The chub a fish for all seasons? – Martin James MBE tells us why winter is best for seeking out the larger specimens

A seriously big winters chub

Today’s Tuesday and it’s snowing hard, no buses are running from my village into town, certainly not the day to be driving, my car stayed in the garage. I kitted myself out with walking boots, a good pair of waterproof trousers, my arctic smock, trilby hat and a haversack upon my back.

The chub maybe considered a fish for all seasons, however they can be in poor condition during the summer months but find those same fish in winter and it’s a different story altogether. In this feature I am looking back to days and nights from the past, in the hope I can take you away from the fireside and sample some great sport with hard fighting fish. You will follow in the footsteps of some great anglers such as Dick Walker, Fred J Taylor and Peter Stone among others. On those icy cold days and nights of winter chub are my first quarry. The tackle set up is quite simple – an 11-12 foot Avon action rod, fixed spool or centre pin reel – I use both. I will normally use a 6lb line though when fishing near snags 8lb is the go to. I attach a float stop before tying on a Pallatrax Grypz in sizes 4’s 6’s and 8’s hook. The knot choice is simple a Palomar.

Baits Are Numerous

As we know chub will eat anything unless taught not to. The only way they learn is by getting caught a few times, its then they can be a bit more choosy. In cold water conditions when the water temperature reading is 39.5 degrees F, water changes its viscosity and like the oil in you car thickens when the temperature drops it’s the same with water. The digestive rate of fish also slows down, so one has to be very careful how many free offering of bait you introduce. I never put any free offerings in the water to start with when temperature readings are below 42 degrees F. My first choice bait is crust, if the temps have dropped below 40 degrees F in the previous 48 hours I use a very short hook length, often no more than 2 inches. After the cold spell has lasted a few days, you can often increase the distance between bait and weight. In my experience I have found bites are often a slight knock followed by a good pull round of the rod tip although you occasionally get a small pull; a good reason for holding the rod and feeling the line, in fact if I feel anything out of the ordinary I strike.

Making Cheese Paste

Cheese for a good old paste

A good bait in both clear and coloured water is cheese paste, what ever the water temperature, I use a well matured Blue stilton. I buy it in 2lb pieces then allow it to mature in my shed for as long as 3 months. I make my cheese paste as follows.  First take two large loaves of bread a week old, then liquidise into a fine crumb. Having warmed an old saucepan break up cheese into the warm saucepan the cheese will slowly turn into a thick liquid, switch off the heat. Then add enough crumb to the cheese using a wooden spoon to mix bread and cheese into a very soft paste. Do not add any more crumb until the mix has cooled off, you will find it a lot firmer. If it isn’t as you want it, just knead more crumb. Do not add any flavours, cheese paste has its own strong smell.

One Of Many Cold Winter Sessions

Even under the most harsh and coldest conditions you stand a chance of catching a chub. I can look back in my diary and remember various winter sessions, one such classic session was as follows. I’d visited the river to check my mink traps, over the previous days I’d been checking the water temperature finding it the same as the previous three days at 34 degrees F. Snow and Ice was everywhere, from a distance the river looked black against the white snow covered banks, the surrounding hills shrouded in mist, it was a slippery journey down the long ice coated track to the river, in driving conditions more suited to a 4 wheel drive, than my small car. Eventually I pulled into the car park. Half a dozen mallard shot skywards from the water’s edge, a few years ago I would have had a loaded 12 bore, no doubt I would have let off at least one shot, if not two. I shivered in the easterly wind, quickly pulling on my windproof arctic smock, an excellent garment for this type of  weather followed by my Simms mittens.

Unwinding the cord from my thermometer I dropped it into the ice rimmed margin of the river, five minutes later I got a reading of 34 degrees F. As I waited for the kettle to boil, I put together a 12 foot Avon action rod, Mitchell 300 reel 1953 vintage but still perfect for the job. Blowing on my cold shaking finger tips, I attempted to push the end of the line through the guides, occasionally wiping tears from my eyes caused by the cold wind, not sure how I managed to tie on a hook, but I did after three attempts. As I get older I find the simplest of jobs becoming difficult. Standing the rod against the fence, I turned to see steam coming from the spout of the kettle, soon a mug of tea was warming my hands, with a piece of walnut cake the afternoon suddenly seemed a lot better.

Flocks of fieldfare were everywhere, along with starlings, soon a robin appeared, I gave it some pieces of cake which he greedily ate as if there was no tomorrow. Finishing off the last crumb he puffed himself up then flew to the shelter of an ivy clad beech tree. Please make sure you have some ice free water in the garden for the birds at this time of the year, you will no doubt have to clear the ice off the birds water every thirty minutes, also don’t forget all the table scraps. No doubt there will have some stale cake left over.  

A group of long tailed tits suddenly appeared in a nearby willow tree their restless activity and acrobatic actions resemble those of other tits as they worked to and fro through the branches seeking tiny flies and other insects. It never ceases to amaze me at the excellent eyesight of these delightful birds, theirs being far better than mine.

Tea finished, I chucked a loaf of bread into my small shoulder bag along with some soft cheese paste also some sausage paste, then adding a towel, JetBoiler, a small bottle of water, tea bags, milk and a mug, I slung my chair over my back, followed by the bag, then picking up rod and landing net I headed off upstream for a couple of hours fishing before dark.

Walking alongside a small copse two small roe deer suddenly appeared and a pheasant shot skywards in panic. Fifteen minutes of brisk walking I arrived at my first swim, a dark deep looking pool under an overhanging big ivy clad oak tree, many of its roots plunging deep into the water offering a sanctuary for fish from the marauding cormorants that have invaded our rivers.

The first thing I noticed was ice covering the very slow moving area of water extending several yards up and downstream, a couple of feet out from the bank, often known as cat ice, also stretching a few feet out from the bank, I had a perfect crease with a steady flow on the outside going from left to right. From many previous experiences of fishing the area I had a six foot deep swim over silt, gravel mixed with small stones

More winter chub magic

Let me say this once and once only. “Forget all the rubbish you read about fishing small baits and light tackle for winter chub, it’s a lot of nonsense in my experience” My first choice bait is bread crust or flake, I always start with crust, I also have a few lobs available if perch show.  During the winter I keep lobs in my bait fridge set at 40 degrees F for around three months, I always have lobworms available. 

Bites usually are a light tap then a good pull. Only about one percent of bites are usually small pulls. Most bites will pull the rod in if given the chance. What I usually do on feeling or seeing a light movement on the rod tip is to push the rod forward, giving a bit of slack. Then it’s usually a good strong pull.

A lightly moulded a piece of plasticine on a float stop fixed on the line some 3 inches from the size 4 Gripz hook then baited with a piece of crust. A slight underhand swing had the bait in the right spot, I watched line come off the spool, as the baited hook settled I clicked over the pickup, then settled back holding the rod with the butt resting on my knee, at the same time watching the loop of line between rod tip and water, also the line was over my index finger. 

Within minutes I watched a savage pluck on the rod tip, at the same time I felt the line tighten on my finger, then made a firm strike, I felt nothing and thought “How could I miss a perfect bite?” Rebaiting I cast to the same spot, ten minutes later the line went slack in quite a dramatic manner. Another fish missed, this time I reckon that fish must have moved very fast upstream.

Twenty minutes later another good pull this time I connected with a chub estimated around 3.5 lbs, as the light faded, the temperature dropped, my rod was soon covered with a light covering of frost. Half an hour later another good slow pull, the chub being similar in size to the first. In the next fifteen or so minutes I had two more chub the best estimated around 4 lbs. Half an hour later with no more bites I moved into another swim upstream.

Martin with a brace of splendid winter chub

Walking across the snow covered field I could hear clearly the frost and frozen snow crunching under my feet. In the next swim I illuminated my rod tip with a torch beam, then spent a fishless hour in the dark. I could hear an owl hooting occasionally across the river for company, another hour passed and with no interest I called it a day.

Fishing can be a strange game, but I reckon it’s the greatest pastime I have taken part in for over 80 years, long may it continue. Back at the car I spent some time scraping ice from all the windows followed by a slow drive home along the icy country lanes.

Another Winter Evening Session

It was about 1500 hrs when I turned off the ice free road for the long drive down the ice covered track, one false move and I would be down into the ditch. I drove at no more than ten miles an hour. Automatic cars are not the vehicles for driving on sheet ice. Eventually I was in the car park and heaving a sigh of relief. Climbing from the car I pulled on my windproof arctic smock. Taking the made up rod out of its sleeve and shoulder bag and seat from the back of the car all that was left to do was put together my landing net and pick up the rod rest. I was ready for another chub fishing session in wintry conditions.

I went off downstream for half a mile choosing to fish in the area where an alder tree had crashed into the water the previous winter. Choosing to fish a slightly deeper channel twenty feet downstream from the alder. Here a three foot wide side stream flows into the river creating an ice free area. For some thirty feet upstream was a length of ice covered water extending ten feet out from the bank.

My downstream swim had an estimated five feet of water over silt, sand and gravel with the odd football size rock. Baiting with a piece of crust I dropped the bait into some steady water on the outside of a crease; minutes later the rod tip moved slightly, then pulled round in a savage manner. I set the hook into a fish that dived towards the margins, no doubt seeking the sanctuary of some tree roots. Pulling the rod over and upstream I coerced the fish away from the pending danger. Suddenly the chub about 3 lbs swirled on the surface where it was quickly netted. Taking out the barbless hook I lowered the net in the water then watched the fish swim strongly away.

I fished on into the darkness with no more bites, though I did get the rod tip pulled round on a few occasions as chunks of ice floating down river hit the line. By now my rod was frost covered the landing net was frozen to the ground and my feet started to feel the cold. I thought “Should I call it a day?” I replied to myself “No.”

There have been many times in the past when the fish have come on the feed around 1900 hrs. There were many times when I fished the Kennet under icy winter conditions often until 0200 hrs in the morning, not getting the first fish until 2200 hrs. I often arrived back at my cabin well into the early hours around four in the morning. After a mug of cocoa and some cheese on toast, I clean my teeth and would crawl into my sleeping bag as used by Special Forces in winter conditions – very warm and snug.

Back to the present time. I put the jetboiler on for a brew, water temperature still 34 degrees F, with some cat ice in the margins, half an hour later I had my first fish a chub estimated at 3lbs.

Walking across the fields I disturbed a skein of Greylag geese, then spooked two hares. Back in the car I listened to the weather forecast, hearing the announcer say the “Arctic conditions could be with us for a week to ten day” Not good news. It was a slow drive up the ice covered track, but within the hour I’m indoors sitting under a hot shower.

Today’s Tuesday and it’s snowing hard, no busses are running from my village into town, certainly not the day to be driving. My car stayed in the garage. I kitted myself out with walking boots, a good pair of waterproof trousers, my arctic smock, trilby hat and a haversack upon my back. I then walked the six miles into town. Despite the heavy snow storm it was an enjoyable walk, some of it alongside the river. Other times I walk through a small wood where I watch several fieldfare feeding on hawthorn berries. After a quick walk around town picking up my Anglers Mail and Daily Mail with a few items of shopping I walked back home. Looking at all the snow that has fallen and the forecast of frost tonight I don’t think I will be able to get on the river tomorrow. I shall stay indoors and work on my new book.

Equaling The River Wensum Record Chub

I doubt if I will ever forget the session on the River Wensum at Swanton Morley on Sunday March 14th 1982 the last day of the season. It was an icy cold day and the easterly wind had been sweeping across the Norfolk countryside for several days. When Arthur Sayers of Wisbech Cambridge and myself drove into the park the car at first light we had no idea what was about to unfold. It was a long walk from the car park, making it even more difficult for me at the time was having to use my Zimmer frame. To reach the river I had to struggle over some rough ground and then walk around a gravel pit to reach the river. Arthur said “Shall we fish the pit” my answer was an immediate “No, but you can.” We continued to walk toward the river. I’d come to fish for roach, having been told it was a good area for these fish. I used a very light 11 foot quiver tip rod I’d built myself, matched with a Mitchell 300 with 3lb bs line, I then attached a small swim feeder packed with bronze gentles, a size 16 hook to 2lb bs hook link completed my tackle set up.

Catapulting a few gentles every five minutes or so I soon had several light pulls in the first hour but upon striking I felt nothing. I discovered each time to find the hook link broken. I was puzzled as to what was happening. As I sat putting on another hook the bailiff arrived to issue a day ticket, as we chatted I told him about my problem. He said “There are some good chub in this area to 4lbs”  I immediately realised I’d been bitten off by chub, we chatted for some time, then he said “I will see you later.”

I put away the lighter rod and reeI. Then set up an 11 foot 6 inch soft action Avon rod with another Mitchell reel holding 6lb bs line, adding a half ounce Arlesey bomb stopped 15 inches from a size 6 hook with a half hitched piece of  match stick. From my tackle bag I took out a jar of soft Cheddar spread, baiting with bread flake I smeared it liberally with creamy Cheddar, which has been quite successful at times. I then cast under a small bush growing on the opposite bank.

Smiles all round

Thirty minutes or so later, I had a good pull connecting with my first fish on the day, straight away I could tell I’d hooked a decent chub, ten minutes later Arthur netted a very nice chub. I quickly estimated it around 5lbs. Saying to Arthur “This is a good way to end the season” I was even more surprised to see the scale needle give a reading of 5 lb 7 ounces, I immediately forgot the icy cold wind. Arthur placed the fish in the large keepnet, it was time for a brew and sandwich. Fifteen minutes later I rebaited then cast to the same area, as I sat holding the rod, I thought “It would be nice to get a brace of five pounders” No doubt wishful thinking.

Another Big Chub

Soon I was into the action again, feeling a light pluck on the line over my forefinger, I pushed the rod forward then noticed the bow in the line tighten, striking I set the hook in what felt like a heavy fish, for several minutes the fish proved very stubborn, slowly I gained some line, I was then forced to give line as the fish seemed to wake up, but as is typical with chub, after it made a couple of runs taking line off the reel it then gave up the struggle, slowly I gained some line, we got a glimpse of a big chub. After two more short runs, I had the fish slowly coming towards the waiting net, held steady by Arthur then it was mine. My thought of a brace of five pounders was no longer wishful thinking, as I put the fish in the keepnet. Half an hour later the bailiff returned, I asked him “ If he would please weigh two big chub for me” he answered “Yes.”

Yet another splendid brace

On the scales the first weighed in at 5 lb 7 ounces, the second fish weighed a staggering 6 lb 2 ounces, the bailiff then informed me it was an equal river Wensum record. He finished by saying “Knowing your luck today I reckon if you put on a big lobworm, you will catch one of those big brown trout as it’s the first day of the season.”

Taking his advice I did just that, twenty minutes later I had a 7 lb brown trout, he said “Can I take that for the Boss” ”Yes no problem.” He was happy and off he went, no doubt getting a good tip. Later in the week the late John Wilson MBE called me to say “Martin your big chub in an equal river record” The next day I met the late Peter Stone in Oxford who had recently caught a 7lb plus chub from a gravel pit. He had his usual smile upon his face when giving me a picture of that big chub. Certainly some fish for a great angler like Peter.

Another Big River Record Chub

Friday 4th Febuary2005 was a special day, my friend the late Mick Holgate called me on Thursday evening to see what time we were fishing the next day, I told Mick “We will be wasting our time, the water temperature is 34 degrees F there is ice along the margins with the trees covered in hoar frost and the ground is frozen solid he pleaded to go as its his only day off being a goal keeping coach with Macclesfield football club. I relented saying “Please pick me up at 1430 hrs.”

Split cane, 300 and a super winter chub

We had come to fish a private stretch of the lower Ribble. Not surprisingly the car-park was empty. Mick said “Only fools would fish in such grim prospects”. Our quarry at this time of year are the chub, they will usually oblige with a bite or two when no other fish will. Making our way up river, we selected two swims a few yards apart and close to an overhanging oak tree along with large alders and willows. The river was as it had been the day before, gin clear and low with ice down the margin, riverside trees still being covered in hoar frost. Checking the water temperature I obtained a reading of between 33 and 34 degrees F. The setting sun was shining down on a gravel bar some thirty feet out from the bank – I didn’t give much for our chances. As I was fishing over a gravel bar into a six foot deep channel I would use a few yards of Drennan braid that matched the colour of the gravel. Nylon line would look like thick rope in the bright sunshine. My tackle set up was an 11 foot 6 inch soft Avon action rod, with a Mitchell 300 reel 1954 vintage. In the 1960’s the late Len Arbery had fitted line rollers in the bail arm of my Mitchell reels. The end rig was simply 2 LG shot lightly pinched on the line three inches above a size 4 barbless hook, baits would be crust or flake if the latter bait I would extend the tail to six inches, Mick and myself were using similar tackle and baits.

As the sun set the temperature dropped even more and with no cloud cover we didn’t have that warm blanket above us. Within minutes of casting out I had a slight pull then a good wrench, striking I missed, how could I miss such a bite? With the sun setting it got even colder. Fifteen minutes later I called “I’ve got a good fish” Minutes later Mick also netted a good chub, on the scales he got a reading of 5 lb 3 ounces. We celebrated with a fresh brew. Ten minutes later Mick returned to his swim I rebaited and cast out again. The temperature was dropping fast and the net was frozen in minutes. Frost covered our rods. I was thankful for my walking boots with thick woollen socks, also my mittens. Fifteen minutes later I changed the bait to flake, adjusting the hook link, then casting back to the same area. I shivered as no doubt Mick would have been – it really was bitterly cold, the line was now getting frozen in the top guide. I got to the stage I had to use a rod rest to steady the rod I was shivering so much.

Owls were hooting in the far bank trees providing the only noise apart from the sound of the river as it ran over some big boulders downstream. I switched bait to a thumb size piece of crust, also  adjusting the link to three inches. I cast out into the channel then sat holding the rod not feeling at all confident of getting another bite.

 Twenty minutes later I felt a light pluck saying to myself ” That was a touch” a minute later the rod tip pulled slowly round, striking I felt nothing, certainly a missed chance. Mick called down “I spotted that good pull you had, how did you miss it?” Rebaiting I cast to the same spot, half an hour later the rod pulled firmly round, the answering strike connected with a hard pulling fish, “Mick I’ve got one, can you come down?”

An unexpected guest a double figure barbel

Winding in his line he made his way briskly down to my swim. A few minutes later when he got to my swim he found it empty apart from my chair, rod rest, tackle bag and landing net. As Mick told me later all he could see was me some fifteen yards downstream with an alarming bend in my Chevin rod” – the fish stripping off the 6lb bs line from the reel at an alarming rate! Mick arrived in time and got ready with the landing net, then watched the tussle between angler and fish. Eventually and after several forceful runs I could make out the shape of a large barbel beginning to tire under the pressure I was applying. Mick carefully went downstream with the landing net at the ready. Eventually I pulled the fish into the waiting net. We could see the barbel, “likely to be a double” said Mick, he did the honours with scales and camera. Confirming, the scales gave a reading of 10 lb 10 oz. With the picture taken the fish was released and swam of strongly. I shook his hand “Saying well netted Sir’”

The Best Is Yet To Come

To my left I had a three feet wide channel with a depth of about four feet, early in the evening I heard a big swirl from a fish, every so often I would flick in a piece of flake, it was time to see if there was a chub present. I decided to investigate. Tearing off a match box piece of flake I chose not to put it on the hook in the normal way, having watched pieces of flake drifting down in the water over many many years, it twists and turns and doesn’t drop like a stone. I put the hook in the corner of the bread then dropped it in the channel twenty feet downstream, then put the rod on the rest with the butt resting on my knee.

I suppose half an hour had gone by when Mick suggested “We get off home as he hadn’t seen any movement on his rod tip” I said “Let’s give it another ten minutes.” A minute or so later my rod tip gave a slight pull and seconds later it pulled round savagely, I didn’t have to strike – I just lifted the rod feeling the surge of a good fish as it powered downstream taking line off the reel. I bellowed through the darkness, “Give us a hand Mick, this is a good’un!” I will now let Mick take you through the following action.

Mick writes; Once more I wound in, swiftly returning to Martin’s swim. As I got closer I could see the soft-action rod bent into the sort of curve all anglers love. The clutch on his old Mitchell 300 reel was working overtime; Martin was up out of his seat continually adjusting the angle of his rod as he fought to subdue the fish. Eventually he had the fish under control on the surface in front of him as it was highlighted in the torch beam. Martin said “It looks just like HMS Churchill the first of the nuclear powered submarines, I had seen from the dockside before going on board.” He slowly and carefully pulled the fish towards the waiting net, it seemed to grow in size, then it was in the net, I immediately thought “Could it be a seven pound chub”?

It was certainly the biggest chub I had ever seen. Martin was smiling like a Cheshire cat as the huge fish slid over the landing net. It was weighed on two sets of scales they confirmed a weight of 7lb 10oz. “I’ve done it!” said Martin. “I’ve done a seven-pounder at last!” This fish was not only a personal best for Martin, it was also his first chub over the seven pound mark. For any angler it was a huge fish, coming from a North West river made it even more special. I did the honours with the camera – also reminding Martin that fishing in these conditions was a “waste of time!’ What a brace of fish to catch in such poor conditions. Both had found Martin’s bread hook-bait to their liking, although my own efforts that evening did not produce a bite. When we packed up that night we talked all the way back to the car park about how that session might never have even taken place had I not persuaded him to fish for a couple of hours. We still laugh about Martin saying “That we were wasting our time going fishing”. My final though on that day, was just four months previously I’d caught a 6lb 14 ounce chub from another venue when fishing with Mike Osborne, never expecting to get another big chub in such a short time, that day was an icy cold one, so don’t be put off by cold weather.

Writing & Images Martin James MBE – Winter 2021