We meet up with James Robbins on the River Ribble, where he gives a masterclass in stick float fishing for big winter roach.
Finding the motivation to gofishing when there is a raw chill in the air can be difficult. Negative thoughts seem to dominate: is it really worth spending money on bait and petrol when a blank may be in the offing? Perhaps it would be better to sit by the fire and recall those leisurely summer days when the fish fed freely all day long. As common as this mindset might be among the angling population at large, it’s not one James Robbins would entertain.
The Shakespeare rod has a passion to go fishing that burns fiercely no matter what the weather, or the time of year. But with mid-winter days being so short, James knows how important it is to make the most of your chosen river swim before the light fades. We met up with him on the banks of the River Ribble to see how he goes about plundering a swim ‘on the stick’.
Reading a swim
With the prospect of a decent net of quality roach in the offing, James was up before dawn and heading to his swim as the first hints of grey-blue light were kissing the morning sky. He rapidly shuttled his gear half a mile up the river to a noted hotspot he had recently been told about, keen to make the most of the precious few hours of daylight available to him.
“No two river swims are the same, so to get the best out of any stretch of river, you need to rely on a combination of experience and any knowledge you can glean from the locals beforehand,” said James while setting up his seatbox on the frosty riverbank. “The first thing to consider is the conditions, and how they might influence the fish behaviour. Also, what’s the nature of the swim, where are the fish likely to be And, of course, what type of fish are actually likely to be present and what are the best methods to adopt? These are all questions which could leave a novice angler perplexed. “But it’s all part of a never-ending learning process which makes angling such a fascinating undertaking,” James adds as he sits down to assess the swim which he has never seen, let lone fished. “Probably the one stand-out feature of this swim is that it is slightly deeper than the rest of the river around here. That in itself probably makes it a good holding area in winter. There is also a slacker area of flow down the inside, which again is somewhere the fish will be comfortable to hold up, especially in a flood,” said James. “Further out the flow is steady but quite swift, presenting me with the option of developing a second line of attack. My local ‘spies’ have informed me that this area is favoured by roach, and looking at its makeup, it’s easy to see why.”
Stick float choices
Organised, comfortable and ready with all his tackle and bait set out neatly around him, and the sky beginning to brighten over the far bank hillside, James starts to discuss his rigs, and how they will work in conjunction with his feeding regime.
“I’ve had a feel around with a plummet, which has revealed around 4ft of water a couple of rodlengths out, dropping away to 5ft slightly further out,” he said. “I’m going to put my faith in stick float tactics today. When it comes to selecting the right size of float to use, my quick rule of thumb is to use one No.4 split shot for every foot of depth; thus 4ft equals four No.4s, and so on. That does not mean that I will use just No.4 shots, however, but more on that shortly. “There are many types of stick floats available, featuring all manner of different types of stems and tips, which offer certain advantages depending on the conditions. For example, cane-stemmed floats are great for slow-falling bait presentations, while wire or lignum stems are better suited to fishing further out or in pacier flows when you might use a bulk shotting pattern to take the bait down swiftly.” “Dome-topped floats are easier to see at range, shouldered-topped ones enable you to hold back better without the float riding up, and thinner-topped floats ensure very sensitive bite detection when dotted right down fishing close in,” explained James.
Shot it right
One area many anglers struggle with when stick float fishing is using the right shotting pattern. Get it wrong and the bait is
presented inefficiently or the rig tangles repeatedly. James has a solution to ensure that things run smoothly. “If a float’s shotting capacity is, say, four No.4 shot, I’ll use eight No.8 shot instead, bulked together in sets of twos, threes, fours or even larger groups to act as bulk. “The smaller shot do less damage to the line and can be moved around easily, plus they are a lot less prone to tangles when correctly arranged and seem to make the rig more streamlined underwater, which leads to superior bait presentation. By using smaller shots I have more flexibility as to how the rigs are shotted, and can then vary the pattern so different fall rates of the bait will suit how the fish are feeding.” For today’s session James has chosen a 2.5lb mainline, paired with a 0.10mm hooklength and a size 18 Kamasan B560 hook. This is a perfect combination for presenting small hookbaits such as casters or maggots naturally. “I like to nip the barb down on my hooks. I find that they don’t damage the bait when it’s being mounted, plus it’s quicker and easier to unhook the fish when they are coming thick and fast,” adds James, as he starts to fine-tune his rigs. “Today I’m going to be fishing about a foot overdepth and holding back slightly so that the bait precedes the float. Holding back means stopping the float’s passage downriver by trapping the line on the spool with your finger. This causes the bait to rise up in the water, and then when I let it go again it wafts naturally back to the bottom, whereupon a fish is very likely to intercept it thinking it’s a free offering.” To give him maximum control of his float rig, James has selected a 15ft rod. “This should show its worth later on when the wind strength increases. It’s also forecast to be a downstream wind, in which case I may have to add a couple of back shots above the float to keep the line straight behind it, which is integral to this style of fishing,” explains James.
Explanations over, the first cast is made underarm, enabling James to lay the rig on the water’s surface in a straight line. He
follows it up with some feed. “I think many anglers fail to ‘attack’ the swim positively, and don’t think about their bait selection enough. For example, when targeting roach, as I’m predominantly going to be doing today, they tend to stick with maggots, which often leads to catching only smaller fish. I’ll be using mainly hemp and casters today, which will hopefully pick out the bigger fish.” “Initially, I’m introducing a decent amount of hemp slightly downstream to create a bed of feed over which the bigger roach will hopefully settle. Additionally, I’ll feed 10 to 20 casters on every cast.” James steadily starts to find the fish. First of all, it’s a small dace, roach and the odd perch, but after half an hour of regular feeding the stamp of fish gradually increases, with some of the immaculate roach being landed weighing well over 1lb. “I’m delighted with how the swim is progressing. I knew the roach were here, and good ones too, but this is rapidly turning into one of the best day’s roach fishing I have enjoyed in a long time!” says James with a satisfied grin as he nets and unhooks yet another bar of solid Ribble silver, its fins tipped with crimson red.
Two lines better than one
In true match angling style, James feeds two lines rather than just the one. “I suppose that the majority of pleasure anglers will concentrate on just one swim, but by developing a line further out, I can rest the productive inside area and catch some additional dace or perhaps a bonus chub slightly further out.” “It’s demanding work to keep two or more lines on the go, but it’s almost always worth it,” explains James as he swings a chunky dace to hand. By the second and third hours of the session, James is in full flow and his feeding, casting, line control, striking and landing of fish all seem effortlessly coordinated. “Today in this swim a very positive feeding approach is paying dividends, and by using ‘positive’ hookbaits such as double caster, I’m landing a stamp of roach that I would probably miss out on if I were only using maggots.
“I really believe that is what’s making all the difference today, combined with a well set up rig,” says James as he continues to plunder fish after fish in unrelenting fashion. It soon becomes noticeable that his inside line swim is becoming increasingly productive. “Many novice anglers would probably overlook developing an inside line in favour of chucking a feeder or a waggler as far as possible, and yet the best fish appear to be willing to feed close in!” he adds. The afternoon light rapidly starts to fade but it’s not easy to tempt James away from pitch in order to grab a catch picture before darkness envelopes us. With over 35lb of prime River Ribble redfins in his net, plus a raft of other species, it’s been a fabulous display of stick float fishing. “Why on earth would you stay indoors when a winter’s day could deliver a superb catch like this?” he concludes, a beaming grin stretching from ear to ear as he calls it a day.