One Man in a Boat

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(First published in Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Magazine - September 2009)

I've done a lot of chub fishingI always had a soft spot for chub. I was brought up on tales from my dad about being smashed up by big chub on small streams. "You should've seen the size of it, couldn't stop it getting into the roots, smashed to bits!"

I loved articles on stalking chub with slugs and worms and floating crust - real jungle warfare. And I've done a lot of chub fishing since, catching them on everything from slugs and worms, to crust and luncheon meat. I've caught them freelining, ledgering, and trotting.

I'd read the odd piece on fly-fishing for chub, but until a couple of years ago for some reason never tried it. I wish I had!

For several years I spent the summers chasing down some big chub on the middle Thames. All the fish caught were individually stalked and taken on dry fly. And all of them were caught from a drifting boat.

The middle Thames is a beautiful river: broad and tree-lined, slow and stately; and in parts, hardly ever fished. And there is a lot to go at! There are chub all the way from Oxford to London - all you need is a boat, a rod license and a British Waterways boat registration (see side panel).

The boat, it seems to me, is the crucial bit. It allows you to access parts of the river that hardly ever see a fisherman, and surprise-surprise, this seems to be where the better chub are. You are looking for stretches of overgrown, tree-hung bank; and a steady current. The good news is that there is lots of this on the Thames. The bad news is that not all of it has chub. Look for depths in the three to five foot range, over a bed of gravel rather than silt. Chub move around a lot in summer, so you do need to plan to cover a lot of ground in a session.

My method is very simple: First of all, get up early! In midsummer I was on the water by 0430 at the latest, which means getting out of bed very early indeed to get to the water, and launch the boat. This allows me time to motor upstream a couple of miles, giving me a good long drift back down to arrive back at the launch ramp for lunch! The early start also avoids the worst of the boat traffic, which on the Thames can get crazy, with big cruisers, rowing skiffs, and speedboats all fighting for the same water. Early in the morning you only have the odd mad-keen rower to contend with.

Fly-fishing for chub really gets into its own from mid July onward. This gives the chub time to get over spawning and move back into their main-river locations. Good fishing can extend into early October if the weather holds. Warm and clear is the weather you need for this, keeping the chub on top where you can readily spot them.

The approach is to move slowly down river, spotting fish and casting dry flies at them. It's quite easy fishing, but does need a little organisation and coordination.

Drift, row, or slowly idle downstream about 15 to 20 yards out from the bank. Wear polarised sunglasses and stand up. Keep your eyes glued to the water next to the bank, as far ahead of the boat as you can see. Pay particular attention to overhanging trees and bushes. Eventually you will see fish. Typically you'll see groups of 3 to 10 chub holding near or under cover, about six inches beneath the surface. However occasionally you'll get surprised by a lone chub (sometimes a shoal!) cruising slowly along an open shallow.

The chub holding near cover are the easier proposition. You have more time to adjust the boat speed/position if need be, and the tightly knit shoal will be more competitive in chasing the fly.

As soon as you see the fish your first thought should be the boat's speed and direction. If you are idling along cut the engine, ensuring that the boat's path continues on a parallel track to the fish. It's easy to misjudge this and end up drifting too close. Once you've sorted the speed/position thing, you calmly grab the rod and make a speedy cast, picking out the fish you want...or that's what you'd like to happen. Only you (a) forgot to place the rod where you can quickly reach it, (b) forgot to strip any/sufficient line from the reel ready to cast, and best of all (c) you've got the fly snagged on your net/fishing bag/seat. By the time you've sorted that lot out you've drifted 20 yards past the fish; or if you didn't sort the speed/position thing out, you've drifted into the bush where the fish were and will have to extract boat, body, and tackle before the next rower goes past and laughs at you!

So, keep the rod handy, with line stripped and coiled in a tangle free area, and the fly in the keeper ring or somewhere else tangle free. If you do have a problem and just drifted past without casting, it's worth making a wide circle and getting back upstream to set up another drift. Thames chub aren't boat shy, and you are likely to get another shot if you're careful.

Assuming you do get off a decent cast, I have found it's not necessary to lead the fish. One foot ahead or behind is good. Chub react well to the sound of the fly landing. In fact on occasion I've got them to come out from under a bush by slapping the fly down hard on the edge of the branches. If the fish looks like it's hesitating or veers off, give the fly a six-inch twitch. This usually does the trick and the chub will come and take the fly. I've been surprised as to how gently the fish take. Even if they accelerate towards the fly they slow down at the last moment and sip the fly from the surface.

What you don't want to do is strike quickly! Wait for the fish to get its head down, and then tighten. Once you've hooked the fish, keep the rod low and pull the fish quickly away from the bank-side snags. At the same time keep your wits about you for boat traffic and other obstacles that you'll have missed while concentrating on the cast. You may need to manoeuvre the boat and the fish at the same time!

A handy hint here is, as part of your pre-prep, to have your mud-weight/anchor organised so that you can drop it at the pull of a loop. This makes everything easy as the boat won't go anywhere and you can concentrate on the job of landing the chub.

Early morning funChub pull hard, but don't run far. With reasonable tackle, you should have no problems and the fish will be in the net in no time. Excellent! Put it back, sort out the boat again, and off you go for the next chub.

Initially I thought all this was a one-fish-and-go technique, and that the close-quarters nature of the fishing meant that the shoal would spook. This can happen. Especially when other shoal members follow the hooked fish to the net.

However, there is a way to get several fish out of a shoal before they spook. Rather than casting to the fish as you pass by, you drift past the fish and then (because the Thames is slow flowing) you can either use oars or, ideally, an electric motor to sneak back up to a safe casting position behind the fish. About 15 yards is good. With an electric motor you can easily hold the boat against the current while you fire off a cast.

When you hook a fish get the rod down low and off to the side and drag the fish away from the shoal. If necessary use the electric motor to move the boat downstream and away from the shoal at the same time. You can then land the fish, return it, and quietly sneak back up to the shoal for another shot. I've had up to four fish from one group fishing like this.

Catching cruising chub is fun! You don't have a lot of time if you are drifting downstream and the chub is swimming upstream. You won't necessarily have time to slow the boat before casting so fire off a cast as quickly as possible, and try and get some slack into the line to allow for the faster boat movement. If you run out of slack and the fly drags, let it drag for a few seconds. Sometimes the chub will chase it down!

A few words on tackle: I generally use a five-weight rod. You may want to over-line one size to allow for speedy loading. Line is a weight forward, but a DT will be just as good. The tapered leader is 9 - 12ft long with a copolymer tippet of a minimum of 6lb bs. Remember these fish live near snags, and you do need to bully them. Don't risk lighter tippets.

Big and bushy!Flies: Big, bushy, and leggy! My favourite is a size ten stimulator with rubber legs. I also like big foam grasshopper patterns. I have encountered selectivity only once, where a couple of smallish fish seemed focused on caenis, the rest of the time the chub seemed only too happy to munch on a ready-meal sized offering.

So, there you go! Drift-boat fly-fishing for chub. Sight fishing for big fish on a big river. Just like Montana, only with more boat traffic than the Yellowstone, and parakeets instead of bald eagles!

© William Shaw