I grew up in an area where there were plenty of ponds within cycling distance, but the nearest rivers that were fishable were just a bit too far away. No-one in my family fished, so I had nobody to introduce me to river fishing, which meant that my early angling years were spent primarily beside stillwater, rather than flowing. This gave rivers a certain mystery, as I would catch glimpses of them on school trips (Monsal Dale and Dovedale), family days out (Matlock Bath, Newark, Tissington, Bakewell) or a fleeting vision from a car (the powerful Sawley weir, from the M1). Often I would see people fishing, or spot fish in the crystal clear waters and I felt drawn to these tranquil, serpentine venues that were, for the most part, out of my reach.
On the few occasions I was taken to fish a river something always seemed to happen (the ‘something’ was usually in the shape of an eel…). Whether it was catching new ‘firsts’ such as bleak and ruffe, which simply weren’t present in the ponds I fished, getting Stuart Pearce’s autograph when fishing the embankment, or almost losing rods through not paying enough attention; going river fishing always seemed more significant than going anywhere else, it was much more of an event.
The first time I got a taste of fishing a river was actually pretty early on, when I was maybe 7 or 8 and, in hindsight, far too inexperienced to even try. My friend Matt Liston had nagged his Granddad, Charlie, into driving us to fish the Trent. It was an exciting day for us because not only were we fishing a river but Charlie had bought us some maggots to use for the very first time. We’d heard stories of the Trent being full of fish and maggots were the wonder bait that all the adults used, which could catch anything that swam; far better than the bread and sweetcorn we’d previously been limited to using. So we were sure to have our best day yet, with fish after fish crawling over each other to get at our wriggly grubs.
I don’t know our exact location, and Charlie is sadly no longer with us to ask, but I’m sure it was somewhere in the vicinity of Kelham although I’ve never been able to find the place since! I remember the car being parked in a gateway near a pub and we walked a short distance across a field to the river. We probably shouldn’t have even been there, but as it turned out, that mattered very little.
The river was a raging brown mess, it must have rained heavily in the days before we went and the water was the colour we were used to at the local ponds, so I had no qualms setting up my telescopic rod that my dad had bought me on holiday a couple of years’ earlier. We didn’t plumb the depth, the float was probably set at a couple of feet, and a single maggot was attached to some extremely thick line dangling just beneath the surface in an angry, murky river – hardly the best presentation, but I knew no better so out it went.
I don’t recall if I’d read about trotting, if Charlie explained it a little to us, or if I just expected the float to stay where it landed, but I remember being shocked at how fast the float was moving in the raging current. In seconds the float was hugging the near bank downstream and I hadn’t even had a bite! This must have been because the fish were unaware we had maggots, so I reasoned that we should throw some in before the next cast. Out the float went again and within seconds it disappeared! The little rod buckled and my reel did something I wasn’t previously aware it could do, it started letting out line, the spool clicking as it went. The rod was almost wrenched from my hands, as Charlie shouted “Pike, you’ve hooked a pike!”. It was music to my novice ears and I clung on, in equal parts excited and scared that I’d hooked the most feared eating machine this side of Amity Island.
I daren’t even pull back against the leviathan – as it used the current to take almost all of what little line I started out with – I just clutched the rod as tight as I could and ran downstream along the bank, hoping one of the three of us would figure out what to do (we hadn’t even a landing net between us). The line inevitably parted, leaving me disappointed yet awestruck at what these river fish were capable of.
We didn’t stay long after that, I think Charlie realised we didn’t stand a chance, what with the river conditions and our inexperience, but we were smitten. On our first river session we’d hooked and lost A PIKE!
…Of course, it wasn’t a pike at all, Charlie knew that.
Whether it was a log, a plastic bag or what, we’ll never know, but it took me quite a few years before I realised that it wasn’t a fish I lost that day but it inspired us. We regaled classmates and other anglers with the story and that single day (well, few minutes really) on a river gave us the enthusiasm to keep on fishing, at a time when we usually blanked and could quite easily have lost interest. It also confirmed what bait we’d be using next time! I’m sure if Charlie was still around, he’d have a wry smile that his quick-thinking white lie had such an impact and is still remembered twenty-odd years later.
Once I could drive myself to venues, rivers became my main focus and will remain so for the foreseeable future. If I were to be given a choice between being able to fish only rivers, or fish every other type of water except rivers, there would be no contest. There is something alluring about their ever-changing nature, the surprises that pop up, the variety of wildlife, the scenic locations and the challenge that is as continually morphing as the humps, hollows and snags of the riverbed. River fishing holds a very special place in my heart and the beginning of a new season is always an exciting prospect.
This season I’ll continue to seek to get the best from the Derbyshire Derwent, Dove and, occasionally, the Trent. Last year I had my best summer of barbel fishing yet, so I’m looking to continue to refine and improve my technique for this hard-fighting species. I don’t think my approach needs any drastic changes, but I have some new alternative groundbait ingredients to experiment with and in the early weeks, when there’s most post-work daylight, I’m going to finally get around to trying for some barbel on the stick float. Something I’ve been meaning to have a go at for a few years, but never seem to get around to.
I was looking through some old fishing photos recently and I realised that my chub PB has stood for a decade this November, so I’m going to put some effort into locating and hopefully capturing that elusive six-pounder. My barbel tactics have been so selective that I haven’t landed a single chub whilst barbel fishing over the past two seasons. This alone has meant little chance of upping my chub PB but I’d rather catch them by design than winch them in on barbel tackle anyway. All three of the aforementioned rivers are easily capable of producing 6lb plus fish and I’ve heard of ‘sevens’, so with a bit of refinement and focus, a really big chub could be on the cards.
During the late winter months this year, I landed my biggest perch from the Derwent for a few years and I feel that my first four-pounder cannot be too far away. River pike (real ones, not fictitious maggot-eating ones!) still get my pulse going like no other fish and after a couple of poor winters of my own piking, I’ll be going back to the drawing board to set that right this winter. A 20lb plus fish from a river is still a target of mine, but pike fight so well in moving water that as long as I’m catching, I don’t really care what size they are. My final predator goal for the season will be to land my first Trent double-figure zander. I put in a few short sessions last year with nothing to show for my efforts, so as the autumn draws in I’ll be heading out with the zed rods, first with the aim to catch any zander and then to catch a biggie!
Lastly, if the mass hysteria of the wider angling fraternity about otter populations has any basis on fact, then I might finally fulfil my ambition to come face to face with my first otter in British waters!