John Bailey: When a dabchick saves your day

Mark with an absolutely stunning river roach Picture: John Bailey

Mark with an absolutely stunning river roach Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Speaking as a full-time fisherman, can I say I have just had it with this particular winter?

Okay, I know we have not had freeze-ups and snow, but just about everything else has been hurled our way. Storm after storm. Record rainfalls. Winds to blow you out of your hat. I thought I'd seen it all, but last Friday afternoon just about capped it. The rain came in cold and brutal from midday, driven by a wind shrieking like a banshee. It was just so horrible that the two anglers with me did the impossible and gave up. This never happens, but this lousy winter drove us to it and I was sitting in front of a fire by 4pm reflecting on the day.

A dabchick had at least half saved it for us. Dabchicks? Remember them? They are scientifically known as Little Grebes but dabchick describes them best. Ten inches of dumpy grey and russet red feathers with a little powder puff rear end. You've perhaps forgotten them, I had for sure. It took me five minutes to recognise what was popping up and down by the reed fringe like a busily animated cork ball. Then the dabchick love came rushing back. Not that long ago they were here, there and everywhere and it was a strange day you didn't see them hunting small fish, building nests or squabbling with a neighbour. Until that marrow-freezing Friday I had never realised how I had missed them - until now, when they are almost gone. Ominously, my little pal was on its own, calling plaintively now and then for a mate that never showed up. Perhaps it won't. Perhaps an otter will have even this one before the week is out and that would be no surprise to anyone who knows just how rapacious they are.

Of course, the other chap that would have made that foul Friday bearable would have been Ratty, the water vole. We might have stayed an extra hour if a couple of those funsters had been frolicking around, watching us with beady eyes. But they are gone too. No doubt there are colonies here and there, but I haven't found them, even though I am on a lake and/or river every day of my life. The so-called professional naturalist tells us on Country File that Ratty has been lost along with his habitat and that wants to make me throw the TV through the blooming window. Have you walked our lakes, our pits, our scores of miles of upper river lately? You'll find a zillion miles of "des res" Ratty habitats pretty much everywhere you look. I did a lot of water vole photography and filming through the 90s and I'll tell you the whole aquatic environment here is perfect for them. If otters were not about, that is. Still, before we left, my anguished anglers and I did see two oyster catchers, one barn owl and a green woodpecker and, after all, the weather could not get worse, could it?

Oh yes it could. Saturday dawned with enough rain to make the Friday look arid. I had to be on the river but sat it out at home until around 2pm-ish when the skies cleared, but only because the winds were blowing the clouds to Russia. Have you tried trotting a river with a 3BB stick float when a gale is holding the river back and then pushing the current back upstream? You dodge a falling willow branch. You flick out some hemp or bread mash and get rained on with the juice. You spend minutes trying to catch the float dancing in the gusts before you and the dog walker on the far bank thinks you are a clown escaped from the circus. Still, I and new friend Mark did manage to catch some roach, despite every horror Mother Nature could conjure up for us. It was almost pleasurable at times, knowing the float would dip if either of us could work it towards the hotspot and, my, was it good to see a fish or two? Mind you, most were cormorant-marked, but a few were pristine, pearl-sided, pure as the driven snow.

I began fishing Norfolk and Suffolk rivers in about 1964 and most things have changed beyond recognition, but one factor has remained constant. The old boys I learned off told me how river roach movements were predictable and aligned to the time of the year. Today this is still partly true and like Mark and I found, you'll come across roach at the back end of the season just above the mills. However, completely baffling is the fact that you will also locate them just BELOW those mills as well. Work that one out. Why do some roach prefer deeper, slower water and others, quicker, shallower runs over gravel? That latter scenario would make more sense with spawning on the horizon, but when does fish behaviour ever really become comprehensible in its entirety? There's always something happening to confound us, me at any rate.

There's 10 days of the river season left to you as I now write. If you can get out then you should. After all, one great thing about February's rain is that it has left the water blissfully coloured and that is key when it comes to fooling fish. I've talked about roach-and I am obsessive about them, but now is the time for a PB chub (if that matters to you) and a walloping dace. Now is the time dace are becoming all pigeon-chested and putting on those extra ounces that make them even more delicious to look at. Most anglers will trot a float or watch a quiver tip with a bait hard on the river bed and that is fine and both methods are classic. For me, though, I still find laying on with a float close to the margins a hard approach to beat. Look for a piece of deeper, slacker water close in, possibly downstream of a protruding carpet of weed. Choose a float with a buoyant body, put the shot a foot above the hook and fish the float just over-depth. Flick the whole outfit a little downriver and then draw it back so the float sits nicely, half cocked like you were tench fishing. When you get a bite, the float trembles, lifts, lies flat and then shoots under. Magic. Get it right and every strike is a winner and you'll find this a way to fool the biggest fish time after time.

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