Ending the season at the Crabtree Peg

Towards the end of a frustrating winter river fishing season, Andy Burt headed south for an end of season session on the chalk streams and rivers of his youth, a session which threw up some surprises amongst the difficult weather conditions...

As any of us that fish rivers are well aware, this has been an atrocious winter for fishing – usually, my favourite time of year. The frustrating waves of wind and rain kept spoiling my plans, but I need that fix. Wind and rain, high river, low river, cold river, dirty river, it doesn’t matter I need a fishing fix.

I have in the last few years reignited my winter fishing returning to the southern chalk streams and rivers I fished in my youth. There are three things about these rivers I find alluring. Firstly, they usually are fishable. They are short with small catchments that do not often colour the river as heavy rain in the midlands might colour my local River Avon for example.

These chalk streams are relatively shallow, on hard ground and fed from the hills, so they run swiftly, this makes running a float down them a dream. Unusually it is common to find little variation in the flow right across the river. This kind of river fishing is busy, and you are constantly engaged with what you are doing and time flies.

Last, and this is what I find most appealing when the float goes under, or the tip goes round, you really cannot be sure what has taken the bait. It has become part of my fishing wish list every winter to visit these venues, and I want to share my last visit south in 2020.

River Fishing Chalk Stream Fed Rivers
A near 2lb grayling, a great species that can be most obliging in the coldest of conditions

At the end of February, there appeared no respite from the constant wind and rain, the season’s end threatened a damp squib. Second from the last weekend of February (probably the last weekend most anglers would choose), sees a few club members getting together, staying over, having a few days fishing, a great time and a few beers! The venue varies, but it’s always in Dorset or Hampshire, and we stay overnight in Portsmouth.

As our chosen dates neared I kept a close eye on the weather, we had experienced some pretty awful conditions in the last few months, things looked touch and go, but I was desperate not to cancel, doomed to a weekend back home, probably shopping. The weekend neared, and a couple dropped out, the forecast was gale force winds, the river was out of its banks in places but experience and hope (to be honest, more hope), said it would all be OK.

We rocked up at 8 am after the statutory full English and looked at the river. It raged under the bridge we had just driven over, swollen from the heavy rain the forecast failed to predict, we got out of the car and headed straight back to the bridge to assess the conditions. I stared into the water trying to perceive how far into it I could see a falling bait and hoping I didn’t see clouds of silt that would surely mean we would struggle.

I have a mental calculator that compares, river level, falling or rising, predicted to rise? Turbidity to flow, allows for species, takes into consideration water temperature; air temperatures falling/rising, frosts and daylight, then churns me out an answer;

  1. Spot on!
  2. Looks OK
  3. Should have a few
  4. We are going to struggle
  5. Computer says don’t bother but bear in mind you will be dragged out shopping so fish anyway

I don’t believe weather exists in this country that is too inclement to go fishing in, a belief that has not always paid off but when it has, the rosy glow inside and satisfaction knowing I have triumphed, makes me feel sorry for those who give it a miss. On this day the mental calculator churned out a four, I desperately reassessed the conditions thinking of a few swims and trying to persuade the rest of the party who had arrived we had not wasted our time, I adjusted the figure to a three. Then we all set off to see what the day held.

Although the colour did not appear to be too bad and importantly I could not see billowing clouds of silt, finding a swim with some steady water you could visualise the fish sheltering in, eluded me. They had to be somewhere though. It was mildish despite a gale-force wind, and they would surely want to feed?!!!

I chose a swim I had always had some great fishing in, a sweeping bend ending as the river shallows and a large old beech tree looms over, we call it the Crabtree peg. Unsurprisingly, it did not look in the best condition; it was quite fast, to say the least, and swirled around a fair bit. I usually have one rod with a 6g bolo; maggots are not allowed on this venue, so bread flake or sweetcorn is on the hook. My tactic would on a typical day, be simple, a ball of liquidised bread containing a few bits of corn is thrown towards the middle to two-thirds across and the float set to accompany it with a bit of flake or a couple of pieces of corn on the hook.

River Fishing Chalk Stream Fed Rivers
The Crabtree Peg

Bites are ordinarily quick to come but today was not normal. I fed and fished closer in where the water was steady, but nothing. I resisted the urge to put a feeder out, not least because it would be a struggle to hold bottom, and my confidence in the conditions being fine meant my larger leads were 100 miles away in the shed. The main problem that faced me was where my feed was going to end up due to the fast pace and swirling river flow. It was hard work putting the float through as well. Confidence probably catches more than any other facet in angling. I knew the fish were there, and I knew the colour was not that bad so the fish should see the bait in good time, all the other mental calculator factors said, you should catch.

After about an hour, I had narrowed my choice of where and how to fish to one line about three quarters over. The river was fast but did not appear too boily. I would put some bread slightly up the river on that line and visualised it falling through the water on its way down the peg. I love fishing like this as it is so positive, eventually, the float buried, and a nice chub found its way to my net. After about half an hour several more, plus a few brown and sea trout joined it before I pushed my luck too far, catching the line in the beech tree and losing the lot! I fished the feeder for a bit, adding a couple of small chub before moving up the river.

My next swim was more sedate just above a weir. Not usually prolific, today it offered some respite and an easy hour or two especially as it was well-sheltered from the wind. I had a nice brown trout of 7lb on the float and then fished the feeder hoping one of the big roach would take my bait. Instead, it was grabbed by a cracking 5lb 12oz chub – my biggest of the season. Already the adjustments to the fishing computer had proved to be quite accurate. Another move and then all too soon the day was over. Fortunately, we were staying overnight, and another day was on the cards. This was in a slightly different area, and hopefully, the best was saved for last.

River Fishing Chalk Stream Fed Rivers
5lb 12oz chub, my best of the season.

Breakfast, Saturday 22nd Feb, we were all sat down looking out of the window, the hotel waitress walked in as we were laughing at someone struggling outside as the coat they were holding was being held horizontal by the wind. “Going for a nice walk on the beach” she enquired with a smile. “No, we’re going fishing”, she stared at us thinking we had out sarcasm’d her. She stared at us, stared out the window, looked at us, it dawned we were serious; “you’re going fishing” she reiterated as to make it sound rational. “Yep” we said, “see you later” and off we went leaving her bewildered.

We rocked up at the venue. There was a good turnout with only two shying off in the end. The river level had changed little from the previous day although it had appeared to have coloured up a bit from some heavy overnight rain that continued to throw up the odd, most unwelcome, heavy shower. We all had a chat, and I repeated the 6lb 12oz chub story a few times then we went our separate ways. I had chosen a swim I had never fished before but fancied, below the weir there were a few eddies behind the sluices and a bend producing a slack area and then a small stretch of river where although the pace would change, even the direction would change, it didn’t seem to boil too much. This made it a lot easier to judge where your feed would end up and subsequently where to target the fish.

These rivers are a different beast from the ones I am more familiar with in the Midlands where it is usually essential to scale down on hook size and line diameter as much as you dare to catch consistently. I don’t believe, especially in the case of line diameter, for that to be as important on these rivers. For a start, through the winter they always seem to have at least a tinge of colour. You do not turn up, and the river has that dark, stagnant and dead look I am all too familiar with on our Midlands venues. The Warwickshire Avon, the Trent, The Severn and even the Wye all show this trend that tells you that you are going to struggle.

These southern chalk fed rivers do not seem to suffer this as they tend to be short, shallow for the large part and swift. It is because they have a bit of colour and pace they are more angler friendly. The river is not deep and awkward; the pace makes trotting and controlling the float easier and a joy. Importantly the fish are used to intercepting food coming down the river at them. It surprises me after years of being narrow-minded about how certain fish feed, just how many bream I catch on a piece of bread, trotted through a shallow and pacey bit of river I would usually dismiss these swims as a place to hold let alone catch bream on a float, especially in winter.

It is something I find common everywhere, and that is, if a fish is feeding a faster-moving bait is more likely to be taken as the fish has less time to inspect the bait and decide yes or no, this is most true of chub. With the variety and size of species present in these rivers, we can, therefore, fish to target say a roach or grayling, our tackle will also allow us to land a double-figure sea trout or in the case of Saturday 22nd Feb…….

As I was hoping to catch some of the large roach as well as the bream and chub, the setup needs to be versatile. I was fishing a relatively small but very strong hook, a size 10 Kamasan B920 tied to a 0.15mm hooklength with a 5lb mainline. Coupled with a Cadence CR10 Match 14ft #2 and a Cadence CS7 4000 reel, the setup is perfect for fishing sweetcorn, small or large bits of flake or bread punch. It’s perfectly balanced and a great allrounder with a rod that is great for catching decent sized roach or dace with enough power to subdue much larger fish.

I started with a chub about 4lb, then a trout before hooking something I quickly realised was big and neither of those. After about 5 minutes, I thought I knew what it was after, as it was still pulling back hard and hadn’t jumped out of the water, my thoughts were confirmed when I caught sight of it. It may sound counterintuitive but, in these circumstances, a much more powerful rod or one that locks up can prove disastrous as the fish will feel a solid resistance and bolt off. The steady progression of power in the blank allowed me to stay in control and within a few minutes, the carp was in my landing net, 16lb 10oz and living where it does there is no mud pig belly on it, a cracking looking fish! I later had another smaller carp about 8lb.

River Fishing Chalk Stream Fed Rivers
Common carp of 16lb 10oz

Aside from the carp I had a steady stream of roach to 1lb 11oz, more chub and some great hybrids that always fight well graced my net before I decided on a move. By now the wind had started to ease, and the infrequent but heavy showers of cold rain and hail had ceased.

River Fishing Chalk Stream Fed Rivers

For most of the rest of the day, I happily wandered around having a chat with the other guys and talking fishing, catching just a couple more chub and bream and losing a big fish that shed the hook on my feeder rig. For me, these venues have certainly put the pleasure into pleasure fishing!