Wednesday 16 March 2016

Lure and Dropshot fishing in Somerset

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The back end of the season can be tricky round these parts. By the time the waters of the Somerset Levels are in any state to fish, winter is almost over and time is slipping away. I had hoped to find a dropping River Tone, but instead went for early start on the Taunton to Bridgwater Canal with Russ Hilton.

It's not the easiest venue to find the perch. There are at least 11 miles of it, and it can be hard fishing with a lot of walking required. I'm not even about to start telling you specific locations on this blog (sorry), but suffice to say you need to use your feet and find your own fish. But I'm really enjoying catching on the ultralight gear at the moment. You can fit a whole whack of lures into a box no bigger than a backy tin. You can also change setups quickly, and these days I'm doing a lot of drop shotting with the flies too.

There are plenty of features on these canals, but it's funny how often you'll catch a good perch from a fairly innocuous looking spot. If you can find the wider parts and straights where the smaller bleak and roach are massed, you'll see the tiddlers being chased on cool mornings. As often as not, it's a jack pike. But just sometimes you'll find a perch, or even a gang of them.

I like a tiny, minnow-like lure for these weedy canals. I fished a small 2g head and a little Japanese, split-tail lure to start. Sometimes you can even spot the fish- and when it's like this the fly can be even better. But on this occasion, visibility wasn't perfect and the fish seemed to be lurking in the deeper central track and were hard to pick out. I had just the one good knock in the first half hour, and was connected to a fish that felt weighty but only stayed on for perhaps six seconds. Bugger.

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Then Russ showed up and we hit another spot, covering a fair bit of ground to get well away from the access point. The obvious, snaggy features didn't produce- and instead it was a featureless straight, a little more coloured water, with the takes coming in the middle.

With experience, you often know it's a good perch quite early in the fight. They don't fly off like the small pike. They plod and turn, but it's still quite tense. Even more so when you missed that first chance. You may not get another.

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In late winter, these canal perch are really at their best and fattest. The even more curious thing about lure and fly caught fish is that they tend to push their fins up. It's as if they're still bristling with bad intent, even once you've landed them. This one went 2lbs 10oz and was pictured quickly, before going straight back.

And that was pretty much it for the cut. Next stop, I tried a short session drop shotting on the river. I've been thoroughly enjoying this technique with my own designs for dropshot flies. With a fine rod, you can search all the little slacks and areas close to the bank really accurately.

I rig my flies exactly as you would a standard drop shot soft lure, with a Palomar knot. On this occasion, I quickly stepped up from an 8g to a 12g dropshot weight, just to give a little more control.

Some parts of the river are really mucky and it took some exploration to find the fish. I fooled a couple simply by flicking the fly on the edge of a shopping trolley. Pretty much all the early takers were perch:
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That all changed though, with the rig flicked out in a reedy slack. I'd just bumped a perch, when something a lot more solid pulled back. A light lure outfit is less than ideal for an angry pike, but these days you can get a lot of poke even with "toy" kit. A slightly stepped up fluorocarbon leader also helps when there are odd small pike thrown in the mix:
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So, the short sessions have been fun and useful, and in fact the only full day out I had was a pretty gruelling session fly fishing on Blagdon Lake. It was meant to be a mild day with Gary Pearson, but he was ill, so instead it was John Garnett I subjected to a breezy day after the trout.

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To cut a long story short, bites were hard to come by. We found one point swim where bites occurred, and just after I lost a fish, the old man netted a rainbow on a scruffy but effective home-tied Blob.
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We might have caught a few more, had the wind been less brutal. But after a second fish, we just had to find some sanctuary.
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We caught up with the others in a more sheltered spot, where the locals were hitting odd fish but the the fishin continued to be tough. Simon from Turrall probably deserves most credit for managing a fish on the buzzer, but there wasn't a great deal else to shout about!

Next stop for me is the West of England Game Fair, where I'll be signing books, tying flies and by midday probably hoping that the bar opens early. Wish me luck and hope to see you on the bank soon.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Street Fishing in Amsterdam, Holland

It’s probably fair to say that most visitors are not drawn to the Dutch capital by the lure of fish. Vast swathes of tourist attractions, bars and the unmistakable whiff emanating from the legendary Amsterdam coffee shops account for the bulk of map-wielding tourists, looking to enjoy Europe’s most supremely laid back, hedonistic city.

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Those whose main vice is fishing, on the other hand, might also find a lot of reasons to fancy a trip to Amsterdam. A quick glance tells you that the whole city is full of canals, ponds and lakes. Most of them have fish, although with not a huge amount of guidance out there, it can be hard to assess the sport. Some folks will tell you there aren’t many; others will tell you there are species such as perch and zander throughout while the canals are the cleanest they’ve been in 40 years. Well worth a pop with some light lure gear, surely?

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So what are your main considerations to fish there? Cheap flights are readily available and with the Dutch being arguably the most tolerant nation in Europe few areas are out of bounds, with a refreshing lack of those local Hitler types saying “you can’t do that” found on many UK canals. Let’s face it, if you can smoke jazz cigarettes or hire a harlot perfectly legally, nobody is going to be worried about you having a cheeky cast. Being English I actually asked one guy if I could fish all the water, to be told “this is Amsterdam, you can do what the hell you like!”

The whole workings of the city are a thing of wonder alone, which the UK could learn from. Public transport is excellent and cheap; bicycles hurtle around in their thousands. It feels truly multicultural and welcoming too; everyone just seems to get along.

Of course, even a very liberal city has rules. You might already be asking: do you need a license to fish in Amsterdam or Holland in general? It’s a tricky one. The obvious answer is yes, you need to buy the general license. Fortunately there are lots of tackle shops in Amsterdam (here's a handy page where you can get a PDF list of shops) . The fact that only annual tickets are available is a pain, but around 50€ is not desperately steep and allows you to fish a silly amount of water. I should also mention that you are fine to fish with most local guides, thanks to a kind of buddy system where guests can fish for free.

I didn’t have infinite time on my visit, as I didn’t want my girlfriend to freeze or get bored, but tried various locations. I tried the canal basin right where we were staying and also walked the banks of the Slotermeer- a giant urban lake, but the shallow bits within range were too cold to hold much life in the dead end of winter.

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To be honest, it was a struggle and it was probably just as well that I’d booked a proper guided day with my friend Pim Pos, who I’d fished with in Norway previously. Not only is he a staggeringly keen lure angler, but has a wicked sense of humour and the sort of boundless optimism you need when the temperature drops.

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We took a ride aboard his boat, the Dutch Dyke (not really) to explore the huge shipping canal above Central Station. It was an experience to say the least, cruising past huge ocean liners and skyscrapers. When you’re with a local you can also get into those parts that others don’t dare or even know about. Right outside the police station or behind a huge red ship busy loading up. And what a difference a well-organised guide makes. Besides lures and rods to cover every scenario, he also provided a thermal suit for my other half.

We used heavy dropshot tactics (20g sinker, 3-4” lures) in areas of ten metres or more in depth. But while the fishfinder showed signs of life, the fish were decidedly picky. Partly because this time of year is when the big zander are egg-bound and lose interest; partly because it was as cold as a whore’s heart.

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An hour in and we had caught nothing. But another move or three and the knocks arrived. There is a special knack to this form of fishing, and it was instructive just watching Pim in action. Very slight “shivers” on the rod bring your lure to life- or sometimes just subtly raising and dropping a paddle tail lure as the boat gently moves. In competitions, a second “static” rod is often used- and even with only the action provided by the boat, fish are caught. He has a million other dodges too, and I’m keen to spill the beans with an article at some point.

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It took a while, but I managed a nice perch to break my duck and suddenly it wasn’t all doom and gloom. And while the action was never hectic, it was a great lesson in concentrating to make the most of few chances. We added further perch and four very modest zander to provide some welcome action. Not a bad result considering the bitter conditions. This is the value of a guide- and if you want to book with Pim (whose surname “Pos” means “ruffe” in Dutch, rather appropriately) you could always drop him a line at:
Besides the zander, the semi-salty waters around Amsterdam can also produce cod and whiting on lures!

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Much to the relief of my other half, we also did some touristy stuff on the trip. We saw Rembrandt’s house and his famous nudes, while we also enjoyed local food and booze immensely. Dutch pancakes with bacon and maple syrup might sound wrong, but are devilishly good, as are the local beers. It might not be very rock'n'roll, but for me Amsterdam's craft beer bars held more appeal than the many coffeeshops and their notoriously strong weed. Brand IPA was an especially good brew; think punchy IPA crossed with Belgian beer and you get some idea. Paulina enjoyed a glass or two of this more than the fishing, I suspect:
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The Weissbeers are ace too, especially with a few Bitter Ballen- seriously tasty, crunchy savoury little things, eaten with mustard:
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The other notable event I only discovered very late in the day was the Amsterdam Street Fishing Competition. Having had no joy on the smaller canals around the city centre, I headed for the bigger, deeper waters around Central Station hoping for better, or at least a single touch. This is the trouble with having your birthday in February though- you dream up a big adventure but the fishing can be bloody cold and difficult.

I was sort of simultaneously disappointed and reassured to find that the competition anglers were also catching very little. I was also pleasantly surprised to bump into Dan Sales, who had also made the journey to Holland and was busy mucking in with the locals trying to winkle out a fish. Boy, it was tough though, so we continued to the large basin type area by the Nemo centre. Here's a Dutch specialist, trying to lift a perch from underneath Gandalf's arse:
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I tried just about everything in the end. Scaling down my jigs. Dropshot tactics. Praying to the angling gods. Cursing the angling gods. It didn’t do a whole lot of good- and I suspect the whole competition was probably won with a modest perch or two. Not that the day wasn't entertaining. This is one of the more bizarre spots I tried, complete with an upturned pair of plastic legs:

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I’d hate to write off the street fishing in Amsterdam so easily however. The local rods all told me there was decent sport here usually- just not on our visit. The shallower canals will also no doubt produce at other times- you just suspect that many fish move into the deeper channels for winter. The general consensus told me that the best time to visit is probably autumn. Which is when I’m already thinking of a return, because Amsterdam is simply too fascinating not to do so. And I also have that bloody one year ticket to use.