last updated : 23rd December 2010
Sonning Gravel Pit - Opportunity Knocks by Duncan Philps
sgp1Sonning Gravel Pit in all it's stunning glory.

The particular venue in question is best described as a mature gravel pit. The excavation work commenced in the 1960s in order to provide much needed gravel for the regional boom in road building and industrial programmes which were in evidence at the time. The pit remains a working project to date.

Some 300 plus acres of extraction has left a typical non-uniform landscape of troughs, gulleys and bars and shallows and deeps that when filled with water give no indication of the topography beneath. This water has a history in local angling circles, with many tales from yesteryear of huge hauls of bream and tench and with large specimens landed of most typical coarse species.

However, a large scale fish kill some years back (attributed in the main to the run off from local farming fertilizers) decimated vast stocks of fish with many year groups wiped out in one foul swoop. A disaster from which (according to many club members of old) it has yet to fully recover. However, it still remains a beautiful if not daunting venue and one that always presents the angler with a worthy challenge. Here is a tale of one particular chain of events that saw me rewarded after many fruitless sessions whilst in pursuit of the pits pike stock.

Having joined the local Reading & District angling club I decided to target the pit for pike almost straight away and so began a protracted campaign of discovery. Having spoken to other anglers on the venue and in my local tackle shop, I was under no impression that this was going to be easy. Suffice to say I spent my first seven 'haphazard' sessions spaced over three months on this water with next to nothing to show for my efforts. Every method tried, failed and all baits seemed to attract nothing bar the odd 'crush' marking from a resident eel and even then with little or nothing registering on the floats. Offerings presented hard on the bottom, popped up off the bottom, coarse and sea deads, drifting baits far out, and selecting marginal placements. Nothing, Nada, Nichts!

With little gravel pit experience to draw from I decided it would be easiest to divide the fishable areas into smaller more manageable pockets of water and to then tackle each pocket accordingly. Having walked most of the available and fishable areas bankside with a plummet and float, I immediately eliminated vast tracts of the water as looking either too uniform too bland too shallow or perhaps because they seemed void of grebes or any prominent signs of bait fish topping. I finally settled on three swims in areas I had selected as worthy of a more concentrated effort.

A view from the first swim

The first swim (photo above) was in a basin of water attached to the main body by two small channels at opposite ends. The water dropped right down to 8 feet not a metre off the bank and a small tree to the right held 11 feet below it. The water depths around the entrance though is shallow with only 3 feet in one area. The weed growth in the margins was rich and thick and I had seen an angler catching small roach and perch on the pole on a previous occasion.

The other two swims were again next to trees in the water and held deeper water to 16 feet dropping off quickly from the bank. Having decided on my swims I now proceeded to spend time in them all. As with all waters a pattern slowly emerged and this was to be the case. Despite continuing to blank in each of the swims I noted that I was invariably fishing early morning sessions and rarely bankside past mid-day. However, an unforeseen event forced an afternoon session and with it my first fish.

The session in question saw me setting up in the first swim and cursing due to the fact that I had left my weights box at home. So, selecting a small roach deadbait I shallowed up and cast 10 meters over to the right of the basin and let the roach settle gently on top of the thick marginal weed with no additional weight to pull it further down and away into it. An hour later and the float bobbed gently and slid accross the water. A firm strike and a lively 7lb fish was soon resting in the net. The time was 2 pm.

What followed on from this was further afternoon sessions again using a weightless bait approach and with the baits being allowed to rest on or just in the weed. More 'one fish' sessions became the norm with a couple of scraper doubles being the best weight achieved. The fish remarkably all seemed to come close to or on 2 pm. Despite always varying the baits it soon became apparent that roach and skimmers with the occasional trout were the winners. Sea deads got me absolutely nothing and the floats bearing my usually favoured joeys, herrings and sardines beneath them remained motionless. All three swims were now responding and on a couple of occasions I actually put two fish onto the bank though nothing much bigger than ten pounds, usually jacks and without doubt a few repeat captures.

One late Saturday afternoon in November I was returning in my car from fishing the swim furthest up the pit, when having slowed down in order to scan the water (as you do) I noticed it held four adult grebes all dipping madly into the margins. Pulling over and peering down into the margins by my feet, I soon discovered the reason for this activity. Hordes of 2 inch fry in their thousands balled up in and below the weed for as far as I could walk along the bank, it was black with them. The grebes were catching near on every dive and I was gutted because, already late, I had to return home and didnt even have time for a cast. Surely, if the grebes were so readily feasting and the fry were there in such numbers, then old esox must be down there amongst them partaking in a share?.

The next day I returned early in the morning (more to prevent the swim being nabbed by another angler than with any hope of some new found morning success) to find the fry still evident, though depleted in numbers and with no grebes in sight. Hoping I was not too late to take advantage of this fry feeding frenzy oppo, out went the two rods baited with roach and trout and a whole lotta hope.

The wind had got up overnight and small waves were lapping on the margins at my feet. The wind was blowing directly into my face and the increasing swash of the waves was beginning to colour up the water in the margins. Soon I couldnt even see the marginal weed let alone any remaining fry amongst it.

At 10lb 6oz it was a great start

Nothing happened until mid morning when the grebes started to arrive in numbers, but having noted my presence they kept themselves to the margins further round the basin. I could see that they were still catching despite the colouring up of the water so my hopes remained high. The first run when it came took me by surprise as the float disappeared straight down in a small wave trough and didnt reappear. I struck and to my delight it was 'fish on'.

The feisty critter had me on my toes as it was hooked close to the tree on my right and made a strong pull accross to the right with the line clipping onto the lower branches where they brushed the water. However, all ended well as she moved out into the clearer water in front of me and succumbed to the sunken net. As I lifted her out I recognised her as a scraper double that id caught previously and set about moving her and the net onto the grassy verge behind me. Marvellous!. Then incredibly, having just unhooked and lifted the fish up in order to return it, I saw the other float bouncing into view towards the tree, so after quickly slipping her back I grabbed the other rod and struck. A short scrap resulted in another similar size fish on the bank, but with both rods now out of the water I decided on a picture and after unhooking her quickly snapped a shot before recording a weight of 10lb 6oz on the scales

What was tantamount to a double bubble (well almost) was something I had only dreamed of thus far from this pit and I had to pinch myself to believe it. Two doubles in almost as many minutes, so with heart thumping it was both rods back out with a roach on each and optimism unnaturally high.

The wind continued to get up stronger and the next run was not long in coming. With the wash of the water colouring up all the water in the basin and the wind still blowing hard, I squeezed two SSG shot to the top of each trace and fished the baits a foot or so overdepth. When the float positioned to my left grew legs and marched the march, I struck home and was rewarded with what felt like another reasonable fish.

After a short and scrappy affair she too was in the net. At 11lb 10oz she was my best fish from the pit thus far, and the third double of the session.

11lb 10oz and the biggest from the pit so far..

Quick photo and back in with a new bait. Within 10 minutes the newly cast roach was away (what was going on down in those murky depths in front of me?) and after a hard tussle a really nice looking fish of 12lb 12oz graced the net.

..though not for long with the next weighing it at 12lb 12oz

Staggering! The wind was still hoolieing away into my face and I hardly seemed to notice anymore. So much for the 2pm theory! It all seemed a bit surreal having spent hours previously on this venue supping coffee and warming my hands whilst willing the floats to twitch and it hadnt finished yet.

A trout (I'd run out of roach) close in to the left took off and on striking instantly felt a bit better. She stayed deeper this one and I had to bully her up to the top noticing as I did a fresh nasty looking red weal on her flank. I also noticed she was quite lightly hooked with just one hook from the top treble holding firm. Down she went again and again and after more gentle coaxing she was finally mine. Now at 14lb 14oz she was still no giant but the thrill that fish gave me was immense. I really felt like I was on a roll.

A freshly bitten croc of 14lb 4oz continued the run

The wound which was fresh and seeping and without explanation didn't detract from my pleasure and the fish, when returned, swam off strongly. They had just got bigger with each fish caught. Was there a lunker still out there with my name on it. The answer was sadly 'no' and despite having another hour before I had to return the time just flew by. What I did decide on was a return visit there as soon as I could. A day like today was (for me anyway) a rare butterfly on this venue and on returning to work the next day I was quick to book the following afternoon off for a return.

I needed more bait and a quick visit to the tackle shop and a word in the ear of my confidante Rob Tibble of my success, had me breaking speed records to get back down there on the Tuesday. As I stood surveying the scene that had provided me with such delight just two days ago, it was unrecognisable. The wind had gone the water was clear again little or no fry or grebes in sight and it all seemed so flat and quiet.

However, the rods were soon in position again and I sat there hoping there was another surprise in the locker. After an hour or so a retrieve of my right side rod for a recast saw the attached roach come off right by the edge of the bank and though I could see it clearly caught in the weed a couple of feet below the surface, I took another one from the packet and cast it out. Having sat there quietly and patiently for a while with nothing happening I was then privy to an amazing sight. A small commotion in the margin not three feet away from where I was sitting caused me to glance down and see a large fat tail emerge slowly shake and then slip down again out of sigh with an audible 'slap'. Gone in a blink!

I crept forward and on peering down noticed immediately the discarded roach had disappeared. Right! I quietly walked the furthest rod out round to the side to cause as little disturbance to the swim as possible then wound her in and gently lowered the bait in a mere foot off the bank and back down to where the discarded roach had been. Quiet as a mouse I sat back down again and held my breath imagining the fish still down there digesting her prize and hopefully still wanting more. Well it took an hour and the impulse to move the rod, to creep up to the waters edge and peek down again was massive, but I resisted and for that i was again rewarded. The float which was sitting just off the bank cocked upright and then started to move off. I struck down hard and the weeds & water in front of me exploded as a good fish tore along the margin towards the tree on the right. She was literally right under my rod tip when I connected and gave me a few nervy moments until still shaking with the 'buzz' I drew her in and over the net. I remember just sitting there holding the net in the water and not daring to look. Anyway, out she came and I knew right away she was now my gravel pit PB. At 17lb 8oz she was a fine fat specimen that looked a definite 20 come March.

A fine Sonning Pit Pike at 17lb 8oz and the culmination of a fantastic run

She proved to be the only fish of the day but I really didnt care. I floated home on air and contemplated the results of those two sessions - 5 doubles in a four hour stint, followed by a solitary beauty next trip.

Sometimes, when it gets tough out there, its the memory of days like these that makes me realise why I still want to drag myself out of a warm bed and venture out in the rain and fog and just do it.



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