Fishing for big roach takes stamina. You need to recognise that you are essentially taking a carp angler’s type of approach to catching a much smaller fish. Size isn’t everything, though. A 3lb roach in the UK is as worthy as the capture of a 50lb carp. Although there are probably less 3lb roach than there are 50lb carp!

Before I started to write this article I thought it wise to refresh my memory and have a look in my diaries from the time I started fishing Willow at Linch Hill, Oxfordshire, a venue where I decided to exclusively target the very big roach. The first entry is “I can say from the outset that this was a war of attrition”, but like all good stories it had a happy ending.

Above: You need dedication for winter roach fishing (left) and some very clever, but simple rigs (right)

The opportunity to fish Willow for roach in the winter was exciting. At this time I had never even walked round the lake so at the end of the summer I had a couple of trips carp fishing on Willow to familiarise myself with the surroundings.

The tackle I settled on was light feeder rods of 1lb test curve and small freespin reels. The end tackle incorporated a length power gum above a fluorocarbon trace upon which I fished two helicopter rigs with short hooklengths and size 18 hooks. The feeder was a 50g maggot feeder. Bait was maggots, a mixture of red and white, and I experimented with a variety of flavours.

Above: Flavoured red and white maggots are a top bait for winter roach

On my first session I caught a couple of roach up to 2lb 6oz. On my second trip it was very busy and I blanked for two days. Prior to my third trip I spoke to a friend who told me over the weekend the lake had gone mad and produced nine three pound roach – two to one angler! I couldn’t wait to get down but 24 hours after arriving I hadn’t had a bite and was contemplating a move to a different swim when the bobbin on my left hand rod dropped back and I had a fish on.

Big roach may not fight like bigger fish such as tench and carp, but on light tackle the fight is heart-stopping as they shake their heads and the risk of a hook pull is ever-present. Invariably at least once whilst playing a fish in you get that sinking feeling in your stomach that the hook has pulled, only to be relieved a fraction of a moment later to feel it still pulling. Willow is quite deep beyond the margins and generally the roach come in fairly quickly to the sloping marginal shelf at which point they start to pull back and start head-shaking more vigorously. It is at this point that the power-gum link provides extra buffering and reduces the risk of a hook pull.

This fish fought in exactly this manner and having caught a glimpse of it as it turned about 8 feet down in the water and seen it was a big fish I was mightily relieved to draw it over the net. I was fairly sure I had a new personal best and the scales showed 3lb 1oz.

Above: My first '3'. It was great to get off the mark.

What sticks in my mind for the remainder of that trip is how important it is to be prepared for the weather in winter. The following night there was a heavy frost down to -6 Celsius and take it from me that is cold and there was over 1 cm of ice on my cooking pans! The irony of it was the following afternoon in the sunshine I was sat in just a T-shirt. Suffice to say on my way home I stopped at a tackle shop and bought a sleeping bag cover that makes a huge difference on cold nights.

Despite my best efforts I didn’t better this roach for the rest of the season. However on the last day of the season rudd were shoaling up in a reed-bed and I sneaked a couple out free-lining maggots to them, including a personal best of 2lb 2oz.

The following season I fished very hard as I was in the running for the Drennan Cup – a big prize for specimen hunters in the UK. From January to mid-March I fished very hard and caught plenty of 2lb roach but the big ones kept eluding me. By the end of the season I had caught over 60 2lb+ fish and whilst I did eventually catch one of exactly 3lb I felt rather unfortunate when I compared my efforts to those of my friend Gordon. He had actually caught slightly fewer roach but his catches included eight 3’s’!

Whilst I didn’t catch my target of a roach over 3lb 1oz I did catch some nice bonus fish including a brace of 2lb 9oz rudd, a crucian/common carp hybrid of 4lb 3oz but the most surprising bonus came on my last trip of the season. I was playing a fish that wasn’t fighting like a roach and I was beginning to think it was a small tench when I saw the brightest flash of orange imaginable at the bottom of the shelf. It turned out to be a goldfish of 3lb 7oz – not quite what I was after but a stunning fish nonetheless!

Above: I was expecting silver, not gold!

I had learnt a lot in my two winters roach fishing and was confident of success the following year but as with so many things in fishing the reality turned out different. The weather was cold, the fish didn’t seem to be feeding and nearly everyone struggled and only one or two fish above 3lb came out all season.

What had I learnt by now? I’d finally settled on end tackle I was happy with. After trying many different lines and hook patterns I’d settled on size 18 Korum hooks tied to 2 to 3 inches of 0.13mm Preston Reflo Power line. I also started using Preston 50g Speedload feeders that are a little smaller.

Above: The Helicopter rig is best for winter roach. These Heli-Kits make it easy.

On the bait front I found white maggots were more successful and I settled on a single flavour – Archie Braddocks Spice Surprise. I don’t know if it makes a difference but I have great confidence in it and that is the most important thing with bait flavours! These days I use Sonubaits Spicy Sausage Flavour Shaker for the same impact.

The roach numbers seemed to be dropping and whereas good catches could be had from a number of swims in my first couple of years that had changed and most of the fish were now being caught from just one area of the lake.  Feeding spells seemed to be critical and it was important to ensure everything was right at likely feeding times, particularly late afternoon. On one occasion there were a number of anglers fishing and the only two bites of the day came from different swims but within 5 minutes of each other. It was as if someone had flicked a switch to start feeding and almost immediately switched it off again.

Above: Boosting your maggots with different flavours can transform your results.

The most important step was ensuring I was in the right place so I often drove down late at night to try and secure the swim I wanted, rather than arrive at first light to find a day-only angler living nearby had beaten me there.

The second change I made was not to use line markers and fish tight to a spot as I’d come to realise that this could actually reduce my chances of a bite. I think as the numbers of big roach have declined they need to move less to find their food and there is a danger that if you keep recasting to the same spot there will be more maggots in the area than they are inclined to eat. Far better to cast into a general area as then the chances of finding the fish are greater and if there is a feeding fish near your feeder there is more chance of them taking the hookbait before they have had their fill.

Given the low water temperatures following a long freeze I also decided to leave each cast for up to four hours, and this is where it is important to have confidence in your rigs. The last thing you want is to be sat worrying it is tangled. It’s also important to remember that small hooks fished over gravel tend to become blunted quite easily and it is vital that the hook is tested every time you re-bait as the last thing you want is to miss a bite when it can easily be prevented by a little care. A good rule of thumb is if a maggot bursts even once the hook needs changing.

Whether these changes were the cause I will never know but whereas I’d struggled by comparison with other anglers in previous years - in 2010 everything fell into place. On my first trip I had a 3lb 2oz fish that came three years after my previous best.

Above: First time back and a new PB of 3lb 2oz.

On my final trip my friend Alan Stagg joined me as a guest and everything came right. He had been there less than 30 minutes when I had a 2lb 9oz roach and he was amazed I returned it without a photograph. It just shows the quality of the fishing at Willow. Soon after, in the early afternoon, I did get my camera out for a 2lb 15oz fish but that was the last bite of the day.

I awoke early to find Alan had caught his first 2lb roach and as I took some photographs I saw roach rolling over my baits. I was full of confidence as conditions were perfect, mild and overcast with a light breeze. I had just relayed my confidence to Alan when one of my bobbins dropped back. On the strike I could feel a good fish and this one went berserk when it came to the marginal shelf. I could see it was a very big fish and was mightily relieved when Alan lifted the net around it. I knew immediately I’d caught the roach of a lifetime and was elated to record a weight of 3lb 7oz making it the largest roach caught from Willow for over two years.

Above: A monster. 3lb 7oz of lovely British roach.

The fish looked huge – I grew up fishing canals and small pools where a fish of more than a few ounces was big. By comparison this fish was huge, indeed it made the two-pounders I’d been catching look small. As I looked at it one last time as I slipped it back I savoured the moment, I had worked harder for this fish than any other which made it’s capture all the sweeter.

Over the rest of the session I caught eight more big roach and finally felt I’d got to grips with them. As I walked back to my car at the end of the session I knew that my time at Linch Hill had probably ended. Following fantastic catches of tench, bream and pike this huge roach drew to a close my final chapter on the complex and it was time to move on to fresh pastures and new challenges.

Above: The sun sets on my time in Oxford.