by Dr Mark Everard
What is it about roach that so enthuses beginners, match and pleasure anglers, and specimen-hunters alike?
After all, roach are hardly scarce. Aside from possibly the three-spined stickleback, roach are the most widely distributed freshwater fish species across the British Isles. They also show remarkable adaptability, equally at home in a muddy duck pond or mighty salmon river, a canal or gravel pit, a lowland meandering river or mature estate lake, or even in the upper reaches of estuaries. Neither are smaller roach hard to catch. They are in fact ever eager to snatch a flake or paste of bread, a squatt, a pinkie, a big maggot or a worm, a grain of sweetcorn or a pellet or even small boilie.
But there is just something about their elegantly rounded frame, dark bronzed or green-tinged backs grading to silver on the flank and cream beneath, and the contrasting brilliance of those glorious red fins that give the species (and me!) its common nickname ‘Redfin’. Then in late summer through to autumn, the whole palette of the roach is burnished with a gold patina with fins deepening to scarlet through accumulation pigments from a diet rich in summer invertebrates.
A big roach is certainly a creature of wonder. I recall a 3lb 6oz 4dr roach I had the good fortune to land from the Hampshire Avon as the 1991-2 season drew to a close, a fish that had no right to look huge when dwarfed in my 40 inch landing net (I had a pike rod down the edge too which is why this outsized net was the nearest to hand) but did so anyhow!
Also, a 3lb 11oz fish I was lucky enough to land in the dead of night, netting it barefoot by torchlight in the iced margins of an Irish lake during a session with my good friend Keith Berry, holder of the British rod-caught roach record, also banked in an oversized net but looking unbelievably vast rendering my vocabulary wanting for any words that did not begin with ‘F’!
Adaptability is the watch-word for roach. In my book 'The Complete Book of the Roach', I call them: “The Supreme Generalists”, their form and function adapting them to a vast diversity of habitats and diets as evidenced by the many places they thrive and the range of baits they will take. In my other roach book Redfin Diaries, I narrate how fine roach have fallen to my crude deceptions in every month of the year from high summer to deepest winter, including for example netting a big bag of specimens through a hole I had to punch through thick ice on a West Country gravel pit. Also on tactics ranging from the waggler, wet fly, quivertip, stick float, Avon long-trotting, free-line, pole, pop-up, and not forgetting the much-neglected lift method, and to a bewildering variety of baits paramount amongst which for me is bread. Roach can, and do, adapt to whatever food source is most abundant, a reality worth remembering when fishing for most coarse fish species when our habits reward us with no bites.
So, if they are so adaptable to conditions and food availability, what make a ‘good’ roach water? Well, if you want quantity, pretty much anywhere with a good diversity of habitat giving them places to find food, evade predators and strong currents, as well as providing spawning and nursery areas. Most canals where zander have not got a hold make good roach match fishing waters with plenty of bites to help the matchman built a weight over a five hour period.
But what about if you want quality? Well, ironically, it is the exact opposite! We all know that where fish populations are very dense, the fish tend to become stunted as food and consequently growth are limited as is common for rudd and perch populations in small waters. Where populations are a little sparser, the average size of fish tends to be bigger.
My Hampshire Avon giant was one from low population density where, as for roach stocks in many salmon rivers, young fish find it hard to fight currents and avoid being washed out of the system leaving the few and the strong to survive and grow on with less competition.
Likewise, my Irish leviathan was part of a very low stock in the lake, fished for hard and the only bite under a brilliant full moon during a four-day session at minus 4 degrees C! I thought that fishing was meant to be fun?) Where canals and rivers have high predation rates, particularly by zander and perch, which selectively feed on small prey due to being ‘gape-limited’ by mouths smaller than those of pike, this too can select for fewer, bigger roach.
How best then to catch a monster roach? As tales related in Redfin Diaries prove, there is no single answer. Rather, I recommend spending time walking the water and looking for attractive features – variations like bridges, weed beds, margins, slight accelerations in flow, and particularly drop-offs in depth – that meet the requirements of this often shy species for cover and proximity to refuge and food.
Bait? Well, mostly for me that is bread but not where many small fishes are likely to demolish it in moments. So again, think like the fish; what are the looking for in terms of natural or near-natural food items and are they doing so on the bed or up in the water, against surfaces such as reed stems, walls or natural drop-offs in depth? Then, and only then, should you decide the method that suits the water conditions and presentation of your chosen bait. The more tools you have in your armoury, the ‘luckier’ you may get! For example, in hot summer weather, I find a wet fly unbeatable as bigger roach turn their attentions to feeding on the abundance of insect larvae and fish fry. (Yes, they will turn predatory!)
The key is to enjoy yourself! Roach are a beautiful and worthy quarry. If you have had anywhere as much enjoyment as me catching them – whether they be big, small or mind-shatteringly huge – then you will know the addictive magic of the humble redfin!
The team undertake a diverse range of work including looking after the Trust's £40 million worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people, especially youngsters, take up angling on the canal. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.See more blogs from this author