Specimen hunting

Every sport must present a progression of challenges if it is to keep its magic. Specimen hunting is the natural progression for an angler who has mastered the basic techniques of his sport

Specimen hunting has become established during the past 25 years. It is the specialized pursuit of fish that have reached a large size for their species; a size that, when stuffed fish were more popular, would have qualified them for taxidermy and a glass case.

At first, catching such fish was believed to be a matter of luck. It was thought an angler went fishing and would contact a big fish if he was fortunate—then with more luck the fish would take his bait and he would (with luck) land it.

Basic rules

This view changed in the early 1950s. A small band of anglers set out to win the Specimen Fish Con-test organized by Bernard Venables, then Angling Editor for the Daily Mirror, and they realized that certain methods could be established for improving the chances of catching big fish. The basic rules, as set out in my book Still Water Angling are: to find where the fish are, and having found them, not to scare them, to fish at the right time, to use the correct tackle and method, and deduce the appropriate bait.

Specimen fish do not lead exceptional lifestyles: the rules for finding and catching them do not differ substantially from those you observe for the species as a whole. For instance, even if specimens are regularly taken at the deep end of a reservoir during the winter, it is unlikely that any feeding fish would be in water deeper than 6-8ft on a warm summer evening.

Finding the fish means locating waters that are likely to hold the species you want. Find this out by reading reports in the angling press, enquiring at tackle dealers, and talking to fellow anglers. Then, having found suitable waters, locate the fish in them. To do this, you must watch for the signs—fish rolling or basking at the surface, stirring up mud or sending up bubbles. Learn all you can about the natural behaviour of the fish, and with this knowledge, ask yourself which parts of the water they are likely to favour.

It is not always easy to avoid scaring fish, but you can do your best in several ways. Dress in drab clothes; avoid becoming silhouetted against the sky; keep your shadow off the water; make use of bankside cover such as bushes, trees and rushes; take care not to tread heavily and cause vibrations that fish can detect; avoid shiny varnish or polished metal in your tackle; minimize disturbances and splashes in casting and, in general, take all possible steps to prevent the fish knowing you are there.

Specimen hunting is strongly affected by the seasons. Tench and barbel are a quarry to pursue bet-ween June and September—a period which overlaps during August and September with the time when quali- ty bream are active. Only in recent years has it become generally known that carp give year-round specimen sport, although mild summer evenings can’t be bettered.

To fish at the right time you must be prepared to fish early or late, and occasionally all night if the feeding times of the fish require it. Experience will teach you when fish are most likely to feed and the times will vary according to the seasons of the year and the changing conditions of wind, temperature and light.

Your rod, reel, line, hook and associated tackle have to be related to the conditions in which you are fishing and to the size and fighting qualities of the fish. Tackle strength demands wise judgement. It is useless to hook a big fish on a line so weak that there is little hope that the fish will be landed. Equally, you cannot expect bites if your tackle is so coarse and crude that it scares the fish away. If in doubt use rather strong tackle, and go a little finer if you get no bites.

If you respect the rules about the right time and the right place and take care not to alarm the fish, you will usually have plenty of bites on quite strong tackle. Match anglers are forced to use very fine tackle and tiny hooks, which often results in lost fish, because they cannot choose their time or place, and the fish are usually alerted by the intensive activity of anglers and spectators along the pegged bank.

The method chosen will also de-pend upon the conditions in which you are fishing. Above all you should study your swim or pitch very carefully before deciding on which method to use. But you must not decide on the method till you have studied the situation, or you will probably not catch any fish. If you enjoy float fishing, for example, more than ledgering, do not fish with a float where you know that ledgering will give you a better chance of catching the pursued fish.

The choice of bait is last in the list of basic rules because it is the least important. Fish are far less fussy about bait than most anglers imagine. Most species will take any from among an enormous range of baits, provided the angler fishes in the right place at the right time, does not scare the fish, and uses the right method. The exception occurs where numbers of fish have been taught to avoid certain baits, by being caught and returned, or hooked and lost. Do not be in a hurry to use a bait that has worked well in a particular water. By the time you hear about it, its effectiveness will have greatly diminished.

No magic component There is no secret ingredient that you can mix with your bait to ensure success. Angling champions are often offered money for the ‘magic’ component that people wrongly believe to be the reason for their success, but even if a special ingredient did exist, you would still have to find water holding good fish, and locate them in that water. A bait, no matter how irresistible, cannot be taken unless it is put where the fish are. Furthermore, a scared fish will not stay to take any bait, and you would still have to use the right tackle and method. In fact, if you follow these basic rules, ordinary well-known baits will catch you plenty of extraordinary fish.