Monday, 11 January 2016

2015 - My Highlights - Part 2: Clear River Stalking for Chub & Barbel

In the second of my Highlights of 2015 posts I once again visit the Derbyshire Derwent, but a different stretch this time.  The session provided me with a great insight into the lives of barbel & chub when this river is exceptionally low and clear...

Fishing for barbel & chub in clear water on the Derwent

Every now and again, a fishing session comes along which unexpectedly knocks you sideways.  Sometimes it can be a red letter day in the form of the number or size of fish you catch, other times it's the things you see or the whole experience.

I had one such day last July, where it was the latter which made the day special.  I caught some fish but the overriding highlights of the day were the things I witnessed.  Forgive me if I get carried away describing something you see regularly, but because I don't fish during the daytime very often, this whole experience was something quite special for me.

It started when I decided to head to a stretch of the River Derwent which I had only ever fished once, several years ago.  It was primarily a reconnaissance session to reaquiant myself with the swims and try to find some fish-holding areas to target on future evening sessions.

I started off by walking the entire stretch with a lure rod, a net, a small selection of lures, a baitdropper and some mixed pellets, casters & hemp.  The thinking behind this mish-mash of tackle was to wander from swim to swim, watching the water and scanning the area using my polaroid sunglasses.  If I thought a swim had potential for a lure-caught fish I would work a few lures through it and if I thought a swim had barbel or chub potential I would drop in some bait with the baitdropper.

The day was very warm with bright sunshine and the river was running extremely low, so I had expected to find spottting fish (and catching any on lures) very difficult.  I was mainly looking for any snags, undercut banks, deep depressions and gravel runs which may hold fish in the future.

As it transpired, access to swims on the stretch was extremely limited and I had to bash my way through to the water's edge in a few places, only to find a sheer cliff straight down to the water.  Not ideal!  So for a while my casts were limited to 5 or 6 small areas where I could safely reach the water.  I hadn't seen a sign of any fish but as I continued downstream, scanning the water as I wandered, I glimpsed something which stopped me in my tracks.

At the head of a deep, shady pool between two shallow sections I'd spotted a group of seven or eight big chub basking near the surface.  I dropped to my knees amongst the tall dry grass and Himalayan balsam as I racked my brain for other explanations of what I thought I saw.  As I peered over the foliage I fully expected to see only an empty pool but the fish were definitely fish and they were still there, seemingly unaware or unperturbed by my presence.

What's more is that not only were there seven or eight fish, as I looked more carefully I could make out many more - over twenty in total, all between 4lb and 6lb+ - and beneath them were a few big barbel scattered around.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing, it was by far the largest group of specimen fish I had ever laid eyes on.  As I watched, several individual fish drifted away from the main group, into the sanctuary of overhanging trees and then back again.  Therein laid the problem!

This swim was impossible to fish!  In the near margin a fallen tree laid parallel to the bank from the top of the swim to halfway down.  An Alder was growing on my bank, right in the middle of the swim and from there downstream there was a sheer drop of around 9 feet down to the water.  This was the only fishable place in the swim, but it was already beyond halfway down the pool and I would be in an extremely exposed position, guaranteed to spook the shoal especially when it came to landing a fish.  That is if I could steer a fish away from the near-margin snag or even cast far enough upstream thanks to the tree in the way!  Needless to say, the fish would have the upper hand.

I thought things through  and decided that if I could reach the gravel shallows above the deep hole, I could fish down towards the shoal and confidently steer any hooked fish upstream away from the snags.  I crawled upstream to see if my theory would be possible but alas, the main channel was a couple of strides from my bank and - critically and frustratingly - this channel was about 6 inches deeper than my thigh waders were high!

With that theory out of the window I wrote off the swim as completely unfishable.  Instead I decided to make the most of the spectacle by seeing if I could get the shoal feeding or if they would spook and disappear.  I crept into a position where I could see most of the shoal, but remain hidden by the Alder, tentatively threw five or six casters upstream of the shoal and waited.  I was delighted to see more than one fish move straight towards the falling bait and intercept them.  Of this first handful, I think 2 or 3 casters made it past the fish but from then on almost everything I introduced into the swim was taken.  After a few minutes I decided I'd better save my bait for swims I could actually fish, so I reluctantly halted the introduction of free offerings, slowly backed away from the swim and continued my search downstream.
Impossible clear water swim full of specimen chub and barbel on the Derbyshire Derwent
The "Impossible" swim!  (Apologies for my sketchy sketching!)

It took me almost 2 hours to battle through the undergrowth in my waders.  Parts of the stretch hadn't seen a human this season and I was literally pounding a trail through.  Unfortunately I didn't find too many areas to pique my interest and having only put bait into 3 or 4 swims well upstream, I wondered what my next move should be.  During the long walk back to the van to swap my lure tackle for my quivertip & float tackle I decided to fish these swims on rotation as I walked back downstream.

Nothing happened after an hour of casting a swimfeeder at the top of the swim and trotting below it and I had a nagging feeling about the"unfishable" swim full of feeding fish that I'd left earlier.  Eventually I could take it no more and ventured down to the swim to see if the fish were still there and, more importantly, to see if I could work out a way to catch one.  I was certain that if I caught a single fish it would spook the shoal.  But with several of the fish appearing to be potential PBs, I reasoned that it would be worth a try in case that one fish was one of the biggies.

When I arrived at the swim the fish were still there and a couple of pouchfulls of casters were soon being picked off by specimens.  Soon I introduced hemp and a few pellets and these too were taken gladly.  I continued to feed for almost an hour and got more and more excited as I watched the fish gain in confidence and I gradually worked the shoal downstream as far as I could.  The odd particles that reached the riverbed were hoovered up by competing barbel, but due to the size of the chub and the near-margin snags it was the chub I wanted to target.  As these were within a few inches of surface, and I could only flick a rig fractionally above the fish, so any float stem protruding beneath the surface was sure to spook them.  In an ideal world I would have used a blob of floating putty to give me the weight to flick a bait towards the fish with minimal disturbance.  However, I had none in my light stalking bag so I had to improvise.

In one of my bits pouches I found a small hardwood float I'd been given and used once.  It's designed to be fished shallow on stillwaters and is designed to be shot-free, so it's self-cocking.  A tiny swivel is held to the float body by a silicone sleeve, so I removed this and used the silicone to hold the float in place at a depth of around 6 inches.  I pinched 2 small Stotz onto the line between float and hook and fished straight-through to a strong size 16 specimen hook.

I was sure I'd only get one shot at a fish and if I screwed up the cast the chance would be gone.  As it turned out my first cast landed in the perfect spot but I didn't check my line quickly enough and as it fell it looped over a branch on the dead tree.  I left it as long as I dared before flicking my rod tip and freed the line and then I watched as a good chub approached the bait and then turned away at the last moment.  The bait moved downstream of the fish and I had to reel in, cringing as I waited for the fish to move off.  They hung around but before I could make another cast there was a commotion in the middle of the swim.  A large pike had appeared and taken a swipe at one of the chub on the edge of the shoal!  Disaster, or so I thought, but as the pike skulked back to the streamer weed bed it appeared from I noticed that the majority of the chub were still present.

I fed them a few lots of free offereings before I dared make another cast and although experience meant I missed the dead tree this time, the same thing happened with a chub which was interested and then not.  Sensing my luck was running out I added a couple of inches of depth to the rig, to allow the bait to flutter and fall more naturally.  This was the change I needed to make, as a chub approached from downstream and nabbed the bait, hook and all!

A subtle wind-down was required, rather than a full-on strike, for me to stand any chance of not spooking the other fish.  It worked in the sense that the chub didn't charge around the swim; it flopped around instead and allowed me to shuffle to the exposed spot where I could ship my landing net down towards the water, in full view of every other fish.  My chub was safely netted and to my surprise most of the other fish still seemed to ignore my presence.

Upstream I found a spot where I could reach the river to rest the chub in the net whilst I set up my camera gear and hurriedly weighed and photographed the fish.  At 4lb 10oz it was a good way from being a PB, it was far from one of the largest in the shoal, but I have never worked harder for a single chub and the sense of achievement was immense.
A 4lb 10oz Chub stalked amongst a caster & hemp feeding frenzy on a crystal-clear river Derwent
I had landed a fish from the "unfishable" swim but after the entertainment the fish in this swim had given me, landing anything was a bonus.  I truly felt privileged to witness such a large congregation of big fish feeding confidently in such crystal clear water.

When I returned to the swim the chub had vanished but a few barbel remained, grubbing around in the gravel.  I decided to push my luck and try to land one and quickly setup the quivertip rod with a link leger and hook with a single banded pellet.  Within a couple of minutes of flicking it out a barbel picked the bait.  This time it knew what was going on and made for the snag before I had chance to get far enough downstream to stand any chance.  I felt it bump through several submerged branches and I knew I was fighting a losing battle, but when the line parted my conscience was allieviated slightly by knowing my simple rig should cause the fish few problems.

It was then I knew it was time to move on and I headed to a snag swim that I'd pre-baited earlier.  From here I landed a 9lb 5oz barbel as darkness fell and I chanced one last move back to the "impossible" swim.
The reason for my return is that I thought with the cover of darkness I could fish farther downstream, up on the high bank which left me so exposed in daylight.  That way I had an immediate advantage to bring the fish downstream away from the snags.  I would think about how to land the fish if and when I got that far!

Sure enough, fish were still feeding in the swim.  Within quarter of an hour I missed a bite, which must have been a chub.  Minutes later the rod wrenched round again and a barbel outwitted me in the darkness and just made it to the tip of a branch on the fallen tree.  I knew this would be my last cast before home, so I turned on my headlamp.  The fish was visible beneath the surface and if I could have reached the branch with my landing net pole (I had the Drennan Super Specialist extending 3 metre handle at full stretch!) I could have freed it but it was 2 feet beyond reach.  I tried pulling from as many angles as possible.  I even tried lowering myself down to stand on the snag but my hand holds were giving way and I ran out of options.  In the end the barbel pulled itself free and left my hook in the branch, proving that - for barbel at least - this swim really was impossible.  And unsafe!