Wednesday, 18 January 2017

"Blanking in a winter wonderland"

"I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while and gone my way and forgotten it" wrote the poet RS Thomas, in a poem full of Welsh hiraeth , pregnant with longing for what once was, but had now been left behind. For Thomas it was the failure to grasp the opportunity to engage with God in a numinous moment that fuelled his disappointment, but today there were precious few occasions when the sun shone through the gloom to point us to the skies, and so  I was spared any retrospective moments of Thomas-style existential angst. I was also, unfortunately, spared the pleasure of catching, holding and marvelling at the beauty of any of the perch I was in pursuit of, but the absence of fish belied my thorough enjoyment of the day.

Accompanied by my son, James, and friends David and Roger and Roger's son Ben, we had driven the hour and a half's journey from our Leicestershire homes to a stretch of the Oxford Canal where we met up with our pal Keith, a regular on the cut, and a man who boasts an enviable list of perch to over 3 pounds that have been plucked from its watery depths. On my only previous visit I had landed a brace of perch each weighing a pound and a half, so despite the previous day's snow I was confident that between the six of us we'd land a  few fish, but unfortunately such confidence was misplaced. Never mind fish landed, some of us couldn't even muster a single bite, and all of us suffered the ignominy of our first blank of the New Year.

I was indulging in one of my retro days, so parked myself on my old-school whicker basket and employed my newly acquired, but vintage, Rodrill float rod coupled with a Mitchell 204 CAP reel also of venerable antiquity. The float was a traditional handmade Norfolk reed waggler, the bait a worm. My son had chosen to eschew the traditionalist's poetry for contemporary precision, and elected to use a short carbon pole and a delicate bristle float, Roger's methods accorded with mine as he matched a centre pin reel with a handmade quill float, while the other three all plumped for variations on a waggler theme.  And so we sat ..... and sat .... and sat.

In many ways winter fishing is where we anglers "pay our dues" and, with freezing fingers and  baits untouched by fish, earn the right to the impressive catches that will form our summer memories, when fish are easier to catch and the weather more benign. Despite the lack of fish we all enjoyed the day in a way a non angler would fail to understand. Conversation and camaraderie, the shimmering reflections of the colourful barges in the water, cooking frankfurters by the canal's edge and just "being there" make the day its own reward, and once home the true angler's mind immediately turns to the wistful longing for the next trip. The fish may have won this time, but a fisherman's year is a marathon not a sprint, and ere long it will be Spring, and as the blossom blooms and the bulbs emerge, the pendulum of ascendency will swing in the angler's direction. Until such times we persevere, drawing solace from the motto of the Flyfisher's Club which (I'll spare you the Latin) roughly translates: "there is more to fishing than catching fish", to which all right minded practitioners of the Waltonian art are invited to respond with a hearty "amen".


Wednesday, 14 December 2016

"You little Tinca ..."

"Regrets, I've had a few" sung Frank Sinatra, and who hasn't? Perhaps my biggest fishing regret is that I've spent very little time fishing for (or catching!) tench over the last few years, and, on cold December evenings like tonight my mind's "wishful thinking" transports me to lazy summer days, lilly pads, and pin prick bubbles fizzing around my quill float. It's been way too long.

My teenage years saw me avidly catching tincas from my local club lake in my hometown of Reading. Lovely olive green or brown fish with little pink eyes that fought doggedly and took my sweetcorn, worms or the then "new fangled" Ritchworth boilies with seeming abandon.
This last year although I have caught tench, it's mostly been my angling companions who've slipped their nets under the flanks of summer's most archetypal of fish. These handsome specimens being held by Pete and Greg being typical of the fish I've had to behold, and sometimes capture on film, but that have rarely been captured on my hook over this last twelve months.
As with all fish I'd rather catch a big specimen than a small pup, but rather like pike, tench seem to be at their very prettiest when small. Fish of less than a pound, like the one Greg is holding in the picture below, don't pull your string too hard, but have a charm and beauty that their more impressive larger brothers and sisters can never quite recapture. The smaller they are the softer and silkier they seem to the touch- perfection in miniature, and what's lacked in stature is compensated for in style.
Perhaps, as we enter a new year, one of my resolutions should be to spend a more of my time in the warmer months intentionally pursuing tench (the tench I did catch this year were never my target fish, and were all accidental captures). No fish is more redolent of all that summer angling signifies, and it's almost a crime that these paddle tailed beauties have slipped under my radar, if not over the rim of my landing net, with any regularity of late. Misty dawns,  lilly pads, centre pin reels and quill floats may have become a tench angler's cliché, but it's a cliché I intend to insert myself into more frequently in 2017.
In former times the tench was held to be some form of underwater physician, the thought being that its thick coating of slime contained healing properties and that fish of other species would rub their flanks against those of the tench to avail themselves of the efficacy of its healing balm. This led to the tench becoming known colloquially as the "Doctor Fish", and although it's now believed that there is no scientific evidence for this piece of angling lore the nickname has stuck, and is still sometimes used. True or not, I hope to see "the doctor" several times next year to remedy a growing longing for "all things tench".


Thursday, 8 December 2016

Another Year in Retrospect

In Simon and Garfunkle's song the "bookends" were two old timers, sitting on a bench and looking back on the old days, for me 2016 was bookended by the only two pike I caught in the calendar year. The first a, sadly, un-photographed and un-weighed river monster of around 16 pounds, the other this small, photgraphed but not worth weighing, scrap of a jack that graced my net on my final trip of the year.

In between these two pike most of the coarse fish species that grace our island's freshwater ponds, lakes, rivers and streams came my way, longstanding water's edge friendships were renewed or continued and new ones forged, and more fond memories were slipped into the "keepnet of my consciousness."

The first fish of any quality to come my way  were perch, and the brace that I caught on the Oxford Canal in the company of Pete, Roger, Greg and Keith were the finest looking fish of my season. Peas in a pod, both tipping the scales at exactly one and a half pounds, and caught on a frosty and finger numbingly cold day, these were fish to savour and prize. Not the biggest perch I've ever landed, but good fish in anyone's book, and each as handsome as any fish that swims.
 Early Spring saw my church's fishing club, embark on our first trip of the year, a "multi-fish challenge" match, where the prize ( a handmade, feather inlaid float from Ian Lewis) was not for the heaviest weight nor the largest fish, but for the angler who caught the most different species ... in the event I tied in first place with four different species, but was adjudged to have finished second on a "tie break", as Graham, who also landed four different species, caught more fish in total and was rightly crowned winner of the prize. Among my catch was the chub I'm netting in the photo below, the only one of its kind that I landed in 2016.

 As Spring meandered towards the balmy days of Summer I managed to sneak a few short evening sessions with my son, most of which resulted in him catching more or bigger fish than me, often as a result of bonus fish that took a liking to his Method-fished "sleeper rod" that had a habit of pleasingly disrupting his pole or  float fishing escapades. These after school "Dad and son" trips were the season's most special sessions, and on one we were even joined by my daughter who, nine years after her "retirement" from angling, discovered that catching small perch and rudd can still be fun even when you're old enough to drive a car, vote and have a boyfriend!

Summer saw me having plenty of fun, fishing with the "usual gang", but although my floats dipped regularly and I caught consistently, the fish, though welcome, were mostly unremarkable. I caught a few rodbending carp, which is pretty standard for the time of year, but irrespective of my target species, I seemed cursed to permanently catch skimmers (30 on one frustrating day when crucians were the intended target!), and the only individually noteworthy fish of the warmer months was this golden orfe, which, although I didn't bother to weigh it, was by some margin the largest ever of its species I have ever seen as well as caught. By the end of the summer I suspected that even if I fished in the ocean I'd probably end up catching some hapless skimmer that had got hopelessly lost finding its way onto my ragworm on a size 2/0 hook- if I never catch another bream in my life few tears will be shed! However, the lack of individually memorable fish failed to detract from a summer when the pleasures had as much to do with the beauty of the bankside environment and the quality of the company as with any fish that happened to get caught.

The highlight of not only the Summer, but the whole year, was our first ever Christian Anglers weekend retreat. Camping, a pub meal, barbeques, cooked breakfast, Bible study, two trips to charming day ticket waters, plenty of fish, anglers joining us from four different counties and a monster bonfire .... what's not to like?

Early Autumn saw the odd trip to the canal in pursuit of perch, but the highlight of the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" was, without doubt, the Christian Anglers fish-in at Marsh Farm in Surrey. Arranged for us by Angler's Mail journalists Bill and Virginia Rushmer, the day will live long in my memory despite the fact that the venue's famous crucians were in shy mood. We had the use of the Godlaming AS clubhouse, and after Bill had introduced us to the tactics likely to succeed and shared the story of how he, a scientist, became convinced by the complexity of the natural world that there must be a God, we went to our swims to engage in a battle of wits from which, on balance, the crucians emerged victorious. However Bill had a brace of nice crucians, I also netted a good fish,my biggest ever crucian at a pound and a half, and while Jez caught the only other crucian, several nice tench and a smattering of roach and rudd kept the Christian Anglers, who had travelled from Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, Bristol, Sussex and Leicester, busy, although there were two dry nets.

 One of the realities of being a Vicar is that December is a month when very little fishing is likely to be done (I took my first Carol Service on December 2nd!), and this year it seems highly unlikely that I will wet a line all month, which means that November's trip to the Fens, organised for Christian Anglers by top Fenland angler John MacAngus was to be my last of the year.

I fished slightly fewer times this year than I did in its calendar predecessor, with the regularity of my trips tailing off in the Autumn and Winter, largely due to the fact that not only were my own work and domestic arrangements squeezing out time for fishing more than they had twelve months previously, but also because my regular fishing companions Pete and Greg were facing similar pressures that reduced their ability to "down tools" and "hotfoot it" to the lake, river or canal.  However, despite, having fished less often than I would have wished, the year will be stored in my memory as a good one. My son and I fished together more than in the previous year, which was a treat in and of itself, seeing my friend Paul returning to angling after a 20 year break (and netting  a pike for him 50 years after he last landed one!)  was a real pleasure, fishing three times with my brother Andy and twice with his son was a real bonus, and any time on the bank with Pete, Greg and Roger is always time well spent. Add to that the St Luke's Church club trips and the Christian Anglers fish-ins and Retreat and you have a year that succeeded admirably in putting the "pleasure" into pleasure angling.
Out with the old, in with the new ..... here's to more of the same in 2017.


Friday, 11 November 2016

The only way is Esox on the Fens

 It was more than just the anticipation of the fish, but as much the mystique of the place that was responsible for my excitement in the build up to the Christian Anglers November fish-in. The Fens, like the Norfolk Broads are woven into the folklore of pike angling, with monster myths and legends to match. There is a bleak and brooding majesty about these inhospitable waterways, dug in the flatlands by Cornelius Vermuyden's teams of Dutch and Scottish prisoners of war back in the 17th Century.
Our bunch of fishermen, drawn from Leicestershire, Hertfordshire, Sussex and Northamptonshire, arrived at the designated meeting point in dribs and drabs, to be met and greeted by local Christian Anglers organiser John MacAngus and Ray, who owns the rights to this particular stretch of drain. John originally hails from Leicestershire, but Ray is a lifelong "Fen tiger", and a proper gentleman to boot.
Deadbaiting was the order of the day, and soon a variety of sliding float rigs, running legers and paternosters were being cast into the drain. I elected to fish one rod with a legered eel section, and the other fished slightly overdepth using a Polaris self locking pike float. My float, with half mackerel bait had only been in the water for a couple of minutes when it started erratically dancing around, before pulling away determinedly. A quick strike was met with resistance, and after a couple of runs and a bit of splashing a small pike saw my side of the argument and was drawn over the net, wielded for me by John.
Half an hour from arrival and a pike on the bank, things were looking promising. However, it proved to be a false dawn, as despite the array of 26 rods that the 13 anglers were employing, and the veritable menu of mackerel, sardines, smelts, eel sections, lamprey, pollan and coarse deads (and the occasional cheeky spinner or lure), only one further pike was landed, another young cub of a pike, beautifully marked and a lovely bright green colour, which fell to Paul's rod; once again, the successful bait was half mackerel, fished under a float.
The weather was changeable- at times inclement (we were even treated to a brief hailstorm), at times sunny, and at all times with the hint of chill that is an inevitability as the wind whips across the flat landscape. Shortly after midday we wound the rods in and broke for lunch. Tim, a lay reader from one of the local churches joined us for a chat, spoke briefly about his faith and said "grace" for us, before we tucked into welcome bacon rolls cooked by John on a couple of gas camping stoves.
With the exception of the punctured tyre misadventure that befell the Hertfordshire lads ( the RAC man's face was a picture as he drove reluctantly on the mud and grass to the hapless van) and a missed run that was Pete's misfortune, the afternoon passed without event, save for the conversations, endless cups of coffee and frequent micky taking that always forms a part of Christian Anglers fish-ins.  
We packed up in a rain squall just before dark, and gathered for the end of day presentation. Ray's son, Andrew Field, is one of the country's top floatmakers, and an exquisite pike float that he had made was on offer for the day's best pike. In the event, "best" was not determined by size (my pike was slightly bigger than Paul's, a fact confirmed by photographic evidence, but still denied by Paul!) but by looks, and Paul's was, indisputably, the prettier of the two fish. Despite the difficult fishing, a great time was had by all, and massive thanks must be recorded to John and to Ray for organising such a special day.
Like someone once said: "it's called fishing, not catching", and this was fishing at its challenging, yet enjoyable best. Good company and a day spent in a wild, wet, windy yet beautiful corner of God's creation ...... what more could anyone ask for?



Wednesday, 5 October 2016

A passion for pike and a sense of place

Pike have figured very little in my angling this calendar year to date, with crucians, perch and general float fishing being my preoccupation for the first ten months of this year. I have fished twice for pike, blanking miserably in January and landing an unphotographed and unweighed river pike in March which I and Wayne, my angling companion for the day, estimated at between 15 and 17 pounds in weight. A couple of weeks ago I flicked out a small livebait on a "chuck it and chance it" basis while perch fishing, but no pike chanced upon what I'd chucked, and the perch were my main quarry, in any case.
However, over the last few days, my nonchalant indifference towards pike has been arrested, and long, lean and tooth laden pike are featuring increasingly in my thoughts and dreams. My once waning pike mo-jo is well and truly on the wax, again. Perhaps Pete and I overdid the piking a couple of years ago, when we crammed a decent number of short sessions into a three month period and landed a goodly number of pike, a high proportion of which were doubles, but if those twelve weeks left us feeling that our piking appetite had been satisfied, the hunger is now returning.
The catalyst for this change of mood has been the Christian Anglers predator fish-in, planned for next month, and perhaps it's the venue as much as the quarry that's responsible for my piking renaissance. There are certain places that I associate with certain species, places that have acquired legendary, almost mythical status, as places of piscatorial pilgrimage. In my mind for British pike those places are not the bowl shaped trout reservoirs beloved of many modern pikers, but the more historic, Broadland waters, Loch Lomond in Scotland and the Fens. Of these I have fished the Broads twice (blanking both times!), and the Fens once (with much greater success), and next month's adventure will also be on the Fens.
My last visit to the Fens was in the company of my two brothers, Andy and Tim, and nationally known predator expert and angling journalist Mark Barrett (no relative, despite the surname). Mark, with his expert knowledge and watercraft, put us right on the fish, and on a November day we landed eight pike and two zander, with four of the pike in double figures, the largest, which fell to Andy's rod, just two ounces shy of the magical twenty pound barrier. The picture above shows Mark netting a fifteen pounder for Tim.
The Fens have a windswept wildness, a kind of bleak beauty that demands respect, and perhaps this sometimes harsh environment explains why the locals have a historical reputation for being tough and redoubtable, the "Fen Tigers" of popular legend, and in these wild waters swim wild fish. There are no guarantees in fishing, and despite the fact that next month's fish-in is being arranged by top local angler John MacAngus we may struggle, and that uncertainty provides part of fishing's enduring appeal, but whether I "fill my boots" with pike or suffer an ignominious blank, of this I'm sure: it'll be a great day out in excellent company, and for as long as my deadbait is in the water I'll have a chance, and you can't say fairer than that ....

Friday, 23 September 2016

Perch, (no) pike and Pete

A fortnight had passed since my Marsh Farm crucian capers, and with a new PB crucian tucked under my belt it was time to return to the familiar, and a spot of relaxation on the canal. Whereas the run-up to Marsh Farm had me reeling with expectations and dreams of quality specimens, this time the ambitions were less lofty, yet no less laudable: to chill out, land a few modestly sized fish and catch up with Pete.

A recent promotion at work means that Pete now has a better chance of keeping his family in the manner they'd like to become accustomed, but the busyness and demands of his new position had meant that he'd had to miss the Marsh Farm fish-in, and hadn't even wet a line for several weeks. And so, on a sunny morning that should have been autumnal but had decided to imitate summer, we found ourselves on the towpath of the Grand Union canal, armed with worms and red maggots with the intention of pursuing perch, and the option of using said perch as livebaits if we felt the urge to segue from targeting  perca fluviatilis to esox lucius during the session.

The canal was looking at its best, as was Pete, who'd turned up wearing a T shirt that managed to combine humour, faith and fishing, with it's "Jesus said: 'go fishing'" logo, and we were soon catching perch. The plan had been to catch a few perch and then start using them as livebait for pike, the only problem being that while the perch couldn't by any stretch of the imagination be described as large, they were too large to be comfortably used as bait, although eventually one of small enough stature was landed and duly lip-hooked on a pike slider rig along with the obligatory wire trace. Said fish remained untroubled by pike, and was in due course released to swim off, sadder and wiser having failed to be troubled by any marauding "crocs".

The conversation was pleasant, my small 2BB perch bob attractively bobbing in the shadows as I dropped it next to the moored boat to my left, the sun shining on our backs, and the fishing, while not prolific, was diverting with a succession of nice perch being landed. This was fishing at its least intense and most relaxing, an antidote to the eye straining concentration that had been required a fortnight previously to ensure the capture of my best ever crucian.

The odd boat passed, and Pete and I enjoyed the occasional conversation with friendly members of the fraternity of local narrow boat dwellers, who, having done their morning ablutions and boat related tasks walk the bank and  seem to live life at a slower pace, a stress free and "alternative" lifestyle, where it appears that time "collects" rather than passes.

I had errands and jobs to complete (Friday is my day off) related to the real world of dry land, domesticity and family, and so bade farewell to Pete, who packed his float fishing gear into his car, and set off to bank walk with a dropshot rod, which secured him half a dozen more perch, smaller in size than their predecessors, and  including the one pictured below. Even when the fish are unspectacular (at least, in size- perch are always spectacular in appearance, with their stripy livery and spiky dorsals) and the fishing only "steady", there's no better way to while away a morning. I drove out of the car park, humming a tune and with a spring in my metaphorical step ...... it doesn't take much!

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A (cru) cut above the rest- Marsh Farm fish-in

In all honesty, my Summer fishing this year amounted to little more than a rather half-hearted exercise in  "messing about" with a fishing rod. A combination of work, family holidays and other commitments meant that I'd only fished three times since the Christian Anglers weekend away in June, and each of these trips had been a casual affair. I'd caught plenty of fish, but most had been tiddlers, with the biggest a carp of a wholly  unremarkable 8 pounds or so in weight caught while float fishing. I'd had fun, fishing once with some of the lads from the Thurnby Church club, once with my son and daughter and once on my own, but the first part of the year in which I'd caught some fine quality perch, and new personal bests of both pike and golden orfe seemed a long way away. The Christian Anglers fish-in at Marsh Farm had come at just the right time to shake me out of my angling lethargy.
Marsh Farm may not have acquired the mythical reputation of some waters, it lacks the "ancient history" and folklore that causes venues such as Redmire to be spoken of in awed and hushed whispers, but to those "in the know" it's viewed as the country's best crucian carp fishery, with genuine unhybridised crucians that grow large, and is the venue from which the current crucian record was caught, and thanks to my good friend and fellow Christian Anglers members Bill and Virginia Rushmer was the location for the Christian Anglers autumn fish-in.

 With ten anglers attending, travelling from Leicestershire, Avon, Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, Sussex and Surrey, for many of us the adventure started the day before the fish-in, when we met up at a Surrey Travelodge late on Sunday afternoon, and went out for an enjoyable evening meal. The anticipation was building nicely, and I, for one, dreamt of plump, round crucians as I slept that night in my hotel bed.
After a hearty cooked breakfast it was off to Marsh Farm, where we met in the clubhouse. Bill gave us all a brief introduction to the venue, and some tactical pointers, as well as speaking about his own Christian faith and voluntary work with Street Angels and the Salvation Army.

Then it was off to our swims to pit our wits against those of species Curassius carassius.

The lake (Harris Lake on the complex) was looking magnificent, the water was nicely coloured, meaning that float fishing was a viable, and in my opinion infinitely preferable, option and spirits and optimism were high. As it transpired, the fishing was to prove extremely challenging, with the fish reluctant to honour the great lengths some of us had travelled by gracing us with their bankside presence. Only four of the crucians for which the lake is famous made an appearance, with me the first to land one of the prized specimens. I had opted to fish peg 21, a classic float angler's swim with an enticing bed of lilly pads to drop a float next to. Using an ultra light dart float, requiring just 4 number 4 to dot it down, 4 pound mainline and an 18 hook on a 3 pound bottom and sweetcorn as hookbait I trickled sweetcorn and hemp in on a "little and often" basis, and after a couple of missed bites, about an hour after commencing fishing, I connected with a fine, plump crucian, a real old warrior, that tipped the scales at 1 pound 9 ounces. I admired the fish's plump, golden, rotundity and took a few photos before slipping her back gently.
As the day wore on news filtered down the lakeside grapevine of the odd capture, but the crucians proved to be in camera shy mood. Jez landed one small crucian, and Bill had a brace, comprising fish weighing in at 1 pound 6 ounces, and this fine specimen of 1 pound 12 ounces.

On a day when our party, and the few other anglers on Harris all struggled, tench were slightly more amenable than the crucians, but while Bill, Virginia, Roy, Greg (his fish is pictured below) and I all caught tench, we still only managed eight tincas between the ten of us who were fishing. Jez, Greg and Roger also managed  a few very small roach on maggots and casters, while Keith caught an unexpected bream of around 5 and a half pounds, but this was one of those days on which the lake wasn't of a mind to give up its treasures lightly.
However, the fact that the fishing was anything but easy failed to dampen the enjoyment of the day. In between hours of staring at floats that refused to dip and quiver tips that remained resolutely motionless, bank walking breaks were taken, good conversations enjoyed, and we admired the beauty of the lake, the majestic resident heron and Peter Bailey's stunning bamboo float tube, decorated with illustrations of stained glass windows featuring Izaak Walton and Bernard Venables.

The day concluded back in the clubhouse, with a raffle to raise money for the Salvation Army's work with the homeless. Roger walked off with the star prize of a Fox Warrior barbel rod, Jez won a baitcaster reel, Roy also won a rod and others went home with floats, feeders and other assorted prizes. Every angler received a "Goody bag", and all agreed that, despite the fact that this had to be chalked up as a victory for the crucians rather than the anglers, it had been a wonderful day. A quick prayer to end the day and we were off to do battle with the assorted motorways that had spirited us to Guildford, and to dream of November's predator fish-in on the Fens.