Thomas Watson on the winter Wensum

7 fishing Lancaster Canal

The River Wensum runs right through the middle of Norwich. To most locals it’s just something to be crossed – or perhaps to look out over during a romantic meal at the city’s Floating Restaurant. But for Thomas Watson the romance is in its pike fishing.

The pike grow big too – up to about 24lb (10.9kg) — a nice fish from any river. But the best thing about fishing the Wensum in Norwich is the number of fish. Thomas is confident he’ll catch quite a few, and it’s not everyone who dares to make that claim in front of the camera. Will he regret it before the day is out?

Thomas likes to take people pike fishing in his fully-carpeted boat, and this is one of his favourite venues. While not exactly promising it, he’s fairly sure he’ll be able to get us a double.

We reach the fishing spot and Thomas starts trolling livebaits. It’s a very sedate form of trolling. He sets a couple of baits adrift in the wake of the boat and slowly tows them along, rowing just a bit faster than the sluggish current.

He starts moving upstream, but downstream trolling is just as effective. ‘The river is so slow-moving that it doesn’t matter which way you go.’ In the absence of any features – and this flat-bottomed, steep-sided river is as featureless as they get -trolling back and forth from one bank to the other is the best way to find the fish.

Thomas fishes two rods with similar set-ups. Each bait is suspended under a pike bung which keeps it off the bottom and acts as a bite indicator. To start with Thomas liphooks two small roach so that they trail behind the boat in a fairly natural way.

The river is not at its most picturesque along this particular stretch, with a factory on each bank. Just downstream the Wensum joins the Yare and there are trees and fields—but the pike seem to like it here, so it’s the urban landscape for us.

To prove the point, the float darts off to the side. Thomas picks up the rod and tightens into the fish, but this one’s cleverer (or less hungry) than that. As Thomas starts to pull, the pike lets go of this oddly behaved prey. The sides of the bait are scored with teeth marks.

The signs are then that this serene (or sluggish depending on your viewpoint) river is going to produce. And there goes the float again, darting under as a pike takes the easy meal. Unfortunately, it’s not the double Thomas wants, or the twenty that dreams are made of, but a three-pounder (1.4kg) is a start.

With a fish on, you can see the logic of the carpet in the boat. At first glance it is a bit puzzling- after all, it’s not as if the design is particularly pleasant or anything (though what makes for a tasteful boat carpet anyway?). However, as Thomas moves around, landing the fish, the carpet muffles the banging of feet on the hull. The vibrations could send fish darting for cover for miles around.

As Thomas gently propels his boat upstream, pausing to allow the livebaits to rise and sink in the water, he recalls trips on the river with more pike than you could count. A float sinks decisively. The advantage of this method is that you’re always fishing with the chance of coming across a pack of fish. Thomas winds down and sets the hook. ‘This is a better fish,’ he says slowly. ‘This is a much better fish.’ The rod tip thumps powerfully downstream towards the unseen foe. ‘I can’t rush this one like I did the last.’ Thomas’s voice is quiet and restrained. This changes rapidly when the line goes slack and the pike is lost.

Thomas expresses his disappointment. ‘Oh blast!’ Or something like that. ‘I lost that because I was only using one treble hook and the bait was a bit big.’ He changes to snap tackle on that rod. ‘Ill get you a double, don’t you worry.’ Famous last words, perhaps.

A long freight train passes overhead, and somewhere nearby a factory alarm goes off. After another fifteen minutes without any further signs of pike, Thomas decides to motor off to another area. There are some boats moored about twenty minutes upstream which provide shelter for smaller fish, and this often attracts the pike.

With lots of boats it’s hard to know where to start. ‘If we look for signs of baitfish, we won’t go far wrong,’ says Thomas, so he trolls up the side of the boats, looking for topping or bubbling.

Half an hour passes and the last moored boat is in sight with still no signs of fish. Neither small ones nor pike – Thomas hasn’t had a sniff. The Floating Restaurant comes into view. It looks an attractive lunchtime venue, but as we row towards it Thomas points out a small dark shape. It’s a bleak, and where there’s one there’s…

Millions, absolutely millions of the little blighters, shoaling all over the place. And not just bleak, either. Close in by the boat that is the Floating Restaurant a small roach jumps and there’s a steady stream of bubbles coming up from the depths. It seems we’ve just stumbled on the place where all the fish have been hiding.

It’s like the elephant’s graveyard appearing through the mist in that film – except that it’s fish that have appeared, not dead elephants. ‘I guess we’ll stay here for a while then,’ says Thomas in a low and rather excited voice.

Thomas trolls alongside the Floating Restaurant but the pike (if there are any) aren’t tempted. So he anchors over by the opposite bank in front of a rather posh hotel and its glass-fronted restaurant and drifts the floats with the current.

The fish are active on this side of the river too, even though there aren’t any boats. Instead the bottom is very uneven and most of the baitfish are lying in deeper holes – as are the pike, probably. That’s why Thomas’s fishing at anchor – if he trolled, he’d risk snagging up frequently or be fishing too shallow for the pike.

The baits haven’t been in the water for more than five minutes when his float starts bobbling around. Thomas watches it intently. It darts over towards the bank -Thomas grabs the rod and tightens into the fish. There’s a brief struggle but it’s no match for Thomas’s 21/2 lb TC rods.

A pot-bellied five-pounder (2.3kg) is quickly returned. A new bait is hooked up, cast to the same spot and Thomas sits down to wait. But there’s no time to think before that same bung disappears. ‘This is a good ‘un. But I’ve said that before, haven’t I?’ Thomas grins. After an initial doggedness, the fish comes easily to the surface but once there, you can tell it isn’t happy. ‘Well, this is our double,’ says Thomas, who clearly is happy.

With a flip of its tail and a splash of water, it heads directly under the boat where it obviously wants to remain. Thomas applies sidestrain to keep it away from the anchor rope and it finally gets the message and darts away into clear water.

Thomas doesn’t prolong these things any longer than necessary and before you know it he can reach the fish. He lands it by hand for a quick weighing. A double it is, at 12lb 14oz (5.8kg). ‘Right, now I can relax and enjoy myself,’ says a satisfied Thomas Watson. Like the other two fish, it was a fat, stumpy little number with quite a few leeches enjoying themselves at its expense. ‘These fish are probably lying near the shoals of baitfish, on the bottom -the leeches come from the mud. The pike probably hardly have to move at all to grab an easy meal.’

Talking of easy meals, the manager of the hotel restaurant has come out to have a quiet word along the ‘You can’t fish here, mate!’ lines. Just when Thomas has started to catch. He claims we are disturbing his diners. We claim he is disturbing the fishing. Thomas has a few words on the subject of public use of the river and seems about to have a lot more when, unexpectedly, tact and diplomacy prevail.

Thomas decides to break for lunch in ten minutes, pleasing our harassed hotelier. And as he leaves, the float dips a last time and Thomas’s into a tubby four-pounder (1.8kg). That’s four fish and two lost – and it’s only just lunchtime.

After a delightful pasty it’s time to get back to the pike. Thomas decides to go back to the area he fished first. He feels he didn’t really get the best from it in the morning and it does feature a hThomas absence of restaurant managers.

The same cannot be said of the fish. Shortly after Thomas starts the boat moving, a 3lb (1.4kg) jack attacks his bait – a move it soon regretted. After another ten minutes a chunky 5Milb (2.5kg) pike succumbs to greed and the lure of the bait.

Another fifteen minutes pass and there’s been nothing more. Thomas’s beginning to think of packing up – after all, six pike isn’t a bad return for a day’s fishing. Just so, but not quite. The float streaks off, and Thomas looks at this Art of Fishing reporter. ‘You deal with this one,’ he says, with a wicked gleam in his eye.

Well, descriptions of the heroic struggle aside, a couple of minutes later, a pike is splashing on the surface and Thomas smoothly lands it. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘This might just be our second double. Well done.’ It was a pleasure.

Alas though, it isn’t to be. A quick weigh-in, just to check, reveals the ‘double’ to be 9lb 10oz (4.4kg). Never mind, seven pike is a great result, and it’s been a really entertaining day. A boat may not be essential to river piking, but on The Wensum in Norwich, it certainly increases your options.

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