Welcoming winter freeze with a hesitant heart and cold socks

21:49 19 November 2014

It's on the way - John Bailey is preparing for the winter months - as is the heron.

It's on the way - John Bailey is preparing for the winter months - as is the heron.


Well, it’s really here isn’t it? I knew winter was snapping at my heels just the other morning when I laced up my winter boots in preparation for a pike guiding session.

The chill was in those laces, just a hint of frost. There’ll be more to come, mornings excruciatingly cold, times when you wonder whether the game is worth the candle. It always is, though.

There’s always some point of brilliant light during the day, whether it be a fish, a ghosting barn owl or even the dip of a float, the merest hint of a bite. Yes, there’s always something. And, of course, the good thing is you can pull off the river or the lake at 4.30pm-ish, home, a bath and the heat well before tea-time.

Come next March or April, we’ll look back on the next four months or so either with apprehension or with affection. And it’s pretty much all down to the weather. If I look at my angling records over the last 40 years or so, I realise the months between November and March are almost entirely weather-related. In a nutshell, as you’d expect, hard times mean hard fishing. The harder the weather, the harder the fishing until it’s hardly worth going at all. That much is obvious. But there’s so much going on beneath the surface, often an iced surface at that.

A hard winter can spell horror, writ large. Think about weeks of crushing cold and you’ll see what I mean. The lakes ice over. This will almost certainly send the cormorants off our stillwaters and demand that they hunt along the rivers. This in itself is disastrous enough, the bleakest of news. Whilst a number of our stillwaters could actually afford losing a number of silver fish, this is not the case anymore on the rivers. Cormorants have that unique ability to target stretches of river where the roach, especially, hold up and they create havoc there. It’s pure carnage. It can set miles of river fishing back years, if not decades.

And, of course, if the otters, too, can’t hunt on the stillwaters, then they will rampage along the riverbanks even more. It’s not the fish I’m particularly worried for here, but the wildfowl which, already weakened, will be even easier targets. Herons aren’t safe either. They will have been pushed off the stillwaters in all probability and will stand forlorn and vulnerable along the river margins. It’s not a good time for our little sentries in grey.

Perhaps my two favourite birds on the riverbank are the kingfisher and the grebe and, believe me, a harsh winter does neither of these fine fellows any good at all. During an overlong harsh snap, grebe numbers can suffer terribly, while stocks of kingfishers can crash completely. A couple of harsh winters back, I think it’s fair to say I didn’t see a kingfisher between the December of one year and the August of the next. Some of these beautiful birds get pushed to the coast and some manage to make it southwards, travelling 500 miles or more. That is not always enough. Just the other day, I took a chap out piking with me and, in truth, he didn’t catch much. However, his day was made by the sight of two kingfishers working day long around us. It’s good to remember fishermen are naturalists, too.

If my prayers and yours too, I hope, are answered, I’ll expect this winter to produce numbers of big chub and good roach. And, I guess, my pike fishing will be off the scale and, hopefully, yours too. Give pike warm westerlies and you will catch 10 times as many as come out during those prolonged spells of northerlies and easterlies.

And, if the weather really is up to the mark, it’s a mistake to rule carp out of the equation. When I was a kid really, I used to have the privilege of fishing for the carp at Kelling Hall up near the north coast. There the water was so clear in the winter that you could see the carp moving and feeding and sometimes even under a thin crust of ice. What was obvious, though, was that these carp were moving at a miniscule rate, only just above ticking over. However, there was enough life and interest there to produce memorable days of winter carping sport. What was so special about those carp was their condition and their colouring. If you think a carp is a fine fish in summer or autumn, then look out for it in the winter when its body deepens and toughens and its colours glow with a luminosity you’d barely believe.

I don’t know if a warm weather dance actually exists. Perhaps I’ll Google it. Perhaps someone can let me know. What’s for sure, if I find the steps, my feet will be going fast as if I’m in the cast of River Dance.


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