Monday, 4 June 2012

Fishing on Borrowed Land
Chris Hammond

Cast your eye along the unerring line of a fen drain and over the contour free land on a gloomy winter’s day, and you could be forgiven for missing the attraction of this man-made wilderness. The fenland vista is flat, dark and at first glance seemingly barren. More often than not the only things to break the monotony of the bleak skyline are the multitude of towering electricity pylons that stamp out a statuesque march across the blackened landscape.

Ironically, considering the sparse and un-emotive façade of this terrain, what you are actually standing in when contemplating a fen and its drains, is one huge battlefield. The war as such began way back in the seventeenth century when the Duke of Bedford and a group of venture capitalists, dubbed the, ‘Adventurers’, commissioned Dutch land drainage engineer, ‘Cornelius Vermuyden’, to reclaim land from the marshy fens for agricultural usage. Subsequent drainings in modern times have left us with the large expanse of land formed roughly in an arc around the Wash and known as, ‘The Fens’. 

The emotion probably most often experienced by predator anglers on encountering a fenland drain for the first time is one of disappointment. At least in the visual sense. Drains are frequently described as ‘bland’ and ‘uninspiring’, with typically little or no sign of interesting features from which to stage a first offensive.

In a sense it is true, drains particularly, during the winter months, are often scarce of cover and variation, and finding the fish can require old fashioned hard slog. Thankfully though their bleak outward appearances often belie the richness and diversity of life that prospers in and around these, arteries of the fen.

What they lack in outward appearance fen drains can more than make up for in the quality and diversity of fishing they offer, especially with regard to predators. Rich in insect and invertebrate life above and below the surface these typically narrow and relatively shallow waters support good heads of prime shoal fish. With little or none of the adversities present in natural rivers having to be suffered, and little by way of cover for their prey, the pike, zander and perch populations naturally thrive in these manufactured environments.

It’s not surprising then that many of the household names from the pike fishing scene have cut their teeth on these prolific waters. And even when considering the growing interest in predator fishing amongst anglers currently and the subsequent additional fishing pressure the fens are said to be receiving there are still uncaught specimens to be found there by those willing to put in the required effort. Spend enough time there and I guarantee you will find that fenland has a compelling, utilitarian charm all of its own.

Pike fishing in the fens presents the erstwhile piker with any number of opportunities and more than a few challenges to boot. Probably the greatest challenge for many anglers is the sheer vastness of some of the fenland water courses. Vastness that is primarily in the linear sense. You need to have a reasonable level of fitness to get the best from long tracts of drain or river, particularly in the early days of your fenland piking experience. Carrying tackle, bait and sundry items on foot over miles of bank can and will take a toll on energy and fitness levels

Gaining local fishing experience will enable you to cut out some of the leg work to an extent; however the old maxim 'A little knowledge is dangerous' can be very appropriate in the fens. Becoming blinkered by previous good results is a condition all too easily attained. The venerable Prof Rickards's term, 'hot-spots' - coined to describe tiny areas of lake or river bed where pike can almost always be found- conjures up a tempting scenario. Unfortunately such genuinely consistent and productive spots are extremely few and far between.

Leaving boat angling aside -as most of us are either forced, or choose, to do - as a fenland foot soldier you are going to need to be mobile. Obviously this necessity to cover lots of water impacts immediately on the type and quantity of both tackle and bait used. With my own drain fishing there is generally no place for alarms and drop-offs. More often than not I choose to fish with floats. I do prefer to use rod-rests on most waters, particularly with braid, as laying rods on the bank can result in braid or line snagging the vegetation. I've dropped more than one pike off when picking up the rod to connect with a take and snagging the line momentarily in the grass.

Baits represent perhaps an even more important choice. Whether to use lives, deads or lures. Or indeed all three. The first consideration again tends to be transportation. Both dead-baits and lures provide portability. The latter method providing probably the greatest degree of mobility. Lures are a great way to cover lots of water relatively swiftly, and a useful tool to get an early feel for a new water.

Live-baits are logistically awkward to use with respect to mobile piking. (Especially if taking the EA legislation to the absolute letter.) Catching them on the day in advance of a day’s piking frankly just is not a viable option for most of us. At least not if we value the fishing potential of that first hour or two of day light, or wish to keep on the move. That said I personally still know of no quicker or more successful way to catch pike. If good quality live-baits don’t raise at least an interest from pike over a session or two then you can usually fairly safely dismiss the area as being a productive one.

Left with a choice between baits and lures many of us still prefer the former for the bulk of our fishing. so unsurprisingly dead-baits are often the vanguard for mobile pike anglers. Injecting baits with oils and flavours, or creating a scent trail in some other way, can help boost your chances considerably. Many fen water courses are constantly coloured, so added scent appeal or visual attraction in the form of popped-up baits or bait flags can make a massive difference to your success rate.

Wobbling dead-baits can be a way around the live-bait transportation problem, or a decent alternative to lures for those who are less than enamoured with artificials. Speaking personally I always seem to struggle to find a reliable way of connecting with takes when wobbling. It’s a method that moves plenty of fish though, so another excellent way of quickly gauging the potential of new water.

Of course pike move around and a fruitless area one day, or week, may well come up trumps on another occasion. That’s one of the attractions of our sport. The constant challenges it presents. There are such a myriad of variables to consider that it can seem at times nigh on impossible to draw hard and fast conclusions. Many more fish are banked by anglers with open minds than those whose dogmatic beliefs are firmly entrenched, particularly in the wide open expanses of the fens.

As previously mentioned features above the water surface are commonly in short supply in fenland; although drains and rivers in the fens do vary to an extent in topography. Some are completely devoid of anything other than rough grass along their banks: while others will have thick and luscious bank-side plant life and over-hanging shrubbery.

 Parades of Norfolk Reed, especially on waters where there are long stretches of barren drain bank or weed-less margin, are usually havens for pike. The stereotypical over hanging bush or tree, although largely a rarity on drains, will almost inevitably attract predators, as will any form of bridge or structure or bend in the water course. 

More often though the important fish-attractive facets of a fen drain will be below the water surface. Small increments in depth variation or drain width can be worth finding and exploring. Trees, pylons and other bank side structures can mean the dredger missing a few yards when they clean up the drain or river. That little shallowing of the river/drain bed can create a couple of drop-offs either side of the structure. Such features are frequently utilised by predators as ambush points.

Adhering to the popular stretches of a drain or river is by no means necessarily a counter-productive exercise -such places are often popular for good reason- however the real appeal of fenland is the potential for undiscovered caches of fish, or even for completely overlooked and un-fished pieces of water. Increasingly fewer and further between no doubt, but there really are still places out there that simply DO NOT see angling pressure of any kind. The chance of an uncaught monster from an angler free water, well that’s pretty much all our collective Holy Grails eh?

Good quality OS maps and Google Earth are essential parts of the fen piking jigsaw. Finding unpopular access points or those obscure little blue areas on the Explorer map can really pay dividends. Speaking personally there is little in pike fishing that tops capturing an upper double or better still twenty plusser from an unexpected or forgotten place. Cliché or not neglected pike look and fight much better than those who see the unhooking mat on a regular basis.

 It is not surprising really that pike caught from the very wildest of places are often the most impressive specimens. They are after all the wildest of fish.  And of course we set great store in their comparatively untamed nature; when measuring pike against other species. The fact that they thrive in places of a similar ilk is just one more element to their appeal. For many pikers wild, wind-wuthered fenland waters figure highly on the list when weighing up the perfect piking venue.

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