Up at 4.45 on a frosty late March morning. Tackle packed into my trusty Volvo the night before, lunch and flask prepared, and Indy my dog poised and alert: he knows we’re going fishing. It took me almost all of the previous afternoon to prepare for today’s session. My wife said “you spend more time sorting your tackle out than you do fishing, “ with a little grin and a Finbar Saunders “fnarr, fnarr” thrown in for good measure.
But that was because I had to do the big change over, that long-winded but ever so slightly exciting process of breaking down your winter fishing kit: the roving chub kit, the piking kit, to convert to your spring tench and bream kit. Once it’s done, further session prep is half the chore.
The destination was the sensational St Ives fishery, about a fifty minute drive from home. Specifically the pit named “Ivo” after the alternative name for St Ives, the patron saint for, amongst other things, the poor and needy. And given the current economic climate, a disciple of whom I’m swiftly becoming.
The drive to St Ives was made resplendent by the sun’s fiery orb on the eastern horizon, casting a Sauron-like glare at the new day. I arrived at around seven and the four lake complex was wreathed in an ethereal shroud of morning mist, it looked perfect but the chill conditions had me doubting the possibility of an early fish. I’d probably have to wait for the air and water to warm for a bite, if a bite was forthcoming.
I opted for a familiar swim, slightly off the beaten track where, the previous spring and early summer, I’d had one tench to 7.2lb, an old battered warrior of a male and a new PB, plus a few chunky bream to 7.9lb.
I was aware of two gravel bars, one at ten yards, the other at thirty five, so I plumbed around for them, clipped up and did the distance stick thing with my two rods to enable me to cast accurately to both bars. In went some feed and two PVA bags, one with popped up maggot the other a worm kebab. The water thermometer read 10.7 C so still chilly. I sat back to take in the ambiance. The mist was gradually lifting as grebes and mallards glided back and forth, already paired up for the coming spring shenanigans.
I played fetch the stick with Indy for a bit as sticks were aplenty after all the recents storms. The water temperature had risen to 11.5C. It was midday. Suddenly, the right hand rod burst into life and I lifted into…nothing. I was baffled. Maybe the hair-rig was too long? Maybe it was small fish mucking about? No, that was a proper run, a flyer. I shortened the hair anyway, just in case and cast out again.
Directly behind my swim on the Ivo is another small pit named “Lowries” after who or what I don’t know. It’s an exceptionally weedy pit in the summer and is rarely fished, its piscine population an intriguing mystery. I decided to have a plumb around in the nearest swim for future reference. First cast and twang! I’d forgotten to unclip the braid from the spool from when I was plumbing up Ivo. Now the spool was devoid of its clip, a tiny little plastic stump, like a broken tooth, in its place.
While I remonstrated myself in no uncertain terms, the right hand rod tore off again. It was 1pm. This time I was in, and a good fish too. I knew it was a tench by its muscular fight, it was a job to control it. With my attention duly distracted, I failed to notice that the firm bank I was standing on had to end somewhere. With a splash and a gasp I found myself thigh deep in water. The fish was still on despite my dunking, and I managed to hold the rod up high with one arm and drag myself out of the drink with the other. During this entire debacle Indy just stared at me, in fact he barely moved, offering no assistance whatsoever; no more fetch the stick for him, the lazy so and so. Back on dry land I eventually managed to land the fish, a gorgeous fin perfect female tench. She went 7.6lb, a new PB. Soaked from the thighs down but mightily happy, I took a photo or two, rested her in the margins for a spell and slipped her back in, fighting fit.
After wringing myself out and placing a bank stick at the water’s edge to act as a marker should I venture too close again, I sat down for a coffee, moist but content.
I missed another flyer at about 3.30 and that was it for the day, but I wasn’t complaining, although slightly perplexed about the two missed runs. I’d planned to fish into dusk but a chill was beginning to creep through me, courtesy of my damp nether regions, so as the early spring sun began to set in the west, me and Indy headed for home, already planning our next visit to the St Ives, with a mental note to self to make sure I pack the Speedos.
Winter is all about predator fishing for me, although I did partake of a couple of short sessions on my local river, the Suffolk Stour, trotting for the numerous dace and chub that inhabit this jungly, overgrown stretch, which I’m happy to say is free-fishing and only a five minute walk from my house. It was great fun using my 10.5 ft Shakespeare match rod, trotting a light stick through and enjoying regular bites using maggots and bread for bait. The bread was less consistent than maggots but seemed to tease out the better fish. That little stretch has become even more jungly and overgrown now following the ravages of Storm Eunice and I may have to wander down there with a chainsaw during the close season to re-establish some swims.
But as I say winter fishing is all about the preds for me, especially pike. In 2021 I joined a couple of clubs that afforded me access to some potentially exciting fishing in The Fens, chiefly on the Great Ouse through Ely and Littleport in Cambridgeshire. In October 2021, I made the hour long drive across the Fenland skyscape to Littleport, armed with a lure rod. I surmised that the best way to get to grips with the Great Ouse there was to walk its banks, casting a jig around as I did so. Saying that, I only walked about a mile and a half. It was hard going, trudging on top of the floodbank fully exposed to frigid autumnal winds the Fens are famous for. Nonetheless, I managed a couple of jacks casting along the near bank reed-line, and a nice perch of over a pound. I had a follow from a bigger fish too but fluffed the retrieve in my excitement and off he went, too wiley for my amateurish jig control.
I returned a couple more times during November to give deadbaiting a crack. My plan was to fish into darkness to see if the odd zander might oblige. But all I managed was a couple of pike just shy of double figures and an interesting tête-à-tête with a group of Eastern European anglers who were fishing in a swim fairly close to mine. It looked like an entire family: a couple of teenage kids, a youngish woman and three (very large) guys. The swim was a mini encampment with two tents and an elaborate BBQ/dining area. It was utterly spotless with not a hint of litter or unkemptness. The very moment I landed one of the pike, the three large guys descended on me, each one a potential Bond villain.
“What you catch there”?, one of them barked. “Only a small pike mate”, I replied. And I immediately thought, “bloody hell he’s going to nab it for his BBQ!” But thankfully my fears were unfounded as they were very congratulatory, saying, “we fish all day for no fish and you come and catch fish, what are we do wrong!” (I paraphrase but that was the general gist).
So I gave them a few hints on how to float fish for pike and a couple of sardine and mackerel deadbaits. I’ve no idea if they were there illegally or not but they were making no attempt to conceal themselves and were extremely friendly and good natured, I’m very glad to say!
The Ouse through Ely is somehow a more welcoming stretch of river than Littleport, which I found slightly desolate and barren. At Ely the landscape is altogether more bucolic with water meadows and gnarled old willows to admire. The only drawback is the people and their dogs, which seem to drift by in a constant stream, with the occasional canine raid on my deadbait bucket or lunch bag. Also, there’s nowhere to have a crafty pee so I learnt quite quickly to lay off the bankside tea. I had a few nice pike during my sessions at Ely, the biggest around 15lb. But the icing on the cake was my first zander for many years, nabbed on a small roach deadbait whilst fishing the well-known town centre stretch, an area where the prey fish congregate during the winter creating a predator hotspot.
The Suffolk Stour is a river that has a reputation for consistent pike fishing and I’m happy to say I’ve had some of my best sessions on this lovely waterway, specifically through Sudbury. With the river and air temperature still relatively warm, I had an early season Red-Letter Day in late October, banking six fish and losing two, all on float-fished sardine and mackerel. Most were low doubles and the fish were in fine fettle, still powerful and sleek, yet to succumb to cold-induced lethargy. But that was to be my only pike session on that stretch of river. Whilst I was playing my final fish, an otter swirled just a couple of metres from the struggling pike and I nearly had a cardiac arrest. Visions of me having to unhook an angry, frightened otter had me bully that fish to the net and call an end to the session pronto. I did return on a few occasions as there are a couple of deeper, near-side swims with overhanging vegetation that scream perch and chub, and this proved the case as I managed to catch perch to 2.2lb and chub to 5.2lb. Remarkably, during an evening session, another otter porpoised through my swim and I thought, “that’s that then.” But the second he disappeared I had a decisive bite on the tip and landed the 5.2lb chub! What that’s all about I don’t know, but that otter didn’t deter the fish from feeding, on that occasion anyway.
The re-introduction of otter’s has become deeply controversial amongst anglers and I can understand why. But I for one love to see these animals and I’m sure that before too long nature with prevail and a balance between predators and prey fish will be achieved. Although to see one swirl at a pike I was in the process of playing was disturbing and put an end to my deadbait fishing on that section of the Stour.
I did fish a couple of stillwaters too, with mixed results, but by far the best session was just before Christmas on a lake managed by Clare Golf Club in Suffolk. There’s only a couple of fishable swims, the best in my opinion is directly alongside the course itself, in a sheltered corner. I fished three rods for a change as I had the room to do so but it became apparent quite early on that that was a mistake as bites were coming thick and fast. At one point, I was unhooking a fish when the alarm shrieked and I had to quickly return the fish on the mat to attend to the new run! I wasn’t complaining as frantic sessions like this are infrequent to say the least but fish safety is paramount so I opted for two rods only. Even then I was kept busy. In the afternoon, a couple of golfers wandered by, one of whom had obviously overindulged in the Christmas festivities. First, he offered to land a fish I was playing, only to become tangled in the mesh as he picked the net up. Over he went. His mate picked him up, giggling as he did so. I was giggling too, it was slapstick at its best. I landed the fish myself only to see the same golfer topple into a bunker. His mate was hysterical by this time and too weak with laughter to offer any assistance. So all in all I had a brilliant day. Nine pike to 12lb and impromptu, side-splitting comedy Laurel and Hardy would have been proud of.
Now, with the pike and river season drawing to a close it’s time to focus on my favourite fish-the tench.
I think I’ve grown to love chub. It wasn’t an immediate infatuation, like my experience with tench and pike, more a slow-burn, a gradual awakening of admiration, prompted by Matt Hayes and ably assisted by the river Roding.
One crisp winters morning about twenty years ago, I was driving to work down the M11 when I noticed a river meandering through the farmland adjacent to the motorway. It was the Roding, glistening in the low winter sun.
I knew it was there, it makes its presence known most years when winter rain causes the river to break its banks and saturate the surrounding fields. But I’d never fished it, never given it a thought really, despite it being practically on my doorstep. But this was soon to change, thanks to Matt Hayes.
Obviously John Wilson had the edge when it came to compulsive viewing fishing shows with ‘Go Fishing’, but Matt’s ‘Total Fishing’ came a close second in my book. One episode featured him stalking chub on a tiny river, fishing link legered breadflake amongst the numerous rafts, overhanging trees and snags; crawling along on all fours avoiding the cowpats and nettles, “jungle warfare” as he christened it. He caught a couple of pristine chub, tussling with them as they dived for the snags.
I had to have me some of that, it looked a lot of fun and it was a style of fishing I’d never attempted before. So, after securing the appropriate ticket, I found myself on the banks of the aforementioned Roding with a newly purchased ultra light quiver rod and a loaf.
Conditions were spot-on; mild and overcast with a slight tinge to the river after recent rain. I was excited. I had a huge choice of overhanging trees, undercut banks, rafts and slacks to cast a fluffy lump of bread at. I chose a far bank raft of debris beneath a willow, slightly downstream and a relatively easy cast. Much to my deep joy, the flake had hardly settled when the tip dinked twice and then pulled round. A lively chub of about 3.5lb. What followed was a rarity, certainly as far as my angling experience is concerned anyway: a Red Letter Day. Six chub in the space of an hour, biggest nearly five pound. When that swim died I moved to another and caught another three. Then I ran out of bread and switched to lobworm, and caught another two. What a day. I’ve stalked many small rivers for chub since and have nowhere near equalled that very first session.
I came close on the river Wye last July whilst barbel fishing. I caught eleven chub over three sessions but to be honest they became a mild annoyance as barbel was the target fish. Only one managed to fight it way through the chevin to my hookbait and I was very pleased to make its acquaintance, a good looking fish of about 6lb.
One afternoon session found me, my wife Cath and my dog Indy perched atop a precipitous bank for which the Wye is famous. They picnicked on a sunny plateau while I risked my neck trying to fish from a cliff face. Nonetheless I managed a couple of chub, one of which created a temporary but major rift in my marriage. The chub in question felt a lot like a barbel when I hooked it, and tore off downstream. Then it reverted to norm and headed for a very snaggy willow overhanging the bank. I could do nothing to stop it and before I knew it had crocheted its way around the tree’s lower branches. There was only one thing for it: I had to go in. Off came the kecks and into the Wye I waded, but I forget my landing net, the only appropriate tool for getting at the line wrapped around the tree and ultimately the fish. Wife Cath was summoned and as she lent over the cliff edge to hand me the net (in hindsight she could have just thrown it) she slipped down the bank, through a jungle of nettles and joined me for a swim. As you can imagine she wasn’t best pleased, scratched, stung and soaked as she was. I told her to tread water for a minute while I got at the fish, a really nice chub that would have warranted weighing in less trying circumstances. I eventually managed to clamber up the bank and extract the wife on the way, treating her to yet another nettle anointing for good measure. Needless to say showering was a trial for Cath for a couple of days, such was the extent of the nettle-rash. But apart from that we had a good holiday.
As a boy I fished the river Lea Navigation at Cook’s Ferry in Edmonton, usually with my fishing pal Gary. I’d bus it to Chingford Mount where he lived and we’d walk to the river via the service roads that provided access to the reservoirs and pumping stations, where the Lea departed from the Navigation into ugly concrete water channels that emitted a dystopian dreariness we couldn’t wait to leave behind. The Cook’s Ferry stretch itself wasn’t exactly a bucolic idyll either, what with the North Circular Road’s traffic thundering past and the nearby incineration plant’s colossal chimney belching out toxic fumes all day, but if you walked a half mile or so down river you’d come to a great swathe of far bank willows that we often fished opposite. We’d knock out the usual schoolboy fare of tiny perch, gudgeon and bleak, with the occasional unlucky roach, but one day we were treated to an angling masterclass, which became an epiphany to me in terms of what the river really had to offer and the skill required to harvest it.
A middle-aged man was fishing a few swims up from us, casting a long, slim float with pin-point accuracy in what looked to be an impossibly tiny gap between the far-bank willow branches. As soon as the float settled he’d catapult maggots around his float; repeating every thirty seconds or so. Fish were falling to his tactics at an alarming rate, and they were big, silver-backed fish the likes of which we’d never seen before. We had to have a closer look so we went and stood near him; he didn’t seem to mind. “What fish are those” I said. “Chub, mate”, he replied. He didn’t talk much but showed us a chub before he slipped it into his net, and we were enthralled by its sheer size and beauty. Suddenly, our six foot Woolworths starter rods and “Black Prince” reels seemed wholly inadequate. This man fished with a long, elegant match rod and a reel with line filled to the spool’s rim. His tackle was neatly arranged around him, with a bait tray close to hand brimming with bronze, red and white maggots all in separate boxes. Witnessing a real angler at work was a double-edged sword for me. It enlightened me to the sheer potential that fishing had to offer, but also made me painfully aware of the gaping chasm in my own skill-set.
Every winter nowadays I look forward to chubbing sessions. I’m very lucky to live near the Suffolk Stour, the upper stretches and the middle. It’s not the easiest of rivers but the rewards are there if you’re willing to make an effort. A number of times now I’ve fished the upper reaches, either legering breadflake or trotting maggots. I’ve never blanked and have caught chub to 3lb and some huge dace. On one occasion, when I was a scout leader over- seeing the fishing badge, a young scout called Patrick caught a 4.5lb chub on breadflake. None of us could believe it! Needless to say Patrick got his badge!
I fish the middle reaches of the Stour through Sudbury as much as possibly. It’s taught me a thing or two and has enabled me to witness the evolution of angling theory into angling practice. One phenomenon in particular springs to mind, namely the importance of deeper than average marginal water coupled with vegetative cover, providing sanctuary for young fish, especially in the colder months. I’ve fished, on maybe five or six occasions, a swim with all the above attributes and have reaped the rewards, particularly when targeting predators. It really is a sight to behold, at dusk, watching this swim come alive as pike, perch and chub take advantage of the burgeoning food source. On a good day, the water literally teems with fleeing fry as the preds strike. I’ve been lucky enough to catch pike to 14.5lb, perch to 2.2lb and this lovely old chevin of 5.2lb. What a swim!
There’s been a bit of a perch bonanza amongst fellow Essex Anglers bloggers lately, so I thought I’d show my appreciation for this magnificent fish too.
Like most anglers, my very first fish was a perch, in fact I think I caught about nine, at the age of nine, from Highams Park Lake in Woodford Green, Essex, an estate lake originally part of a landscape designed by Humphrey Repton in the eighteenth century. That first session had a profound effect on me, and I was utterly hooked from that moment. Part of the allure was the fish itself; they were tiny but they fought like tigers, flashing back and forth in the pellucid shallows, all spikes and stripes with great, gaping mouths and huge, predator eyes. They certainly put a bend in my six foot Woolworths fibre glass rod. I’ve still got the folding, red fishing stool I used on that day and the Golden Virginia tobacco tin my dad gave me for my hooks and bits.
Perch loomed large in subsequent trips to the lake, as I’d yet to hone my angling skills enough to tempt any of the more wiley tench, roach and carp that lived amongst those kamikaze stripeys. Eventually, after discovering the revered books of tench guru Fred J Taylor, I managed to bank a tench or two, plus a 1lb roach. But that was a couple of years away, and me and my best friend and angling pal Gary were content to hoik out “wasp” perch on line thick enough to hang your clothes on.
Gary was a street-wise kid who’s personality contrasted with my laid-back, mild manner but our mutual appreciation of wildlife and fishing forged a strong bond. We once witnessed an older group of boys catching perch after perch and dashing them to bits on nearby rocks, laughing as they did so. We were utterly appalled and shouted at them to stop, from a safe distance obviously. Thankfully they did stop, despite hurling threats and abuse, but the shocking sight of those poor, eviscerated perch is still emblazoned on my mind.
Later on, after I left college and moved back to London, I discovered what was at the time one of the best big-fish rivers in the south-east: Coppermill Stream, Walthamstow. A short, two mile tributary of the river Lea it is nowadays a shadow of its former self but when I fished it was renown for specimen fish of many species including barbel, roach, chub, and perch.
I enjoyed good sport from all the above, apart from (and despite my best efforts) the perch.
I knew they were there, I’d heard the fishy tales from fellow anglers of giant stripeys, either caught or spotted skulking amongst the streamer weed. My own personal experience of these gorgeous giants was to be bitter sweet; to be truthful more the former than the latter! But nonetheless I’m glad I had it. One evening in the late summer I was fishing for barbel with no success. A few swims up was another young angler fishing hard up against concrete bridge pilings. He was hoiking out perch after perch, whooping with delight as he did so, every cast produced another fish. And they were massive, the biggest perch I’d ever seen. He was carefully placing them in a keep net and after a while my curiosity got the better of me and I walked up to him to witness his remarkable catch. He was a humble, good natured bloke and appeared almost embarrassed by his success. He asked me to take some photos for him and I was happy to oblige, a bit jealous of course but very pleased for him and in awe of his catch: six specimen perch to 3.8lb; not fresh, clean-skinned, fin-perfect youngsters these but old, muscular warriors, with scarred flanks, blood-red fins and bristling spikes. If there had been smart phones at the time I’d have asked him to text me a photo or two, but this was the late eighties and mobile phones resembled house bricks. I’ve still got some vivid memories of those perch though. The fella packed up shortly after, a very happy angler. I asked if he’d mind me poaching his swim and he graciously obliged, but although I fished into darkness I had not a touch, despite replicating his tactics: legered lobworm against the concrete pilings, feeding maggot over the top.
Over a decade later, I would employ the same approach to catch my own big old stripey. Not a 3lb monster but a beautiful fish nonetheless. One autumn evening in 2004 at Dobbs Weir on the river Lea in Hertfordshire, I took the advice of a friendly bailiff I’d met at the weir the day before, and fished hard against the concrete bridge pilings adjacent to the weir. I had two perch, the biggest 2.12lb. Luckily, that same bailiff turned up again, and with a smile and an “I told you so” took a couple of photos for me.
Here’s one of them.
Nowadays, perch fishing is enjoying an amazing revolution. The opportunity to catch specimen fish from a wide variety of venues using a wide variety of tactics are legion. I have myself been bitten by the lure fishing bug, and in the space of a year have bought numerous multicoloured, jelly-like lures; some resembling fish, others the “Bugs” from Starship Trooper movies. But to be honest, although I’ve enjoyed fishing with them, I’ve not caught many perch! Plenty of jack pike though, which on light gear are a joy.
Saying that, I had two nice fish of around 1.5lb from the Great Ouse near Ely, on a jig resembling another perch! The little cannibals…
I had to resort to the time honoured perch catching marvel that are lobworms to get amongst something bigger. On a favourite stretch of the Suffolk Stour is an old railway bridge and a very deep pool with perch, (and chub), written all over it. One evening in December last year I decided to give the pool a crack. As dusk settled in numerous fry were making their presence known, their tiny bodies iridescent in the margins. In went a link-legered lobworm and within twenty minutes out came a beautiful perch that pulled hard and shook its head all the way to the net. She went 2.2lb, again not a monster but a fish that had me buzzing for days after.
I’m afraid I’m a tad indifferent when it comes to football. I only ever take a mild interest if Spurs, the team favoured through family tradition, or the national side start to perform well and show signs of actually winning something significant. Such was the case with England’s recent Euros performance but I have to admit as the final drew close I had a desire to escape the build up and hype as the doubts, anxiety and inevitability of failure came to the fore. So I decided to go fishing, and although failure is often inevitable with this pursuit also, at least I’d be outside enjoying the natural world.
The local river Stour in Sudbury was my chosen venue, and on arrival it became apparent that large swathes of the river were unfishable, either because of overgrown swims or copious weed growth. I should have known really. This year, probably due to the wet, warm summer, grasses, nettles, bankside reeds and all manner of vegetation has grown with wild abandon, completely transforming spacious, comfortable pegs into impassable jungles that would make even Indiana Jones hang up his machete. Nonetheless, there were enough accessible swims to make a cast or two worthwhile, so I thought I’d have a go with the lure rod as I love the roving nature of this type of fishing and the opportunity it affords to reconnoiter stretches of the river I’ve yet to explore. Also, I’d recently seen a photo of a 3lb perch caught from the Stour in Sudbury which had whetted my appetite, as had a dead perch of well over 2lb I’d discovered on a canoe trip last summer. But I’d have to contend with the pike, which the river is famous for.
My dog Indy was my fishing buddy for the day and true to form he did his usual impression of a rhino and bulldozed his way through the undergrowth totally oblivious to the stingers and brambles that were tearing holes in me and constantly snaring my landing net.
I had a few casts to no avail, constantly thwarted by the weed and cabbages, so I changed from a jig to a Cheb rig, with a view to fish a creature bait using the “weedless” approach where you hook the bait in such a way as to conceal the hook to reduce snagging up. As I was rearranging my tackle (?!) I noticed that Indy had disappeared.
I needn’t have worried. Tucked around the corner in the next swim were a couple of Polish anglers who had taken a shine to the dog and were feeding him bits of their lunch.
“Nice dog”, the older one said as I walked up to them. “He’s always nice to people that feed him” I said. “Nice dog”, he repeated, nodding his head.
They were both smoking fags that smelled mighty pungent, not ghanja, more likely cheapies brought over from Poland made from weightlifters jockstraps sprinkled with festering grass cuttings or something. I bade them farewell and left before my nose fell off. After a few more fruitless casts, I found myself at a familiar spot, an old railway bridge spanning the river, with arches casting deep shade and wide brick pillars descending into the depths; perfect ambush points for perch and pike. In addition, below a straggly willow is a back eddy above a very deep hole that on a winter’s evening the previous year delivered a nice brace of sizeable chub and a perch of half a pound or so, all on legered lobworm. I’m sure I’d have caught more had I not been scared half to death by the dog, who suddenly started growling low and deep and staring fixedly into the blackness beneath the bridge. It was all far too “Blair Witch” for my liking so I buggered off sharpish, dragging the dog with me who carried on growling all the way back to the car!
This time, however, it was broad daylight and the sun was out, perfectly illuminating the space beneath the bridge along with all the beer cans, plastic bottles, fag packets and general detritus common to river banks nowadays; bloody horrible but not a knife wielding maniac.
Annoyingly, the bridge swims produced nothing so I flicked the creature bait into the hole beneath the willow and was rewarded with the smallest pike I’ve ever seen, a micropredator not much bigger than the lure. And that was it, not a sniff for the next twenty minutes so a move was in order.
I headed for a stretch of the river that’s maybe three or four foot deeper than the general course where apparently dredging work was carried out in the sixties. I figured they’d be less weed in deeper water. First cast proved that theory was flawed when I reeled in a big chunk of lily rhizome but it was definitely less snaggy than the shallower area where I’d started, and there was also more fish action as I caught two jacks of about 4lb in quick succession, one of whom nearly tore the rod out of my hand with a thwack of a take. I was beginning to enjoy myself, and light levels were dropping as the evening rolled in so I begun to work the deep margin cover for perch.
But then what can only be described as rowing rush-hour began. One man sculls, two man sculls, four man sculls, they all kept coming in what seemed an endless regatta of men and woman in boats; puffing, blowing, shouting, splashing, laughing, swearing and even some waving at me and the dog. It was practically impossible to fish. During a brief lull in the paddling I chanced a quick cast and, unbelievably, hooked another jack! I just managed to land it before it was keelhauled by a single rower totally oblivious to me and the tussle going on beneath his boat. As I unhooked it, a passing two man scull shouted “show us the fish mate!”, which of course I did. And that was that, the boat traffic seemed to fade away and with it my enthusiasm to fish on. So my football avoidance session hadn’t exactly been Premier League but I had some sport from those lively jacks and had spent a couple of hours walking a river that was a pleasure to behold, watching ethereal dragonflies skim and dart and kingfishers hunt for fry from riverside perches. Which was, of course, way, way better than watching football.
In August 2004 I caught a 44lb carp, the same weight as Richard Walker’s record breaking common back in 1952. He named his fish Ravioli but thankfully someone else decided Clarissa was more flattering. My Clarissa was a common too, but I’m not a carp fisherman, I was after catfish.
Waveney Valley Lakes in Norfolk, a nature reserve and fishery endorsed by the late, great (albeit climate change naysayer) David Bellamy, is a beautiful place to be let alone fish. I booked a week on Marsh Lake, with a view to catch a catfish, beguiled by their uncomely strangeness and brute fighting strength, not to mention their size. Those big slimy tadpoles go to 65lb at Waveney Valley. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the sort of fight a fish of those proportions would give so I hoped I’d start off small and work my way up.
There was only me and one other fishing Marsh Lake, an unusual looking, elderly gentleman with more than a whiff of Catweazle about him. He had coarse grey hair to his shoulders, wore galoshes and an old waxed cagoule and wouldn’t have looked out of place on Ahab’s Pequod. He had the perplexing habit of exclaiming “who me?”whenever I asked him a question when more often than not it was just me and him talking. I had to suppress the urge to shout “WHO ELSE FOR CHRISSAKE!” a lot during our chats. Despite his archaic appearance, his tackle was top draw, the very latest in carp fishing innovation, and his set up looked like a feature spread for Carp World. He was very proud of it and took great pleasure in cocking a sneer at my mishmash of assorted rods, reels and threadbare brolly camp.
When I hooked my Clarissa her initial run were so powerful that before I could slow her she tore off parallel with the near bank straight through all of Catweazle’s three lines. The bite alarm’s catawaulling and light show alone could have filled an Ibiza dance floor. I felt very guilty at the time, more for the fish than for him but miraculously when I netted her the only terminal tackle visible was mine. He didn’t seen perturbed, however, and was gracious and congratulatory. “That’s the biggest carp in the lake,” he said, quietly. I wasn’t surprised, she was massive, the biggest freshwater fish I’d ever seen. Although saying that I had once caught a pike of similar rare proportions, but the two events couldn’t have been more different.
Being in the presence of Clarissa was a joy, made more special by a fine, late summer morning with sunlight playing on her doubloon-like scales, whereas my pike was caught from a huge pit in the Lee Valley on a frigid, overcast December day and was a mottled, deformed leviathan so battle scarred she looked like she’d been swimming around since the Cretaceous. And to make her appearance all the more frightening, her entire left eye and part of her head was engulfed in an ugly tumorous growth of a ghastly mottled grey/red that looked like her brain was seeping through her eye socket. That December day was a fitting backdrop as it felt almost apocalyptic. I encountered no one else during that session, saw no one, spoke to no one. It was if the world had ended, and all that survived was me and the monster.
It all started with the rat. With a faint rustle, he popped out from the reeds only to immediately spin round and dive back in when he saw me. Next thing there was a plop as he’d apparently opted to travel by water rather than land. As he swam from left to right in the margins creating a little bow wave, a huge dark torpedo shape emerged from nowhere, tracking his progress. It hung motionless below the rat, which appeared oblivious to the threat. I braced myself for the strike, but it never came and the torpedo slid back into the shadows.
It was an eerie sight, that pike. With trembling fingers I gently reeled in my popped up mackerel tail to within three metres of the bank, and waited.
Five minutes later I was staring at a stygian creature on my unhooking mat, laying there in all her deformed glory. She had barely struggled during the fight and came to the net like a wet blanket.
I tried to weigh her with freezing, shaking hands but my scales only went up to 25lb and, with a crash and a rattle, they bottomed-out. At a guess I’d say she was well over 28lb but she could have been a thirty. When I returned her she loitered menacingly in the margins for a moment before slowly vanishing. I had no desire to fish on, because of the dreadful prospect of hooking her again. That was the one and only time I fished the pit with the Frankenpike.
I did manage to catch a catfish at Waveney Valley, and as they usually do it came at night. I didn’t hear or register the bite alarm initially as I was sat up in my brolly camp, struggling to breathe, suffering a hay fever induced asthma attack. They’d been coming on and off for about three days, depriving me of sleep, energy and enthusiasm. As I played the fish, in the dead of night with rattling lungs and crumpled under-crackers, the shocking, lunging power of catfish became all too apparent. Sapped of strength and vital motor skills, I tottered around the swim totally befuddled, head-torch on flash, trying to take control of a fight that was all too one-sided. I could feel the line grate ominously on the lip of a gravelly drop-off about eight metres out and gritted my teeth in anticipation of a break-off. I was still struggling to gain line when, to my tremendous relief, the cat seemed to turn-tail and head straight at me. After thrashing about in the margins for a few seconds, a commotion that drew the attention of Catweazle, the fish was on the bank. “Look at you covered in slime, they stink too don’t they?” This was his commentary on my slithery attempts at weighing my very first catfish, which was a muscular 25lb. In the end I was glad that all I was wearing from the waist down was underpants. For one it makes the photos more of a talking point, and for two it’s easier to wash catfish gunk from bare legs rather than fishing strides.
Out of all these angling escapades I think the capture of my Clarissa was the most special. From the minute the bite alarm announced her presence on that beautiful late summer morning to the bitter sweet moment I watched her great, golden shoulders slide back into the pellucid depths of Marsh Lake, I knew I’d been in the company of one of nature’s rarities, a real gem.
I don’t think there’s a more iconic and revered coarse fish than the barbel. A bold statement perhaps when you consider the hold that carp have over the fishing fraternity but you could argue that the sheer over exposure and ubiquitous nature of carp angling in the UK has diluted the enigma and mystery of the carp itself. I don’t think that’s the case with the barbel as yet, although there are nowadays many anglers involved in their pursuit. It may be that the barbel will be spared the decline into mundanity simply because of its habitat. Whereas many carp are stocked into manicured, man-made, tackle-shop-on-site, bacon-butty-delivered-to-your-swim fishing fun-parks, barbel inhabit fast-flowing wild rivers with gravel runs, streamer weed, razor-edged rocks to slice through you mainline and swims so precipitous you need a degree in mountaineering to even consider tackling them. Such was the case with the peg I’d chosen to fish on the river Wye near Hereford, during a recent trip there with my kayaking wife Cath and mountain goat of a dog Indy.
This was my very first trip to the Wye and I have to tell you that it’s as impressive a river as I’ve ever seen, truly magnificent. Cutting its way through wooded, high-sided valleys and gently rolling farmland it’s a river that shouts barbel in every snaking meander, eddying slack and bubbling gravel run. Or so I thought. That first evening’s fishing produced four chub to 4lb on feeder-fished 8mm pellets. I was perched on a muddy ledge with barely enough room for my bony arse and a rod-rest. My landing net had to be fully extended to even touch the water. At the top of the back on a sun-kissed, grassy plateau sat my wife and dog, enjoying a picnic and totally indifferent to my precarious teetering. I had to sit to cast and to land fish as I darn’t move too much. Maybe it was just as well I didn’t hook a barbel as it probably would have pulled me in.
Nonetheless, four wide-mouthed, brassy-backed chub were a treat to behold and one of them pulled so hard I thought it was a barbel!
That afternoon I’d bought a day ticket for some local stretches of the Wye from the famous Woody’s Tackle Shop in Hereford and Woody himself told me that a second spawning period had made the barbel lay-low over recent days. Not the news I wanted to hear. This was verified by the numerous anglers I met in and around the caravan park we were staying in. They’d been catching lots of chub, very few barbel. “Bollocks! I thought, trust me to book a fishing holiday during bonking barbel week.” Saying that, the odd one or two had been showing so I wasn’t too downhearted, and the Wye is so spectacular it was enough just to sit by it and marvel.
One early morning, while my wife kayaked her way up and down a mist shrouded river, I settled myself on a rocky spit built for salmon anglers. Here, the river raced over a shallow gravel run flanked on the near side by a deeper, slower “crease” that was crying out for a cast. On the way down to the peg, I slipped the last six foot on my arse, nearly snapping my rod tip in the process. Indy my sure-footed dog just sat and watched me floundering around, offering no help whatsoever.
Eventually, and after some baiting up, I made my first cast, sat back and waited…and waited. I continued to trickle pellets in to try and draw the fish up but nothing happened until the sun had burnt the mist away and dog walkers began to appear on the footpath above me. Two pristine chub to 4lb in quick succession, then mild sun stroke. By late morning the sun was strong enough to make the stony spit hot to touch and the dog seek refuge in the cool, shady shallows. Time to adjourn to the caravan for a cold one.
That evening, after paying the wife off with the promise of a slap-up restaurant meal, I’d coaxed my way into another likely looking swim that boasted a small, pebbly beach and a gently sloping bank that didn’t require crampons to tackle.
The opposite bank was replete with a wall of huge willows that cascaded over the river. At some point, a massive limb had crashed into the water creating a gently eddying pool that looked promising. There was also one of those hospitable creases closer to the near bank that was also worth investigating, so I had a couple of options. For the first twenty minutes or so I fed both swims with 12mm and 8mm pellets. Then I sent a feeder over to the far bank. Despite fish showing with reckless abandon, the far bank produced not a single twitch. So I tried the near bank crease and straight away caught a small chub, followed by a bigger fish of about 3.5lb, then nothing for an hour as dark descended and pellet supply dwindled.
What followed was one of those events that never happens to you but happens a lot to other anglers you read about. The classic “one last cast” and “I’d packed everything away apart from the rod and landing net” scenario. Because that’s how it played out as the sun set fiery-red behind the willows. I engaged the bait runner and got up to delve around in my rucksack for a head torch. Like a woman’s handbag, finding anything in there is a major operation. Cursing softly as I delved fruitlessly around, I noticed a sudden movement out the corner of my eye and turned to witness my 1.75lb test curve rod bent double and twitching furiously. Then the rasping whizz as line tore from the bait runner. I couldn’t take it in for a second, an actual wrap-around bite, that mythical phenomenon so synonymous with barbel. I grabbed the rod and immediately the fish thundered downstream, ably assisted by the strong current. Its power was breathtaking and it took line in shuddering jolts and surges for a heart-stopping spell, but eventually I began to gain line and soon had a golden torpedo resting in the net. It wasn’t a big fish, maybe five or six pounds but my God what a fight! I took a quick, poor quality photo and had it back in the river resting again until it kicked away, back out into the now dark-silvered, rippling Wye, a river that had delivered my first barbel for over a decade, and a river that I will return to, because once fished, never forgotten.
There I was, on a windy old day in May, next to a gravel pit called “Ivo” staring at an old, scarred, mahogany-skinned male, and no I wasn’t enjoying a day’s fishing with Morgan Freeman, but admiring the biggest tench I’d ever seen.
It was my third outing to St Ives Fishery in Cambridgeshire, a complex of truly wild gravel pits containing some exceptional fish, including tench, bream, pike, perch and, of course, the ubiquitous carp.
Carp take centre stage as far as the bulk of the anglers with a ticket are concerned, but there are also many fisherman who are there for the others, and by others I mean the tench and bream. Thankfully, the management actively encourage this quirky trait, and seem au fait with the gradual, but very perceptible, waning of all things carp, exemplified by the minor exodus away from fish-stuffed commercials towards the exciting challenge that gravel pit and river fishing can provide.
The prospect of a lovely big tench or bream, and the opportunity to hone my non-existent gravel pit fishing skills, was the excuse I needed to buy a day-only season ticket. Night fishing, if my limited knowledge of pit fishing is concerned, isn’t a prerequisite when it comes to catching big tench, get your approach right and you can bank them at all times of day, so I saved myself the double discomfort of bivvy-back and sleep deprivation.
My very first trip to St Ives was in mid-April, but it felt more like February as the winter refused to give way to spring. By far the best-looking pit in that section of the complex is “Anderson’s”, a gorgeous reed-lined water of around three or four acres, reminiscent of an Irish lough, festooned with weed beds, bars, islands, spits and deep margins. It looked bloody tench-tastic and it had to be my first port of call.
I chose the only peg at the end of short, narrow spit that gave access to a fairly extensive area of the pit that included a large, emerging lily bed and a gravel bar at about twenty yards. I had a little rake around, chucked out a bit of spod mix, not much as in reality the pit was still in late winter mode, and followed that with in-line rigs, bagged-up, with red maggots on one and a worm kebab on the other; one against the lilies the other on the bar. Then proceeded to stare at motionless bite indicators and gradually freeze to death all day. So first visit was a blank. I wasn’t surprised, the place felt a bit dead, or not so much dead as asleep.
I wasn’t disheartened as I knew it often takes effort and a blank or two to crack a new pit. So a few days later I was back in the same peg, with more or less the same approach. This time, however, I felt I had a shout. The weather was much warmer and Anderson’s had begun to emerge from its winter snooze. Fish were moving about and topping over the bar I’d baited up. But when the bite came it was off the rig by the lily pads, and was a rip-roarer. I was dozing off when the alarm wailed, bringing me back to my senses in the blink of an eye and causing the old ticker to race.
The fish fought like a demon and made numerous attempts to find snags but I held on and at last there she was, a beautiful female tench languishing in the net, still bristling and angry. I let her calm down a bit before I weighed her, 6.9lb of pristine tinca, an absolute beauty.
It was 10.30 am when I caught her, and I was hopeful for another run of two, but that was it for the rest of the day, despite fish showing themselves, the cheeky blighters.
I didn’t mind that much though, I was pleased I’d cracked Anderson’s and I was content to sit and watch the terns scything through the air above, calling out their harsh shout as they ploughed the water, sending up a perfect V of sparkling droplets. Sharing the air with the terns were swifts, still fit despite their long, arduous journey from Africa.
I once knocked out a swift, as I cast a Driftbeater float out into a lake somewhere in Surrey. Poor little sod chose the very moment I cast to fly just above me and caught the rod full in the face. Naturally, I thought I’d killed it and was mortified. I laid his little body on the grass under a nearby hawthorn and began to pack up, the fishing was hopeless and frankly I’d lost interest. Then I heard a faint cheep, and a feathery shuffling sound. The swift had come back from the dead, tough little bugger! I picked him up gently and cradled him for a minute or two as his senses returned and suddenly, with an indignant cheep, he shot off, apparently none the worse for his bash on the bonce.
Anyway, back at St Ives, the day wore on and the fish failed to show, so it was time to go home. As I loaded the car, another angler stopped for a chat, and as is the norm for this fishery was extremely friendly and informative, despite looking like a vagrant! “Bloody hell, I said, how long you been bivvied up! Too long, I stink!” he laughed. And then went on to inform me that Anderson’s wasn’t fishing well and hadn’t since a flooding event a few months earlier. My best bet for consistent fishing was the pit called Ivo, a rectangular-shaped water of about four acres adjacent to Anderson’s.
So, without further ado, I dragged my marker rod from the car and had a little cast around before I went home.
A few days later…yes, I was back again but this time I walked straight past Anderson’s and headed straight for Ivo. I’d found a tucked away peg with deep margins and a gravel bar at about fifteen yards, which was perfect as I prefer not to have to cast too far, and it’s much easier to bait up.
So, out went a few balls of groundbait and a couple of in-line maggot feeders…and, well, I refer you to the very first paragraph.
I caught three bream in quick succession, all well over 6lb with a personal best of 7.9lb
Then the old warrior came, and by God he fought. He wasn’t pretty but I was very, very pleased to meet him, my biggest tench ever at 7.4lb, not a monster by modern-day tenching standards but a monster to me and a promising start to my St Ives campaign; although that endeavour may have to take a back seat for a while because the rivers are beckoning and the barbel rods need a polish!
An old college mate of mine called Tony asked me whilst we were wetting a line at the fantastic Bury Hill Fisheries in Dorking, Surrey if I fancied a bash at fly fishing. He was a bit of a dab hand already, he is in fact one of the best all-round fisherman I’ve ever known. “Sounds like a plan,” I said, where shall I cast my first fly? How about Lough Corrib in Ireland?” was his intriguing reply.
Being a great fan of the Emerald Isle I promptly agreed to the trip, scheduled for the following March. I had about five months to hone my fluff-chucking skills.
As is typical of me, I waited until two weeks before the trip to purchase an entry level fly rod, reel and some little hooks with colourful, tufty bits attached and names like “orange booby,” as well as to book a casting lesson at my local trout fishery.
On the day of my one-hour lesson I was greeted by a Jack Hargreaves’s doppelgänger, the man was a ringer for my boyhood “Out Of Town” hero.
He even had a pipe clenched between his teeth and that patient, amiable delivery that Jack was famous for. I never mentioned this uncanny resemblance to the man, I suspected he was reminded of it all the time, I just enjoyed the moment as best I could in between my utterly fruitless attempts at casting a fly. The Jack lookalikey even chuckled “you’re casting like a dead man” when it became apparent to him that I was a no-hoper. At the end of the lesson he was even reluctant to take my twenty five quid as I’d made no progress whatsoever. And this, sadly, was to be the my fate. Despite several trout, sea trout and salmon fishing sorties in England, Scotland and Ireland, I never got the hang of casting, despite catching numerous trout and an 8.5lb salmon. It was made worse by the fact that I was accompanied on these trips by anglers, including my mate Tony, of enormous technical and entomological skill that could cast to the horizon, or to a tight spot no bigger than a dinner plate, and could “match the hatch” with enviable accuracy. But they were good friends and never once mocked my fly fishing inadequacies, not to my face anyway!
My first trip to Corrib, a vast glacial lake covering an area of sixty eight square miles, was a highly enjoyable, but fairly frustrating soirée into the deep and windswept end of wild lough fishing. We’d rented a lodge on the northern tip of Corrib in a hamlet called Cong and the king of Cong was the lodge owner Roy, as Celtic as a man can be. Roy was as big as a house with a shock of fiery red hair and a matching thicket of a beard that cascaded almost as far as his chest. He had piercing blue eyes that spoke a thousand words, which was just as well because he barely said a word. If he’d turned up to greet us naked to the waist, covered in wode, wearing a kilt and swinging a shillelagh around his head it wouldn’t have surprised me.
In stark contrast was his wife Sorcha, a diminutive, dark haired lady with a sweet nature, a sharp wit and renowned creator of some the best packed lunches I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. One night after a exemplary dinner enlivened by the odd glass of Black Bush, I called her Scorcher instead of Sorcha, a slip of the tongue she found most amusing. Roy, however, just stared at me from a dark corner of the dining room. That night I wedged my bedroom door shut with a chair, just in case.
Fishing Corrib is wild fishing at its wildest. The quarry was pristine brown trout pursued from a nineteen foot Irish fishing boat, allowed to drift with the wind to cover as much water as possible.
I’ve no recollection of the names of the flies we used to fish for the brownies, but I do know they strongly resembled the multitudinous hatches of flying insects emerging from the shallower water surrounding the Lough’s many islands.
I fished every day for four days from one of those boats, and I never caught a thing. My fellow ship mates, however, often caught fish into double figures. It was a bit humiliating, but then I couldn’t cast far enough to fish effectively.
Despite my complete ineptitude, the trip was great fun, and on one occasion, dramatic. The anti-English sentiment still simmers amongst a very small Irish contingent, and a member of that contingent decided to drive his very fast motor boat through all of our lines one day, simply because we were English. He lived to regret it though, because when Roy found out what he’d done, he persuaded him in no uncertain terms to never do it again, so Scorcher said anyway.
I’ve no idea if it was the same guy but during a visit to a tiny local pub alive with laughter, music and excellent Guinness, I was threatened, up at the bar in front of everyone, by an extremely scary Irishman who stood well over six feet, with a bushy black beard, a battered donkey jacket and a look in his eyes that screamed death to the English. It was like a Western, the music stopped and everyone looked our way, there was total silence. I could feel my bowels turn to water, (the four pints of Guinness didn’t help), but in a flash Tony was by my side and we fronted the guy out best we could. He was obviously pissed and, thankfully, unintelligible, but his guttural voice held real menace. The landlady, with a quiet word and a hand on his arm, diffused the situation and he slammed his pint down and left. Instantly, the laughter and music flared up again as if nothing had happened. Two pints of Guinness, on the house, were placed on the bar for us and not a word was said. As I say, it’s a wild spot, Corrib.
Despite my near death experience, I had unfinished business with the place, so exactly a year later I returned to redeem myself. My casting skills were much the same but due to the concerted and kindly efforts of an excellent ghillie called Tom, I managed to catch twelve brown trout over the course of four days, which resulted in a congratulatory grunt from Roy, the most the man had said to me in two trips!
When I was thirteen in 1977 and living with my parents and younger sister in Chingford, north east London, a brother in law called Steve with a Triumph Herald and a spare rod introduced me to angling. And for that I forgave him his tendency to grind his teeth whilst driving, blank me throughout the entire journey and smoke Players that filled the car with carcinogens. Passive smoking was my next favourite hobby after fishing.
Being thirteen and without transport, not even a push-bike, I didn`t have a particularly large fishing catchment area. Highams Park Lake was a fifteen minute walk away, the River Lee at Cooks Ferry an hour by bus and feet but that was about it.
Having Steve on side was without doubt a major advantage when it came to discovering far-flung fishing-well far-flung to me anyway. Copped Hall lake in Epping (my first carp, a common, fit and five pounds;) Hollow Pond, Leytonstone (my first specimen tench, a shining olive-green and coincidently, five pounds, a big fish in 1978), and the captivating Norfolk Broads, (my first bag of bream and my first fishing super store, Lathams at Potter Heigham, like a million Christmases rolled into one.) And during a session at Hatfield Lakes in Essex, Steve briefly crawled out of his shell, exposing a dash of true colour. A bullying bailiff, who refused to believe I was under 16 and therefore a junior, demanded we pay the full adult day-ticket rate. This riled Steve considerable. I remember the exchange had the two men referring to each other as “chief” frequently; the word punctuated almost every sentence in guttural explosions of derision.
The tete a tete eventually culminated in the bailiff storming off and threatening us with the police, totally convinced I was at least 25 (I was big for my age, and the beard didn`t help.) Later on that day he almost caved his skull in whilst pulling a hung-up tree over with a tractor. We saw it all and we laughed, leading to a good many more “chiefs” being thrown around like grenades. I think if the bailiff hadn`t been bleeding from a head wound, he soon would have been.
I`m convinced Steve let off a enormous head of suppressed anger and vexation that day. He was actually whistling to himself on the way home and tapping out a jaunty rhythm on the steering wheel, behaviour I`d never witnessed before.
But our piscatorial adventures couldn’t last, under the circumstances. Steve was always fine to me but he was, essentially, a fairly disturbed individual. Despised by my mother and younger sister, barely tolerated by my dad, he was indifferent to his two young boys and his wife, my elder sister, who limped along permanently stressed and barely able to make ends meet due to the inadequate house keeping he afforded her.
The final straw came when it became evident that he spent more money on tackle than he did his family, and thereafter, it just didn`t seem right to accept his fishing invitations, which eventually fizzled out altogether.
A pal called Nigel suggested I join his fishing club, Intrepid Angling Society, to compensate for the recent decline in fishing opportunities, so in the autumn of 1977 I did just that.
Before I knew it I was a fully paid-up junior member of I.A.S and attending my first club meeting. They were held at a factory’s social club off Lea Bridge Road, Leyton in a massive brick building that looked like an asylum, and it appeared to me that one or two of the inmates had infiltrated the ranks of I.A.S.
Around a rectangular table in a tiny room filled to the rafters with eye stinging fag smoke, I was welcomed into the fold by a character who would have made a fine Worzel long before Jon Pertwee.
Albert Challice dripped straw-coloured hair from every visible orifice, his ears especially were a haystack. His invisible lips permanently sucked on a No6, and his copious beard and tache were the colour of a public bar`s ceiling. He wore what could only be described as Jethro Tull`s cast-offs, (not the father of modern farming, but Ian Anderson, the front man of said band): a tight fitting tweed waistcoat; a rather flouncy but extremely grubby white shirt, and worn to a shine brown Corduroy strides. And whenever he moved, it sounded like a bead curtain in a boutique. Bangles and necklaces of wooden beads, glass beads and various exotic totems adorned his wrists and neck. This was the only outfit I ever saw him wearing. Even when he was fishing his clothes were the same, all but for the inclusion of a decrepit waxed jacket if it was cold or raining. He looked ancient to me, at least eighty, so you can imagine my surprise when I was introduced to his dad, Pop Challice, a man who looked so old he could have drowned worms with Izaak Walton.
It wasn’t long before my very first outing with I.A.S dawned, although in truth dawn would have been preferable, because the agreed pick-up time was 2.30am. It was to prove an unforgettable experience.
The night before, my mum hadn`t allowed me to store maggots in a bait box in the fridge to keep them cool and inactive, so I had stupidly left them in my creel in the front passage along with my rods and nets. When I dragged myself out of bed, bleary-eyed and groggy, I discovered hundreds of sweating maggots doggedly scaling walls and traversing skirting boards. They had escaped from an unsecured bait box. Green bottle flies were happily emerging from the house`s numerous nooks and crannies for weeks afterwards, alighting on us, our furniture, our breakfasts, lunches, dinners: it drove my family barmy.
That was just the start. Due to the maggot exodus I nearly missed the club`s behemoth of a coach and had to run in the dead of night, sweating and clattering with prodding, jutting fishing tackle: I just made it. It shuddered to a squealing stop in a monstrous belch of nauseating fumes that, along with my recent exertion, had me gagging. I was deftly parted from my fishing gear and hauled aboard like a shipwrecked sailor. Suddenly, I had entered another world and was assailed by a fug of tobacco smoke and a maelstrom of undulating voices, like an expectant football crowd. A middle-aged man with mutton chops that bordered on the lycanthropic was sat near the front sucking on a Meerschaum pipe. This was George Fitzpatrick, the Feeder Man, because that was the only method he ever used, a maggot feeder the size of a jam jar. Generally, the float boys would out fish him, but occasionally the vast quantities of maggots he had liberally fed to the river would attract attention. I remember witnessing a George caught net of Thames chub the likes of which I’d never seen before or since. I can’t remember the weight or number of fish but it needed two men to haul the net from the river. When it broke the surface, the water exploded into a seething, foaming mass of silvery flanks.
My pal Nigel waved at me to join him and the blue swirling haze parted briefly as I made my way towards his trademark tartan cap.
‘That was close, you nearly missed us. I told `em to hold on a bit for you. Bleedin` long way to walk, Purley.’
For that was our destination, the middle reaches of the River Thames at Purley in Berkshire.
Somewhere near Chiswick the beast of a coach required sustenance, and I was mighty relieved to get out and purify my lungs as well as stretch the legs at an all night petrol station. As me and Nigel stalked the confectionary section, I witnessed a display of practiced pre-CCT thievery that fascinated and appalled me simultaneously.
While keeping their eyes on the ageing pencil-browed blond on the desk, two brothers, Alan and Keith systematically fleeced the shop, artfully concealing cans of oil, spark plugs, crisps, sweets and thrash mags within the gamekeepers pockets of their fading Barbours; I looked on in disbelief.
‘Don’t stare you prat, you`ll draw attention,’ whispered Nigel. ‘Just stuff that Mars in your coat and move towards the door.’
Back on the coach, Alan and Keith jovially distributed the spoils of their labours and somehow I ended up with a copy of Hustler in my lap.
‘Feast your eyes on that’ smirked Keith, a bit of a step up from your usual Kays catalogue underwear section ain`t it?’
It certainly was. The dusky brunette on the front cover was enough for me. But it was nothing compared to the jungle of eye popping gynaecological gymnastics on the inside. The models sported hair everywhere: great tussocks of it. It was after all the Seventies, when a Brazilian was merely a citizen of a South American country. I was disgusted. But given the hair-trigger nature of an adolescent’s loins, I shot my bolt straight into my new khaki fishing trousers.
The river at Purley was beautiful, utterly beguiling. My perception of the Thames up to that point had been of a colossally wide, tea coloured urban watercourse flanked by world famous landmarks. But the Thames I fished that day was draped in a veil of eddying autumnal mist, soon to be replaced by flakes of gold leaf sunlight as the day warmed. It spoke a lilting, liquid language I would come to know well and to this day whenever I have the good fortune to fish it I’m reminded of that first encounter.
My swim was next to a gnarled willow amongst a drift of nodding Bulrush. It took me a while to set up my fishing tackle as I was so enthralled by the teeming life around me.
As it turned out I caught very little. Only three tiny perch, striped like a sergeant, graced my keep net. It would take many years to acquire the watercraft and piscatorial know how to do this river justice. But as I watched a pulsing, electric blue damselfly balance artfully on my rod tip, catching fish was merely the icing on the cake.
It`s May 1978 and my very first Intrepid Angling Society’s Annual Dinner and Dance. I looked hip and swish in my Travolteresque white shirt, cream jacket and black strides, although future examinations of the photos my mum took would prove otherwise.
By some fluke I`d managed to secure a prize: The Junior Roach Shield for Best Specimen Roach. On a bitterly cold day in January, when every inch of me was an icicle, I caught a roach of 1lb 12oz that shone like an ingot of freshly minted silver with eyes and fins a deep blood red. It was the best fish I`d ever seen and it was mine, and to this day still remains my personal best.