Trotting for Big Chub - Eddy Widdup has a Nightmare on the Dorset Stour
Eddy Widdup analysises a Christmas session on the Dorset Stour where not everything went quite according to plan; but out of despair often comes enlightenment
Over Christmas I had an image of glory in my head: of a nicely bending rod and a thumping great chub gracing my net, of self-take pictures with me grinning madly and holding yet another chub of enormous proportions. It happens every year after all doesn't it? Well, I felt sure it did at least.
My Christmas chubbing is a tradition for me; well sort of a tradition at least. I certainly fish for chub over the Christmas break but catching is another matter; I’m positive I must have caught at some point, surely, otherwise why was I getting so excited about it?
I clung to these positive thoughts like a child would cling to blanket after watching a particularly scary episode of Doctor Who. Come what may I had Friday off from the world and I had a feeling that it was going to be a great day. My luck would be in, I just knew it. It had to be...Didn't it? Oh please let my luck be in. Please...
So, with increasing disquiet I bought four pints of maggots, some olivettes and some size 18 hooks and rushed home from my girlfriends. I ignored the dog wanting to go for a wee and began the process of finding my trotting gear but this was not as easy as I had first hoped; it was buried deep in the huge and ever increasing mountain of rods, bags and various poles that dominate much of my personal space.
Eventually, I had set up my 15 foot float rod, dug out a feeder rod (just in case), remembered to find an umbrella and sorted out the right floats from my float drawer. I have a drawer especially for floats (it even has partitions!); I also have one for feeders, one for carp gear, yet another for reels, fly-fishing stuff, even one filled with lures.
Although this makes me sound organised it should also be said that every single one has tangles of old line, mouldy bait, assorted bait box lids and the ever present random split shot kicking about the bottom. There must come a time in every angler’s life when they decide to do a ‘sort out’. I have been procrastinating so long I am beginning to wonder what I might find in the bottom of some of my least explored recesses.
It was gone ten by the time I had finished my military-like preparation. I was a happy bunny and rewarded myself by watching a film with a beer and some chocolate. As it turns out watching Harry Potter until one in the morning was a bad idea. It meant I slept in - again.
I arrived at the School Bridge car park at Throop at around 9.30am, out of breath, needing a wee and feeling slightly over dressed in my full waterproofs and from the very start my plan started to unravel.
Firstly, the swim/area I was planning to fish had been taken. I only found this out after I had walked the 200 yards upstream and then had to turn around and walk back.
Secondly, I had made a classic error and taken far too much gear. I was sweating profusely by the time I got back to the bridge, I still needed a wee badly and I had to fight with two gates to get to the other side of the track.
My second choice of swim was a less popular one but a swim that has done me proud down the years. Unfortunately, it is another 300 yards away and I was beginning to regret the late night and recent lack of exercise.
I nearly collapsed when I finally arrived; I took off both my waistcoat and my fleece to try and cool down a little but steam was coming off my damp shoulders and I was seeing stars, such was the effect of several days of drinking and fags in front of the telly.
At last, however, I was able to get the most pressing demand out of the way and the sigh that I let out when I was finally able rid myself of this morning’s tea was a very loud one."AAAAAAAAAAAAH!" I said to the world in general and felt quite pleased with myself.
My plan was a good one, or so I thought. I was going to trot maggot under a loafer float, a technique that has caught me more than a few winter chub from the Stour. It's a great way of fishing - enthralling, exciting and aggressive. It keeps me active and discourages complacency and laziness traits which, to be fair, tend to dominate my non fishing life. There, I’ve said it, don't tell my missus.
Trotting maggots for big chub is a delicate balancing act between presentation and the size of fish you are after. Like all chub the Stour fish can be very cagey at times and little things make all the difference. The best way to illustrate this is with hook size. Believe it or not, you sometimes have to fish with a size 22 just to get bites! If you fished with a size 16 all day you may not get a single dib of the float.
The same is true with hook length diameter, the finer the better in the chubs’ mind and I generally use 0.10mm line as a starting point (2lb in old money). This obviously presents a major problem when you consider that Throop chub average around 5lb this time of year!
Needless to say playing a big fish, in heavy winter flow, on this gear is a battle of attrition and the smallest mistake by the angler can lead to lost fish. It really tests your finesse and skill to breaking point; not least because a lost fish is ten times worse for your swim then a netted one. But, to be fair, it is why I love this style of fishing, I like the no room for error type stuff - well, most of the time anyway.
After I had got my breath back, had a biscuit and fed the swim for fifteen minutes, I was ready for the first cast of the day.
Now I should say at this juncture I was doing things slightly differently to normal. For one I was using an olivette rather than bulk shot and I wanted to try this as with bulk there is always the danger of the fine line getting wrapped up in between the large shot and potentially leading to lost fish. A big olivette did mean I only had one shotting pattern but I reasoned this was less important than the depth I fished it, or the line I trotted. I tend to use just one bulk anyway so the 4.5g olivette was actually a far neater rig.
The other change I made was using a reel with a very high retrieve ratio. Here I reasoned that it would be easier to crank the float back from 30 yards and would mean I spent more time fishing. Such was my confidence I did not take time to think that this may not have been such a good idea; I had done this all before and thought I knew best. "Go on Eddy!" I said, exuding over-confidence "Let's catch some chevin."
The first half hour was quiet but I knew there were fish there; in a swim like this one there just had to be. It is a wonderful glide of about four feet in depth, around twenty five yards long and has trees and reeds on the far bank. It finishes in a wider section with an area of almost zero flow. I know the chub like to hang out around that area and the plan was that I was going to draw them out with constant feeding.
As I sent the float downstream I thought about the day I first stumbled across this swim.
It was a busy Throop Sunday and everywhere else was taken by sullen, blanking anglers. I arrived late, as usual, and had to walk about trying to find a place to run a float through when I found this little glide, known locally as ‘Stackers’, I figured I had walked too far already and decided it was a nice enough looking spot for an hour or so.
As it turned out I really had it off that day, landing fifteen and bumping four; the biggest was 6lb 9oz and two more were over the magic, albeit artificial, 6lb barrier. The total weight must have been well over 60lb if not closer to 70lb and the only reason I stopped fishing was because I ran out of bait. Understandably, I was overjoyed even if my poor arm ached for days after!
Suddenly, my daydreaming was shattered when the float shot under and my rod hooped. "Yep!" I said smugly and smiled like I was some kind of fishing guru but just as suddenly as the fish was on, it was off. It had turned downstream and given a couple of head shakes and low and behold the hook pulled.
"Ooooh..." I said, looking for words to summarise my feelings. I inexplicably settled with "Poo bags!"
I spent a moment of rueful reflection and had a fag. After every lost fish I find it's good for me to take a moment to reflect, to refocus my mind, definitely to get some nicotine on board and, possibly, to have a little cry.
Ten minutes later and I was smiling again. "Phew!" I said, glad the first fish hadn't spooked the rest of the shoal. I had this second fish on for a little longer, I even saw it kiting in the current, but when I tried to gain a little line - PING - off it came. This time I did not need to ponder what word to use. It began with F and rhymed with a member of the Anatine family.
Upon inspection I found that it was another hook pull; not going well this so I decided to rest the swim for ten minutes and just feed it. In past experience this not only gives the fish more confidence but it also lets me calm down a little. This is high stakes stuff and losing too many chub could mean near insanity on my part.
I also changed the hook pattern from a diamond bend 18 to a round bend 16. Why this little technical detail matters is anyone's guess. I just had a feeling that a round bend would mean better hook hold. And guess what?
Not twenty minutes had passed and I was suddenly into another fish. Despite it getting me into a weed bed mid river I was able to tease it out and after about five minutes of careful manoeuvring I had it beaten on the surface, I picked up the net and readied myself for a bit of scooping when...
This time the hook had straightened slightly. I threw my landing net away in disgust and punched the ground - hard. I am not normally prone to hissy fits but I had really worked hard at getting those three bites and I was now utterly livid with myself. There was something happening here that does not normally occur: one lost fish is just fishing, two in a row is bad luck, THREE! Well then it’s something I'm doing wrong.
It was all too much for me and I decided to take a break from fishing and go for a walk with the binoculars and indulge myself in some calming bird watching. It's far less frustrating and usually does not involve much punching; it also gave me a chance to think about what was happening.
Fifteen minutes later I was just watching some little grebes on the opposite bank when I heard a deep croaking noise. It sounded like a frog pleading to be let out of a dustbin but when I looked up I saw a pair of ravens calling to each other as they flew over the estate. These were the first ravens I had seen at Throop and they proved to be a real highlight of the day. Interestingly, I had already noted the number of Corvids about and had seen all the other five species which reside around the Stour. Thinking about it subsequently that may well also have been the only time I have ever seen all six ‘normal’ crows in one day, so it was worth the break from that fishing madness. This, I decided, was a good omen and went back to the swim with a new plan and increased confidence.
I had thought about what was happening to the fish I was losing and decided that something fundamental was wrong. I regularly use those hook patterns and the rig and I was sure the fish were not that big, so why was the hook under so much strain?
It could only be one of two things:
1. I had become heavy handed at playing chub (quite possible) or
2. The reel I was using was just putting too much torque though to the hook hold.
With a 6.1:1 ratio I love that particular reel for waggler fishing but when it comes to gently teasing a big fish on light line, especially in strong flow, I felt it was just too over powered. Luckily though, I had put a twenty-year-old Shimano in the bag.
It is the reel I would usually use with this set up; the paint maybe chipped, the handle may squeak a little, but I love the thing like an old friend. It also has a much lower ratio and moreover it is very smooth at backwinding; this helps with my tendency to play a fish off both the clutch and backwind. Odd, I know but it’s the way I've always done it; a left over from when clutches on reels were... well, put it this way - they just weren't! So, I put on my trusty old buddy and carried on trotting.
It took a while until I got my next bite and this time the fish tore off downstream at a rate of knots. This said to me it was most likely a smaller fish as bigger fish tend to stay put once hooked. Unfortunately for me though, before I could properly react, it went through a weed bed and I felt a horrible grating on my line. Something had to give and this time the hook length was the weakest point.
After the earlier angry reaction I was beyond anymore outbursts; I just looked up the sky and laughed at my luck. I had obviously annoyed the river goddess somehow; perhaps she was getting back at me for two-timing with her big sister - the Avon.
After I had re-tied my hook link and had another cup of hot Ribena (Tip alert - it's really good and doesn't make your thermos flask smell), I was ready again.
Two trots later and the float went once more. This time the fish and the hook stayed together and all of that emotion started to build up again and my hand visibly shook as I played the fish carefully upstream.
Fights from chub on light gear are odd affairs. When you first strike you have to wait for a few seconds until you are sure it’s a fish and not just weed. Then, after a few thumps, the slow and rather dull process of slowly drawing the fish upstream begins. Believe me when I say it can take a while and it's not uncommon to have a fish on for over ten minutes as you keep the rod low to the water and ever so gently tease it towards you. Chub keep their mouths open when they fight and at times it’s like pulling a bucket up the current.
Five minutes later and the fish was just about ready; I reached for my landing net in readiness for that sudden relief of lifting mass but it was only then I realised something had gone badly wrong with my net handle – it was all floppy.
It so transpires that when I threw it away earlier I had managed to smash the bloody top section. That'll learn me hey? The fish, by this stage, was getting very close to netting so I had to slowly walk upstream to where my bigger, ‘just in case I hook a barbel’, net was. Amazingly the fish stayed on and with a massive cheer I engulfed a fine specimen of a Stour chub.
It was not 5lb but I decided to weigh it anyway, just out of interest more than anything else and it went 4lb 11oz. Not my biggest chub by a long way but definitely one of the hardest earned. Certainly one worth a picture - if only because of the pain I had been through!
Looking back I should have packed up there and then; but I continued to fish, trying to salvage some sort of pride out of the day. It began to rain quite hard and except for one more lost fish and a little chub of about 2lb the afternoon descended into periods of fishing and long waits, sheltering under my umbrella.
I had learned a lot though, and that was the important thing. I pondered this whilst sat under my umbrella, smoking and drinking lukewarm blackcurrant. It is days like these that are more important to me than days when all goes to plan. It is the hard lessons I learned that will be stored, and hopefully remembered, when I am next in a similar situation. The bad days keep me keen, and ready to do it all over again. Call me a masochist, call me a stubborn, called me Tracy on a Friday night, but for some reason I like putting myself through the grinder.
On the way back to the car I bumped into a chap I had had a brief chat with earlier.
He said, "The kiddie upstream had a good day."
"Oh yeah?" says the damp and out of breath version of me and I knew full well ‘the kiddie’ was the chap fishing where I had first wanted to go.
"Yeah, he had ten: three sixes and a seven."
And here lies the real lesson of the day. It was not the use of my old reel, that round bend hooks give a great hook hold or even that Ribena is nice hot.
It was this...
I REALLY MUST GET OUT OF BED EARLIER!