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The Bristol Avon's Best Kept Secret

November 21 2008

Since their introduction in the 1950s at the hands of the local water authorities and the Angling Times, barbel have come to dominate the middle and lower reaches of the Bristol Avon. Venues like Lacock, Peckingells and Claverton have achieved national recognition, and specimens in excess of fifteen pounds have been caught.

To many, the Avon is a barbel river now, and I have pursued old whiskers in its waters as keenly as anybody. And yet, I don’t think of the Bristol Avon as a barbel river, or at least not exclusively so. The stocks of chub, bream and silver fish are healthy, and the trout fishing can be excellent too, in the upper waters towards Malmesbury. Our Avon, thankfully, is still a thriving mixed fishery.

Every year I spend hundreds of hours on its banks – usually fishing, sometimes baiting up or scouting out new reaches. I see a lot of fishermen. Most are after the silver fish, or the ever-popular barbel. Very few are setting out their stall for pike, and this baffles me. The Bristol Avon is as good a pike fishery as any in the country, if one knows where to look.

Perhaps it’s the abundance of quality stillwaters in the area, or the lure of the Somerset drains or the Thames that keeps the pike anglers away. I really don’t know, but whatever the reason is, I’m grateful. Pike, above any other species, thrive upon neglect. Repeat captures and rough handling can damage stocks with alarming speed, and it delights me that the pike on the Bristol Avon are, largely, left alone. They are, in my view, the river’s best kept secret.

The casual pike angler is often put off river fishing, preferring the sit-and-wait tactics of stillwater piking. The thought of finding fish in moving waters, and presenting a bait effectively, is widely regarded as difficult. Nothing could be further from the truth. River pike fishing is all about movement, and about roving. It is also all about simplicity, and I urge you to try it.

The first step towards catching pike from the Bristol Avon is to pare down your tackle to an absolute minimum – you will be doing a lot of walking, often in heavy mud and over rough ground. This is no time for carp barrows or bait boats. One rod will suffice – something with a test-curve around 2 ½ lb is ideal, with a length anywhere between 10 and 12 feet. Your usual carp rod will be fine. This should be coupled with a fixed spool reel with a reliable clutch - I use old Mitchells, but I’m funny like that – and a quality braided line. I use 30 lb. test. A small rucksack, a folding, easily-transported landing net, and a bucket will complete the outfit.

The rucksack will contain your floats, traces, scales, camera, unhooking equipment, unhooking mat, permits and other ‘essential’ ephemera. The bucket will contain your bait. It will also provide brief respite if you need to sit down. A heavy specialist chair will slow you down, and gradually sap your will to move regularly. Twenty minutes perched on a bucket and you will want to move!

The river piker can choose from a number of different approaches – dead baits, live baits, spinning and lure fishing, even fly fishing. They all work, but in the autumn and winter months, fish baits will out-fish artificials. Many of the clubs controlling the Avon prohibit live baits, and so frozen ‘deads’ are the way to go. Fortunately, they are highly effective. My favourite bait for all river piking is a small herring – they are high in attractive oils, appear to be accepted by pike without hesitation, and survive repeat casting. Smelt, lamprey sections and sardines all have their day, but it is rare for me to set out without herring in my bucket.

Invariably, I float fish. Usually, my bait is nailed to the bottom with 1-3oz of lead, and so effectively it’s a float-leger set-up. Occasionally, I’ll take the lead off and trip the bait slowly along the bottom past reed beds or sunken trees. It would be misleading to describe it as trotting, and ‘lurching’ strikes me as a more accurate term. Pretty it ain’t, but you will experience days when the pike want their food on the move, and this will invoke a take when static baits are being refused. Fish towards snags, reed beds, overhanging trees and anywhere else that offers the pike some degree of sanctuary. If nothing materialises in twenty minutes, move on – the Avon’s pike are largely uncaught, and if you find them, you will usually catch them, and in short order too. The sit-and-wait approach can yield fish too, but keep mobile and try lots of swims. You’ll find them.

Every river has its weir pools, roadside access points and easily-reached hot spots that see the bulk of the pressure. The Avon is no different, and you will find some areas where the pike receive concerted pressure. Avoid them – the best of the pike fishing on the Avon is off the beaten track, and the rewards can be considerable. An average day on the middle river can produce more than half-a-dozen takes, with a couple of good doubles among them. The bigger fish are there – the Bristol Avon has surrendered its share of thirty pounders in the past – and I have yet to get through a winter on its banks without encountering at least one twenty-pounder. Unless you compare your results with the unique bounty found in the trout reservoirs, that’s serious pike fishing. I used to drive to the West Coast of Ireland for much the same, little realising I needed only to drive one junction down the M4.

If you do decide to target the river’s pike, there are several clubs to consider. The Bath and Bristol, Bathampton, Chippenham, Calne and Keynsham associations all offer quality sport for those willing to do a bit of pioneering. There are others, but I have yet to try them – if the prey fish are there, the pike won’t be far behind. Speak to the local match and pleasure anglers – they are usually all too willing to reveal the location of unwelcome pike.

When you do find them, enjoy your sport. If you are among the first to fish a stretch for pike, you can expect the action to be fast and furious at times. Ensure you are ready for them when this happens – long-nosed forceps, wire cutters, a soft mat and barbless trebles will make the business of returning these wonderful creatures so much easier. For all their perceived ferocity, pike are fragile animals; clumsy unhooking methods, gags, hard ground and barbed hooks can all cause irreversible damage, and have no place in modern predator fishing. The Avon’s pike are, after all, a secret worth protecting.

My top ten tips for catching your own Bristol Avon pike:

  1. Travel light, and be prepared to walk long distances – the biggest specimens won’t be in the car park swim!
  2. Use barbless snap tackles, and don’t be afraid to step down to Size 8 or 10.
  3. Strike as soon as the float stays under, or when it is moving steadily across the surface. Only the little ones fall off from striking too soon.
  4. Pop up your bait with an orange poly-ball, especially if there is some colour in the water or leaves on the bottom.
  5. Tread carefully and quietly – the pike are often under your feet in the margins, and can spook easily.
  6. Try to get fresh bait from the fish counter – it is better, and cheaper, than frozen bait.
  7. Experiment with added oils and attractants – one of my favourite ploys is to add a garlic or fish-oil pill (the clear jelly-type ones sold by health food shops) on to the bend of one of the trebles. It leaves a tasty little slick for the pike to home in on.
  8. Don’t be put off by a little colour in the water, but try to move your bait a few inches at a time around your swim – the pike will be less inclined to chase after a bait when visibility is poor, but they will seize a bait that ends up on their nose.
  9. The Bristol Avon often carries a hint of colour, but if heavy rain leaves it thick and soupy, leave the pike alone and get your barbel rod out!
  10. Make sure you have a long, extending landing net handle. There will be swims with high banks where you will struggle to net your pike with anything less than an eight-foot pole.