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Fish-twitching: the piscatorial equivalent of birdwatching

June is prime time for spotting water-based wildlife. Pete Dommett dons his shades and tries his hand at ‘fish-twitching’

The coarse fishing season begins again this month. From now until next March, the city’s waterways will be lined with eager anglers. I’m joining them on the riverbank to hunt for prize specimens, but I’m not actually trying to catch one.

Fish-twitching is the piscatorial equivalent of birdwatching: actively going in search of different species for the sole pleasure of simply seeing them. Fish are sometimes overlooked by natural history programmes and, because they’re generally out of sight, for the majority of us, they’re mostly out of mind. Many British fish are spectacular creatures, however, and can be found in all types of water, including urban rivers. So, on a quest to discover what be-finned beauties Bristol has to offer, I head to Eastville Park.

At the lake, I immediately notice a gang of carp cruising around like slow-moving submarines, their dark backs occasionally stirring the surface. A new information board lists the wildlife that lives in the area – birds, otters, trees, wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies and bats – but disappointingly doesn’t mention fish. Flowing around the edge of the park, the River Frome is unexpectedly clear. Like many of Bristol’s watercourses, it often appears brown and murky, especially after heavy rain, but I quickly pick out several finger-sized fish (maybe minnows?) darting in and out of the hazy shadows.

A shoal of larger fish hangs lazily in a pool of slack water, just above Colston Weir. Sunglasses (preferably with polarised lenses) help cut through glare and, through mine, I can make out the muted red fins of roach – a common species across the country – and another, slimmer fish, with greenish fins and a darker tail, that I don’t recognise. Trying to identify it, using my Collins Gem Guide to Freshwater Fish, is like beginning birding again. I’m not sure, but could they be dace?

Further upstream at Snuff Mills, I’m surprised to see an old chap enjoying a spot of lunchtime fly-fishing (which has a different season to course fishing). As he casts his line across a deeper stretch of the river, I ask him what he’s hoping to catch. “Well, it’s mainly roach, chub and dace in here,” he tells me. (Aha! I was right!)

“But there’s a few trout as well. I caught one a couple of years ago.” He continues, remembering the moment with a smile. “Lovely it was. Well over four pounds and a couple of feet long.” Brown trout in Bristol – who knew?

Back in the park, I scan the lake for the vaguely menacing forms of the carp, but it’s a different fish that catches my eye this time. Or perhaps I catch its eye. A huge pike, loitering in the weedy fringes of the water, watches me warily. Fish have remarkably good vision and can also feel vibrations through their lateral line, but I manage to creep close and grab a photo of it on my phone. This magnificent, torpedo-tuned predator is near enough to touch, but, elementally, in another world altogether. Suffice to say, fish-twitching has me completely hooked.

Pete’s top five fish-twitching tips

  1. Wear polarising sunglasses to cut through surface glare.
  2. Wear dull-coloured clothes.
  3. Walk slowly and quietly along the bank to minimise disturbance.
  4. Look for features in the water (rocks, weed beds, overhanging trees, even shopping trolleys). These offer shelter and attract fish.
  5. Encourage fish into open water with a handful of sweetcorn kernels (they are easy to see when taken and don’t affect water quality).