Thursday, 14 December 2017

"The last hurrah!"

I fish in winter for a similar reason to the one that compelled Sir Edmund Hilary to climb Everest: "because it's there." To fish in freezing weather (even with the advantages of modern outdoor clothing) for fish rendered semi-comatose and ill inclined to feed sometimes threatens my self definition as a "pleasure angler", but I resolutely determine to be a year round angler out of a mixture of obduracy and the belief that to only fish in sunny weather is to be a dilettante, "someone who fishes" as opposed to a "fisherman" or an "angler".
And so it was, that in the company of regular angling companions Pete, Greg, David and Roger, I arrived at the small pool on a day when the finger-like branches of the trees stretched and reached, bare of leaves and  naked, for the hazy grey of the winter's sky. The previous night had seen a flurry of snow, in a week when snow was becoming monotonously predictable, and the first challenge presented to us on arriving at the lake was finding it entirely frozen over, which ensured that the day's first task was to break enough of the ice to create a small fishable area for each of us. It didn't take the wisdom of Walton, the intuition of Chris Yates or the technical ability of Martin Bowler to realise that  the next few hours were going to prove unremittingly challenging from a piscatorial perspective.

Roach were the target, with optimism and realism vying for supremacy in our spirits, as we tackled up in the early morning chill. Pete and I shared a swim and managed to create enough clear water to drop our light waggler rigs into the alarmingly clear water, although the shadow created by the marginal overhanging branches looked likely to provide some sense of security and cover  for any fish that might be in the area.

David, Pete and Greg had also won their own minor battles with the ice that fringed the margins, and with just enough water to present a bait in they, like me and Pete sat and waited (and waited), enjoyed the snowy grandeur of the rural backdrop and attempted to stare motionless floats into disappearance.

And then the unthinkable happened. The thin insert tip of my waggler danced and shuddered as a prerequisite to slowly and deliberately sinking beneath the surface , and my sharp flick of the wrist was met with the unmistakeable wriggling sensation of a hooked fish. I suspect that I was more surprised by the float's disappearance than the fish was to find a hook in its lip, and in seconds a miniscule perch was in my hand. Certainly no leviathan or giant of the deep, but success in angling is always relative, and in the hostile climactic conditions the juvenile stripy I was clutching felt like a hard-earned triumph.

When all's said and done, we all fish for different reasons. Some to catch fish, others to find an existential peace that's hard to find elsewhere amid the chaos of modern life, some to chase PB's and monsters that they then reduce to a number on a set of scales. I've fished for and landed some sizeable fish over the years, many of which I have a photographic record of, all of which are etched in my memory, but these days I fish for the pleasure of using aesthetically pleasing vintage tackle, for the challenge of pitting my wits against any fish, but most of all to enjoy the beauty of God's rich creation and the company of my fishing friends, and today's session was more about the latter than any of the former. Mince pies, bacon butties, cigars for some (I plead "guilty") and good coffee were shared, and conversation sat lightly in the frosty air.

Mine, unsurprisingly in view of the temperature and extreme conditions, was the only fish caught, and the quality roach that inhabit the lake, and which we caught aplenty on our last visit in September, were entirely conspicuous by their absence, however, the camaraderie and scenery more than compensated for the non-compliance of the water's piscine inhabitants, and the curtain was brought down on another angling year, and with hope springing eternal we left the lake talking about our plans for 2018.
I don't want to give too much away, but "Fenland pike: you have been warned- we're coming for you."

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

On the art of studying to be quiet

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
If I had a pound for every time a non angling friend or acquaintance had asked me "why do you go fishing?" I'd almost have enough money to buy an Edward Barder rod ...... almost, but not quite. It's a question born of incomprehension in the mind of the person unfortunate enough to never have been afflicted by a passion for angling and all things piscatorial. Often before the angler has even gathered his or her thoughts to answer the question, the questioner (perhaps fearing a lengthy treatise) interposes their own answer which normally runs along the lines of "well, I guess it's a good way to get away from the wife/pressures of work/modern world" (delete as appropriate) with the implicit assumption that the motivation to fish is born of a desire to escape. However, as someone who has fished for over 35 years, I would refute such a charge, and would contend that we fish not to escape but to engage. To engage with a mental puzzle, to engage with the natural environment and to engage with an underwater adversary that doubles up as the subject of our admiration. Like the angler of WB Yeats's poem (and I believe Zane Gray wrote something similar) there's a "fire in our heads" that compels us to go. It's less about what we're trying to escape, more about what we seek.
For sure, the gentle art carries us to places of sublime natural beauty, but for the fisher the environment represents less a passive attempt to retreat from the ugliness and grime of urban living, and more a desire to actively insert oneself into nature, not to merely view the scene, but rather to become a part of it, a player in some great drama that traces its origins to primeval times, the ages old battle of wits between hunter and hunted.
For a number of years my affections and attention were split between my love of angling and of football, but while I thoroughly enjoyed my two decades of chasing an air inflated sphere, initially as a striker or winger and, as age and passing years dictated, eventually as a full back, when I finally hung up my boots there was no real sense of regret, no deep seated pang of sadness, but if I were ever to face the prospect of being unable to fish I suspect I would find myself far less sanguine. Some addictions run deep, and are immune to any therapy.
I am captivated by everything about the business of pursuing the capture of fish. The tackle (my penchant is for vintage) and techniques, the rich vein of literature that surrounds the piscatorial art, the great cloud of witnesses from the past: Walton, Sheringham, Martin, BB, Bernard Venables et al, the sight of a red tipped quill bobbing in the water's surface film,  the vivid turquoise flash of a kingfisher on the wing, and the beauty, nobility and character of the quarry itself.
Izaak Walton once famously said that "We may say of angling as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries: "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did"; and so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling."
and, impertinent though it may appear, if I may be the judge of Walton's aphorism, then I without reservation hold his observation to be unerringly true. Walton also had it that  "Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element are made for wise men to contemplate, and for fools to pass by without consideration", and with this too, I unreservedly concur.
There is within my head a constant fire ...

Friday, 13 October 2017

A Fenland affair!

So, here's the question: is it possible to fall in love at first sight, and is two dates enough "to know"? I speak not of women or romance, but of places. Is the angling equivalent of not much more than a "fleeting glance" at a pretty girl, enough to give rise to talk of a serious attachment?

I have only twice fished the Fens, but have to confess to having had my heart captivated by their wild, untameable beauty and their "big sky" moodiness; the painting that sits at the top of this page, a painting by the clergyman artist (and sometime angler) Daniel Cozens of a Fenland scene captures majestically the almost foreboding impressiveness and the sense of space. Like a Hemmingway essay, the real stuff of the Fens is found in the spaces, the detail in the sparseness.

For me, an angler for whom the majority of my fishing has been conducted on managed (and often quite manicured ) lakes, a part of the attractiveness is the feeling of leaving civilisation and entering a place that's altogether wilder, nature that hasn't been overly "bent into shape", although there is, of course, a degree of engineered artificiality about these watery environments and their origins in the brilliant mind of Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden and his band of 17th century navvies of the waterways.
My first foray into Fenland piking was in November of 2009, when, with my two brothers, Andy and Tim, I enjoyed a day's guided fishing with local expert Mark Barrett (seen above netting a fish for Tim). The weather on this occasion was unusually benevolent, with no fierce wind whipping across the vast, unsheltered flatness and the results in terms of fish captured were pleasing to say the least. Tim managed a brace with the largest around 15 pounds, Andy landed four pike and a small zander, with his biggest pike weighing in at a "close but no cigar" 19 pounds and 14 ounces (see below), and although the biggest of my brace of pike was only a scraper double I was fortunate enough to catch my largest ever zander. (also pictured)
It was to be seven years until I returned, this time to fish a different drain in the company of friends from the UK Christian Anglers Group. On my second visit the weather had a more hostile feel, cold and  with periodic rain, but, just as the menacing moorland of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" is as much of a "character" as the novel's protagonists, so too the cold and damp and the whistling wind seemed to possess an appropriateness that added to the sense of "place". I was pleased to maintain my one hundred percent predatorial catch rate, but it was a close run thing, and the fish was less the tooth laden leviathan of every angler's dreams and more the "young pup of a pike" that DH Lawrence describes in one of his poems.
And so, as did my teenage crush on the pop star Wendy James of Transvision Vamp fame, the infatuation continues to exist mostly in my mind and my dreams (with Wendy James it was, of course, entirely in my mind, although a friend of mine once met her, and still almost three decades later has a photo of them stood together, his arm round her shoulder, her face looking slightly uncomfortable, his triumphant), but the dream will be realised again next year, when at the very backend of the river season a party of friends from Christian Anglers will brave the elements and seek the legendary water-wolves that roam the watery arterial incisions that bisect the miles of fields given over to the agriculture that forms the bedrock of the struggling local economy, and as I sit or stand, shoulders hunched against the cold, eyes fixed on my pike bung, I'll fall in love all over again.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Ponds and pastures new ...

There are very few truly natural stillwaters in the UK; the great, brooding, lochs of Scotland or the vast watery expanses of the Lake District are the exception, not the rule, but when man gives nature a "helping hand" and then takes a step back, the artificially created can take on the appearance of the natural, and nature can reclaim for Arcadia what human hands have formed. Admittedly, some commercials, although not many, are beyond redemption (I once fished a "snake lake" where every peg had its own circular island at 9 metres, a convenient pole-fishing distance, from the bank, which viewed from above would have looked like croutons floating in a soup of muddy water), but, given time, most waters can mature and acquire a beauty of their own, as is certainly true of the small pond that I fished for the first time today, dotted with lilly pads, bordered by trees and with a backdrop of the patchwork quilt of fields that are a defining feature of England's "green and pleasant land."

I was joined by regular fishing companions Pete, Roger and Paul, and for me and Roger the day was to have a traditional theme, with split cane being wielded and vintage reels pressed into service. Pete's approach may have had a more contemporary feel to it, but that in no way diminishes his ability to appreciate the poetry of the place, and who are Roger and I to argue - Pete invariably catches more than us, our aesthetic sensibilities no match for his application and attention to detail. As for Paul, he recently turned 72, so there is a case to be made for he himself being classified as vintage, irrespective of the tackle he chooses to employ.

The weather (no English fishing report can be deemed complete without some meteorological reference) was mostly benign, the temperature mild, with alternate sunny spells and very light showers. Roger and I fished one corner of the small (probably just under an acre) pond, with Pete and Paul diagonally opposite us. My swim had an extensive pad of lilies to my left and clear water straight in front. A split cane carp rod and Mitchell 300 were pressed into service, and a boilie cast to the edge of the pads. Meanwhile, leaving the carp rod to "do it's own thing" (heresy of heresies: perched atop a modern bite alarm!), I plumbed the depth and flicked a tiny porcupine quill taking just four number 6 shot half a rod length out, with double red maggot on an 18 hook, 3 pound bottom and 4 pound mainline. Fish, although not prolific, were plentiful, and soon the four of us were catching fine quality roach, such as the one displayed below alongside the Rodrill Kite rod and Allcocks Record Breaker reel responsible for its downfall.

Roger was giving debuts to his newly acquired split cane float rod, which he paired with an also recently purchased vintage Intrepid fixed spool reel.

The roach were of a good average stamp, and tended to visit the bank in little bursts, three or four fish and then a period of inactivity, but in between times we were plagued by voracious but tiny little perch, beautifully marked but pitifully small, an example of which sits in my hand in the photo below.

I managed several quality roach, and posed for the occasional "grip and grin" as in these examples, but the enjoyment of the day comprised of far more than just the fish. The company was, as is a "given" with this crowd, excellent, the surroundings serene. The serenity of the lake's setting, and the view, along with the, mostly, compliant roach, were an antidote to the busyness of the last few months, and a pleasing "calm before the storm" as we prepare to move house and for me to begin a new role, no longer as a Parish vicar, but in a "Head Office" position working across the Anglican Diocese of Leicester.

Paul was "top rod" on the day (and only his protestations that "I can't swim"- a claim we will be seeking to verify with his wife, Pat, on Sunday- prevented us from chucking him in, which we understand is a custom beloved of match anglers on winning a large pay out, presumably to shrink-fit their brightly coloured early  1990's shell-suit style of fishing attire), with this superb roach being the pick of his catch, silvery hued and glimmering with bright red fins.

After hours of silent inactivity, my bite alarm sounded and a carp powered off in determined fashion, I held the fish hard (possibly too hard), and several times turned it before it could reach the sanctuary of the pads, but after a couple of minutes of "rough and tumble" the line went horribly slack, and the cane's pleasing battle arc sprung straight as a result of the dreaded hook pull. It was to be the only chance offered to me by the carp. Paul (predictably) had more luck, landing a chunky little leather with lovely pale cream coloured flanks accentuated with hints of orange, which gave him a great fight on a light link leger and a bunch of maggots on a size 14 hook.

By the time of our mid afternoon pack up, we'd all caught plenty of roach, and were in that sanguine, relaxed frame of mind that a good fishing session in pleasing surroundings can induce. To complete a perfect (apart from the lost carp!) day, as we drove out of the car park the heavens opened, a proper deluvian deluge which required windscreen wipers be turned to full speed. "I reckon we timed that just right" remarked Pete, and no one disagreed.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Living the cliche

The world of angling is no stranger to clichés, but their persistence is due in no small part to the fact that most of them contain more than a grain of truth. Chief among angling aphorisms is the one that contends that "there's more to fishing than catching fish", and its veracity as a proverb was proven this evening. It wasn't that we didn't catch fish, we did (scores of them) but all were small, and they were hardly the point, anyway.

Tonight the significant factor was not the quality of the fish, but of the company, as my son, James, and I were joined by angling companions David, Pete (with his son Jacob) and Roger for a few hours of gentle evening fishing at one of our favourite venues.

James and I were the first to arrive, and James, who had opted to fish with an elasticated whip, had swung about ten fish into the bank before I had even made my first cast with my bristle tipped crucian float, fourteen foot match rod and vintage Allcocks Record Breaker centre pin reel. The fish were mostly rudd, some dazzlingly golden, although roach and perch also featured, and I was pleased to add a solitary gudgeon, a fish that ranks high in my piscatorial affections.
Shortly after arriving we were joined by David, whose intent was set on carp. He fixed up one rod with a method feeder, while the other was deployed floater fishing for the carp that were cruising lethargically just under the surface. He managed to get the carp slurping floaters, but the only one he hooked unfortunately managed to adroitly shed said hook, leaving just a couple of method caught roach (admittedly, at about three quarters of a pound apiece they proved the night's biggest fish) as his consolation.
The carp were proving resolutely obdurate, which was a shame as I was giving a first outing to the wonderful custom built carp rod that master craftsman Nuno Paulino had built for me, and which features on the cover of his book "Inspirations." (see my earlier blog about Nuno's work: ) The rod, which is decorated with Christian symbols, finished with wonderfully opulent burgundy whippings and even includes Da Vinci's Last Supper and other sacred art worked into the carbon blank, sat proudly on the rod rests, but the buzzer remained silent and the boilie hookbait untouched. A proper review of the rod in action will have to wait till another occasion, when the carp prove more compliant than today, but to have it out of its rod bag and inserted into the natural surroundings of the lake was a pleasure in itself.

James did connect with a carp, but having pulled the elastic out at breakneck speed, the underwater adversary proved too strong for the 2 pound hooklength, with the inevitable result ensuing. By now, I had caught plenty of fish (although not as many as James, who proved to be the evening's top rod), the best of which was the modestly sized perch pictured below, and so I passed my rod to James. It was the first time he'd ever used a centre pin, and the look on his face that said "I'm not sure I ever want to use a fixed spool reel again" was soon matched by him giving voice to the sentiment, as he went on to catch a few more fish, and to fall prey (as so many of us have done) to the magic and charm of the centre pin.

Roger, in the swim next door, was soon catching regularly, mostly roach and rudd, but with the odd perch also choosing to pull his handmade and exquisitely whipped reed waggler under the water's surface. Roger is also a devotee of the centre pin, and was using an ancient but smooth spinning and beautifully preserved Mordex as his reel of choice for the evening. Pete and Jacob were the last to join the party, but were also soon making the acquaintance of the lake's roach and rudd.

 As darkness threatened to draw in, floats became harder to see and the evening developed the hint of a chill, and so it was decided that it was time to "draw stumps." Nothing of any size had found its way to the bank, but the action had been brisk and the fish plenteous, but more importantly, the company and the pleasure of just "being there" had been its own reward.  Packing away our tackle back at home, the evening held one more surprise for us: a knock on the door, and there was Roger: "James seemed to really enjoy using the centre pin tonight, I wondered if he'd like one of my old pins." Pleased as punch, and very grateful, James is now the proud owner of a centre pin, a lovely gesture from Roger.  A picturesque lake and  time spent in the company of my son and the best fishing friends a man could hope for ...... I'll drink to that (in an appropriate mug, of course).


Monday, 29 May 2017

Make mine a Mitchell ...

I put it down to nostalgia. When I was first cutting my angling "teeth", back in the early 1980's when shoulder pads, Duran Duran and Margaret Thatcher were defining an era owning a Mitchell reel was a symbol amongst our little gang of 12 and 13 year olds of serious angling intent. A Mitchell was an almost totemic tackle box item, that separated the "men" from the DAM Prince or Daiwa J13P wielding "boys."
The reel I started fishing with had no bail arm roller, an "automatic" bail arm trip only in as much as it had a protrusion on the reel's stem which a half turn of the handle smashed the bail arm into, consequently closing it, and an unskirted spool that seemed designed to lure inches and inches of nylon monofilament under it's lip, requiring impatient boyhood fingers to engage themselves in prolonged untangling exercises. In short, it was a disaster masquerading as a fishing reel, and so, when Christmas 1981 came around there was only one thing on my list: a Mitchell 204, and so began a love affair which, unlike the ones I succumbed to with girls with the unfeasibly "big" hair-styles that characterised that decade, continues to this day. The ache of those lost loves with girls with names like Mandy and Tracey have long since passed, but I do still find myself pining for the 204, which at some indeterminate point in my early adulthood must have been misplaced or perhaps swapped or given away.
An audit of my current reel collection shows seven Mitchell reels, two of them of the  more modern variety, but five that are each in excess of 30 years old.  Two are the iconic Mitchell 300's, one the well worn and worthily battle-scarred one in the picture above, the other a remarkably still immaculate 300 Pro with wooden handle that I purchased with an early post school teenage wage packet, probably round about 1985 or '86, and that still gets taken to the water's edge, particularly when floater fishing for carp . My first choice Mitchell for general float fishing is the 304 CAP, largely because I've always loved the unusual but aesthetically pleasing circular body shape, and coveted one for several years before purchasing a 304 in mint condition a few years ago. The pictures below show me landing a chub while using it, and a mat shot of it alongside an exquisitely coloured and audaciously plump perch.

In addition to the pair of 300's and the 304 CAP, I also have a half bail reel of the type that preceded the 300, and a sweet little Mitchell Prince 308 (honesty demands I admit that mine isn't the one pictured below), which I intend to strip the paint from, and then repaint to make it "good as new" as a fun project for later on this year, when the cold, dark winter evenings draw in.

The origins of the Mitchell lie with a family of Italian born Swiss and French émigrés. The aptly named Louis Carpano founded a company that made gears for watches, and his son-in-law, Charles Pons, moved the company into the fishing reel arena, where they were pioneers in the early development of the open faced spinning reel, and the rest, as they say, is history, a long and proud history that I, and other traditionally minded anglers keep alive each time we remove one of their creations from its reel case and affix it to a rod. If you grow up in Liverpool or Manchester you have to choose between the reds and the blues, you're either Liverpool or Everton, United or City, and if you were a serious angler in the late 70's or early 80's you were either an Abu Cardinal or a Mitchell man. While not for one moment doubting the Cardinal's charms (and I may yet purchase one), I was then, and remain now a "Mitchell Man." An advertisement for the Mitchell 410 that dates from 1968, the year I was born, stated that a Mitchell reel was a "lifelong fishing partner"- I suspect that, for me at least, the claim will prove to be unerringly true.


Friday, 26 May 2017

Planning on perch

The picture of the perch shown above was taken directly from the website of a fishery I, and a number of my angling friends fish regularly. Just a few miles from my home, it's a convenient spot for the short after-work evening sessions that I and my pals are always looking to squeeze into the gaps in our busy lives. Add to that the fact that John and Anne, the owners of Spring Grange have over the years created a beautiful environment in which to fish, and it's easy to see why we find ourselves pulled, as if by a hidden magnet, to its verdant, tree-lined banks.
Most anglers at the fishery target its carp (which are plentiful and catchable), but my attention has been turning to its perch, not only because species perca fluvitalis is, by some considerable margin, my favourite of all British freshwater fish, but because the fish from the website photo demands respect, and invites the question is that fish, or perhaps an even bigger monster, still to be found hiding in the snags and waiting to pounce on an unwary fingerling roach or rudd, or- better still- my bait?
The largest perch I've ever seen caught from the venue weighed in at 1 pound and 14 ounces, caught by an angler pole fishing in the swim next door to me, one evening when carp were my quarry. So far this year I've made just two visits to the lake, and on each occasion have landed perch of better than average, but not eye-poppingly enormous, size, as illustrated here:
Also, getting in on the act in recent weeks was my angling partner Roger and others, such as Paul and Pete have landed perch of quality, although not specimen, proportions.
All of which starts to build a composite picture that is planting more than the seed of a thought in my mind. Might not the time be ripe for a proper perch campaign on the lake? If, without trying too hard, a number of decent perch have found their way onto our hooks what would be the fruit of a concerted effort? What if the pint of maggots and tub of worms was augmented with prawns, Predator Plus laced groundbait and more serious intent?
It's beginning to look a lot like I know what I'll be doing this Autumn, and, until then, every time I close my eyes I'll find myself picturing the fish from the website photograph- that spectacular humped shoulder and cavernous mouth, the fish dwarfing the angler's hand. Of such things dreams are made, and even if I only end up tangling with little rascals, such as the fish caught and displayed by my son in the final photo of this article it will have been a dream worth pursuing, and time happily and well spent. This is one hunch that simply demands to be followed ....