Victorian gentlemen turned their noses up at coarse fish. But there is much excitement to be had fishing for pike, chub and dace on the fly, says Mike Daunt
The Victorians might have shunned pike, chub or dace, but fly-fishing for coarse fish is something Mike Daunt encourages everyone to try — just don’t be tempted to eat them for your supper.
How do you communicate your passion for fishing and encourage children into the sport? There are a few things to consider, says Tobias Coe.
Find out all you need to know about how to protect our rivers with our A-Z of river health, from Acronyms to Zander, via Dredging and Water Companies.
FLY-FISHING FOR COARSE FISH: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The description of some fish as ‘coarse’ was thought up by those archetypal snobs, the Victorians, and applies to any species that wasn’t gamefish. But what a misnomer it is. There is nothing coarse about the freshwater fish in our rivers. Pike, perch, roach, rudd, chub, dace, barbel and carp (of which there are three different sorts) are in no way coarse, and perch and pike are particularly beautiful. The former has a huge dorsal fin and black stripes running down a silvery bronze body and the latter is the shark of fresh water, with a body built for speed and a head full of needle-sharp teeth. I hope, but do not believe, that the Victorians described them as ‘coarse’ because they are mostly inedible. There are recipes for pike and I have tried them but, without exception, they all taste of mud.
Catch all the coarse fish you like then, but always return them gently to the water. It’s a lesson I learned young, when I caught my first ever fish – a very small roach – at the age of eight. When I had it on the bank, I jumped up and down with over excitement and insisted that I wanted to eat it for my supper. My uncle tried to dissuade me but I was adamant. He then looked me hard in the eye and taught me a great fishing maxim: “If you kill a fish you must eat it. You never waste it.”
Thus, one of the smallest and certainly unluckiest freshwater fish in Britain was hit on the head and taken to the kitchen. My uncle then showed me how to gut it and prepare it for cooking and it was duly fried in butter. I will never forget it. The first mouthful was so disgusting that I spat it out. “Oh no, you don’t,” said my uncle. “You are going to eat every single tiny bit and that will teach you never to kill a fish and not eat it.” I have never made that mistake again.
In Britain, all native gamefish, except for the grayling, are salmonids – salmon, sea-trout, brown trout and char, although not rainbow trout, a 19th-century American import – and all have an adipose fin, which is, essentially, a small piece of gristle that sticks up in front of the tail fin. With no apparent purpose other than to differentiate the game from the coarse variety, it is the equivalent of a piscatorial Old Etonian tie. Another, less-visible difference is that coarse fish breed between mid March and mid June, while gamefish breed between the end of September and the end of December, except for the grayling, which breeds at the same time as the coarse fish.
We are lucky enough in Britain to possess 95% of all the chalkstreams on Earth (the remaining 5% are in France, to which the same chalk strata stretches). And although chalkstreams are always thought of as synonymous with trout fishing, they are also a wonderful habitat for every kind of freshwater fish. The classic example of this is the Hampshire Avon and the Royalty Fishery in particular. It is home to not only some of the best salmon and sea-trout fishing in England but also wonderful pike, chub, barbel and roach fishing.
In many ways, the trout of our chalkstreams are far easier to catch than coarse fish. They are used to seeing human beings and associate them with food, particularly floating food, because since time immemorial mankind has thrown floating pellets at them. Of course, there is always an exception. Christened Charlie by the syndicate members, it is invariably a cannibal trout that takes up prime residence under a bridge and is enormous, 5lb plus, having grown to that size by feeding on other fish. There is a Charlie in almost every club water in Britain. Every day in the season, someone optimistically throws a Greenwells Glory and, at the right time, a Mayfly in front of him. They are ostentatiously ignored, an almost snooty movement to one side allowing the nasty thing to pass. Eventually, Charlie is nowhere to be seen and his place has been taken by another trout, not quite as big. The members all grizzle in the bar that evening and produce amazing theories about otters and pike. But I know what has happened. The local urchin has crept down of a summer’s dawn, armed with a spinning rod and lobworm and caught Charlie fair and square. Why am I so certain of this? Because, many years ago, I was that urchin.
A day’s trout fishing on a chalkstream is something to savour and greatly look forward to. However, how many times has your day been ruined by blazing sunshine or, even worse, a bitterly cold north-east wind? When this happens, it is time to forget fishing for trout and concentrate on other fish. If I see that the weather is going to be against me, I go prepared. I will take small black gnats for dace and roach and large buzzy flies for chub. And coarse fish do put up a challenge. Although they do not fight as well as a trout, they make up for it by being far shyer and the fly has to be presented with great care.
Without doubt, the greatest fun of all the coarse fish on a fly rod is unquestionably a pike. With their slim, spotted bodies built for bursts of speed and their heads full of teeth they are, to me, beautiful. To catch them, you need a 10ft 8wt rod and a pike fly and, the most important thing of all, a wire trace, for a pike can easily bite through nylon. You will find them lying in backwaters, waiting to spring out on their quarry when least expected. They particularly like sick or wounded fish, as they are essentially lazy and don’t want to make too much effort for their food. Thus, when you work your fly, do it in jerky movements, not smoothly.
My greatest adventure with pike came when I landed a fish of more than 20lb from the Test. Just before the Brexit vote, I had been asked by the BBC to be filmed fishing on the Test, that quintessentially English river, while reciting GK Chesterton’s The Secret People. Except that, during the shoot, I hooked an enormous pike completely by mistake. This was wonderful for the BBC, but I had no net and had to resort to an old trick that I learnt as a boy, which is to grab the fish by the eyes. Before everyone starts screaming ‘abuse and cruelty’, it does the fish no harm whatsoever. We managed it (you can see it on YouTube at: bit.ly/pikeonthefly).
Another wonderful fish to catch on a fly is a chub. The chavender, or chub, grows to a fair size. The record at the moment stands at 9lb 5oz, but the average chub is about 3lb to 4lb. They are shoal fish and live in backwaters, usually under trees or bushes, waiting for food to fall onto the water. They are a particularly greedy fish, feeding on virtually any bait that is offered them. However, they are also punctilious at inspecting the bait and suspicious of anything amiss. I have always found that the best fly is a large, buzzy one moved over the surface, although the most fun is to be had stalking them through the bushes using an 8ft 5wt rod. Spot some chub, wind the line around the rod tip until the fly is against the ferrules. Then push the rod through the bushes and carefully rotate it, unwinding the fly until it is almost on the water. The final turn will release the fly and you should allow it to land with a small splash. This attracts the chub, which will swim over to see what the disturbance is all about. Landing the fish from this position can only be described as interesting, but the chub is no fighter and can usually be extricated without too much trouble. It also has to be said that the chub is disgusting to eat and there is a blissful recipe for cooking them: wrap the chub in newspaper; bury it for two weeks; dig it up and eat the newspaper. I regret to say that that is deadly accurate.
For a different kind of challenge, it’s worth trying the dace, although a big one is half a pound and the average is 3oz to 4oz. Use the smallest fly rod that you possess and spot some dace rising. In the summer, there are usually quantities of these fish, certainly in the Thames. A small (14-16) black gnat is an ideal fly and you will rise any number of fish for they are willing and obliging. However, if you hook one in 10, that is good going, for they are the fastest taker of the fly of any fish that I know. I have competitions with a friend with a goodly prize on the table. You almost have to strike as the fish takes the fly.
Essentially, almost any coarse fish will take a fly. I have even heard of carp grabbing them, though never tench, eel or barbel, which are determined bottom feeders. So when you are on a trout stream, particularly on a fruitless day, try for a pike or a chub, or test your reactions against a dace. It’s great fun and will save you wasting your day and your money in the pub.