They were definitely bream. I first noticed them on my way back to the car after a particularly successful afternoon with the barbel and chub.
I had actually run out of bait, reduced to searching for a few casters amongst the trodden down reeds and then ferreting about in my box for anything that might be hookable, I had finally given up and packed up earlier than usual. Begrudgingly I left the swim still apparently heaving with feeding fish and made my slow way back through the fields.
So it was late afternoon when I spotted the tight little shoal of bream. They were mooching about in a fairly wide, shallow area and nowadays wouldn’t probably raise too much interest. But back in 1979 they were a bit of a novelty on this part of the middle Avon. I had netted a couple of slabs from Ibsley weir pool whilst barbeling but generally they were fairly scarce. So it was really just mild curiosity as I stood and watched. There were about a dozen fish perhaps up to around 3lbs/4lbs just gliding in and out of the weed and occasionally, as a group, turning downstream and then eventually returning to the same general area. I soon left them to it, not really thinking of anything other than planning my next assault on the ravenous barbel and chub.
The following afternoon, armed with several pints of caster and hemp, I walked as fast as I could to the barbel swim. A short pause en route revealed the bream were not at home so onward to the awaiting bonanza. As it happens, it was not quite as good as the previous afternoon but there were still plenty of barbel averaging about 4lbs willing to feed. Great fun trotting down the Avon with a centrepin. This time I packed up just as the sun was getting lower, not because of lack of bait but my rod arm was aching like mad.
Repeating the journey of the previous day, I stopped and looked, they were back. Perhaps only about 8 or 9 fish now but in roughly the same area. I set the gear down and decided to do a bit of fish watching. After a few minutes I got the catapult out and flicked a few casters upstream. Not a flicker! I kept a few casters trickling through for about 10 minutes and eventually saw a couple of fish turn as they seemed to react to the freebies. Then one slowly rolled over, hardly breaking the surface, but revealing a big dark back and very scarlet fins! It didn’t immediately register but then I realised it was a roach and a very big roach at that! Then another rolled, and another. For about 5 minutes the shoal just performed to perfection as the surface was gently rocked with big oily swirls and red fins. Not sure if it was the casters or just the late evening conditions that prompted such a display but it was an amazing site which I’ve never again witnessed.
Now I was in a bit of a quandary. I desperately wanted to give these roach a go but the light had faded fast and we were supposed to be off the water before sunset. Luckily (!) the decision was made for me as the River Keeper appeared with the fateful words “I see you’ve found the roach then”. He had seen the car in the car park and had come to look for the errant angler. Smiling and definitely reading my thoughts, he said “Come back tomorrow, they’ll still be here”.
On the walk back he told me those roach had been in and around the area for a few weeks and generally turned up most years. “But they’re huge and some will be over 2lbs for sure” said I. He almost laughed “Yeah! If it’s only the small ones you’re after”. We stood in the car park and chatted for ages. My mind was racing and all thoughts of barbel and chub had disappeared. I was frustrated that I had missed two opportunities to fish for those roach, would they still be there tomorrow? What the River Keeper had failed to tell me was that “tomorrow” was a shoot day and that part of the river was closed. I only found out as I drove into the farm yard car park to be met with a dozen or so “guns” waiting to head out into the fields. More frustration!
So it was three days later when I bent the rules slightly and started the long walk about 45 minutes early. The “wides” looked good, nice and calm with just a hint of an upstream wind that made it perfect to run a float through. It took a while but I eventually saw a couple fish of about 3lbs, but I didn’t want chub! Where the hell were those roach? Had I missed the opportunity? I spent a couple of hours just wandering up and down that short stretch, spooked a pheasant from the bankside bushes that very nearly gave me a heart attack and spotted a decent double figure pike obviously about to ambush my roach. Then I saw them, back in the same spot and just lazily holding position in the flow. How is it fish can just materialise out of nowhere and just as quickly melt away?
The plan was to fish with my version of a home made Trent Trotter, a short bulbous chunk of balsa attached bottom end only with either single or double caster on the hook. My reasoning was based on the relatively shallow depth, bulk shot around the float would make casting accurately a doddle and when retrieving/striking, the float would collapse through the water with minimum disturbance. And anyway it was then one my favourite shallow water float fishing methods! I also reasoned that I could try and feed the roach into a long gravel glide between the weeds. I would loose feed a few casters and a bit of hemp to try and manoeuvre the fish into a more accessible spot. So over a period of about 45 minutes I frequently catapulted small helpings of caster and just watched. It worked, of sorts. Two or three fish had worked themselves into position towards the end of the run and occasionally showed interest in the freebies. Time to fish.
I soon found the range and was fishing pretty well but the roach would not co-operate. They were still there and didn’t appear to be spooked in anyway. I kept the trickle of casters going in at regular and frequent intervals and the two or three pathfinders were occasionally joined by a couple of their brethren. I tried a couple of pinches of flake and then punched bread but that failed to provoke a response as well. I didn’t expect it to be easy but this was proving to be a frustrating challenge. The fish seemed to be quite settled and occasionally appeared to intercept the odd caster. So I continued to concentrate and fish hard.
Then it happened. At the end of another perfect but fruitless trot I lifted the rod to start the retrieve and felt a resistance. The water erupted as a very decent brown trout leapt clear and headed for the far bank. It wasn’t long before we parted company and I was left with what appeared to be a barren swim. I was not happy! But I still had a couple of hours left so, after a short walk, I started to feed the swim again.
I was surprised when a couple of the roach reappeared, still looking quite undisturbed by the recent commotion so I concentrated hard. Then on about the third trot through the float just disappeared and I lifted into what at first felt like the weed. But then it kicked and started to move away. A very splashy swirl revealed it was what I was after. The roach actually came to the net quite quickly and just lay in the mesh as I dropped the rod (threw it aside more like!). It certainly looked huge and was definitely my heaviest from the Avon. Out came the scales and they very satisfyingly settled on 2lbs 6oz. It seemed to me to be quite a lot different from some of the big roach I had been fortunate to net from the Stour. This one was superbly proportioned with a very dark upper body and back but with truly scarlet fins. I had my keepnet with me but decided it would go straight back, so walked a few yards upstream and let it swim away from the margin.
I had a very smug grin on my face as I returned to the swim and started to trickle in the caster again. Several roach were there again but the failing light was making it difficult, the good old “just one more cast” syndrome then took over. Really straining to see the float, it was obviously more luck than judgement when I lifted into another roach. This one tipped the scales at 1lb 14oz, still a superb fish but definitely the baby of the shoal. By the time I had slipped that one back, it was time to pack up but I was very happy with my efforts and quite confident of coming back very soon to try and sort out its bigger mates.
But it was not to be! On my return two days later, not a roach to be seen. Again, the next weekend, not a sign. I returned several times over the following weeks and although conditions often seemed perfect, I never did see those roach again. Over the next couple of years I did land two more fine roach with the heaviest going 2lbs 10oz, from around that area but both were among big nets of chub and “caught by accident”. Interestingly, I later found out, a friend of mine fished almost exclusively for big roach around that area and time and managed three 3lbers and several over two, but he did put in an awful lot of effort and hours. Also, nearly 25 years later, just a mile or two downstream at Ibsley, Colin Gilson had that amazing brace of roach of 3lbs 15oz and 3lbs 08oz. Now they were BIG roach!