Clark Colman explains how to find and catch a hungry but wary coarse fish on fly gear throughout the season.
For the past seven years I’ve lived in an English county where trout fishing is scarce. To satisfy my cravings for quick-fix sport to the fly, I’m now very keen on targeting coarse fish. One of the most common (and obliging) species inhabiting my local rivers and streams is the chub. Leuciscus cephalus receives mixed reviews from fly anglers, with some regarding him as little more than a pest all too ready to compete with trout for natural food and artificial flies!
I couldn’t disagree more, and have a real soft spot for this sporting, benign-looking fish. Its broad back, big scales, golden-bronze flanks and paddle-like fins are a joy to behold, particularly throughout summer and into autumn. Now, after the rigours of spawning, chub become very hungry, and will readily take a fly at times when trout fishing on rivers is often slow (such as during an afternoon heatwave).
One of our most omnivorous species, there isn’t much chub won’t eat, and you’re more likely to land one of 2-5lbs than a trout of similar size. I’ve caught them on nymph, wet and dry fly tactics with a variety of patterns; however a stealthy, tactical approach is often necessary, as chub are very easily spooked. It was with good reason that Izaak Walton called them ‘the fearfullest of fishes’ – so how do you go about finding and catching one on the fly?
Chub are common in most rivers and streams throughout the UK. More well-known venues such as my local River Trent might offer more familiar and encouraging prospects; however surprisingly large numbers of chub (and some impressive specimens too) can be found in the tiniest of running waters. My first home in Nottinghamshire had a narrow dike behind it, with a clear, sandy-bottomed pool opposite my bedroom window. It’s a wonder I wasn’t late for work all those mornings after watching and feeding shoals of peckish chub sidling by!
On warm days, such shoals can be found hovering close to the surface or feeding in shallow water. Otherwise, look for chub in slacker currents and deeper areas affording good cover. Back eddies, undercut banks, submerged logs or tree roots, and overhanging branches all attract them. Sometimes these can all be found in one place – a ‘magic lie’ where bigger fish are likely to be encountered.
With their fondness for bankside hidey-holes, chub are used to feeding on large terrestrial morsels like beetles, caterpillars and sedges, along with other sub-surface goodies like shrimps, nymphs and small fish. Their keen eyesight ensures that few food items escape the chub’s attention, and also allows them to see what’s happening above very easily. Couple this with their marked sensitivity to underwater vibrations, and it’s easy to see why a clumsy approach can send them fleeing. So tread carefully and use all available cover when ‘chubby checking’.
Chub are solidly built, and when big fish shoulder down in the current or head for the security of a snaggy lie, it takes a fairly strong rod to turn them. I prefer five-weights for chub, and using as long a rod as possible not only helps with line control and subduing fish quickly, but also aids reaching beyond bankside cover and presenting a fly without betraying your presence. This can prove invaluable on raised banks and more ‘intimate’ waters such as the tiny streams near my home village, where often the only way to cover chub is by lowering a fly down to them under the rod tip.
The obstacle-ridden lies chub like mean they’re often found close in; thus long casting isn’t usually necessary and the risk of line-flash spooking fish is significantly reduced. For this reason, leader-to-hand setups can work well at close quarters; however when longer casts are required I like to use clear floating lines for chub (such as the USA’s Monic range). A weight-forward profile helps to load the rod and deliver accurate casts in what can often be tight confines.
A strong leader is also vital to keep chub from reaching cover. 5-6lbs tippets will not leave you under-gunned, and I like to use fluorocarbon because of its low visibility. I tend to stick with fluorocarbon tippets for everything but the smallest of dry flies. Even with its higher density, it doesn’t tend to drown larger, more buoyant patterns, and the tippet itself lying sub-surface reduces the frequent need to de-grease it. Otherwise, I travel light. A roving approach is best when fly fishing for chub, so with a rod, reel, landing net, and a minimalist selection of essentials (fly box, leader material, floatant, snips, forceps, cap and polarising sunglasses), I’m ready to go.
Dry fly fishing is perhaps the most exciting way of catching chub. Once seen, the sight of those thick lips and cavernous mouth sucking in a floating pattern isn’t easily forgotten! An imitative approach with appropriately-sized artificials works when chub are taking something specific on or in the surface. However, don’t be put off trying dries just because chub aren’t visibly feeding. Big, bushy offerings can tempt them up out of nowhere. I’ve enjoyed success with both traditional patterns like the Soldier Palmer, and more modern creations such as Klinkhamers, Crane Fly and Sedge imitations.
Chub are also equally ready to take a sub-surface fly, presented appropriately. Again, ‘big and buggy’ is often the way to go. One of my most successful chub flies is a weighted Black and Peacock Spider, in sizes 8-12. Copperhead and Goldhead Hare’s Ear Nymphs, and Frank Sawyer’s legendary Killer Bug, have also served me well. Given the chub’s fondness for eating small fish, there should always be some sculpin or tadpole patterns in your box. I’ve had fantastic results with tungsten-beaded tadpoles in a variety of colours, sizes and weights – especially black copper-headed versions.
The awkward lies in which chub are often found, and the necessity to use bankside growth as cover, can make fly presentation difficult even at close quarters. The ability to side, roll, jump-roll and catapult cast is often a must, and be prepared to lose a fly or two in the process! A downstream approach is often preferable when targeting chub under overhanging tree branches, which can be too low to admit even the most tightly-looped upstream casts. It also helps to ensure that the first thing the fish sees is the fly, not the leader and fly line – particularly useful given how easily chub can be spooked.
Dry flies can, with care, be floated downstream without dragging; however my experience suggests that chub are far more tolerant of drag than trout or grayling. A buoyant fly skated across the river – particularly one intended to imitate a large swimming beetle or sedge – can stimulate them into taking. Nymphs are best fished upstream; Czech nymphing and related techniques can be deadly in faster water, while deeper, slower areas are best tackled with lighter patterns. Here an indicator or Duo rig can prevent weighted nymphs from snagging up, hold them for longer at the taking depth, and allow for lengthy, free-drift presentation when longer casts are possible.
For fishing tadpole patterns, both up and downstream presentations can be effective, either with a retrieve or simply ‘leading’ the fly down Czech-style. I’ve also had much success by casting square across the current and allowing the fly to swing round and up, quickening it at intervals with jerky strips to mimic a distressed or wounded fish. Simply ‘jigging’ such patterns under the rod tip in tight confines or coloured water can be deadly – I well remember the first big chub I took doing this, which turned on the fly out of nowhere in a tiny pool coloured brown during a spate.
Of all the methods I’ve used when targeting chub, springing an ambush on them is possibly the most tactically-rewarding. Chub have regular patrol routes, so if you don’t see them where you expect to, or inadvertently spook them away, it’s worth taking cover and waiting for them to return. A single, appropriately-sized and weighted fly is best here, and when you see fish approaching, don’t be tempted to land it right in the middle of the shoal from above – this is guaranteed to spook them. Instead, be ready to pitch the fly well in front with minimal movement. A catapult cast is invaluable here, and there’s something very satisfying about the quick, highly accurate presentation it can (with practice) deliver.
Seeing the fly land and sink may well stimulate chub into darting forward and taking it on the drop. If it doesn’t, and the fly lands on the bottom, don’t be in a hurry to lift out and recast. Sudden movements like this could lose you your chance, and there’s nothing worse after a long wait than seeing a shoal of chub (or a big ‘lone hunter’) disappear within seconds! Instead, wait for the fish to get closer and then ‘twitch’ the rod tip to impart movement to the fly. This will disturb the bottom and, hopefully, stimulate a very quick response.
Although smaller chub can be quite energetic when hooked, they don’t tend to have the same fighting qualities as trout – and bigger ones certainly don’t. On feeling resistance their immediate reaction is to bolt for cover, and this powerful initial run is usually the best you can expect from them. If they reach sub-surface obstacles then you’re in trouble, but if you can turn a chub on its first run then the battle will normally be yours. Thereafter, they offer more ‘plodding’ resistance by hanging doggedly in the current and using their weight against you. Here the five-weight rod offers a good compromise between allowing chub to give a good account of themselves, and having enough backbone to get them to the net.
Disturbance from hooked fish will certainly scatter any companions, so stay on the move and find others to target before returning to known holding areas. It doesn’t usually take long for spooked chub to come back and feed again, so give them a wide berth and they’ll soon be there. With stealth, patience, and a willingness to stray off the beaten track, you can enjoy prolific and sometimes quite unexpected action with good numbers of chub. Who knows, that 6lbs + specimen may be lurking just around the next overgrown corner. And remember – it’s not only rural rivers and streams that can produce chub. They’re well-known for being city slickers too!
I can’t resist ending without telling the story of my ‘underground chub’. It was late June 2011, and Richard Batchelor and I were on Nottinghamshire’s River Leen doing an urban trout feature for Total FlyFisher magazine. Our search for wild fish had led us to Bulwell, less than a mile from the centre of Nottingham, where I’d recently been successful. Working upstream through the town, I tempted a decent brownie on a size 17 Goldhead Hare’s Ear just below a road bridge tunnel.
Here, the Leen flows beneath Bulwell through a lengthy, narrow underground culvert, before emerging from a small, dark portal at the top of the bridge tunnel. More as a joke than anything else, Richard challenged me to side cast up into the culvert, and I duly obliged with a very pleasing effort of perhaps fifteen yards. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything to even see the tiny nymph in the pitch black, let alone take it. So when something tugged violently on the end of the line as I took up the slack, I almost fainted with shock!
To judge from the fight I suspected it wasn’t a trout, and this was confirmed when a chub of perhaps 2lbs emerged into the dim light under the bridge. I couldn’t lead it back downstream into daylight – there were far too many snags for that. Despite crouching as low as I could, the tip of my 9ft rod was almost scraping the tunnel roof by the time I managed to net the fish. Sure enough, the tiny, barbless nymph was firmly embedded in the bottom right-hand corner of its mouth. I’ve caught fish in some unusual locations over my twenty-four years in angling, but this beats them all – proper ‘chubby checking!’
Dr Clark Colman is Press Secretary of the British Army Angling Federation (Game), and a member of the Soldier Palmers loch style team. A former Army Associate Champion, he is the current UK Interservices River Champion, and a Fishing for Forces Game Angling Mentor. Clark also runs EDIP FlyFishing, an endorsed nationwide guiding service – contact 07752 268073 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.edipflyfishing.co.uk.