There used to be a time when winter fishing for the match angler revolved around roach on canals and rivers or carp on commercials – but how times have changed!
An explosion of skimmers everywhere has seen this fish, normally a reliable summer feeder, become the prime target for many and you’ll see from results that this species is becoming quite dominant in matches, especially on carp waters when the big fish aren’t playing ball.
My England team mate Steve Gardener has talked about the emergence of skimmer waters in his area of the South East, and it’s a phenomenon seen elsewhere too. Woodland Lakes in North Yorkshire is currently seeing bream outperform carp at the scales, and I could count a dozen other waters where the same is true.
Whatever the reasons, all I know is that as a match angler who fishes every weekend, skimmers provide me with almost guaranteed bites, and as those in commercial fisheries are of a good average size you can soon build a weight that you couldn’t with small roach.
So how do you go about catching them? Well, you hardly have to alter your tactics from the typical warm weather approach. By scaling down slightly and cutting back on feed you’ll get a pretty good response in all but the coldest of weather, and while the bloke after carp might sit watching a motionless tip for hours on end, you’ll always be putting something in the net.
To show just how dominant skimmers have become, I’ve come to a typical commercial water, Rycroft Fisheries – just down the road from my house in Derby – where silverfish matches are being won with 30lb of the species.
I have two ways of catching them in mind, one a very classic old-school method and the other giving a big nod to the world of carp fishing.
Because I could hook a carp on winter commercials, my rigs aren’t super-fine in terms of lines and hooks. Scaling right down will get you more bites but you’ll rarely get any bonuses in the net and you’ll run the risk of more tangles when fishing at speed. That’s no good when every minute counts.
A 0.12mm mainline to a 0.10mm hooklength of Sensas Feeling line and a size 18 Kamasan B911 F1 barbless hook will land anything you might hook but still be fine and light enough for finicky fish. Couple this with a light-grade hollow elastic through the top-2 of the pole and you’ll have plenty of stretch to prevent hook pulls and bumped fish.
Floats need a bit of weight to give good presentation and a still bait in windy weather, so I’d aim for a rugby ball-shaped model of around 0.4g to 0.6g (the Sensas Jean Phillipe or Jean Francois is my choice) with a fairly fine, slim plastic bristle dotted down to leave around a centimetre showing.
This is shotted with a simple bulk of shot 18ins from the hook and then three or four No11 dropper shots spaced down to the hook to give a slow fall of the bait in the final foot of the swim. Skimmers will watch a bait as it falls, especially in clear water. Rigs will be set around half a float-length overdepth to give stability.
THE LATE SHOW
Bream and skimmers have many things in common with carp, one being their liking for feeding very late in the day, often as the light fades and you’re struggling to see the float! That makes the final hour of any match the prime time to catch well, so even if you have a slow start to your match there’s no need to panic.
Just because you’re fishing a well-stocked lake doesn’t mean you’ll catch from the word go, and it’s often a case of slowly building the peg up over those opening few hours, laying the foundations for when the skimmers do get their heads down. That’s done with careful feeding and a lot of patience.
Never be tempted to put more bait in to try and make something happen because, in my experience, it rarely does. Bide your time and keep an eye on your watch for those golden final few hours.
The good thing about skimmers is that normally they give you a sign that they’re in the peg, be it a few small bubbles or a small lift or dink on the float before it goes under. Often you’ll get a line bite that slowly pulls the bristle down until it almost sinks before popping back up. This is because skimmers sit a few inches off bottom and up-end to take a bait, rubbing into the line and moving the float.
I know this is a theory that Alan Scotthorne subscribes to, and when it happens, don’t let your focus wander or be tempted to strike too early. Be patient – wait for a proper bite.
WORKING THE BAIT
We’re always taught that skimmers and bream like a still bait. This is why the feeder is such a good way to catch them but when fishing the tip, a good trick is to twitch the feeder a few inches with half a turn on the reel handle to induce a bite.
The same principle applies to polefishing in my book, and that means a simple lift of the rig out of the water by three or four inches before very slowly lowering it back in. If the fish are having it, the float should bury just as the rig settles.
Likewise, you can try dragging the rig a few inches to the left or right before allowing it to settle back down. This can work especially well on days when the water is cold and the fish are lethargic and not swimming around searching for your hookbait.
‘Go easy' would be my main bit of advice on this front. To start with a single ball of groundbait the size of a small orange, holding a little chopped worm and a few dead maggots, goes in on one line and a third of a large pole cup of soaked micro pellets is fed on the other.
This is it until I need to feed more, generally indicated by the presence of small fish or no bites at all. If I catch a carp, this tells me that a lot of the feed may have been eaten by that big fish so I’ll put in a similar amount again.
The only other feed that goes in will be a few casters loosefed over the groundbait line every 10mins-15mins. However, if you’re catching well then there’s no harm in potting in small but regular amounts of feed to keep the fish happy.
Sensas Magic is a well-tested brand that takes some beating, and to this I’ll add a pinch of chopped worm and some dead maggots to give the fish larger food items to pick out. These will also attract any bonus perch in the area into your swim.
I’m still a firm believer that commercial bream like sweet feeds with just a hint of fish. That’s why the recently-launched Sensas Sweet Fishmeal range of mixes are just the job.
A kilo bag will be ample for a winter match, mixed on the fluffy side so it breaks down quickly in the swim.
Skimmers love groundbait, but if there’s been one big trend in the past decade it’s been their love of fishmeal. That’s not just confined to commercials either, as pellets and fishmeal groundbaits are starting to work on canals and drains too! For that reason you’d be daft not to have pellets play some part in your winter skimmer approach. Typically I’ll put in two long pole lines to feed old and new if you like – pellets on one and groundbait on the other. Pellets are simply soaked Sensas 2mm micros potted in.
A vital decision involves picking the right hookbait, and you won’t go far wrong with maggots, casters and pellets. On the pellet front you can forget all about big 6mm offerings as these are just too big for a 6oz skimmer and you’ll miss loads of bites – 4mm expanders are miles better, prepared with a pump so they’re super soft, and these should be hooked across the grain of the pellet as you can see in the picture above. This ensures they’ll stay on even when you miss a bite.
For the groundbait line caster is a selective bait that picks out the bigger fish. Use a single or a double and always go with a darker bait, but for regular bites to keep the catch rate ticking over red maggots take some whacking. More and more I find myself using dead maggots over lives.
Maybe it’s the fact that they don’t move once in the water and don’t attract small fish, or perhaps it’s because a dead maggot is incredibly soft compared to a live one.
I don’t know what the reasons are, but a double bait fished overdepth will more often than not mean that when the float goes under there’s something worth having on the other end!
THOSE PESKY CARP
Unfortunately, commercial fisheries mean carp and it’s rare that you’ll fish any bait for skimmers in winter and not encounter at least one or two big fish. They’re a great bonus if you can get them out but their aggressive nature can ruin a peg and scatter the skimmers – and there’s little you can do to stop these carp turning up.
You’ll know it’s happened when the peg goes very quiet and the smaller fish vanish. The only bit of advice I can give if you want a carp-free day is to go very easy on the feed and not leave any substantial amount in the peg for them to gorge on.