John Bailey: Autumn worm is the angler’s friend

Wye barbel with John Bailey

Joe and John Bailey with a cracking Wye barbel - Credit: John Bailey

It might have been Samuel Johnson who said: “Float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.”

Or it might not have been. There is no record of the words in Johnson’s literary canon and they are quoted in Hawker’s book “Instructions To Young Sportsmen”, which rather favoured the emerging sport of fly fishing in the mid-19th century.

Hawker or Johnson, they were wrong, wrong, wrong. The worm - and by that I mean the big, lusty, muscular lobworm - is and always has been the bait saviour of the wise angler and especially so in the autumn. It is now that all our freshwater species are packing on their weight ready for the lean months of approaching winter, and what could be more nutritious that an eight-inch lob just packed with juicy goodness? My lips are smacking, never mind those of a huge-gobbed chub.

But there’s more about the autumn that makes it lob season above all others. Yesterday morning, for example, a heavy dew lay on the paddock until after 11am with the birds picking up worms with gusto even then. How many of those worms fell into the nearby pond to be appreciated by the carp there? You wouldn’t see that happening in the scorched heat of high summer, but it is the autumn floods that have the biggest impact of all. Bob James (he of Passion For Angling fame along with Chris Yates) told me that when he lived in a mill house on the Avon, the sluice gates would be coated in drowning lobworms after a rise in water levels and that the chub went crackers over the unexpected wriggling feast.

A couple of days ago I snatched an hour or two on a Norfolk river and noticed the level was up a little, just enough to make me don waders. I was up to my knees, no more, when I realised that the silt I had disturbed had attracted half a dozen perch right up to my very boots.

Anyone who has dived will know that perch are fascinated by any disturbance like this and very, very carefully I reeled in, took off my flake and put a large lob on the hook instead. No casting was needed and I simply lowered the worm down beside my legs. I was after the king of those perch, a bristling two-pounder, but a mere lad of six ounces shot up, flared his gills and a worm longer than himself disappeared in the blink of an eye. I had to strike or risk a deep-hooked fish and the 'king' disappeared with his cohorts, never to be seen again, but the worm had proved its irresistible point.

Much more dramatic was a day on the Wye last week. There had been rain in the Welsh hills and a flush of water had come through. I expected the barbel to be right on it but no way. Joe, an ex-Aylsham High School pupil now working in New York, had come back home with a barbel in mind and we winkled one out for him, thank goodness, but it was a one off, or so it seemed.

A lobworm saved Pinger’s day

A lobworm saved Pinger’s day - Credit: John Bailey

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I did the sensible thing for once and got up to have a look around. I’d walked the high bank for a quarter of a mile when, bingo, my binoculars picked up what I was looking for. Half way across the deep, wide river, a great plume of silt was spreading like a cloud and drifting downstream. The longer I watched, the bigger the coffee-coloured stain became and I even saw glimpses of golden flanks as the fish lifted themselves off the river bed. Ian, aka Pingers, was 100 yards off, crouched over his pellet and unmoving rod tip, so I dragged him off to where the fish were. We put two pythonesque lobs on his size six, cast them to the far bank and then retrieved them so that they fell into the head of the silt trail. The line trembled a while then drew irresistibly tight and his first barbel of the day came to the net.

Oh yes, those lovely , luscious lobs do it again and again if you have the faith in them. Chub adore them almost as much as they do a crayfish. If you can find a carp feeding in a shallow bay early doors, after a wet night especially, forget your boilies and show it a lob for an instant take. And perhaps the best, now forgotten bait there has ever been for big roach is a small lob, a little finger’s length or thereabouts and trotted under a stick float.

As a kid,  lobs were my go-to bait for trout in the north Norfolk streams and, especially, for sea trout up there too. But I wouldn’t go that route now: trouble is the trout love them so much, they are down their throat in a trice and a dead fish is a near certainty. It’s the same in the salmon world where catch and release is almost universally followed and the use of the worm makes that all but impossible. So hooking up the lob has to be done with some discretion, if indeed you can even find some. Forget empty supermarket shelves, a couple of tackle dealers have told me lobs are proving difficult or impossible to source as most have been coming from abroad for many years. And there is even worse to report.

So excited were we with Ian’s Wye barbel that we set about finding more along the bank. We dug here and there and grubbed under tree trunks and in the ditches and barely found a single one big enough to get a barbel’s juices flowing. No surprise there, the keeper told us. The land is poisoned by phosphates, he said, and finding a worm now is actually a much harder task than catching a fish on it. What sort of knackered world have we created, he asked?

Some of you might have watched Mortimer and Whitehouse a few nights back when they tackled the Lake District. Their guru up there, Eric, always fishes the trundled worm which he twitches back almost constantly with great results. It’s a vivid, exciting, all-action approach that really searches out the water before you. So, get that worm out, if you are lucky enough to find one in these lob-less days of ours!

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