John Bailey: Wading can change your fishing experience

John Bailey has never been afraid to wade into the water in search of his next catch.

John Bailey has never been afraid to wade into the water in search of his next catch. - Credit: Archant

I met up with Carl on the River Glaven the other day. It was the tail end of what I call the harsh wind weather but there he was, in the water, in his chestwaders, finding that although the water was cold, there was still a lot of life about.

He turned up plenty of sticklebacks in the slacks, for example, and espied one or two brook lampreys, probably gathering ready to spawn. Together we watched some wild browns feeding on the gravels so, evidently, there were invertebrates braving that chilly river. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. I guess we were like two overgrown kids, wallowing in the stream, loving the water. Bliss.

During the recent Fishing in the Footsteps of Mr Crabtree series, I had just two criticisms that I always wear chestwaders, whether going in or not. Well! I'll say that chestwaders keep you dry in rain, keep you nettle-free, let you sit bum-dry on wet banks without carrying a chair and what's wrong with any of that? Best of all, when the water is clear and shallow and the light is right and the water's rules allow it, chestwaders let you get into the river itself and enjoy the sort of experience that Carl and I had up on the Glaven.

I'll come to safety soon but I'll say now that if you've never been one with the water like this, then it won't destroy your fishing life. Wading, though, does focus your relationship with the river immensely.

If you're out there, it gives you this sense of current. You begin to feel for yourself what the muscle of the water means. Remember that the flow of any river isn't constant, totally predictable. Rivers move in spurts and slacks and whether you're a game or coarse fisherman it's good to remember this when you are trying to present your fly or your bait.


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Getting into the river gives you a much better idea of the depths and the contours. You begin to realise much more about the bottom make-up. Sometimes you're walking over sand, sometimes gravel and sometimes chalk.

You focus on the riverbed. You watch how the natural foods behave. You begin to realize just how fabulously rich the shallows of our rivers are. Watch out particularly for caddis grubs in their stone cases and all manner of nymphs and crayfish, some white-clawed and some, sadly, signal.

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If you can take baits with you, drop them into the water and see how they look, too. Thinking about how your baits and your flies behave can change your fishing life.

Watch out for the fish themselves, of course. You will find chub and barbel, for example, surprisingly amenable if you are in water two or three feet deep and you move very slowly. I've had barbel feed voraciously just a yard or two downstream of me after I've fed them for some time. Perch, in particular, can be quite inquisitive and will sometimes come in to investigate the puffs of silt that your feet are sending up and away with the current.

Safety is paramount and I'll come to that in just a second or two. It's important, therefore, to think where to begin, where to try out this possibility. Obviously, you're looking at the upper rivers and I'd suggest you might check out the Glaven at Letheringsett Ford, for example. You'll probably find people paddling or simply taking in the scene but there is some interesting stuff under the stones. The River Wensum at Ringland just outside the Swan pub is another favourite place once the weather warms up.

Breathable chestwaders are not expensive in this day and age. They've come down a lot in price since the heady days of the mid 1990s and you can now get a really serviceable pair that should last you two or three years hard work for not much over £100. I'd like to mention names but perhaps I'd better not...though it's well-known I've been a Greys' consultant for years! Be careful with your boots though. My advice would be to have rubber cleated soles with some studs hammered in. That way, you'll be pretty secure on your pins over almost any riverbed you will ever come across.

Now I'm really going to have to stress safety. I've been wading since I was seven, I guess, and I've only scared myself twice and fallen in thrice but this doesn't mean that you can take wading lightly.

I ought to suggest that you, at the very least, begin in the company of a friend and perhaps you have a rope between you. You will develop more confidence but take every precaution until you feel secure. A lifejacket, too, is a great idea. These days, they weigh next to nothing and they inflate automatically should you find yourself upending.

Again, I'd say go for it.

Don't wade stillwaters because these really are too unpredictable and, obviously, keep away from deep, slow rivers where you can't see where the bottom will lead you. Choose warm weather with bright skies and sunshine. Only wade in shallow water and over clear gravels and avoid the deep, silty slacks. Never go much above your knees, especially in quick water and once you feel the first pricks of alarm, make sure you get back well within your depth. Remember that I want to enhance your fishing life and not to jeopardize it!

Two years ago, I was down on the River Wye for a week. The weather was glorious, the river was low and I spent the best part of three days slowly wading a completely new stretch.

I found eight perfect swims and over the remainder of my trip caught handsome barbel from each of them. I truly doubt whether I would have found these holes if I'd just fished from the bank. It was getting in there that changed my fishing experience around and I simply can't tell you how many times I've had that happen to me over the years

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