Like a lot of anglers, I started as a small boy fishing maggots, worms or bread flake under a float on my local ponds and streams. I grew up close by the West Berkshire chalk streams, but they were outside my reach both socially and financially so for me it was free sections on the Pang, Kennet and Lambourn that nobody cared about, the canals or a few old estate ponds hidden in the woods just near home. When I got older dad would take me fishing on his days off. We would get up early, drive into Newbury, park up in the Wharfe and pick up some bait from the tackle shop near the Kennet Centre. Dad would sort out the maggots, to supplement the worms he’d dug up from our compost heap, whilst I gazed longingly at the shiny reels and wiggled the latest rods. All I could actually afford would be a float, but it was nice to dream. We would spend many a happy hour wandering the canal tow paths or sitting on the banks of some hidden away pond. Mum would have made us a flask, packed us some cake and some sandwiches, although most of the bread would get fed to the fish. It instilled in me a deep love of water and for fishing.
When I came back to fishing in my early thirties it was to fly fishing. Dad kept all our kit and in his old age would still wander up to the pond to try and catch the fish that were no longer there. When he died I found everything dusty and rusty, tucked away in the garage. As a fly fisherman my real passion is the dry fly. I will fish wet fly, spider and nymph or strip a streamer, when conditions dictate, but my heart is never really in it. The reason I love the dry fly is because it is so visual. Watching the fly drift down on the current. Seeing the fish stir, turning to take the fly from the surface. The fly disappearing as the fish dives back down. I think this goes back to those early days, me and dad intent on the float, watching it trot off, waiting for it to dip away out of sight.
Ten years ago I was in Alnwick for The Wild Trout Trust Annual Get Together. On the Saturday night we had a fabulous dinner at Alnwick Castle, accompanied by far too much red wine, and I fished the Derwent with the legendary Stuart Crofts on the Sunday. The Get Together itself was held on the Saturday at the Hardy site in Alnwick. It was the usual mix of entertaining, educational and elucidating presentations interspersed with coffee and stimulating conversation. Whilst we were there Hardy said attendees could buy anything from the shop at a generous discount. I didn’t need telling twice. But whilst everyone else was eyeing up the 9’ 5 weights and Perfect reels my gaze settled on a Marksman Float Rod and Conquest Centrepin. Hardy had recently gone back into coarse fishing tackle and I remembered reading some very positive reviews in the press. Out came the wallet and £600 later I was the proud owner of a 15’ float rod and a 4½” centrepin. I would have to wait six months for the end of the trout season before I would have the chance to christen my new rod and reel.
I spent the trout season, when I wasn’t fishing, looking around for coarse tackle to compliment my new trotting outfit. I’d need line, floats, hooks and shot plus lots of other bits and pieces. I would also need somewhere to go fishing. The line, floats and hooks were straightforward. There is an excellent little tackle shop near Tadley where you get a cup of tea whilst you browse the store. The place to go fishing proved a little harder. You needed to be a member of a club to access fishing near me and there were waiting lists for all the better clubs. There was very little day ticket water on the chalk streams. Then someone put me onto Barton Court. Bob Bailey ran a beat on the Kennet near Kintbury and you could fish there during the winter for a few quid. Whilst a managed to catch a few fish on that first outing what I realised was that trotting on the chalk streams was a whole different affair to the canal and ponds of my youth. I needed some help.
I’d recently become a member of The Grayling Society, so I got in touch with my Area Secretary and they suggested I buy a copy of Reg Righyni’s magnum opus ‘Grayling’. Paul Morgan at Coch-Bonddu sourced me a copy and I set about soaking up Reg’s wise words. The then Chairman of The Grayling Society Steve Rhodes gave me some advice and also suggested a spend some time with his partner at Go Fly Fishing, Dave Martin. A few weeks later I met Dave at The Denford Fishery on the Kennet near Hungerford. Back then they allowed trotting for Grayling during the winter months. I couldn’t believe that we would be able to trot the Kennet. The river was gin clear and thin, I felt sure the fish would spook.
Dave taught me so much that day and it has influenced my approach to this day. We fished small floats, light tippets, tiny hooks and employed the stealthiest of approaches. And it all paid off. We caught lots of feisty Grayling including a right lunker for Dave.
Since those first few trips on the Kennet I’ve also had the chance to go trotting with Steve Rhodes, Chris Lythe and Bob James plus some of The Grayling Society grandees. I’ve honed my technique and now feel that I’ve got it pretty much nailed, albeit that there is always more to learn. I now have a selection of the Hardy Marksman float rods in various lengths to suit different sized rivers and various different centrepins to match them. As with fly rods I will always fish the longest rod I can get away with. Longer rods allow better line control
I tend to favour the Adcock Stanton centrepins. They are simple in design and solidly built. They have a low start up inertia and spin freely, but purposefully. I load them with braid. Braid has almost zero stretch and is very strong for its diameter. When long trotting at range you want to pick up line and set the hook quickly and effectively so the less stretch the better. In my back pack I carry a wide selection of floats, in different sizes and of different designs to suit different waters. Small clear plastic chubbers, avons and bobbers for the small chalk streams, larger wire stemmed stick floats with long sighters/antennae for the lower Itchen or Test. I use a small rubber to attach the float at the top and a long length of silicon tubing to attach it to the stem. This helps to stop the line below the float hinging during casting. For hooks I use the Drennan hooks to nylon which I loop to loop to the end of my braid. When your hands are cold the fewer knots the better. Drennan make a huge range of these hooks to nylon in different styles and sizes with different strength breaking strains. Shoting patterns depend on conditions. If the river is low and clear I’ll normally keep the majority of the shot under the float to cock it quickly whilst allowing the bait to drift naturally. If the river is up and coloured, and the fish are hard on the bottom, I’ll load the shot near to the hook to get the bait down quick and keep it in the feeding zone.
For baits I always have some mixed white and red maggots and some small worms. The old boys will tell you that the big Grayling will take a worm over a ground bait of maggot. It’s certainly worked for me on more than one occasion. I also keep a small tin of sweetcorn in my pack just in case, although it doesn’t often come out.
Lots of my fishing buddies think that float fishing lacks skill, “anyone can do that”. Please excuse my language but, that is a load of bollocks. Like any fishing method, to trot well and effectively requires skill and practice. The key is line control and effective presentation of the bait. When trotting you need to be able to strike into the fish quickly, especially with Grayling that will spit out the bait in the blink of an eye. So that means ensuring there is no slack line between rod tip and float. Mending line is key, and where a longer rod helps. Success is also dependent on the bait being presented just ahead of the float. Holding the float back, so that it drifts slightly slower than the current, ensures this. The float is slowed by applying a little pressure to the rim of the centrepin with the thumb. Occasionally stopping the float during the trot causes the bait to swing up through the water column, a little like an induced take when nymphing, and can be deadly.
One of the joys of trotting is that you can never be quite sure what you are going to catch. Ask most people what they think of when you ask about fishing on the chalk streams and they’ll talk about casting a dry fly to rising trout on a warm summers evening. But the chalk streams, particularly in their lower reaches, are excellent mixed fisheries. When out trotting for winter Grayling I’ve caught Perch, Roach, Dace, and Chub. I often get Pike chasing the worm as it’s batted back at the end of a trot.
A couple of years back I decided to fish a bit of the Kennet just above Newbury. It’s a free section but the access isn’t easy, so it doesn’t get fished much. I had to beat my way through shoulder high nettles to get to the river and scramble down a steep bank to get in. I started trotting the margins on my bank and picked up small Perch and silver fish straight off. As the takes slowed down I cast further out to see if I could find some fresh fish. I was feeding a few maggots each cast with a red and a white on the hook. As I started to catch a few Grayling I switched to a worm on the hook. Third cast the float slid away purposefully and kept going as I lifted into the take. I was met with solid resistance. As I applied a little more pressure the fish realised what was happening and didn’t like it. It set off for Reading with a sense of urgency. Applying as much pressure as I dare I managed to slow the fish down. It then decided that Hungerford might be a good alternative destination and shot by me in the opposite direction. I held on for dear life. When it eventually slipped into the net it turned out to be a chunky little Barbel. My first.
In recent years I’ve been lucky enough to trot on a number of the chalk streams thanks to some of the more enlightened clubs. I was a member of the Cotswold Fly Fishers that gave me access to the Windrush. Membership of Salisbury & District Angling Club gives me access to the Nadder and Avon and friends at the Wilton Fly Fishing Club have invited me out on the Wylye. There are also a number of free sections on the Itchen, Kennet and Lambourn that offer very good winter Grayling fishing with float or fly. So, if you love your fly fishing but fancy something different why not try trotting.
The Grayling Society has a network of Area Secretaries that can offer advice on trotting for winter Grayling and they sell a range of floats in their shop. Members also receive The Grayling Anglers Guide is full of information on where to fish for Grayling.
(Please accept my apologies for some of the photos used in this blog. They were taken in less enlightened times. Always treat your quarry with respect and practice catch and release responsibly).