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Imagine having your own private weirpool. We doubt there’s many river anglers who wouldn’t relish the dream, but let’s get real. It’s never going to happen, is it?
In terms of owning the fishing rights that’s dead true. But Nigel Pankhurst knows that anyone willing to buy a club book then make the effort to either get up early or stay up late can have the next best thing. A wild and mysterious weirpool, all to themselves, or at least nine times out of ten!
The exodus from rivers to commercial stillwaters over the past two decades has left vast swathes of riverbanks empty. On Nigel’s local stretches of the Great Ouse around Bedford, St. Neots and Huntingdon he’s often the only angler there.
The fact that his main target is bream also helps his cause. “Unlike barbel, bream are a really unfashionable species,” admitted Nigel, 47, who works for an IT solutions company. “But I love them.”
“I target specimen bream on large gravel pits every spring, and the only other anglers I meet there are after carp or, very occasionally, tench. But I always like to start the new river season with a crack at the bream, where I have the place entirely to myself unless I fish with a mate,” he added.
The sheer enthusiasm of a man who has caught around 90 double-figure bream to a best of 14lb 6oz, but who still gets fired up by the prospect of hauling in what are, by comparison, mere ‘skimmers’ in the 3-5lb class, proved infectious.
We agreed to meet up at an unearthly hour on the banks of Black Over Falls weirpool at Offord. Well, not quite the banks. “You’ll see my tackle before you see me. You have to wade out to fish the swim properly at this time of year, so make sure you bring some chesties,” advised Nigel.
First Light Spells Frantic Action
An early July dawn means a pre-4am alarm call. Nigel finds that no problem, and was fishing by 4.30am. In my defence I set my mobile’s alarm for 4, but hit the snooze button twice and eventually tipped up at 5.30am following an essential cuppa, slice of toast and half-hour drive. He’d already texted me with the welcome message: “Bream feeding well”.
The sun was just below the far bank tree line, and after snapping off a few mood-setting pictures I donned the waders and set forth through a reed bed of Amazonian height to join Nigel out in the flow of a run-off channel. Dace and gudgeon scattered before me in the gravelly margins, with lush beds of ranunculus and occasional bigger boulders underfoot as I drew closer. The river was alive in every sense – flow, fish, damselflies galore. A glorious summer dawn.
“I’ve had 13 bream already. From the very first cast, bites were coming within seconds of the feeder hitting bottom. It’s slowing up now though, but there’s still fish out there and I’ll catch some more,” said Nigel with a big grin.
Retrieving his tackle to rebait and recast, this seemed an ideal time to take stock of Nigel’s set-up. In particular, an impressive bait stand which stood firm and level in front of him keeping all the necessary kit close to hand.
Weir Wading Essentials
First and foremost, we must stress the importance of safety when it comes to wading. Nigel knows from past experience that the run-off channel’s mouth where he fishes this weirpool from is no more than four feet deep at summer level.
But never take a chance and plunge into the unknown. Always take a long and solid pole such as a heavy duty extending bankstick if you’re wading any section of river for the first time, and use it to feel the depth and how solid the bottom is ahead of you.
If the water is above thigh wader height, chest waders are a must. Neoprene versions are the cheapest but you can sweat buckets in them, even in the relatively cool hours of a summer morning. Breathable versions cost more but are worth the outlay if you like to get into the water regularly.
Safety lesson over. Tell us about that fab bait stand plus your tackle, Nigel.
“I use a Seymo bait tray with the standard legs removed and replaced with Fox Storm Poles. These are nice and heavy, and provide stability even if you have to rest them on bottom rather than digging them in. They’re extendable beyond the limit of most banksticks. I rest my landing net across the left hand side of the stand to stop it floating away.
I screw a Boss feeder rest into the top of the right hand front pole. It’s blacked out with marker pen because I love to camouflage as much of my tackle as possible. A twin-cup device is attached to the rear pole to take the rod butt. This is set lower down so the rod faces skywards to keep as much line as possible out of the flow. You can fish two rods using this butt rest device, but one is usually enough for me on the river.
My rod is an 11ft 1.75lb test curve Keenets K-Class Avon. It’s action is less harsh than the usual 12-footers. Reel is a Shimano Aero 4000 loaded with 8lb Fireline braid. I use braid for most of my fishing, and love the fact that it’s such a fine diameter. On rivers, no matter how strong the flow, it helps me to fish a finely balanced feeder which moves as soon as a fish picks up the bait, signaling a drop-back bite on the tip. On stillwaters, where I like to swingtip, it also improves bite indication no end.
I don’t need mono shock leaders with braid, as my favourite hook length material – WB Clarke Match Team – is very stretchy. Today I’ve got a two foot length of 6.6lb (0.18mm) tied off a four turn water knot paternoster, with a large Drennan Gripmesh feeder. Groundbait is liquidized bread – crusts left in – with a generous helping of micro pellets for added body.
I’ve got a size 8 Drennan Super Spade hook at the business end, with a piece of cooked, plain penne pasta. Why pasta? When I first started fishing this weir, a guy walking the banks told me pasta was the going bait. I tried it more for fun than anything, but it works a treat. I think it’s because it’s very visual with a nice soft texture.”
Pasta Master Uses His Loaf
As we stood enjoying the morning sun’s early rays, Nigel rebaits his hook and refills his feeder by scooping it through a large rectangular bait tray on his stand. He then casts back to the spot which produced the early bream-fest. This was a slackish back-eddy beside the steel piling on the left hand side of the weir.
“It’s no more than four feet deep, and I suspect they might now back off into deeper water,” suggests Nigel, concentrating on his tip as if plane spotting!
A couple of nudges and trembles on the quivertip reveals fish are still around, but Nigel opts to change to a piece of bread flake – fresh Kingsmill sliced white – for his next cast. The response is almost instant, a couple of quick taps then an unmissable pull-round. “This isn’t a bream,” he notes, seconds before a 2lb chub surfaces beyond the weed.
After two biteless casts, Nigel decides to sack the fast-fading eddy swim and aim for deeper water alongside the rush of the weir. That said, it’s not much of a rush due to the prevailing low flows and pitiful rainfall levels which have left many Midland rivers a shadow of their former selves in level and flow terms. But if you’re still catching fish, it can’t all be bad can it?
The change of bait and positioning soon yields another 2lb chub, then a bream. I head round to the far bank to get some head-on shots, crossing a small footbridge across a channel erupting with bleak. If cormorants have devastated the Ouse, as some sceptics still claim, then this must be a parallel universe!
Following a barely-trodden through lush meadow grasses I spot the weir’s safety fencing ahead. As I draw closer I hear Nigel call: ‘Fish on – and a good one too’. As I scramble to fit the big zoom lens, he adds: “It could even be a barbel.”
Although the Ouse is famous for barbel, having dominated the British record list for the past decade, they’re still very rare this far downstream. Nigel has only caught one from this pool before, a 10lb 2oz beauty which also took bread during a flood. However, it a logger-headed chub rather than a whiskered creature breaks surface after a fierce battle in the weir’s main flow. Comfortably over 4lb and in superb condition, it’s a fitting highlight to a great morning.
Nigel decides there’s still time to make something else happen. He begins ripping up slices of bread to go wherever the flow takes them. Before long a chub is rising regularly to intercept the freebies, right over his original casting spot.
Removing the feeder, he wades deeper then impales a piece of flake on the hook and flicks it out. The flow takes it right to the spot at the third attempt, the fish rises with a swirl but the strike meets with thin air.
“That’s my lot. The missus wants to go to Ikea today, so I’m off home for a shower and driving duties,” declares Nigel. “I’ve had over 50lb and it’s still not 9am. But for anyone who prefers to turn up later in the day, I recommend floating bread for some great chub sport in and around weirs and run-off channels. You can travel much lighter to cover lots of swims – and you’ll still have the place to yourself.