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02 March 2008

John Horsey reports on Farmoor II’s decision to offer boats all-year-round

Trying to find a reservoir that stays open all winter has always been a problem – but not any more. Farmoor II near Oxford has made the unprecedented decision to remain open through the entire year for both bank and boats.

Some stocking will continue throughout the winter months to supplement the already generous stocking densities, where average weights of the rainbow trout are around 2lb 4oz. Any brown trout caught must be returned until mid-march.

For 2008, Farmoor II’s 240 acres will have 16 boats, all equipped with outboard engines. If you fancy wandering the banks, there is over 2 miles of available shoreline, so there is no shortage of space.

I often plan a winter trip to Farmoor II and have even taken trout on dry fly as late as mid November. This year I am joined by Farmoor regular Bryan Brown, who fished the reservoir over 40 times in 2007. Bryan has a rod average of 4.6 per trip and normally adopts an imitative approach using Buzzers, Bloodworm, dries or fry patterns.

Although it is a concrete bowl style reservoir, it is an extremely fertile water, full of nutritional aquatic insect life. Huge falls of daddy longlegs during autumn provokes some fantastic late season surface activity, followed by a fry-feeding frenzy that often lasts well into December.

However, once the weather cools and the water temperature drops, bloodworm, snail and hoglice become the staple diet for the Farmoor trout.

On the Boat:
Bryan and I head off to a popular spot near to the cages. On a relatively uniform shaped reservoir like Farmoor, any feature becomes a potential hotspot and cages are well known holding areas on many waters. We both set up sinking lines, Bryan with a Di-5 sinker, while I opt for the faster Di-7.

Dark, sombre flies normally work well during the winter months, so I start with a 15 foot leader of 10lb fluorocarbon and three flies. A Black Booby on the point, with a buzzer in the middle and Diawl Bach on the top dropper. Bryan opts for a Coral Booby on the top dropper, with a Diawl Bach in the middle and a fry-imitating suspender minkie on the point.

During recent trips, Bryan caught some fabulous fry-feeders in this area and his last limit bag of eight fish weighed over 24lb. While cleaning his trout, he was amazed at the number of fry in each fish and by the end of the gutting session over 1lb of fry had accumulated in his kitchen sink.

We feel sure that we will soon get in amongst those fry-feeders and within a few minutes, Bryan’s into his first fish of the day. It took the Coral Booby about mid water and the spoonings reveal nothing but daphnia. Then I hook a fish on my Black Booby, taken on the drop with such a savage take that I predict it’s a fry-feeder, there’s nothing in this fish whatsoever. But as this is one of the recent stockies, we are not surprised.

Bryan then hits three fish on the trot and all on the Coral Booby. Two had bloodworm in them and the other was empty. Where are the fry-feeders? There is no sign of any surface fry-feeding activity in the near calm conditions, but the air temperature in the mist is definitely dropping.

I reckon my Black Booby is not working and neither are the nymphs so I add a second booby – coral of course – to my cast, on the top dropper position and substitute a Cormorant mini lure for the Diawl Bach.

Soon I start to get fish regularly and most come to the Coral Booby. The spoonings reveal daphnia, snail and bloodworm. We no longer get takes on the drop or at mid-water, but have to let the flies get right to the bottom and retrieve them with a very slow figure of eight.

When fishing Booby patterns deep in this fashion, it is imperative not to strike at every knock. Trout will often mouth the Booby several times before taking it properly and if you strike, the fly gets pulled out of its mouth and higher in the water. Occasionally the trout will grab at it and hook itself, but more often than not, they will leave it and your chance is gone. In these circumstances, I prefer to keep the retrieve going until tension can be felt clearly for a few seconds – then I strike.

I don’t know why it is, but I rarely deep hook trout on Boobies any more, I can remember when you almost needed to go in through the vent to unhook fish that had taken the Booby – but no more. It is almost as if they have wised up over the years.

On seeing the spoonings, Bryan switches to a midge tip line and team of Diawl Bach and Buzzer Nymphs on an 18 foot cast of 8lb fluorocarbon. If the feeding fish were on bloodworm, surely they would take the nymphs? For 40 minutes, Bryan inches has his nymphs along the bottom, watching the loop for signs that a fish has taken hold, but in all that time, he never gets an offer. I, on the other hand, catch and release four more rainbows that either took the Coral or Black Booby.

On days like these when the fish need a bit of coaxing, it is pointless persevering with imitative patterns such as nymphs, when all they want is a decent mouthful! However, there is no need to rip them back at breakneck speed – fish your lures more like nymphs. The water temperature is low, as is the trout’s metabolism and with it their reluctance to chase.

It also becomes clear that half the fish are grown-on rainbows and the rest are stockies. The residents are feeding hard, but the stockies are empty. We move around the lake trying to contact the elusive big fry feeders.

Farmoor II is about 10 meters deep at its extreme, but the crucial factor is to find the contours around the edge of the reservoir. The concrete banks drop steadily for about 30 meters, then there is a shelf. During the summer months, this underwater plateau develops significant weed beds which attract the trout like a magnet. Once the weed dies off during winter, the trout still patrol these features in search of food. There is a second shelf about 30 metres further out into the lake. It is vital to target these areas either from the bank or from the boat. Obviously the first shelf is too close to the shore if bank anglers are present, but the second shelf is almost always fishable from the boat.

We opt for the inlet area, which is a noted big fish hotspot. I decide at this point to go for the jugular and switch to a single big Sparkler lure. I am determined to get one of these big Farmoor fry-feeders, and feel that this would give me the best chance. I work the fly through most levels in that corner of the lake and finally get my reward while slowly fishing it along the bottom – more like imitating a stumbling cased caddis than a fry!

It’s a quality grown on rainbow, but sadly not one of last year’s but one from earlier in the season that weighs-in at around 2lb 12oz. This time the marrowspoon reveals more daphnia! At this point, we give up on the fry-feeders for the day and move to other areas using the sinking line and Booby combo.

By the end of the day we have boated around 20 trout – all rainbow. With catch and release, we had enjoyed great sport for most of the day, but with all that activity it was unusual not to have taken at least one fish in excess of 3lb. The following day, local angler Bob Eccles anchored his boat near to the cages and landed the seasons biggest rainbow trout of 8lb 5oz. Ah well, that’s fishing.

The Banks:

Farmoor II is fed by water from the nearby River Thames and during the entire winter it will almost certainly be at top water. A long-handled landing net is obligatory as the banks can be quite steep and many anglers prefer to fish on the flat bank rather than the sloping walls.

Choosing where to fish on Farmoor can be crucial as concrete bowl reservoirs are influenced by surface water movement and underwater currents – known as undertows. An undertow is created when wind blows onto the surface of the reservoir, creating a surface movement of water in the same direction as the wind. When that body of moving water hits the shore, it deflects against the solid wall of concrete, passing it below the surface water and creating an underwater current which travels in the opposite direction.

Many believe that the resident trout follow the undertow in search of food items. Any daphnia or insects will also move in the same direction as the undertow and will be pushed along by it.

By following this school of thought and fishing sinking lines with subsurface flies during winter, when you retrieve your flies, they move in the same direction as the undertow – which is far more natural than moving against the current.

For this reason, it is more beneficial to fish with the wind at your back, rather than cast into the wind. I have never subscribed to the theory of casting into the wind anyway and this adds further doubt over its benefits, casting is far easier and you can cast further using the wind for help and the trout should come closer to the shoreline as they follow the undertow into the windward shore.

The bung style of fishing is also extremely popular at Farmoor II and the method was possibly invented here by local angler John Everard. He realised that trout in concrete bowl reservoirs tend to patrol the margins and by suspending nymphs under a buoyant fly pattern they would be intercepted whenever the trout passed by.

The clarity of the water at Farmoor is normally excellent and this undoubtedly helps when fishing this technique. I am personally not a huge fan of the bung method, preferring instead to fish straight-line nymphs. But I am in no doubt as to its effectiveness at times.

As with much of winter fishing it pays to move frequently along the banks at Farmoor II. Sometimes moving just 50 yards along the bank can produce spectacular results. So my advice is to always travel light and be mobile.


Bryan Brown’s advice on fishing Farmoor II

Although the landscape is not as good as a flooded reservoir with natural banks, Farmoor II still has a lot to offer. When you are in a boat looking across to Wytham Woods or Cumnor Hill, it is very attractive and once you are fishing, the concentration is focused.

As the reservoir is high up, with built up banks and prevailing westerly wind, there is a tendency for many terrestrials to be blown onto the water, especially daddy longlegs in late summer and hawthorn flies in the spring.

Farmoor II is a noted buzzer fishery; the local residents are often invaded by huge falls and they can frequently be seen in plumes, like smoke amongst the trees. It seems the most common naturals are all forms of the chironomid; bloodworms, buzzers and hatching or hatched winged insects.

Also large areas of the reservoir hold daphnia, found even as late as December, with snails, hoglice and late summer coarse fish fry in abundance.

It is a 12 month fishery with boats available all year round so long as it is not too windy or too frozen.

You have to be prepared to move to find the fish and change methods to find the depth at which they are feeding. About 30 metres from the bank is a drop-off with significant weed growth and the fish often hold in these areas.

Drifting, fishing loch-style is the best way of finding the fish, but it depends on the wind as Farmoor is a popular bank fishery and boats need to be aware of bank anglers.

Certainly the drop-offs are the places to explore but when the fish are on dries, across the middle is very productive. On its day it is a fine dry fly water.

Over the last year, I have used all sorts of techniques, mostly using floaters or midge tips; straight-line nymphing, washing line and surface pulling.

If necessary I also use (when required) sinkers of all sorts using fry patterns, Blobs and Boobies. As with all reservoir fishing, you have to be prepared to find the method and adapt to the conditions.

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