We’re now getting to the time of year where most pack up their fishing gear until the spring â€“ some will get out in February for some strong spring salmon (or even January on some West Country rivers), but others are unlikely to get out until the trout season starts in March, or when the fish become catchable on the dry fly sometime into April.
There is however some excellent sport to be had during this reputedly slow period. My choice of sport over the winter, in no particular order;
Pike on deadbaits
If you haven’t experienced this, or enjoyed the sport of catching pike at all, I highly recommend it. It is not something to be done sitting down like I often see, it’s too cold for that as far as I’m concerned. Don a pair of neoprene wellies, and get down to your nearest pike fishery (I favour rivers), take a set of snap tackle, a stout rod and reel and get fishing a smelt or similar and start ‘wobbling’ it past the reeds and other underwater hiding places. Don’t forget a decent net and a pair of forceps to unhook the fish.
Please also be aware that despite their mean looks, the pike is a delicate fish in its mouth area, so take great care to return him unharmed â€“ unless you happen to be fishing a location where the owner does not want them returned. If so, kill your quarry quickly, and make sure you eat them. They are delicious, but you must take great care to remove the line of pin bones from the fillet. Lay the fillet skin side down, and using a sharp knife cut out a thin section along the pin bones. This will leave you with 4 bone free fillets per fish. A delicate white fish (particularly when it has been feeding on a diet of trout) which goes well with any butter sauce.
Grayling are highly under rated. Some of my most enjoyable fishing trips have been to the welsh Dee, where I have been lucky enough to catch fish to around 3lbs. They are a shoaling fish, and when you find them you can have some great sport. They are very obliging with their rising as well â€“ they can be caught on the dry fly during short windows of sunshine and relative warmth in the deepest of winter.
If dry flies are not appropriate at the time, one of my favourite methods is using heavy leaded nymphs (or Czech nymphs) and fishing them upstream with a large strike indicator. In the cold winter, fishing deep and even sometimes snagging the bottom can bring results. If you are an inquisitive fisherman, the technique of Czech nymphing could be practised. Using a longer than usual rod, and a team of very heavy flies, the line is ‘plonked’ using a flip of the rod 10ft or so upstream. Fish will often take on the tips of your toes. Neoprene waders are definitely recommended for this.
As a side note, fishing for grayling out of the trout season can often be had on some of the famous chalk streams for comparably little money. It is worth fishing these if you have never had the chance to do so. The most unlikely things happen on rivers when they are quiet and devoid of trout anglers â€“ I caught a grilse on the Wiltshire Avon one November when nymphing for grayling.
Pier fishing for whiting
Whiting are a member of the cod family, and appear in great numbers on much of our coastline over the winter. I gather they are starting to come in now around the south coast, and I am getting my boat ready for tackling them. I have a Shetland 535, a venerable old vessel with a small outboard that provides me access to all sorts of fishing over the year. The whiting fishing, however, is somehow quite rewarding. It goes hand in hand with pheasant shooting for me, being the same time of year and an opportunity to fill the freezer for later in the year.
The whiting is an obliging little character, a fish of around 2lbs being quite reasonable. They eat very well, and can be caught either from the shore or boat in bagfuls. They are free feeding, with worm and squid baits being quite effective where I fish.
It is a good opportunity if you haven’t done much sea fishing, as no special equipment or long casting is really required. Get to your local pier with a rod capable of handling 3 or 4oz leads, size 1 hooks and a few packets of lugworms and get catching. There can be quite some camaraderie on these piers, with helpful tips being shared, and no doubt if you took a hip flask of sloe gin to hand around you’d know how to catch them by the end of the day! 4 small, fresh fillets tossed in flour and cayenne, fried in butter and served in fresh baps with tartare sauce (and ketchup!) make a great dinner.
Trotting a worm along a pretty, snow covered river
It doesn’t matter what the quarry is, doing this makes me feel like I am ten again. It is what I grew up doing on the river Blackwater, and the feeling is intensified when there is snow all around and I can barely manage to stay out for more than a couple of hours. No doubt it’s not the most productive time of year to be fishing, but it is the most magical.
Those of you who have only fly fished man and boy have really missed out, and I urge you to give it a go. Get a cheap float fishing set up, with a 10 or 12ft rod, a fixed spool reel loaded with 4lb line (use an old Mitchell if you have one), and rig it with a heavy balsa float, lead shot to take the worm down to near the bottom, and a juicy big worm on a hook.
There is nothing close to the time when that float bobs under in the current, you tighten up and bingo! Landing a 4lb winter chub, or a barbel (I am told â€“ I have never had the fortune), is worth every minute of finding those worms under the snow.
I hope the opportunities above have whet your appetite for a bit of winter fishing. We may not have year round sun in this country, but what we do have is seasons, and for the life that the change between them evokes in me, and the variety it provides, I am supremely grateful.