You could do much worse than spend a little time exploring the numerous backwaters that line our larger rivers. With river fishing in the doldrums at the moment it doesn't surprise me that backwaters have been forgotten about. Yet whilst you might struggle for a couple of bites on a cold carp puddle, you could be keeping warm with literally hundreds of bites on some of these little waters. Whilst our rivers are not a patch on what they once were, small fish pack into backwaters like sardines in a can when conditions are harsh and can be a doddle to catch.

In my experience, the very best backwaters to fish are marinas. Whilst many backwaters become choked with aquatic plants, which paradoxically are so dense that fish do not feel comfortable amongst them, the murky water of a marina is just about perfect. Marinas actually tend to contain plenty of fish all year round, as the murky water contains much higher numbers of zooplankton than the adjoining river. The well documented crashes in plankton populations that send our rivers so clear do not happen in marinas and so the fish are left with an abundant food resource.

It is the winter months when marinas really come into their own. Marinas generally have a good depth of water and offer easy passage from the main river. This latter point is important. The best backwaters that I have fished are the ones that have a large opening to the main river. Having a wide entrance makes it very easy for small fish to find their way into the benign waters of the backwater.

Ideally, fish will be able to get into the backwater all year round as well. When we have electrofished backwaters that have only very limited access, such as those which only join the rivers in times of flood, we generally find larger numbers of small pike and not a lot else. Pike prefer to spawn in tiny little backwaters and in dense vegetation, so the main fish that enter these rarely connected ponds during spring floods will be pike. By the following winter, the large number of small pike will have eaten a large proportion of the silver fish in these ponds, making them poor fisheries, unless that is, you like catching jacks!

The timing of winter floods actually seems to have quite an influence on whether fish use backwaters or not. Ideally, for the marina fishing to be at its best, it requires a good flood before the water temperature drops below about 8 degrees C. When the water is still warm, the fish will react to the floods and move into the backwaters, even if they are some distance away. When the water is really cold, the fish won't be inclined to move so far and may stay spread out along the river.

On some of the larger rivers of East Anglia we find quite a number of drains joining the main river channel. I can't think of a similar situation in other parts of the country, but in the Fens these drains represent an interesting alternative to marinas. During the summer months, these small weedy drains create a totally different environment to the main river channel. Being shallow, clear and very weedy, they often contain populations of tench and rudd, species not normally associated with rivers. These species often appear to spend their whole lives in these backwaters and are just as likely to be caught in the winter months. Tench in particular can be a worthwhile target in moving water right through the winter, and interestingly, there is often a peak in activity in mid-February.

Where you find large amounts of silver fish you can bet your bottom dollar that the predators will not be far behind. Marinas will attract all sorts of predators, even the odd seal if you are unlucky! Although a lot of predators get reported as caught from the mouths of backwaters, a lot of the time this is because fishing in marinas proper is banned. Much better spots in my experience are any areas of cover. Often, even in busy marinas there will be a bed of reeds, or maybe some grass overhanging the bank in a quiet corner. This would always be my first choice of swim as the silver fish will be shoaled up tight under any cover. Interestingly, you never get anything like as many fish under boats, probably because they only provide shade, and not three dimensional cover, so I would always go for the natural cover.

The biggest frustration with fishing backwaters is generally getting access to fish. Fortunately, we have a few nice marina owners in this neck of the woods who enjoy the extra bit of revenue created during the winter months. Whilst nothing in winter can be guaranteed, heading for the backwaters is always a good bet; when the weather is bleak and if you are in need of your weekly fix of bites then they really can't be beat.