Best dace of our lives

James Robbins samples the sport on the River Ribble

WHEN the winter days are at their shortest and coldest, it’s all too easy to assume that fish might be reluctant to feed. However, provided the conditions are settled, a number of species – dace in particular – will respond well to a hookbait. That’s the sentiment occupying the mind of James Robbins as he pushes his tacklebox trolley through the frosty grass towards a swim on Lancashire’s River Ribble recommended to him by a friend. The sun is slowly rising and projecting a host of fiery colours over the far horizon as he trots along at full tilt, full of anticipation for the session ahead.

“It’s been a while since I fished this river.I’ve been told that I’ll bag up today, but the freezing conditions are making me a little wary. However, the river is ‘steaming’ and I can see fish topping here and there, so I guess they are active. Settled periods in winter are the key to success, so my hopes are high,” says James, as he finally arrives at his chosen swim for the day. Over the past few years there has been a major resurgence in dace stocks on many rivers around the country, and the Ribble is no exception. Not being a particularly long-lived species, James is just one of many floatfishing fans looking to make the most of this welcome peak in the species’ population.

Get them feeding first “I really enjoy catching dace. They are a shoal fish and if you catch one then you normally catch a fair few, but they are a very quick swimming species too and the bites
can be hard to hit if you don’t fish correctly. Hopefully, I can demonstrate the best techniques I know of today, as long as the fish show well,” James explains, as he quickly assembles his simple float fishing outfit and then positions himself down in the shallow margins of this northern gem of a coarse angling river. “The Ribble is not particularly deep in most places, and it helps to wade some way out so that you can at least fully sink your keepnet. It also makes it much more comfortable than fishing from the steep muddy bankside. “The river here is actually influenced by the tide twice per day, but there won’t be a rise in levels during my short stay. However, anglers should always check the tide times and levels because it can rise by four feet here on a big spring tide and no fish is worth risking your life for.” Making the correct swim selection is key to success on any river, and James outlines a few key points about his choice of pitch for the day before he starts to fish. “The spot I’ve chosen is what I’d call a ‘steady glide’. Typically, you will find areas like this between very shallow ‘broken’ water on spate rivers like the Ribble (a spate river being one where the water level can rise and fall very quickly after rain). Fish will congregate here as the water is often deeper and that affords them a sense of safety, particularly from airborne predators like cormorants.” “I am just going to spend five to 10 minutes feeding the swim before I cast. This will give the fish time to move in and start accepting some free maggots without fear of being caught,” he says. Keep it fine for more bites James scans the water in front of him while his fingers rifle through his float box. “This swim has a dark reflection on the surface because of the steep, tree-lined far bank, making it ideal for fishing with a yellowtopped waggler float. I’m slightly colour blind, so that prevents me from seeing red or orange on a green or brown background very well, so yellow is perfect,” he says. With everything set up comfortably, he takes a few moments to run through his very straightforward rig. “I see too many anglers floatfishing on rivers far too heavily, both in terms of shotting as well as line strength and hook size. With dace set to be the main quarry today, I am keeping things light and balanced. I’m using a 13ft match rod and a lightweight reel loaded with 0.16mm mainline. My choice is the new Shakespeare Mach XT line which has a breaking strain of 5.2lb, but is only 0.16mm diameter and, as a floating line, is ideally suited to this style of fishing,” he says. A number of factors influence his choice of float pattern, not least the prevailing weather conditions. “I’ve noticed that the line is already freezing in the rod rings, so I am going to start with a 4AAA straight peacock waggler float.” “This should provide that extra bit of casting weight to take the float out. However, by incorporating a quick-change float adaptor I will be able to change down to a lighter 2AAA-3AAA pattern later on when the air temperature rises. “The bulk of the shot should always be placed around the base of the float. On a river you can leave more float showing above the surface but I still prefer to dot the tip down as much as I can get away with to reduce resistance to any biting fish. The addition of a blob of fluorescent grease to the tip of thewaggler will help to keep it buoyant, as well as improving visibility.”

 The best shotting patterns Getting the right rig presentation below the float is also key to maximising bites when fishing for dace on the waggler. This starts with the shotting pattern, says James. “I see so many novice river anglers shot up in completely the wrong way. All I have on the line below the float are No.10 shots. I have placed two what I call ‘spare’ shots next to the bulk. I can bring these into play if needed. Down the line at mid-depth I have two further
No.10 shots set together, and then two more located just on top of my hooklength, around 10 inches of 0.12mm diameter mono. “Smaller shots, whether fixed as singles or in bulks, will always give a better presentation than bigger shots of the equivalent size in my reckoning. The overall depth is only around three feet at most here, and my aim is to catch dace on the drop. “This is how they feed naturally, and by combining regular feeding with a light, slow falling hookbait, I’m confident that I can catch plenty of dace today.” It’s always tempting to cast upstream of where you are located when river fishing, but James reckons this is one of the most common fundamental mistakes made by newcomers to river angling. He says: “What it all boils down to is line control. If you cast upstream a bow will typically develop in your line, and that makes it harder to connect with the float when it goes under. By casting a little way downstream, you immediately have the line straight behind the float and, even more importantly, it is direct to the float, so that means you have far more chance of connecting to the fish when it dips. “Additionally, by introducing the loosefeed slightly downstream, you will keep the dace shoal in the same area. Dace are notorious for coming up right under the introduced feed, so if you feed upstream they will end up above you, making them much harder to catch, particularly on a shallow river like this.” Maximising your chances Practising what he preaches, James has established a rhythm within a few minutes of his float hitting the water. He explains: “I cast out, feed, and then draw the float back into the loosefeed. This may look tricky, but there is a way to do it and that involves firing the catapult while still holding the rod. If you put the rod down to feed, you risk missing many takes from quick-biting species such as dace.” “Having a catapult with a solid pouch helps a lot too, because I can just add maggots without having to fiddle about trying to open up a soft pouch. “I give myself more chances by spreading the feed broadly across the run. I cast to the far side and, if I miss a bite, I can still be in the zone and give myself another chance, because by having a tight line to the float I won’t have pulled it too far away from the zone.” Although dace are a small species, James still favours a double maggot hookbait.

“With a double bait I always feel that another bite will follow even if I miss the first. I mount them on the hook in a ‘one up, one down’ fashion. The first maggot is hooked through the fat end and the second through the pointed end. This shows more hookpoint and there’s less chance of a maggot ‘folding over’ on to the point which is something that can lead to bumped fish,” he says. “When it comes to hook patterns, I normally use a size 16 micro-barb for dace. The way they wriggle when they fight means that a barbless hook will see too many lost fish.” Don’t run out of bait! James is soon catching plenty of lovely dace
between four and 10 ounces. All in pristine condition, he calls them ‘freshly minted’. The way you feed any swim is always crucial to success, and James is keen to reveal his thinking on the subject as he continues to exploit the large shoal in front of him. “As I mentioned earlier, I always feed downstream. In terms of quantity, well it all depends on the conditions. Today it’s cold, but the fish are on the feed so I reckon 15-20 maggots per cast is about right. If it was harder, then maybe just five or six would suffice, but the point I really want to emphasise is that you simply must keep feeding regularly. “Once again, it’s one of the single biggest mistakes novice river anglers make. Think about it, fish are on the hunt for food all the time, probably swimming all over the river. By keeping a regular supply of free bait in the same area, you will soon attract and hold them there. You simply cannot come to a river like this with less than four pints of bait in my view. If I take any home then it’s probably been a very slow day indeed,” he jokes, while swinging yet another prime, hard-fighting dace to hand. Time marches on, the air warms up a touch and James is a joy to watch, totally in control of the fish in front of him.

“It’s all about practice, and what better way to practice than fishing a superb stretch like this where there are loads of fish to be found. I am having one of the best day’s dace fishing of my life, and it’s the middle of winter,” James says with unbridled enthusiasm. The River Ribble is currently providing some of the best dace sport in the country, and its tidal reaches are there for all anglers to sample through until March 15. What’s more, come June 16 there will also be chub, barbel and roach in the mix as well. “What an absolutely superb venue the River Ribble has turned out to be today, and I know that my stunning catch is not a one-off by any means. I’ve had a truly memorable session, using a very simple approach that I reckon any angler could emulate with a little bit of practice,” concludes James, after safely returning his magnificent net of sparkling silver dace.

How you can fish the venue
James was fishing a stretch of the River Ribble at Shawes Arms, Walton-le-Dale, near Preston in Lancashire. Fishing is free along the length. For more details about this and other angling venues in the area, telephone Ted Carter Tackle (Church St, Preston) on 01772 253476. Alternatively, log on to the website:

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