The dace is a river fish, although it does exist in a few stillwaters and the specimen hunter should accept that there are two kinds of dace river, each needing its own special set of techniques for success. In larger, slow moving, and often well-coloured rivers, like the Thames or Great Ouse, with their well-fished match stretches, it is pointless freelining a whole lobworm on a large hook, because the dace have become well educated to the bait. To tempt dace there, it is necessary to step down to a fine line, a small hook and maggot. On the other hand, in a clear-flowing, overgrown stream or small river, where you can see and stalk your fish in summer, big baits are gobbled up with relish, while small offerings only attract teeming shoals of nuisance species.
But more of this comparison later on – for the present let us look at prospects from June onwards, when the weather could not be better for the delicate art of fly fishing. Wet, dry or nymph imitations will each take dace in the right circumstances, but perhaps the most effective are small dry flies tied on No 14 and 16 hooks and used in warm weather when dace are rising freely to a hatch. But beware of the false takes characteristic of the dace.
A dace weighing 8oz is a specimen fish. But there are a few rich and very fertile rivers, mostly in Norfolk, where the specimen weight is taken to be 12oz.
Rod: 10-1 lft light Avon-action for freelining and general dace fishing 13ft match rod (long trotting) 12-13ft (winter float-fishing)
Reel: Fixed-spool (Mitchell 408) Centrepin for trotting
Line: 2-2 1/2 lb b.s.
Hooks: 14-16 (maggots, trotting) 10-6 (freelining)
Baits: Maggots, worms, caterpillars, small crayfish, bread, seed baits, wet and dry flies
Groundbait: None. Loose feed only
Techniques: Float, ledger, fly, freelining, trotting for trout, where a pause is necessary to allow the fish time to take the fly beneath the surface, an immediate strike is essential, for dace can only too rapidly suck in and blow out your fly. Of course, as dace are shoaling fish, there are many others to accept your fly on the next cast should you spook the first fish by clumsy casting or pulling the hook out. The element of competition for food being so high, there should be no lack of takes.
It pays to match whatever fly is hatching on the river, but dace in very large shoals are not usually fussy, so almost any small black or brown fly, such as black gnat, coch-y-bondu, or alder may be taken. White flies, such as the white moth, are also effective at times, but use the small sizes only, tied to a 2 lb b.s. Cast. You can even be sporting and go down to a 1lb b.s. Point. Dacing with the fly using a light outfit can offer real fun. It can also take the very large dace which are suspicious of the more usual baits and tackles. With the small shoals of very large dace, which often like to band together away from the main shoals, it is essential to creep quietly from a downstream approach and cast from as far back as bankside herbage will allow. If they will not accept a dry imitation or there are no flies coming off the water, degrease the cast point to the depth of the swim and try a nymph. When the flow is excessive, a leaded nymph works bet-ter – particularly a shrimp pattern.
Cast directly upstream, as with the dry fly, and watch the greased part of the cast on the surface for sudden jerks or twitches as the nymph, sinking slowly with its own weight, comes towards you. Sometimes, when dace are feeding on nymphs, it is snapped up within in-ches of the surface and the fish might be seen as the cast tightens.
When the dace are particularly finicky, tease them gently by easing the nymph up through the water, then allowing it to sink. This simulates the movement of aquatics in their nymph form – a jerking up-wards from the bottom towards the surface, the fly finally crawling through the old casing to hatch. The emergent fly finds a mate and the fertilized eggs shed by the females fall through the water to the bottom, where they turn into nymphs. These crawl on the bottom for twelve months before they reach the surface to repeat the process.
An awareness of these events can help you decide which part of the cycle you are going to simulate. And this is where wet fly fishing takes a body blow, for if you choose to fish the classic wet fly cast downstream and across, twitching it upstream once it has been pulled across the river to under your own bank, you are not in fact representing many forms of fly life found in rivers.
Indeed, most of the wet fly pat-terns, of which there are hundreds, have been tied in some way or another to imitate the fry of small fish. Look at a selection of wet flies in a tackle shop, many of which will have silver or gold tinsel in their make-up to imitate the sheen of fish fry. Very few look the slightest bit like natural nymphs, which are mostly slow moving creatures. The sedge fly nymphs, which we know more commonly as caddis grubs, are a classic example.
Sedge fly nymphs are good dace baits, but the fact remains that dace will accept even the gaudiest of wet flies. This is simply because, like all coarse fish, especially in summer, they consume large quantities of fish fry, and not because they take the flies for underwater insects. Even a large wet fly, such as a smaller minnow, will occasionally be gobbled up, but to be reasonably sure of a good number of takes keep your wet fly patterns smallish, hooks of size 12-16 being ideal. And be ready to respond very sharply to the grab of a dace.
By the time June 16 comes round, most rivers have such a prolific weed growth that wet fly fishing is usually a less effective way of fooling dace with an imitation. But if the method takes you, seek out the really fast turbulent swims over gravel bottoms such as at the end of a mill-race or weir. Then, false bites in weed will be at a minimum.
Freelining is one of the most deadly dacing techniques for summer fishing on smaller rivers and stream. Casting with nothing on the line but a hook and bait is generally so effective for clearwater fish, which can be seen or are suspected to be present, because, provided you keep a bow in the line between bait and the rod tip, they will accept the bait without hesitation. Bites will prove alarm-ingly positive at times, the line cut-ting across the surface faster than the current, as a fish bites.
Allow the bait to linger a while on the bottom if bites do not materialize, rather than lifting the rod and rolling the bait off down-stream straightaway. This is a delightful method, because, with tackle kept to a minimum, you can roam along the river or stream, familiarizing yourself with a dif-ferent swim every few yards. And you do not need the maggots or groundbait used on larger rivers. Just take along a few lobworms, cheese paste, or some bream.
Forget small hooks and ultra-fine lines, for most likely you will be presenting your baits beneath undercut banks, in or around snags, and down richly weeded runs – everywhere the current takes them, in fact. A line of 2-2£lb, with a selection of hooks from size 18 down to size 10, should meet all eventualities. Do not worry about a size 10 looking too big. On the contrary, remember that with small hooks and small baits on these little rivers during the summer you will be pestered by tiny nuisance fish.
There are a few natural baits which are heavy enough to cast without additional weight. For ex-ample, lobworms, brandlings and redworms are excellent for dace, provided you use two or three on the hook for accurate casting. Large caterpillars and other crawlers found beneath marginal roots, the dock grub for example, are also very good. Small crayfish (peelers are best) provide magical fishing.
If you do not fancy grubbing about for ‘naturals’, take solace in the fact that few streams exist where the very largest of dace cannot be caught on either breadflake or cheese paste. But always remain flexible in your approach. For in-stance, add the occasional small shot to counteract the back-flow in really fast pools and eddies; or even use a small bomb stopped 18in from the hook so that the bait can be bounced through deep, rapid water.
Summer notes for winter fishing
While meandering along these sum-mer stretches, make a mental note, with a view to winter fishing when visibility is poor, of where you saw small shoals of bigger dace. Although different approaches are called for, according to the season, knowing where your quarry lies is always half the battle.
When summer dacing on the larger, more coloured rivers, weed and snags pose few problems but nuisance fish add spice to the sport. On many of the bigger southern rivers, bleak can prove frustrating to the angler using maggot. A way round their hunger for maggots is, of course, to offer flake or crust, or one of the many seedbaits such as sweetcorn, tares, stewed wheat or hempseed. Such large grains are nobbled only by the occasional nuisance fish and, if you feed spar-ingly, good-sized dace will almost certainly be caught.
Dace like a strong current
Naturally, chub and roach are also bound to happen along, so fish only the dacey parts – turbulent swims, millraces, side streams. Any spot where the current is strong will hold its quota of dace shoals. Fish as light as the current will allow, using small fine-wire hooks of size 14 to 18 to accommodate seedbaits. But have casters and maggots at the ready in case nuisance species are not pre-sent. A 1lb b.s. Hook length joined to a 2 lb reel line gives a natural presentation when teamed with a sensitive float. Use a big balsa-type stick float or an Avon float for fast swims, and a cane and balsa stick for more even-paced swims, where correct presentation is essential.
Stick floats are ideal for dacing, for they can be shotted down to show the merest tip of the float. With them, you should be prepared to hit any sign of a bite, no matter how slight. Perhaps the stick float’s greatest asset is that with correct shotting you can easily determine bites which come ‘on the drop’ – while the bait is falling. Attach a stick of suitable shotting capacity for the swim, fixed top and bottom, and adjust it to nearly the full depth of the swim. Space several small shot evenly down the line to within 2ft of the hook so that the float cocks with about in visible. Then, midway between the bottom shot and the hook, fix on a tiny dust shot. Notice how its extra weight sinks the float tip down. This is important for when you start the trot, keeping a fairly tight line, if the float does not drop down to its second level within a moment of settling, a dace has intercepted the bait. The method can give surprising results, but it takes patience and confidence to use it properly.
At any point along the swim you can impart a natural fall to your bait simply by holding back hard on the float and then easing it on again. Sometimes bites will only show when you hold back, sometimes when the bait travels within a few inches of the bottom. If most bites come with the latter pattern, pull the bottom shot down to within a few inches of the bait for a quicker registration. It pays to experiment until bites come regularly and then do so again every time the rate slows down or stops, for the fish might take up a different position within the swim. Try altering the shotting pattern after every other cast, or pull the float up a couple of feet deeper than the swim, and hold back hard so that the lowest shot rests along the bottom.
Bigger dace often prefer a bait fished hard on the bottom, and allow their younger brethren to dash about picking up most of the free-falling loose feed above them. To achieve a presentation that en-courages the larger fish, use the bait dropper every so often so that more food is deposited where they are.
Also continue to introduce a little loose feed by hand to keep the small-to-medium fish in the upper layers.
Mini link ledger
An even better method of presenting bottom baits is to rig up a float ledger, changing the small stick for a more buoyant float. You can lay-on very hard, getting the bait down very quickly, by swapping all the shot for a mini link ledger holding one or two swan shot stopped 1ft from the hook.
There is no point in going through the motions of trotting down and then holding back on a long hook trail if the dace you want only take the bait when it is static. Put it where they want it straightaway, adjusting the float to he flat on the surface, with your line kept tight to the rod tip. The float lying flat will give you just that split second of slack, enabling you to strike before the fish feels any resistance. Even really fast, big river swims can be tackled by float fishing well overdepth, but there does come a point beyond which the flow makes it desirable to switch over to a ledger. Bites are invariably very quick, of course, and so a rod with a built-in quivertip is very useful for dacing, because they deposit your loose feed exactly where the hookbait is. There are two ways to rig up a blockend, the first being to use it as a sliding ledger with a stop shot or split ring shot fixed 6-12in from the hook. The second method is to have the hook length paternoster-style – tied to a small swivel above the feeder, which itself is on a separate link. Hook trails may then be varied from short to long or from heavy to light, simply and quickly, as conditions and bites dictate.
Get the permutation right
Finely chopped small worms, hemp, and even casters, can be used effectively, but maggots are by far the best bait when blockending. But take care that bottom-feeding nuisances such as eels or ruffe do not arrive and drive the dace out of the swim. If you are feeding with maggots, sometimes an alternative hookbait, such as two casters or a small worm, will produce more bites when fish are finicky. It always pays to experiment with hook sizes, hook lengths and baits because each component will behave differently when pushed about by fast currents. You simply need to find the most attractive permutation so that bites become regular. But always be prepared to alter your set- up – particularly during slow spells.
One of the most killing summer techniques for the bigger rivers that lack bleak is to fish the floating caster. Use a small float with both a small shot and a float band at each end, setting it a couple of feet from the hook. The two shots are merely to add casting weight, not to cock the float. Then apply floatant to the line from the hook – a size 16 – to several feet above the float.
On warm, sunny days, you can easily encourage dace to the surface with floating caster by simply casting your tackle a little beyond where the loose bait is thrown and gently easing it back. Keep a fairly tight line from rod tip to float and let the flow carry the tackle downstream. Bites will vary from mere twitches of the float to a sideways skid along the surface.
Short pieces of peacock quill make ideal floats for this kind of fishing because they can easily be cut down to size and because, for their bulk, they are extremely buoyant. This allows you to use enough shot either side to make long casts.
When winter comes
As summer becomes autumn, the dacing shows little difference until the first of the winter frosts arrive and a few floods have scoured the river beds. On the larger rivers, all the previously mentioned techni-ques can be used through the colder months, with the exception of floating casters, but blockend ledgering really comes into its own. On the smaller rivers, with the weeds gone and the bankside shrubbery dead, you can wield a float rod comfortably and take large bags of fish with some enjoyable long- trotting. Now is the time to recall where you saw those bigger fish dur-ing the summer, because, as the winter progresses, dace of a certain size tend to shoal together. The larger fish, invariably females, tend to hang around in small groups, not in the fast reaches, but in the slower, deeper, more roachy swims. The smaller male dace, often easily recognized at the back-end of the season by their rough sandpapery skin, will be occupying all the shallows and rapid water. Do not waste time on them if you want specimen fish, which, on the smaller, richer rivers, can weigh from 12oz to just over lib.
The big fish are extremely cautious, except when the water is highly coloured or in flood. Under normal conditions, early morning or late evening, when light is poor, are the periods on which to concentrate.
As there are likely to be only about a dozen big females in each swim, remember to feed sparingly and fish the bait very close to the bottom. While small dace bite en-thusiastically yet fast, big dace bite much slower – and extremely gently. So fish fine, shotting the float well down so the tiniest bite registers.
Maggots or casters are the best of the winter baits now that nuisance fish are less evident. Provided you do not fish any swim too regularly, you should not need other baits all winter, except, perhaps, small worms for fishing floodwaters. (Indeed, when small rivers are flooded, the very biggest dace seem to put in an appearance.) Seek out the slowest swims, or the slowest part of large bends or eddies, or where drainage dykes or riverlets join the main-stream, provided the current is even and does not split up every few minutes, spewing mountains of rub-bish up from the bottom. All fish hate having to change direction in response to irregular current pat-terns, especially fat old female dace. In very cold conditions, and this applies to both small and large rivers, fish ultra-fine, and feed very sparingly. Whether laying-on, ledgering, or long-trotting, expect only faint bites. A fish which, during warm weather, gobbles up a huge lobworm and clangs the rod tip round will just suck in a single mag-got six months later, hardly moving the float. Present a static bait in very cold water or place it within lin of the bottom if trotting, so that the dace do not need to chase after it. Do not bother with groundbait – and this is true for dace fishing in both summer and winter – for loose hookbait is always sufficient feed.
When seeking big dace it is always well to remember that in certain swims the species prefers to occupy different swims in the summer from in the winter.
Both summer and winter quarters are provided by an attractive swim just downstream from Ringland Bridge, on the upper reaches of the River Wensum, near Norwich.
About 80 yards below the shallow flats and rapid water beneath the road bridge, the river gradually deepens close to the bank on the outside of a slow bend. During the summer the water is always crystal clear. The dace move through and seek cover on the narrows and bars between the long, flowing beds of ranunculus and streamer weeds, which help reduce the speed of the current here.
In the evening, the larger dace leave the sanctuary of the weed to feed heavily on hatching nymphs or their flies a little upstream of the bend in the shallows. Aquatic life is very rich here – there are all kinds of fly nymphs, freshwater shrimps, snails, caddis, and other food to be found under stones, in the weed, and adhering to the stems of the rushes which hug the margins. The pure water also supports a large crayfish population in depressions in the gravel and beneath large stones. Big dace like tiny crayfish, although their basic diet is mainly of much smaller items.
When winter sets in, the scene below the water takes on a completely different look. The weed dies away, and so the current becomes much faster, especially on the bend, where the flow hits the bank. This forms a slow back eddy for several yards close to the near bank.
There is a long depression, 5ft deep, just 10ft out, and here, hugg-ing the bottom, are to be found larger dace of 8oz and over. But they occupy different positions within the depression, depending upon variations in the current. During floods, the only slow water is within a couple of feet of the bank, beside the rushes and just above the bend. In long periods of high water, both small and large dace, with gudgeon, roach, and even trout, share the quietness of this slack water.
When the river becomes low and clear once more, each species returns to its particular part of the bend, the largest dace preferring the slowest, deepest part of the depression.