Mark Wintle, an angler for thirty-five years, is on a quest to discover and bring to you the magic of fishing. Previously heavily involved with match fishing he now fishes for the sheer fun of it. With an open and enquiring mind, each week Mark will bring to you articles on fishing different rivers, different methods and what makes rivers, and occasionally stillwaters, tick. Add to this a mixed bag of articles on catching big fish, tackle design, angling politics and a few surprises.

Are you stuck in a rut fishing the same swim every week? Do you dare to try something different and see a whole new world of angling open up? Yes? Then read Mark Wintle’s regular weekly column.

This week, Mark Wintle braves a very early wake-up call in the search for Fens in Dorset. He soon finds that overcoming the elements, weeds and weather has not all been in vain…

Fens in Dorset? Surely Dorset’s all rolling hills and chalk streams, not flat like Lincolnshire, Cambridge, parts of Somerset and those sort of places. Not quite. Though on a very small scale there are one or two little areas of very low flat ground criss-crossed by drains just like the real fens. And for those that know where to look there is some interesting fishing in waters that aren’t very big. We may lack the bream, and for the most part our drains hold just a few roach, rudd, eels and pike, but one drain holds a few tench. These areas of fen are usually near the tidal parts of the rivers. Those on the Stour mostly disappeared with land reclamation in the post-war years but the other rivers like the Avon, Frome, Piddle and Wey (as in Weymouth not Weybridge!) have these fens. Windswept, shallow and weedy, it takes confidence to fish such a water in the shadow of the nearby rivers. I’ve been asked many times why I’m not fishing the main river as passers-by fail to see that such a drain could contain any fish.

The water that I fish has held tench since the sixties at least. Who put them there is anyone’s guess, though I was around when a booster stocking was made in the early eighties. It holds loads of little rudd, roach and a few pike and there is also some perch and dace. The tench are on the small side by today’s standards. A four-pounder is cause for celebration; I’ve had a best of 5-8 from here but most are between two and three pounds. But in two feet of peaty water, with Norfolk reeds all around, the tentative and slow bites rapidly deteriorate into high speed slugging matches. To catch them is not difficult provided you are prepared for a dawn start. Evenings may produce the odd fish, and daytime is usually a complete waste of time though the roach will take caster fished in best canal style tradition. This section of drain was originally only about twelve feet wide but for two hundred yards or so, it was widened many years ago to provide soil to build up a flood bank for the adjacent river, a bit like a borrow pit. The forecast for the second Saturday of the season is for rain moving in by breakfast time after a cloudy, warm night. It was a case of setting the alarm for 3:45 and making sure all my gear was ready to go. Half a dozen slices of bread plus some brown crumb would be ample for groundbait.

Sunrise over the river – click for bigger picture.
It was still dark when I left the house to travel the deserted roads. The sky was cloudy and it felt warm and muggy as I walked down the riverside path to the drain. The sky was starting to light up in a vivid crimson sunrise. I quietly tackled up on the banks of the drain. The banks are soft peat and transmit vibrations easily. I selected a Normark Specimen Match rod coupled with six-pound line, a small peacock float and size 12 Drennan Carbon Chub hook. The float was set to just two feet deep with two no. 1 shot down the line to get the flake past the myriads of tiny rudd. I checked the depth so that the float is set about two inches over-depth and mixed some breadcrumb groundbait. The great thing about these tench is that they will quickly find your groundbait so location is not a problem and therefore you can fish in the middle of the narrow drain (it’s only about ten yards wide) without worrying whether you can cast accurately. I introduced four small balls of groundbait around the float, the hook now baited with a pinch of flake and settled down to wait. After just fifteen minutes, it started to rain a fine drizzle. The sunrise was still there so a red only rainbow resulted, something I’ve never seen before. By this time, two tench had already rolled near the swim so I remained confident that the tench would feed. Sure enough, by five o’clock the first patch of bubbles appeared by the float. Fifteen minutes later, the float slowly submerged. Do not be deceived by this. When you strike, the tench will hammer off, but you never know in exactly which direction. This first one decided to come straight towards me, making for the freestanding Norfolk reeds in the margins. I managed to keep a very tight line as this frantic fish tried to reach the safety of the reeds. It was on the small side for the drain, and I soon had him in the net, a dark, almost sooty, male tench of about two pounds. It looked an old fish, and one eye was missing yet healed up as an empty socket. The next one followed soon after and tried the same trick, getting stuck in the reeds. The six-pound line paid off and it came free, a female tench not much bigger than the first. The females are a more brownish colour in here. This one looked to have already spawned.

Perhaps I was over confident, for I was unprepared for the third fish. Again the slow, almost timid bite, followed by an unstoppable run at the far bank. This one made it into the Norfolk reeds near the far bank, and the tough stems cut my line.

A view of the swim – click for bigger picture.
One of the frustrations of fishing this water is knowing that the tench are feeding greedily and yet not getting bites. You can see two or three patches of bubbles around the float, and the float itself is being nudged around, even moving as the tench move through the swim but proper bites are few and far between. It’s a case of continuing to feed the swim sparingly with a small soft ball of groundbait from time to time, and hoping that eventually the tench will feed confidently. I can only remember one instance of the tench feeding avidly from first light, and that was many years ago on the first day of the season. On that occasion, I had my first tench when it was almost too dark to see the float, on my first cast and with five seconds of casting out. Much more usual, and this day seems to following the pattern, is for the tench to have a slow start for a couple of hours followed by a hectic ninety minutes or two hours, then abruptly ceasing to feed.

The other frustration is the attentions of the small rudd and roach. The tiny rudd are bad enough, as their favourite sport appears to be head-butting the tip of the float, but there is the added nuisance of the slightly bigger rudd and roach, fish that are often barely an ounce, nibbling the bait and once in a while managing to take it. Today was no exception. Until the tench really started to feed at around seven o’clock, I caught several of these tiddlers.

Until that time, I was able sit and relax, ever poised for a bite, and having to rebait every five minutes or so. There is an astonishing amount of bird life on these meadows, and no great surprise to learn that many of them are designated as SSSIs for that reason. As I sit there so still, reed warblers busy themselves feeding their young and the heron slowly flies past. I was up early today unlike the lark, which finally gets airborne just after six. With the teeming hordes of tiny rudd about, a kingfisher tries his luck from one of the overhanging willow branches.

After that, it was slow but steady fishing with a fish every fifteen minutes or so. I landed another five tench, mostly around three pounds with one nice fish of exactly four-pounds. When I hit each fish, the other feeding fish were disturbed, and sent great patches of bubbles to the surface. I tried to keep the fish being played away from the baited area, though it was not always possible.

The final catch, Seven lovely tench.
By eight thirty, I’d had enough. I was hungry, and the rain was starting to set in. After a quick shot of the tench on the now sodden grass, I packed up and walked back to the car park in the still barely awake town. My early alarm call had not been in vain after all, and I wonder if the weather had been a blessing rather than a hindrance. The more usual weather of a hot, bright morning would have meant a much shorter feeding spell, with sport, all but over by seven.

Fens in Dorset? They’re there if you look hard enough!