Winter hits the Norfolk Broads with a fury far removed from the gentle days of summer. The Broads are low-lying and flat and when the wind blows from the north it comes straight down from the Arctic without crossing any other land mass. An easterly is even worse, bringing viciously cold air across the North Sea from over Siberia and Northern Europe.
Strong winds also cause huge tidal surges up the rivers, driving the fish upstream. Things are no better on the open Broads: these vast, shallow sheets of water are quickly chilled by icy winds and most fish move off them with the onset of winter.
However, all this is only nature at work. For the angler who can read the Broads waterways and understand how the fish respond to the changes of winter, the fishing can be better than in summer.
Broadland roach gather in vast shoals in winter – find them and massive hauls are on the cards. Staggering numbers of roach that live in the tidal rivers in summer migrate upstream to escape the surging tides.
It’s critical to know where the hordes of roach stop and set up their winter quarters. Sheltered town areas provide perfect sanctuary. The water there is slightly warmer than on the exposed flood plains and there is extra food too.
Urban hotspots include Wroxham and
Horning on the Bure and Beccles on the Waveney, but the classic instance is the Yare in Norwich. Fish flock to the CarroW area of the city and to Thorpe Green where some very big specimens can be caught among hordes of smaller fish.
The other main migration is off the open Broads. In ever increasing numbers, the roach drift off the ‘flats’ and head for the shelter of dykes and boat yards. For example, the roach of Barton Broad find refuge in the dyke at Neatishead and the boat yards at Barton Turf. The roach of Hickling, Horsey and Heigham Sound drop into the Thurne and overwinter in the shelter of Martham Ferry and, particularly, the boat yards at Potter Heigham. At times these places are black with fish.
That doesn’t mean they are always easy fish to catch. Their feeding times are unpredictable and the hammering they take makes them wary. Light tackle and careful feeding are essential. Fishing at night, if you can stand the cold, is often the way to catch the biggest, wariest roach.
Bream react in much the same way as roach but they tend to be more nomadic. Remember, they are bigger fish and as they need more food they tend to roam about more. Anglers today tend to catch just the occasional bream simply because they don’t put in anything like enough groundbait. Fishermen of old used to feed heavily. If anglers today had the same courage then huge bags would surely be seen again -especially if they fished on after dark.
Pike provide the pride of winter fishing on the Broads. Some follow the prey fish -Neatishead, Horning, Wroxham, Potter Heigham and Martham can all be relied on. Wherever anglers are successful with roach and bream, pike are likely to be present.
But boat yards and dykes aren’t always attractive to pike. They often prefer to lurk at their entrances or in the main rivers themselves. Roach often leave the sanctuary of the dykes and boat yards at night to feed in the rivers and the pike are never far behind.
River pike can be taken on trolled live-baits and legered deadbaits. Deadbaiting can be slower but it often sorts out the bigger specimens.
Many pike remain on the open Broads throughout the winter. The Ormesby group, for example, fish well in even the coldest weather. On all these great sheets of water, location is the vital key.
A boat is absolutely essential but remember these dos and don’ts. Think carefully about your boat drill and learn to move quietly on the shallow water. Sacks or carpeting in the bottom of your boat reduce noise and protect pike if you need to lay them down. Always carry mud weights to anchor you firmly in the winds which can be strong. Never take the weather for granted. On these large, exposed waters dangerous waves can spring up in minutes.
Once confidently afloat, watch out for signs of feeding pike: a swirl, a splash, a shower of fry or a single jumping roach.
The open Broads can be barren places and any feature is worth investigating. Undercut reed banks, drop-offs from shallow to deep water, hard areas of gravel and even small depressions in the Broad bed are all likely pike lies. An echo sounder helps pinpoint these features quickly and if you can borrow or hire one, so much the better.
Fish one spot for 45 minutes then move 55m (60yd) or so down the Broad if you aren’t catching. Keep going and sooner or later you will contact pike.
Don’t be afraid of clear, shallow water. Pike can be there and almost invisible. Thirty-pounders (13.6kg) have been caught from just a few centimetres of water. Weedy areas are good, as they provide pike with shelter and a degree of warmth.
Wet, windy weather is excellent for open Broad piking. It tends to cloud the water and this is when deadbaiting can really work well. Conversely, clear water usually sees livebaiting score more heavily.