CATCHING THOSE BIG NOMADIC TENCH by Steve Burke
In my first article about big nomadic tench I finished by describing how I almost completely avoided the small females under 6lbs. I said that I used different tactics to catch the big nomads, and this is what this piece is all about.
To begin with I need to go back to 2004 when one of my syndicate members at Wingham caught a 17-14 bream that was just 11 years old and only ounces under the then record. Suddenly I had a burning desire to catch a monster bream!
However Wingham contained very few bream at all, and even fewer had been caught. Location would be very difficult, especially as the bream almost never rolled. In so many respects Wingham is very similar to Queenford, the former record bream venue, and so I contacted Phil Smith and Tony Miles who had been successful there – although we’re talking about relative success, like a bream every 20 nights! Both told me that the bream were largely nocturnal and didn’t like weed. Moreover they’d very rarely been caught in areas that had been cleared of weed, it had to be somewhere naturally weed free. Nearly all the Queenford bream had been caught from the tops of bars, the only places where they’re wasn’t thick weed.
The first problem I had was that Wingham has very many more bars than Queenford, so which to choose? The second problem was even worse. At the time we could use herbicides to control our thick weed and I did so every two years. It so happened that 2004 was one of those years, and so not only were the bars clear of weed, most of the huge number of troughs within casting range were clear as well! How on earth could I cut down the number of possibilities?
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I had one of those light bulb ideas. Rather than try to catch the bream where they naturally fed (and I didn’t know where these areas were anyway), how about trying to ambush them on their way from one swim to another?
Luckily we had some aerial photos of Wingham showing a great many of the shallower bars and the troughs in between, and these I’d enhanced on my computer. It was still a lot of guesswork as to the routes the bream would take, but I became more and more attracted to gaps in the bars, especially if they were a long way apart and so more likely to be used. In my experience, just like us with hills and passes, I’ve found that fish prefer to go through a gap or round the end of a bar rather than over it. These gaps would funnel the fish into a confined area, and so temporarily there would be a greater density of fish per square yard.
To make sure I covered the entire gap I laid a trail of bait from the top of one bar, across the trough, and up to the top of the bar on the other side. To my delight all the mental effort paid off and I caught 5 big bream in just 20 nights (mind you I’ve not had any in over 100 nights since!). Moreover I also caught a number of big tench as well.
However what was especially illuminating was where exactly I caught these fish from. The hottest area was at the base of the bars, on the dividing line between the gravel and the silt.
Naturally I asked myself the question why. It may of course be that’s where any freebies ended up, either rolling down the slope or being washed there by the undertow. However it made me think back to the 80s when I started fishing trout reservoirs and for the first time used fishfinders. I’d written at the time about finding pike in open water on the dividing line between hard and soft bottoms, even where there was no depth change, but had no idea why an apex predator of all things would be there. After all these years I think I may now have an answer.
I also run Wingham as a nature reserve and so have done a lot of reading about ecology. One of the things I picked up was that forest clearings are great places for wildlife. One of the best habitats of all isn’t in the clearing itself, nor in the forest, but on the edge of the clearing. I’ve since found that ecologists call such an edge an “ecotone”. These ecotones hold not only a greater diversity of species, including some that live only there, but also a greater overall population. Scientists call this the “edge effect”.
Now if you think about it, the dividing line between the hard and soft bottoms is a classic example of an ecotone. Here a fish is going to find more food in a given time – some that lives on a hard bottom, some that lives in the silt, and some that specialises in the ecotone. Additionally, if one species of food is in short supply, there’s a good chance another will be blooming.
Could it be then that the fish in waters like Wingham naturally follow an ecotone when moving from one area to another?
During the day this would be easy. But how would night feeders like big bream in low stock waters like Wingham find their way round in the dark? They may or may not be able to see anything, but they’d certainly be able to use their sense of smell. Even we humans can easily smell the difference between gravel and silt; we can even tell the difference between “sweet” silt and horrible rotten muck. Fish, that have a hugely better sense of smell than us, would have no problem at all.
I’d add that the dividing line between a hard and soft bottom isn’t the only example of an ecotone. An ecotone is any border between 2 habitats. It could for example be between 2 different types of weed, or even where undertow has scoured the bottom adjacent to a slack area where leaves have accumulated. I’m sure you can think of others.
I’ve found from experience that the key to catching at venues like Wingham with masses of features and a huge amount of natural food is finding the hotspots in the swim. Those who’ve done so and really got to know a small number of swims intimately have nearly always outfished those who’ve tried to follow their quarry and tried lots of areas they’re not totally familiar with.
One of the reasons is that these hotspots can be very concentrated – just a little way out can make a huge difference. This means that I much prefer to fish at close range so that I can both cast and feed very accurately, especially in a crosswind.
A good example of this is a swim I started fishing in 2010. I fancied it for a number of reasons, not least because it was rarely fished. I love this pioneering, and usually get a season or two before syndicate members follow me in and I have to move on again. At the end of the first season though I’d frustratingly found just one hotspot. Determined not to let the fish beat me, at the start of the second season I went out in the boat with a prodding stick. It wasn’t long before I found a really sexy area where not just two but three types of habitat joined up at the bottom of a bar. The side of the bar was gravel, and at the base there was an area of firm silt plus another of softer silt.
Quite by chance, whilst I was there one of my members turned up. In fact Dave was one of the few who’d ever fished this swim. Moreover he told me he too had found only one hotspot in the swim. However it wasn’t the one I’d caught from the previous year; rather it was the one I’d just found from the boat! But even more interesting was that it was just 10 feet or so away from a spot I’d fished the season before for just one fish on the first trip!
In this swim there’s a series of closely-spaced gravel bars with some 10 feet between the bottom of the bars. The year before I’d fished on the shady side of the bar expecting the fish to use that side. However the new spot was on the sunny side of the same trough. Had I been wrong?
I soon found out. That 2 night session I had 8 tench, all big. 1 came from the previous year’s hotspot (granted it was a 10lber); 1 came from the bottom of the marginal slope (another classic ecotone of course); and 6 came from the new hotspot!
I mentioned earlier about accurate feeding. For some time prior to this I’d done better with the tench at Wingham by accurately concentrating the feed on the hotspot. The first time I tried this I caught the 10-06 pictured below.
Not only is accuracy required, but to sort out the big nomads I’ve found it important to get both the type and amount of feed right.
When I first started catching just big tench both members and I put it down to sheer chance. However when it continued to happen trip after trip and in a lot of different swims others began to sit up and take notice. It was almost certain I was doing something different, but what? No one, including me, knew. Some thought it was down to my feeding. It was well known I was a fan of flavourings, and it was perhaps assumed I was using a lot of flavour and not much actual food.
Now at Wingham we’ve always shared information, and in fact used to have fish-ins and BBQs. That way we all learnt from each other and all caught more. So to try to find the answer, at one of our meetings I went round the room and asked each angler what and how much they were using as groundbait. To the surprise of all of us, including me, I wasn’t using any less in the way of actual food than most of the others. But there was something else different – I was using less flavour than nearly everyone.
Since then I’ve gradually refined matters further and use even less flavour. In particular I’ve dispensed with the small amount of boilie crumb I used to use to dry the mix as such small items would be easily dispersed on the undertow. For the same reason I don’t use pellets, although I rarely have anyway. My feed now consists of just particles, with the main flavour coming from different sizes of chopped boilies that match the hookbait. I now even drain off the juice from the small amount of tinned sweetcorn I use. The next step will be to try frozen sweetcorn for even less smell.
Whilst I’m convinced about the ecotones, I’m not yet 100% certain about the feeding. However what I think was probably happening was that the flavourings were attracting the smaller shoal tench from neighbouring areas. This I feel firstly reduces the chances of a big bream that are incredibly spooky – much more so than the carp. Secondly, I believe it also reduces the chance of a big nomadic tench. This is because if the shoal tench have moved in you’ve no idea how much feed you’ve got left.
I think that knowing how much feed is left is the crucial point, particularly when you’re fishing for a single loner fish at a time as I am. If the shoal fish have wiped your feed out and you don’t put any more in then a loner coming through later probably won’t stop. But if you top the feed up you may end up with too much and so reduce the chance of your hookbait being taken. For this reason, if on a normal 2 day trip I’ve had no indication of a fish or line bites after 24 hours I assume my feed is still there and, aside from PVA sticks, don’t put any more in.
Most of the Wingham members are happy to catch a big bag of tench, and hope by the law of averages it includes a whopper. Many have been extremely successful in catching these big bags, the biggest being 66 in just 3 days. However it’s interesting that the majority of the 10lbs+ Wingham tench have come totally out of the blue. I’m therefore convinced that the best chance of catching a double is to avoid the shoal tench.
In other words, rather than trying to catch the biggest tench in a shoal, I’m trying to catch the biggest tench in the lake.
Unfortunately, my time is very limited due to running Wingham, and late June/early July when there’s the best chance of catching a real heavyweight is a particularly busy time. I keep saying that next year will be different, but it never is!
So to sum up, the two things that I do differently when I’m after the big nomadic loners is to firstly find the hotspots in the swim, in particular concentrating on the ecotones. Secondly I feed as accurately as I can and cut right back on the flavourings so as not to attract the smaller shoal tench in from neighbouring areas. This has worked very successfully for me at Wingham, and would probably work well on other similar waters.
I’ll leave you with one final thought. In my experience it’s not just with tench that some are nomads and some are stay at homes, it’s the same with big carp too. But there’s a subtle difference. More of that another time though………..
Copyright Steve Burke 2015 onwards