John Bailey: Be kind to anglers this winter
As anglers and as countrymen, we are hugely at the mercy of the weather, especially now we are entering the winter. The unpredictability of latter years has only added to the ups and downs we're likely to face in the next four months or so.
Weather is always central to what we are doing as fishermen but, from now on, for a while it could be critical. And for many of the fish that we love to catch, the weather can also be a matter of life or death.
Ideally, in my view, what we want is a long succession of weather systems. The more our weather rolls in from the west, the better air and water temperatures are kept high. Let's hope that rainfall is steady, but not heavy enough to cause floods either. A good brisk wind – and I'm not talking about gales – will refresh our stillwaters, too. Perhaps there will be the odd cold snap just to give winter a bite, but please, please, angling gods, keep the snow and ice to an absolute minimum.
I'm not just saying all this for the good of our sport alone. Think how appallingly all our kingfishers fared a couple of years back during that particularly hard winter spell. First, as the stillwaters iced over and then the rivers, they were forced north and east to the coast. There, in continuing sub-zero temperatures, I guess many of them perished. It was August at least before the first kingfishers began to reappear on our inland waterways. It was much the same for our grebes and for our herons: I came across two dead harnsers walking the Wensum on a particularly cold morning.
Warmer winter weather is good, too, for our coots, our water rails and, of course, our returning colonies of water voles. Warm weather is just as great for our traditional summer fish.
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Carp and even tench will sometimes feed through the winter spasmodically and be in far better nick for the spring and much more ready to face the vigours of spawning. This can be particularly important for older fish that often suffer huge stress during this critical period.
Warmer winters are also great for our waters themselves. You tend to get less salt, for example, washed off the roads when there is not so much need for the gritter to be out. Warmer weather, too, keeps our bigger gravel pits open and cormorants can feed on plentiful silver fish there, hopefully keeping them clear of the rivers. If the winter is particularly harsh, waters tend to close down, but if we do see mild weather it will bring out more walkers, more birders, more anglers and predators have life less their own way.
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I suppose we all admit to self interest and a mild winter just has to be great for fishing. We do tend to think of pike as a cold-water species and I've taken many good fish when the ice has been forming in the rod rings, but I think all of us would opt for sustained periods of settled, balmy winter weather if we had a choice.
Above all, pike like to feed when it's dark and when it's gloomy and not under crystal blue skies with a glaring sun. Heavy, brooding cloud cover with afternoons dark at 2pm are what all pikers crave.
It's also the same with our other predator, the perch. We've had a superb revival of these magnificent fish over the last few years and I guess another mild winter will see the species just march on and on. Some of my very biggest perch over the years have come during mild, wet spells, especially when there has been a force 4 wind or thereabouts from the south or the west.
If we get the winter that we want, it's well within the bounds of reason that my carp fishing boys at Kingfisher might well start thinking about their favourite species from February onwards. Certainly, if water temperatures remain up, the fish will be moving throughout most of the winter months and as the nights begin to lengthen, they'll start to come on the feed early.
For me, though, a mild winter is seen at its very best along the rivers. Give me a gloomy, dank afternoon with air temperatures eight, nine or even 10 degrees. There'll probably be a little drizzle in the air and only a hint of breeze.
It's not unusual to see roach rolling during spells like this from three in the afternoon and then your heart really begins to race. If you can, stay the first 90 minutes or two hours into darkness, especially if it's big chub that you're targeting. It's no real hardship this if there is no biting wind and the air temperature barely drops.
Many of us are thinking this could be the winter for some massive chub from our rivers and the weather will have a colossal bearing on whether our predictions are true or not.
I can just remember the cruel winter of 1963. I used to keep a swim open then by tying an unwanted door onto a piece of rope and floating it out onto the lake under some alder trees. When I wanted to fish, I simply pulled the door in and it broke the ice on its way to the bank. My parents stopped all this when I fell in, was dragged out and my hair looked like a frozen, petrified forest.
No, we don't want that again. A really harsh winter squeezes everything, whether fur, feather or fin, into a corner and makes life cruelly difficult for them.
And how about us? Couldn't we do with a slight reduction in our soaring heating bills during these difficult economic times?