Summer on the upper River Soar and River Biam 2013
By J A J Richardson
Every year as the piscatorial river season approaches, it is always nice to start out by making fresh notes on our local waterways. When the rivers are relatively slow flowing and clear, the river’s fish have already spawned and the flies have begun to hatch. Now is the time to check any tackle, prepare some artificial flies, and wipe away any cobwebs on those books regarding the subjects of ‘Rivers’ and ‘Fish’.
As the days reach their longest, the fish of all waterways in the UK are actively seeking to gain nourishment to sustain them into the winter. Aquatic plants and animals are most abundant during the onset of summer as each River reaches its own level of solstice.
In May as insect begin to hatch from nymph a feeding frenzy below the surface of the water occurs. Naturally such reactions on the river bed entices passionate Anglers towards the water’s edge, as a new River Fishing Season is about to begin.
Whilst modest as inland waterways, both the upper River Soar and River Biam provide local people with a recreational oasis against the urban backdrop of Leicester. Likewise both the upper River Soar and River Biam provide a few hidden gems in the way of wildlife and specimen fish.
CHAPTER 1 – THE RIVERS
THE RIVER SOAR
The Soar Brook begins at the base of Mickle Hill, west of Sharnford in south-west Leicestershire. Downstream as the Soar Brook widens to become the ‘River Soar’ the water gathers pace adjacent to the Old Fosse Way (an ancient Roman Road) before circumnavigating the village of Croft. At which point the River Soar is added to by the Thurlaston Brook – just one of several tributaries as the water heads eastwards down the Soar Valley towards Leicester.
At Narborough the River Soar under-passes the main M1 Motorway and is further filled by the Whetstone Brook. Heading northward the River Soar then joins with its main tributary the River Sence at Jubilee Park in Enderby.
There on, the River Soar travels across Aylestone Meadows towards the medieval Packhorse Bridge in Aylestone. Here the river divides. Northwards the River Soar flows into the River Biam before rejoining with the Grand Union Canal. Southwards the River Soar flows directly into the Grand Union Canal as it enters the City of Leicester.
THE RIVER BIAM
The River Biam sources itself at Aylestone Playing Fields. There-on downstream the water merges with several branches of the River Soar as it contours alongside before under-passing the Great Central Way at the Aylestone viaduct. Further downstream at Aylestone Meadows the River Biam is joined once again by a weir fed tributary from the Grand Union Canal stretch of the River Soar.
The River Biam finally leaves the grey willows of Aylestone Meadows behind as it enters an old industrial complex. Here the weir-fed River Biam runs deep and mature. In places literally flowing beneath the Victorian archways of old mill houses. Finally the River Biam rejoins with the Grand Union Canal stretch of the River Soar as it passes into the City of Leicester.
CHAPTER 2 – THE WILDLIFE
There is such a rich tapestry of wildlife surrounding the upper River Soar and the River Biam that it is not possible to cover every species of aquatic loving plant and animal here. Moreover since my own knowledge of aquatic flora is at best limited, it is perhaps wiser we keep our eyes centred upon our main subject; that of specimen river fish.
Firstly we shall take a brief look at those species of river fish found in the upper River Soar and River Biam and their diet. Secondly, we shall consider some of the other species of animal which rely on river fish in the upper River Soar and River Biam as part of their diet.
Piscatorial species found in the upper River Soar and River Biam includes the following fish: Barbel, Bream, Brown Trout, Bullhead, Carp, Chub, Dace, Grayling, Gudgeon, Minnow, Perch, Pike, Roach, Rudd, Stickleback, and Tench. (For the Latin Names of each species see index).
Overall populations of Dace and Chub are the most prolific species found in both rivers. In previous years large shoals of Roach and Gudgeon have also been observed in the summer months on the upper reaches of the River Soar. Less prolific perhaps are the reports and occasional photographs of Barbel and Brown Trout (now posted online) by local Anglers in the same water-ways.
Many of the fish species above are semi-herbivorous or omnivorous by nature. For example Roach feed mostly on water weeds and algae. Dace may consume a variety of grass seeds and berries. In both cases insect larvae, midges and gnats also make up a large percentage of the diet all year round. Gudgeon and Rudd on the other fin may feed on water lice, water nymph and small invertebrate, whereas bottom feeding Tench and Barbel prefer aquatic snails, water worms and small crustaceans.
Several of the fish species found in our local waterways are predatory by nature. Thus consuming large quantities of river fish themselves; which cannibalistically includes the young of their own species. Mature Brown Trout for example actively hunt and target shoals of smaller fish, whilst Perch and Pike often lay in ambush for slightly bigger fish.
Within both our rivers Chub are also greedy feeders, preferring any mouth-sized morsel they can suck into their hungry lips. Being opportunistic by nature, means the rivers Chub may feed on smaller fish, frogs, toads, berries, acorns, and even signal crayfish.
All-year round, the river bed is teeming with water shrimp, snails, and the larvae of many aquatic insects. Several of which we may only recognise later during the months of summer as adult Dragonfly, Caddis, and Damsel. Naturally once procreated a large percentage of these adult insects fall back into the water as “spent flies”- upon which several species of river fish including Dace and Brown Trout may gorge themselves for a period of weeks.
As the upper River Soar (and later River Biam) flow through arable field, grassland and rich meadow, there is a natural glut in the number of terrestrial insects available to the rivers fish. This includes the larvae of numerous winged insect, bugs and beetles, the caterpillar and adult species of various resident and migratory butterfly and all-year moth.
Terrestrial insects therefore make up a substantial percentage of the main diet for several species of river fish throughout the year. As do the many molluscs, slugs and land snails which fall haphazardly to their peril at the water’s edge.
Often there are so many ‘edible-variables’ involved, that to judge a River Fish’s complete diet, without spooning and killing the fish, is as much a matter of water-craft as it is scientific guesswork.
In turn the river’s fish are preyed upon by a variety of terrestrial birds and mammals. The azure blue flash of a passing Kingfisher can be spotted on the banks of the upper River Soar and River Biam most days in the year. Hunting mainly on a diet of Minnows and smaller fish, the Kingfisher is also partial to small crayfish. Here the conscious Angler rests happy in the knowledge that; if the river supports Kingfishers, then it must also support some fish!
Several species of bird however, are sadly not always made to feel as welcomed as they should be within our waterways by fellow Anglers. For example Grey Heron, which eat a significant number of fish, are commonly sighted on the flood-waters of Aylestone Meadows or stalking the shallows of the River Biam.
The River Soar and River Biam are also now home to non-native Signal Crayfish. Originally introduced from America, both larger and more competitive than our native species of White Clawed Crayfish, the Signal Crayfish is slowly becoming an ecological question that we must face. Not only do Signal Crayfish eat small fish and clutches of fish-eggs in numbers, but studies have shown that they also erode the river bank while tunnelling out their aquatic burrows!
Finally on the subject of fish predation, it is remarkable that any journal can now include the words ‘Otters’ and ‘Leicester’ in the same sentence. Although controversial amid Anglers, it is of great credit to British Waterways that Otters have finally returned to the upper River Soar in Leicestershire. After an absence of some 50 years or more, these secretive creatures, first spotted south of Leicester in 2005, therefore require a brief re-introduction before ending this chapter.
Otters are the largest native weasel in the UK. Dog Otters can weigh up to 10kg and patrol a territory of up to 20km. Bitch Otters may weigh up to 7kg and patrol a territory of up to 15km. The distance of which depends upon the availability of fresh fish, suitable breeding sites, and crustaceans. It is worth noting that; the return of Otters in south-east Leicestershire directly correlates with a dramatic increase in the population of non-native Signal Crayfish in the region – upon which Otters will happily feast.
Generally speaking, the cleaner the waterway, the more fish it can support, and the more likely it will become home to an Otter. Since each individual animal inhabits several ‘holts’ or homes, it is not surprising that Otter have been spotted on flood-water in winter, as far afield as Great Glen on the River Sence.
Otters will eat any variety of river fish under 1-2kg in weight; although young Brown Trout and Eels are apparently their favourite species to catch and eat.
CHAPTER 3 – RIVER FISHING
Hundreds, actually thousands of books have been written about the technicalities of ‘River Fishing’. This here is not my aim. However for those readers wishing to make direct contact with river fish, it is perhaps important that we outline some of the terminology behind the methods of river fishing involved.
For example; ‘bait’ (see below) is any substance used to feed fish. A ‘hook-bait’ is the bait attached to the hook used to catch a fish. A ‘swim’ is a stretch of water that is accessible to both anglers and fish. A ‘glide’ is an area of river that runs fast and shallow; often over a gravel bed. A ‘pool’ is an area of river that runs deep and slow; often over silt.
A ‘dry fly’ floats on the surface of the water and mimics spent or dead insects. A ‘wet fly’ sinks beneath the water’s surface mimicking water nymph and small bait fish. ‘Bait-fish’ are tiny river fish or the ‘fry’ upon which larger Brown Trout, Chub, Perch, and Pike may feed. A ‘leader’ is the end section of fishing line; often of a smaller gage and breaking-strain than the ‘main-line’ which has a heavier breaking-strain. Hooks are graded in size with a ‘size 22 hook’ being much smaller than the larger ‘size 12 hook’, and so on.
Overall, river fish are inquisitive creatures. This means they are most happy to try a variety of natural and artificial baits. Effective bait for river fishing may include any of the following: Bread, Cheese, Sweet Corn, Luncheon Meat, Boilies, Fish Pellets, Maggots, Casters, Hemp Seed, Worms, Slugs, Dry Flies, Wet Flies, Spinners and Lures.
River fish can then be caught using a variety of angling methods. These may include; traditional float-fishing, free-lining, ledgering, spinning, and wet and dry fly fishing.
Float fishing involves the use of a buoyant maker float. Free lining is a technique of ‘trotting’ bait down the river without the use of a float. Ledgering is a technique of presenting the bait closer to the river bed using a heavy weight. Spinning is a method of presenting artificial lures to the fish. Wet and Dry Fly Fishing involves casting imitation fly onto or into the water to entice certain species of fish to take the bait.
Each angler will then approach each river and their river fishing slightly differently, depending on their preferred approach, the swim, and the time of year. In fact, a late spring morning spent float fishing with bread for Roach, is just as enjoyable as a summer afternoon by the river trotting cheese for Chub. An early evening in autumn spent ledgering worms for Brown Trout, is just as pleasing as casting pheasant-tail nymphs in winter over rising Dace.
Technically it is still legal for any person with a valid Environment Agency rod license to take any two fish from the river per day (in season). Conscious anglers will however return all river fish back to the same water as soon as possible after catching them – without any desire for ‘keep nets’. This ensures the health and well-being of the fish foremost and also helps to sustain the whole ecology of the river well into the future.
A landing net should be used; especially when landing some of the upper River Soar’s larger specimen fish. Ideally once a swim has been ‘fished-out’ it should be left to recover. This allows the fish to regain a natural balance in their own environment and prevents anglers from overshadowing their natural feeding habits.
Stretches of the Grand Union Canal section of the River Soar require a day ticket via the Bailiff. Otherwise many stretches of the actual River Soar and River Biam are often accessible as public rights of way and provide anglers with free fishing during the open river season both night and day.
Final note on Fishing Law, all anglers over the age of childhood must hold a valid Environment Agency rod license in order to legally fish on waterways including the River Soar, River Biam, (and Grand Union Canal) in Leicestershire. Thus ends the chapter on River Fishing.
CHAPTER 4 – JUNE
It was a crisp morning. At 6am, the sky was clear blue with just the occasional fluffy cloud drifting way-off in the distance. The meadow was rich with the yellowness of buttercups and a plethora of songbirds made their own melodies in the hedges. As the sun rose the ground was full of morning dew, and still sodden underfoot from the previous day’s thunder storm. The River Soar was coloured in its deeper water, yet clear enough for aquatic vegetation to be visible about its edges. In other words just about perfect for river fishing.
The swim was chosen more by luck than judgement, more by looks than merit, not far from Soar Valley Way which overpasses both the River Soar and the Great Central Way. Observing the same stretch of river some days earlier, on a warm clear afternoon, river fish were clearly visible hunting spent flies in the river’s shallow glides.
The stinging nettles growing taller downstream, than upstream, gave this particular swim the perfect cover from which to set up rod, reel and tackle without spooking any potential fish.
A few pinches of bread were pinched together, to produce several small balls of dough. Each of which was then ceremoniously offered to the water’s current a few meters upstream. Meanwhile a simple rig of a waggler float, split shot of varying sizes, and a size 14 barbless hook were quickly assembled bank side. A thumb size pinch of bread was married to the hook and then cast a few meters upstream.
The float presented itself horizontally in the water at first and was retrieved. Another offering of bread was fed to the river and an extra split shot was added to the rig, just below the float. The original piece of bread was still attached to the hook, so the line and float were simply re-cast into the same position upstream.
The float gently sat up to a perfect vertical as the ballast of bait and split shot sank slowly into the flow of the river. At ten meters downstream the line was corrected as the float slowly drifted towards the nearside bank. As the hook bait came into a deeper slack of water before a sudden shallow, the float disappeared completely beneath the water. The rod was quickly lifted and a large powerful fish was hooked. Line peeled from the reel, to produce that enchanted sound we can only associate with ‘river fishing’.
Once landed, a shake of the Chub’s mighty head was all that was required to divorce the marriage between fish and barbless hook. Another shake and the fish, weighing approximately 3-4lb, independently slipped back into the River Soar before being photographed!
There was little need to catch another fish on the opening day of the river fishing season in Leicester. As the songbirds continued to make their own melodies in the hedges, the early morning was simply spent reflecting upon the River Soar and its surrounding waterways.
The upper River Soar holds many features beyond its spectacular meeting with the Grand Union Canal at Pack Horse Bridge in Aylestone. As the water courses downstream towards the city of Leicester there are several canal locks with adjoining weirs. These magnificent feats of Victorian engineering were originally designed to manage water levels and provide additional water for local industries.
Today the water beneath each weir, although canal-fed, is fast flowing, well oxygenated, and offers the perfect habitat for several species of ‘river fish’. By leapfrogging from river to canal to river on flood-water, both Barbel and Brown Trout may move from the quite backwaters of summer on the River Biam, towards their spawning grounds in winter on the River Soar. Each weir then provides several species of migratory river fish with a congenial right-of-passage.
The weir at Aylestone Mill Lock was white with each cascade into its bubbling pool of water below. Further downstream the water runs deep, coloured and slow; suspicious as a potential hang-out for Pike and Chub. The morning’s weather was overcast and cooler in average bank-side temperature at around 15c. Likewise the water level was slightly higher than in previous days due to recent rainfall.
A few pinches of bread were pressed into tiny balls and introduced to the weir pool as enticement for any feeding fish. Distinctive flickers of silver and gold instantly gave away the presence of both Dace and Roach. A hook bait of bread was then cast upstream to the base of the weir itself. The float settled for a few moments before plunging beneath the water.
The rod was swiftly lifted and a nice Dace was landed a few moments later – photographed and immediately placed back into the water downstream.
A coot stalked the ledges of the weir as the River Soar simply drifted by in its own time. The fish also switched their general feeding habits during the early morning towards the safer depths of the main current. The occasional rise in amid the small rapids where looking suspicious of Brown Trout. A few casts later and a nice Roach was landed. Its red eyes and fins distinguishing it from the similar yellow eyed Dace it shares the weir pool with. Again the fish was photographed without ever leaving the landing net and returned to the water downstream.
A few Mallards, moving in to feast on aquatic morsels amid the weeds on the weir’s ledge were a clear signal to leave the swim to recover. While fishing any stretch of the River Soar in Leicester one cannot fail to see a river facing both environmental and ecological pressure. As anglers we should aim to leave any river in the same state as we find it, without disturbance, so that others may equally enjoy its pleasures.
The River Biam is a secretive little river. Nestled on reclaimed meadowland this tiny backwater is overshadowed in places by the tributaries of its bigger sister the River Soar. Unfortunately much of the lowland meadow the River Biam occupies is also the main route via which much of Leicestershire’s electricity flows. The overhead power cables make much of the River Biam questionable for fishing, yet perfect for observing river fish in their natural environment.
It was early morning and the River Biam had swollen following the previous day’s rainfall. Downstream as the morning sun began to warm the water’s edge, two large black slugs made their way deeper into the moisture of the meadow.
Here the River Biam runs narrow, with weedy pools, contorting itself in the patchwork shadow of static pylons, hawthorn and crack willow. A combination of rapid eddies and deep water which provides the perfect environment for the gregarious Chub and the more mysterious Barbel.
The River Biam is a secretive, yet delightful little river, most worthy of exploring again and again with or without rod and reel. Its gentle flow, caressed by the scent of wild flowers, equals any river its size in the UK in its ability to captivate the imagination and free the mind.
The morning air was bright and fresh. The River Biam glistened upstream from the bridge at Aylestone Meadows. Downstream the level had dropped to expose a large gravel bank; forcing the water to escape sideways over a twisted shallow glide of weed and gravel- forming an area colloquially known as “Pebble Beach” A female Mallard crept silently almost camouflaging herself as she feasted on the aquatic breakfast table set out before her.
Heading upstream, following the meadow path, the River Biam enters a quite straight stretch, where the water flows deep and silent for some time. With few obstacles or overhanging trees, except the occasional hawthorn and willow, the river is flanked by clover and buttercups on the nearside bank and tall nettles on the far side. Rich in a tapestry of bird life, aquatic insects and wild flowers this section of the River Biam is of great value to local wildlife and local naturalists.
Upstream the River Biam bends to reveal another wide shallow gravel-bed were the water almost fords its own breadth. The scenery here is most picturesque during the months of summer. Horses, river-tourists and even small children are often relatively safe to paddle here and explore their river and its rope swing.
Wading out into the slow yet steady current, the crystal clear water magnified the fullness of each individual pebble on the river bed. Trout and Dace could be seen rising happily for flies downstream, periodically breaking the water’s surface with a splash, before returning to their underwater world. At which point, the River Biam may bestow its own aurora of magic over anyone.
Reaching the Great Central Way the water bottlenecks beneath the archways of the Aylestone viaduct. The pillars of the old Victorian bridge literally forcing the River Biam into two separate channels. In summer the far channel glides low partially over sunlit gravel in the morning; whereas close in beside the footpath, the water drops off into a deep pool which forever looms beneath the bridge’s shadow.
As is often the case, while quietly watching bait-fish dance on the current, shoals of slightly larger fish begin to appear. After which larger fish slowly start to reveal themselves from their hiding places in the shadows. Such fish where often there all along. It is just that our eyes and minds were not expecting them to be there; and so often we overlook them.
The tell tale signs of white lips, accompanied by controlled ballerina movements in the water, soon gave away the presence of several medium size Chub. In total six Chub were busy, patrolling their haunt, up against the old wall of the bridge.
A short fly-rod was quickly assembled and fitted with a modern centre pin real, floating line and a 2meter length of 3lb leader. The fly-box was opened and a homemade jay wing feather and sheep’s wool fly was carefully selected, fastened to the leader, and cast out onto the water.
As the fly sank into the subsurface of the water several of the smaller Chub switched direction and began to follow the artificial fly downstream – before annoyingly returning to their swim. An obstruction of driftwood and water-weed would not give the desired distance of cast upstream; thus allowing enough time for the fly to sink to the depth of the vigilant fish.
After the third cast it was decided that a heavier fly would be needed to present itself as a spent insect. The fly-box was reopened and a larger homemade pheasant tail nymph was selected and tied onto the lead line. Meanwhile the Chub where still contently doing their figure of eights beneath the water.
As the pheasant tail nymph was cast out, it came crashing down onto the surface of the River Biam with a slap – further echoed by the archway of the bridge. Needless to say, all six Chub vanished beneath the ripples of the fly in an underwater splash of magic. There one moment, gone the next? Such is the fascination with river fishing for Chub.
Returning downstream a kingfisher broke cover from hawthorn towards willow. Resting up at the River Biam Bridge, a multitude of smaller ‘river fish’ could be seen chancing for spent flies mid current. A shoal of nice Dace, young Chub, and Roach; over-watched by a small Perch quietly hugging the slack of the far bank.
Looking back upstream the shallow River Biam was painted with patches of white aquatic flowers like something from a painting by Claude Monet. A Grey Heron, wading mid-water, suddenly darted forward catching a small fish in its powerful bill. The perfect end to an early morning fishing.
CHAPTER 5 – JULY
Returning to the River Soar (the same swim as the Chub landed on the first day of the fishing season), the plan was to follow this stretch of the river downstream towards the Soar valley Way. Here the water runs shallow and slow in summer, etched with the ripples of underlying vegetation. The contours of the river allow for the occasional deeper pool which drops off quickly before raising up again slowly to meet with the steady yet overbearing current.
The water temperature had increase dramatically over the proceeding days and the water level had dropped in the absence of rainfall. Bank side temperatures had been around 25c for several days. Young Barbel could be seen, briefly, shooting between the water-weed over the river’s shallow gravel-bed. Dace, possibly Trout, were breaking the surface in the first pool. A few casts with a homemade jay feather fly produced little in the way of results; and so it was decided to move further downstream.
Following a fisherperson’s footpath, creeping low and silently, the next pool looked more inviting. An old hawthorn dominated the far bank and the pool was flanked on both sides by a thick carpet of weed. Two dragonflies with lace brown wings noisily battled out their love-dance a few meters upstream. Downstream damsel skittered across the river’s surface on the morning’s gentle breeze. Central to which sat a party of the River Soar’s specimen Chub.
As the first cast went out over the fish, a feeling not experienced since childhood – one which engulfs the whole body and makes the rod tip tremble – took over. A combination of excitement and anticipation, as a few of the upper River Soar’s largest fish swirled contently beneath the lure. On the second cast one fish broke loose from its shoal; turning and rising quickly towards the now carefully presented fly.
However not even the rampant splashing of an amateur fly-fisherman could have disturb such specimens on such a morning. Like a pack of caged sharks, each Chub simply continued to patrol the pool, steady yet swirling in a dance unto their own. Another fish would travel alongside its companion, or turn on a new pattern of fly briefly, before rejecting both and returning to its own solitary figure of eight motion.
After almost half an hour of wetting different feathers, donated by local gamekeepers, it became a wiser pursuit to simply watch the patrolling Chub instead. Perhaps tackle the same swim in future, earlier or later in the day; with coarse rods, cheese or perhaps bread.
It is no great secret, that several species of fish cannot resist the taste of Pork Pie. With this in mind, it was decided to explore the far banks of the River Soar at Ratby Meadows in Enderby, just south of the main Leicestershire Police Headquarters.
Following a public footpath and public right of way, the Ratby Meadow track enters an area of floodplains; utilized mainly for the purpose of grazing animals. Here the maturing River Soar twists and turns across several enclosed fields of meadow, rich in semi-wild horses, butterflies, wild flowers, wood pigeon and long horned cattle.
Slowly stalking the water’s edge, we entered into uncharted territory (since any river looks totally different from the opposite bank). A suitable swim soon presented itself where the meadow grass dips down to a regular watering hole used by the cattle.
A few crumbs of pork pie were thrown into the centre of the river. Several pieces of which fell short lodging themselves into the slack-water between the near bank and the main current. No sooner had these pieces of meat and pastry settled into the water, a large signal crayfish scurried itself from beneath a river stone. Moments later it was joined by another smaller crayfish.
Transfixed by the feeding habits of these miniature ‘river lobsters’, a little time was spent observing the fluorescent white markings on their upper claws and their general feeding habits. Meanwhile the outline of a large, yet slightly sceptical black fish, reminiscent of a river Carp or Common Bream, had moved into the swim just downstream.
It was a completely mysterious fish; partially hidden by water weed. A fish which seemed interested in, yet most reluctant to take any of the pieces of pork pie offered to it as hook-bait? Such fish are of ‘coarse’ piscatorial refugees and remain somewhat of an anomaly within our river systems. Whether by accidental escape, purposeful release, or simply by the realms of nature itself, such fish are however present within the upper River Soar.
Chub are elusive creatures. Some-days Chub are happy to feed on even the largest chunks of strong mature cheddar cheese. Whereas on other days Chub might only accept small baits of maggot or bread. Sometimes Chub may not appear to feed at all, regardless of prevailing weather conditions and the time of year. In fact such fish may prove near impossible to catch. Thus where Dace are ‘Prince of the Stream’, then Chub become ‘King of the River’.
One such Chub lives beneath the archways of Pack Horse Bridge in Aylestone – where the River Soar flows into the Grand Union Canal. With the perfect territory to patrol, this old Chub has grown wise with age. Young anglers, old anglers, the river bailiff, cyclists, horse riders and even dog walkers have all seen and passed comment on “the big fish beneath the bridge”.
Estimated to be around 7 to 8lbs in weight, this King (or Queen) of the River is not only fabled to be the largest Chub on the upper River Soar, yet has also proved to be the most impossible fish to catch and photograph. Unfortunately several of its smaller counterparts were not so lucky in their adventures; reputably being poached for the table by Eastern European anglers in 2012.
It was the hottest day of the year at just over 30c at midday. Alex was already bank side, armed with a selection of mouldy cheese, a modern rod and a modern fixed spool reel. His business for the day was in landing several of the upper River Soar’s specimen Chub.
Already hidden within the seclusion of hawthorn, river rushes and stinging nettles, Alex landed his second fish of the day upon my arrival. It was another lovely Chub, approximately 4lb in weight. Quickly returning the fish to the water, it was decided to move on, to allow this section of the upper River Soar to recover.
As the mid-afternoon beat itself down onto the lonesome ragwort in the meadow, the over-bearing heat of the summer sun became abhorrent. Moving upstream we took shade beneath the branches of an ancient willow. The roots of which extend into the river bank, cradling the over-shadowed pool of water above like its aquatic baby.
Another friend had stalked a young Chub in this very same swim the previous year without result. Two chunks of cheese later, and Alex had managed to hook another 2-3lb Chub; possibly the very same fish our friend hadn’t tempted before. The fish was landed using a long arm landing net, photographed and placed back into the same swim to recover.
Bang goes the theory of not fishing in hot weather!
It was an hour before midday and the first official day of the school holidays. The River Biam was its picturesque self. Busy with cyclists, dog walkers, picnickers, day-trippers, and swimmers. The children and young adults paddling about in the water at the River Biam Bridge were blissfully unaware of the shoals of hundreds of young Chub, Dace and Roach dancing about at their feet.
Following the meadow path beyond the swing-gate which helps prevent horses and long horn cattle from entering the wrong field, the River Biam widens and deepens, running straight in almost unnatural and canalised fashion. After which a large group of Polish mothers and children were making the absolute most of the fine weather and the river down at the ‘beach’.
Further upstream, two young Polish ladies were splashing about bare footed mid-water; both holding a can of high strength Polish larger. They simply both smiled a “hello” or “dobry” before continuing to splash their way downstream again. At which point, on such a morning, there was little point in even attempting to try and catch a wild brown trout on the River Biam.
CHAPTER 6 – AUGUST
Meeting up with Alex again on the Grand Union Canal just after midday, it was decided that he required a ‘Gillie’ on the upper River Soar. Typically a Gillie’s duties might include locating suitable swims, loose feeding bait, and helping to land and photograph any sizeable fish. As usual Alex had arrived with his nominal “Three Fish Challenge”; whereby he would attempt to catch three separate Chub, from three separate swims.
Shortly after setting up his graphite rod and composition reel, Alex was taken to a ‘secret swim’. As he began to introduce small crumbs of extra strong mature cheddar cheese into the river, a size 12 hook fixed to a larger chunk of cheese and a single shot where attached to the main line. This simple rig was then cast out under-arm a few meters upstream into the water. Trotting bait on the current in this way, the fisher-person gains the most control and arguably the best experience when hooking into a wild fish.
Leaving Alex to settle into his new swim allowed for a few moments alone upstream. A few clumsy casts with a homemade fly into a shallow glide perhaps, time to watch butterflies in the meadow behind, or the colours of swooping dragonflies hunting by the water’s edge.
Returning back to reality and shouts of “Get the landing net”, it was apparent that Alex had hooked into a sizeable fish. His composite rod arcing over like a grey rainbow against the clear blue sky as the fish was bought in to the bank. A conservative 5lb Chub was landed shortly after using a landing net the width of the fish. Flanked in streamline grey-sliver scales with golden cheek-plates and a pristine dorsal fin, this magnificent fish is one of the finest specimens ever photographed on the upper River Soar.
Moving upstream heading west along the old towpath, beyond all traces of Himalayan balsam and forget-me-nots, a number of decent sized Rudd were eyed basking themselves on the surface of the Grand Union Canal. Entering the ‘horse-field’ over the gate by the bridge, where bent grasses give way to sedges once again, we rejoined ourselves with the upper River Soar
A smaller, less pronounced stretch of the river was selected as the second swim. Several pieces of mature cheddar cheese were habitually introduced to the current. A hook-bait of the same cheese was gently trotted downstream and a healthy 3lb Chub was landed shortly afterwards by Alex.
The next three swims upstream each drew a blank; being the completely wrong stretches of water to fish from on the wrong day. Such is the interest in fishing. Finally a 4lb Chub was landed in the sixth swim using the same method of trotting the above mouldy cheese slightly downstream. The habitual “Three Fish Challenge” had then been upheld, at least for another day.
On the way home we bumped into the Bailiff on the towpath of the Grand Union Canal. A knowledgeable man, he quickly explained that the local Chub had grown in size in recent years, due to the amount of signal crayfish they were eating up in the river. In fact he was full of useful tips; indicating that prawns bought at the local Leicester Fish Market, have (in the past) proved to be his most reliable “Chub Bait” on the River Soar.
CHAPTER 7 – SEPTEMBER
The morning air was cool and fresh. The sky blue and clear as the sun finally rose from its sleep. At 8am a snap decision to purchase several small tins of sweet corn (with ring-pull lids) was made. At 8.20am the first few offerings of sweet corn went into the water – at the base of the weir at Aylestone Mill Lock on the River Soar section of the Grand Union Canal.
Today the weir helps to regulate water levels on the Grand Union Canal. However the section of ‘River’ that the weir now feeds is possibly an original branch of the River Soar itself – which neatly flows back into the Grand Union Canal/River Soar further downstream. Nestled between the Grand Union Canal and several vehicle repair outlets on the Aylestone Road, this tiny back-water surprisingly still holds a considerable variety of ‘River Fish’ – including the occasional ‘specimen’ not usually found in the contributing Grand Union Canal.
At 8.25am a size 14 barbless hook was attached to a piece of sweet corn, below a waggler float and several pieces of lead-free shot. This simple rig was cast out to the sound of the weir above and within a few seconds the float jolted downward over a darker depth of water. Being too slow on the strike meant a quick retrieve and a recast. The second cast hit the spot, landing just on the edge of rapid water, yet almost falling onto the slower slack or back current on the far bank.
As the float drew slowly round towards the centre of the weir, it plunged under the water’s surface again. Lifting the rod quickly and sideways, hooked a young Chub. Having never been caught (tricked by a fisher person) before, this adolescent fish, born and bred on the upper River Soar (or perhaps even this weir pool), had to be handled with utmost respect. The fish was photographed, and quickly placed back into the water downstream.
At 8.45am a few more offerings of sweet corn went in at the base of the weir to entice any other feeding fish. Several missed opportunities later at around 8.55am the float went under. A healthy Roach, with eyes as big as its belly had gobbled up the whole grain of sweetcorn offered to it as hook-bait. A decent size fish for the location and width of water was then landed (using a landing net), photographed and immediately placed back into the water downstream.
The River Soar and River Biam are tiny inland waterways. How we can learn from them in future remains to be seen. For the meantime, whilst the Kingfishers continue to flash past, darting upstream contouring the shadows of old willows and electricity pylons both Rivers are seemingly alive with a variety of fish.
Common Name and Latin Name of piscatorial species found in the upper River Soar and tributaries in 2013.
Barbel – Barbus barbus
Bream – Abramis brama
Brown Trout – Salmo trutta
Bullhead – Cottus gobio
Carp – Cyprinus carpio
Chub – Leuciscus cephalus
Dace – Leuciscus leuciscus
Grayling – Thymallus thymallus
Gudgeon – Gobio gobio
Minnow – Phoxinus phoxinus
Perch – Perca fluviatilis
Pike – Esox lucius
Roach – Rutilus rutilus
Rudd – Scardinius erythrophthalmus
Stickleback – Gasterosteus aculeatus
Tench – Tinca tinca