the 3m (10ft) deep water. ‘Roach are the usual prey of the pike,’ he says, ‘and by livebaiting you’re presenting them the bait in a fairly natural way.’ But because of the cold weather, who knows, a lethargic pike or zander might just prefer a static deadbait.
The second rod, therefore, has a frozen sardine deadbait hooked with two trebles. Roy doesn’t attach a lead because the bait is heavy enough to stay put in the pool. ‘I’ve got a lot of faith in smelt, sardines and mackerel. But some waters appear to respond better to a certain type of bait than others. For instance, on rivers and drains I like to fish sardines, and eel sections work well too, forming part of the natural diet of pike and zander. I don’t think colouring makes a lot of difference – unless you’re on a heavily fished water where the pike have seen a lot of baits before. Something different may just catch.’
Roy lobs the deadbait about 10m (11yd) into the pool, puts his rod in the holder and sets up his home-made Optonic. The second essential item then comes into play – a chair. We sit down and wait, flasks near to hand. The noise and bustle of the factory is replaced by the peaceful river-bank surroundings.
Without so much as a run after an hour or so, Roy takes the sardine deadbait off the second rod and replaces it with a smelt to see if that will work. He casts it much closer to the strip, where it lies in water about 2.4m (8ft) deep.
Positioning the bait off the tip of the small peninsula isn’t feasible because there’s a signpost in the middle of the channel. If you were to get a run, the fish may tangle the line around the posts.
Roy endures the rain and wind, willing a pike or zander to pick up one of the baits. Because zander feed more avidly in coloured water than pike, he’s hoping one or more of these elusive and unpredictable fish may just pick up a bait for an easy meal.
We wait, watching the float with tenacity beyond the call of duty. Then it disappears under the surface for a second: the long wait in the foul winter weather is immediately forgotten, replaced by hope and anticipation. Roy strikes into the fish, and his rod bends in half under the strain.
The fish stays in deep water, not moving much while Roy tries to bully it towards land. Its streamlined body soon surfaces, and he winches the pike into the net. One treble hook is firmly pinned to the very top of the lip.
Pike first grab a baitfish sideways and then swallow it head-first. When your float goes under you need to wind down to set the hook quickly. If you wait too long, the pike may swallow the baitfish, and you’ll end up deep-hooking it.
The fish registers 10l/alb (4.8kg) on the scales – not massive but certainly nothing to sniff at. Roy slips it back into the water, and it disappears silently into the pool. Putting another livebait on, he casts out again to about the same spot.
Sometimes it may be useful to fish the bait off the bottom – up to 45cm (18in) or so. ‘It’s more in the pike’s field of vision, and you can overcome thick blanket weeds covering the bottom. Basically it’s all about making it as easy as you can for a pike or zander to take your bait,’ says Roy.
You can buy cylinders of closed-cell foam to put in the mouth of the deadbait. You may find it hard to do this with frozen dead-baits, so put them in water to thaw before use. With sardines especially, insert the foam slowly and carefully; otherwise the baitfish may split down the middle.
Roy slowly inserts the foam tube into a deadbait sardine and then tests it to make sure it floats. He adds a loz (28g) bomb and casts – this time closer to the tip. ‘Winter piking in bad weather means you’ll have to do your homework before you begin — pick an area where you’ve caught before or where your friends have had success. It isn’t the time to try a stretch of river or mark on a Stillwater which you have never fished before.’
The best conditions to fish are after a sustained mild period with fairly consistent temperatures and sun. But, as you’d expect, this doesn’t happen very often. Cold fronts send the fish heading for deep water. They don’t want to move, much less eat.
Two runless hours after the fish, Roy is still waiting for more. The short-lived December light is fading and the weather is slowly getting even nastier. Fairly soon after that, Roy decides to call it quits -there are clearly not going to be any more fish today. He only had one chance but he made the most of it and, despite the day, that double made it worth the effort.