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The Season of Two Halves

30 May 2023

Most specimen anglers tend to plan their campaigns following the traditional fishing season, rather than by the Gregorian calendar. As the rivers closed last year for their annual three-month shut down, I held high hopes for the season that lay ahead. New syndicate venues rumoured to hold mammoth fish of multiple different species filled me […]

The Season of Two Halves

Most specimen anglers tend to plan their campaigns following the traditional fishing season, rather than by the Gregorian calendar. As the rivers closed last year for their annual three-month shut down, I held high hopes for the season that lay ahead. New syndicate venues rumoured to hold mammoth fish of multiple different species filled me with excitement, but the 2022-2023 season for my own fishing proved to be one very much of two halves. Unfortunately, my achievements over the first six months of this initially promising period could easily be detailed on the back of a postage stamp.

I’ll happily breeze past the spring and summer. The season started badly when I booked several weeks of holiday from work to target bream on a new venue, only to find them spawning as soon as I commenced my campaign. It was the first week of May, and I’d never witnessed bream spawning so early in the year. However, spawning they certainly were, and my meticulous plans were quickly shelved as I scrambled around to find some inspiration for alternative lakes as the basis for my spring campaign.

In summation, that sought-after inspiration was very slow to return, and the loss at which I suddenly found myself completely threw my focus. For the remainder of the spring, I drifted between other nearby gravel pits in the same valley in pursuit of big tench and bream but failed to find anything of note. I caught a few decent eels from a small commercial fishery, and some nice carp off the top (by far my favourite method), but they really were some challenging months in my personal angling.

The Seasons Turn, Along With My Fortunes

By the time the deciduous leaves started to turn lovely shades of golds and umbers, the memories of the mild trauma of my short spring campaign on the bream pit had finally started to fade. I was determined to salvage something of the season, not to mention get some value from the rather expensive syndicate ticket.

 

It was the middle of autumn before I finally skulked back to the venue. The water level was at least 3-feet lower than during my previous visit in the spring, and I had just a few precious weeks before the colder weather arrived and the window of opportunity to land a huge bream closed for another year. I found the venue slightly quieter than during my initial forays, but still busy with enthusiastic carpers, and consequently accessing my preferred swims remained a challenge. I had spoken to plenty of anglers since joining the venue, and so even without yet catching a bream from the lake, I’d built up a clear idea of the areas in which I should focus my efforts.

During my first sessions back on the pit, I failed to get into the swims that I felt gave me the best chance of a bream, and consequently only managed to tempt a few of the resident carp population. Given the stock of carp that calls the lake home, I was more than happy to get off the mark with a few of these – particularly when a breezeblock of a common weighing 38lb 1oz was in amongst them. My confidence was climbing, and I finally felt close to landing my very first bream from the lake.

 

I had heard of numerous fish of my target species being caught over the preceding weeks by carpers from one very specific area, and I was sure that I could follow suit if I could just get my baits into that golden triangle. Fortunately, on my next visit I managed to do exactly that, setting up in a swim that had produced the vast majority of bream that I’d heard of being caught since I started fishing the venue. I had three nights to play with, and I was determined to make the very most of what was likely to be my final bream session of the year. By now, it was late October; the leaves were falling, the weather rapidly changing, and I had other commitments over the following weekends. I needed to capitalise, and fast.

With a long session ahead, I took my time to heavily interrogate the swim. I’d been told of a prominent gravel bar at around eighty yards range, which I quickly located and around which I focused my plumbing efforts. I prefer to target the pinnacle and rear slope of such features, and I decided to begin by fishing the base at the back of the bar, where the gravel transitioned to smooth silt. I baited my standard bream mix of small halibut pellets, mixed particles, sweetcorn, 12mm Dynamite Baits Spicy Shrimp & Prawn boilies, and Marine Halibut Method Mix – all combined into a sticky blend with molasses, tuna oil and CSL liquid. I also soak the Spicy Shrimp & Prawn boilies heavily in a combination of the matching liquid (also from Dynamite) and their potent Shrimp Extract, which hugely increases their attraction level.

 

With the dinner table laid, there was just enough time to position two method feeder rigs over the top before darkness fully descended.

I was awoken in the early hours by a positive take that was stripping line from a tightly set clutch by the time I picked up the rod. As soon as I leant into the beast on the other end, I could immediately detect that something wasn’t right. I could feel the grating of the line running across the abrasive bar and just a few seconds later, everything fell slack. I’d been cut-off!

Feeling frustrated and dejected, I gradually retackled in the darkness under the light of a headtorch, re-wrapped the rod to the same range and, hitting the clip, felt another groundbait-laded method ball strike down on the firm lake bed. Unfortunately, that was the first and last bite I received that night, so I vowed to make changes to my end tackle and reposition my baits the following day to avoid a repeat of the incident that had occurred.

During the second day, I decided to make two key changes. Firstly, I re-rigged the rods with much longer leadless leaders, extending them to 4ft. Secondly, I elected to bait and fish the very top of the bar, rather than over the back of it. I felt that by fishing in this manner – in combination with a tight clutch – I would run much less risk of a fish running beyond the bar and therefore of my mainline suffering its abrasive effects. On that night, my changes paid dividends and I landed all three fish that I hooked: two double-figure carp, and my very first bream from the pit. Weighing a reasonable 12lb 14oz, it certainly wasn’t the enormous fish that I’d hoped for, but it made for a very reasonable start.

On my third and final night of the session it was a case of rinse and repeat, as I topped up the bait and positioned two method feeders back on top of the bar. The weather on that final day was horrendous, with savage thunderstorms making it extremely tricky to bait up without getting soaking wet. It was a case of dodging the torrential showers by dipping in and out of the brolly, but eventually I’d got myself all set for the night ahead. Throughout the hours of darkness, the rain was unrelenting, and I was dragged back out into the inclement weather by just the one further bite. Upon picking up the rod I could quickly tell that I was attached to a large bream; the characteristic heavy weight and gentle nods on the rod tip giving away the game early on in the fight. As it slowly plodded along the margins and I finally caught a glimpse of its broad flank, I was praying for it to slip over the net cord, which it eventually did without any dramas.

As I laid the bronze-flanked fish onto the unhooking mat, I could see that it was comfortably bigger than the bream I’d landed the previous evening – but how much bigger? Well, after dampening the sling, the digital scales confirmed that it was quite a bit larger indeed! Weighing in at exactly 16lb, I’d finally landed a fish of the caliber for which I’d joined the lake. Even better, it was an incredible looking bream and after landing it shortly before dawn, I managed to get some beautiful photos of the fish in the early morning light.

With hindsight, the capture of that huge bream proved to be the turning point of my season.

 

The Flood Gates Open

During the first week of November, we experienced some biblical rainfall; the first heavy rains of the season. This event normally signals a major feeding trigger for the small population of huge barbel that reside in a stretch of chalk stream that I’ve now been fishing for around five years. The river in question can appear completely devoid of barbel throughout the summer and early autumn. With the water low and clear, one would think that these huge fish (some exceeding 18lb) would be easily visible, but the river is strewn with fallen trees and overhanging bushes, and under these they are exceptionally good at tucking themselves away from prying eyes. However, that first influx of new water in the autumn months, a major rise in water levels, and a huge injection of colour are often what’s required to offer an opportunity to catch one.

Over previous seasons, I had put in an awful lot of effort to catch some of those huge barbel, culminating in a river record fish of 19lb 7oz back in February 2022. However, there were some significant gaps to fill in my CV, and I hadn’t yet crossed paths with many of the back-up big fish that resided in the stretch. It was therefore, as I sat on my girlfriend’s sofa one Sunday afternoon in early November watching the rain continue to fall from the sky, that I felt an extremely compelling urge to get out barbel fishing the following day.

I shifted plans and worked early on the Monday to free up some time in the afternoon, and eventually arrived at the river to find it extremely swollen and the colour of strong tea – as anticipated and absolutely perfect. From memory, there wasn’t another car in the car park, and I couldn’t quite believe my luck. I had the stretch to myself and based on the conditions, I knew there were opportunities to be found.

In high flood conditions, the swims that seem to produce big barbel are subtly different to those that tend to hold fish during normal flows. They tend to explore areas of river that are normally rather shallow, and I’ve found that swims slightly upstream or downstream from their normal holding areas are always worth a try, particularly if there is a noticeable crease. However, I don’t believe that barbel tend to move all that far from their usual haunts even in very swollen rivers. The approach that I take in these conditions is also different to that taken in normal flows. In floods, I’ll remain much more mobile, perhaps giving each swim up to two hours (in darkness), and rather than my usual pellet, hemp and boilie tactics, I’ll fish with meat and introduce no bait whatsoever.

Going back to that afternoon in early November, there were perhaps three swims in which I felt confident of a bite in those conditions. I trudged downstream and decided to start in one that had no previous form for barbel, until I’d caught my record fish from it earlier in the year! It fished just upstream of a common barbel winter holding area. In front of the swim was shallow (during normal levels) but the riverbed started to drop away just before a big fallen tree to the left, and as water levels rise a huge crease begins to form, which is caused by a large willow immediately upstream.

At around 5pm, I flicked out my meat hookbait onto the crease just downstream and experienced a prominent thud through the rod tip as I felt down the 3oz gripper lead onto the clean gravel bed. I’d spoken with my friend Adam the previous evening about coordinating a session on the river in such conditions, and we’d agreed to meet there for a social. I was sitting back, sipping coffee from my flask, when Adam came wandering along the bank and stopped for a chat while he decided which swim to try. We were chatting away as darkness descended but were suddenly interrupted by the click of a clutch; I glanced towards the 2.2lb TC rod to see the tip perpendicular to the butt! Lifting into a powerful barbel that instantly felt like drawing a hessian sack upstream against the flow, I managed to get it plodding around in the slack water directly in front of me, and I was grateful to have Adam on hand to assist with netting the fish.

Fortunately, the barbel went into the waiting landing net without any issues. It was my first cast on my first barbel session of the season, and I already had an enormous fish in the net; it really doesn’t get much better than that. As we lifted the barbel onto the unhooking mat and prepared the weighing equipment, Adam uttered something about it being ‘the fish that I had been seeking all of last season.’ At that point, I don’t think I realised quite how fat the fish was, and I was stunned when I hoisted her up in the sling and the scales read a huge 16lb 12oz! An absolute beast of a barbel, and my second biggest ever of the species.

After the photos had been taken and the fish released, I sat with Adam for about half an hour with a celebratory cup of coffee from my long-suffering steel Thermos flask. I was already elated with the result, but I also couldn’t help but feel there was the chance of another. I was trying to decide whether to move swims or whether to persevere in the same area and following a brief exchange about the swim having been rested for around an hour by this point, I decided that it warranted one most cast back to the same crease.

It was a decision that I’m glad I made, as just half an hour after my meat hookbait had been repositioned, I had a further savage bite that wrapped the rod all the way around. It was like déjà vu as I found myself playing yet another heavy barbel; at 15lb 12oz, it concluded an incredible brace and was a crazy way to round off my first barbel hunt of the season.

Building Momentum

Buoyed by this early success, I was already excited for the next window of opportunity to target more of those huge, small river barbel, and fortunately I didn’t have to wait long. Just ten days later, we experienced another band of heavy rain that swelled the rivers once again. I made myself available for another trip, but this time around it wasn’t quite as straightforward.

Temperatures were much depressed compared to the previous session, and when I arrived at the fishery someone was already ensconced in the swim from which I had landed my huge brace the previous week. Undeterred, it presented the ideal occasion to target areas that I hadn’t yet tried this season, but which had certainly produced fish during the previous year. However, after fishing in a couple of different areas to no avail, the effects of sitting for several hours with the feet submerged in cold floodwater had begun to temper my initial enthusiasm. It was around 9pm by this point, and I decided to try one further swim before trudging back to the motor and heading for home with the heating cranked up.

 

As I gathered the gear from the current swim and walked downstream, I wasn’t quite sure where I was heading; I was just seeking some inspiration. As I reached a swim that I hadn’t ever previously fished, I noticed that a subtle crease had formed downstream of the trailing branches of a small overhanging tree. It’s hard to explain but just looked ‘right’ in that moment, and it was immediately downstream of an area from which I had caught barbel before.

I carefully lowered my hookbait onto the crease under the rod tip and felt the lead thud down on the gravel in around 6 feet of water. Clipping on a heavy backlead to pin down the mainline, I sat further up the bank out of the floodwater and enjoyed the warming effects of the dregs of my coffee.

Around an hour later, my rod tip was wrenched down hard beneath the river’s surface, causing me to lunge forward and grab the rod. The fish to which I found myself attached felt outrageously heavy and proceeded to move slowly and ponderously around under the rod tip for what felt like an age, until I finally managed to gain some modicum of control. Eventually, I was able to bring the proverbial steam train to the surface, and I slid the rim of the net under an immensely long barbel.

This particular barbel was possibly the most impressive example of the species I had ever been fortunate enough to land. It was long, solid and in immaculate condition, and I felt excited to put the fish on the scales as I honestly didn’t know what it could weigh. The scales did not disappoint, and a weight of 17lb 4oz confirmed that it was indeed a truly enormous barbel. The session had been immediately turned around, and my run of autumn form seemed to be building momentum.

Winter Bites

That session turned out to be my final barbel trip for a while. In early December, the country was gripped by a savage cold snap that saw overnight temperatures drop below – 10oC in many areas, and barbel fishing couldn’t have been further from my mind. In fact, it was early January before another opportunity to target that small population of huge fish presented itself.

During the second week of January, a warm southwesterly weather front swept in from the Atlantic, bringing with it heavy rainfall and unseasonably mild temperatures, which reinvigorated the river once again and offered excellent barbel fishing conditions. On 12th January, I arrived at the river to find the car park deserted once again and decided to head straight for the swim in which I had enjoyed my most recent success.

Lowering my hookbait onto the subtle crease just before darkness fell, I felt extremely confident of a bite. A friend whom I had met at the fishery and who was also targeting the big barbel joined me for a chat, and not long after he’d departed my swim, I received a very jerky bite. The white rod tip and accompanying isotope lurched forward a few inches and just held there, so I walked down to the rod and picked it up. Upon bending into the heavy weight on the other end of the line, it felt as though I had hooked a snag, but then the heavy weight began moving begrudgingly upstream against the strong flow. Despite the very uncharacteristic bite for the species, I quickly realised that I was attached to yet another enormous barbel.

A brief and uneventful tussle followed, which terminated in an absolute beast of a barbel lying in the bottom of my deep pan net. It looked absolutely massive, and the scales confirmed as such: at 17lb 14oz, it was one more of the handful of barbel I had been pursuing for several years and represented the climax of another amazing couple of months on this very special small river.

 

Crocodile Hunter

Pike angling during the colder months is linked to some very fond memories of my childhood. For several years, I spent the winters fishing the shallow estate lakes of North Norfolk with my late father, catching some lovely pike along the way. I always dreamt of cradling a truly huge pike (more than 30lb), but despite fishing a number of venues during the intervening years, I have never really felt close.

Last season, I was determined to change that, and I finally started to put myself within reach of the pike of my dreams. I had several sessions organised in January and February with a few different friends on a Midlands reservoir that had produced some truly colossal crocs in previous years: fish exceeding 40lb. My ambitions were not quite this grandiose, but I knew that the lake gave me the chance of something enormous.

The first couple of weekends were enjoyable but the fishing was challenging. On my first trip I landed just one jack, which was a result on such a difficult reservoir, where takes from pike of any size are few and far between. On my second weekend of the year, the weather conditions conspired against me. The country was once again gripped by a cold snap, and sub-zero overnight temperatures had partially frozen the reservoir. We (unsurprisingly) blanked on the first day under high air pressure and clear blue skies, and on the second morning I knew that we’d blank before we even got our baits in the water – we arrived at the reservoir to find it frozen solid, and the day was a write-off!

The following weekend was to be my penultimate trip, and fortunately, the weather conditions were looking far more favourable. The mercury was gradually climbing throughout the week, sufficient to thaw the ice, and it was looking ideal for the weekend ahead with overcast skies, a light breeze and temperatures pushing double-figures. It something special was going to happen this winter, it felt like this was to be the weekend. A close friend of mine even commented that she ‘had a good feeling’. A positive omen, perhaps.

On the Saturday, my boat partner Warren and I fished hard through the morning on a submerged peninsular, but to little avail. During the afternoon, Warren located a small yet prominent hump in the lakebed, around which we decided to concentrate our efforts for the final few hours of the day. Two takes proceeded to occur, with me landing a jack and Warren unfortunately losing a good fish.

The ‘return to jetty’ time quickly approached, and we soon found ourselves en route back to my place, discussing plans for the following day. When back at the lodge with some of the other pike anglers who had also been trying their luck, it transpired that a big fish (> 30lb) had been caught from an area to the dam wall. The angler in question was delighted and didn’t mind sharing the information as he wasn’t returning to the venue that season. This knowledge sparked plenty of debate between Warren and I while in the pub later that evening. Based on what we had recently learnt, he wanted to try the dam wall area the next morning, while I was keen to return to the area that we had now christened ‘Jack’s Hump’. Several beers later, it was concluded that we would leave it to fate to decide.

 

A Dream Realised

The following morning, we were back at the fishing lodge. I’d like to say that we were both bright-eyed and buzzing for the day ahead, but the truth is that after a long session on the beers, we were both suffering somewhat. The usual chaotic start to the day ensued and we found ourselves to be the third or fourth boat out of the jetty. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t the only anglers who had heard about the events of the previous day, as all the boats ahead of us heading straight to the dam wall, soon leaving it rather crowded. The benefit of this was that fate swung in my favour: we would be motoring back out to Jack’s Hump, and a stunning sunrise lit up the sky behind us as we headed westwards towards the feature.

Having done relatively little in the way of reservoir boat fishing during my angling career, I had been tweaking my set-up over the course of the winter to try and improve my presentation. Through watching what some of the more experienced predator anglers were doing, I had settled on fishing with float-legered baits, utilising a bottom-end only loaded pencil float, a heavy egg sinker, and a longer than usual trace. Joey mackeral deadbaits had produced all the action for me so far, and this was complimented with a large smelt on my second rod – a great combination of deadbaits for reservoir piking.

Warren expertly positioned us at anchor on top of Jack’s Hump so that we could spread deadbaits all around it, and with all four rods in position, I laid in the bottom of the boat on my large unhooking mat to relax. Around an hour later, I was sure that I saw a slight tweak on the float on my left-hand rod; the one that was attached to a joey mackeral. A few seconds later as I picked up the rod, the float jerked and began to slide under the surface – I was away!

Giving the fish a couple of seconds to engulf the bait, I wound down and used the 3lb test curve boat rod to drive the trebles home. Initially, I felt a couple of erratic headshakes, and I thought that I might be attached to a trout, which do also often take a liking to a small mackeral. However, very soon after that thought had entered my mind, the weight on the other end of the braid started to feel very heavy indeed.

The fish was swimming towards the boat, and suddenly it was directly underneath us with my rod doubled over. I managed to steer it past the potentially dangerous front anchor rope, and after what felt like just a few more seconds, we both saw the long flank of an enormous pike rising up through the clear water. A few further seconds later and it was suddenly on the surface, as I shouted to Warren to get the net under it – like, NOW!

It slid into the net, and I collapsed on the seat with a huge sigh of relief, but not before gazing down, turning towards Warren, and saying: ‘mate, that’s fu**ing enormous!’. We both took a minute to calm down and prepare the unhooking and weighing equipment, before hoisting the leviathan over the gunwales and aboard. The length of the pike was truly ridiculous, virtually spanning the full width of the boat, and I had absolutely no idea what it was going to weigh. I carefully removed the trebles, which were only lightly embedded in the corner of the mouth and transferred the fish into the large weigh sling.

Warren hoisted up the sling, and with the scales facing towards him, said: ‘what do you reckon?’. ‘29lb’, I said.

‘Yeah, it’s kind of smashed that’, he replied. ‘It’s 33lb 2oz!’.

I couldn’t quite believe it. I finally had the pike of my dreams lying in my arms; it was job done, dream realised. I felt a sudden intense combination of multiple different emotions. I felt relief, excitement, elation, disbelief, and a tinge of melancholy, all at once. The capture took me back to those cold winter days sitting beside my father, waiting for a float to slowly slide away.

Warren took some amazing photographs, and I’ll be eternally grateful for all his help and support during that capture. Handling a fish of that size in a boat really is a two-person job, and I don’t know what I would have done without him. Thanks, mate.