Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Swallows, Amazons and a passion for angling

For me, more than any other series of books, the Swallows and Amazons canon of a dozen stories of Cumbrian children who occasionally venture to the Broads (and notably once, by accident, to sea) are the defining tales of my juvenile forays into the world of literature. I'd never been to the Lake District or the Broads, nor sailed a dinghy or yacht, but these children, part refined and privately educated, part feral, were miniature heroes and heroines to stir the spirit. I read the whole collection, and have never been able to bring myself to watch the 2016 film adaptation of the novels, as, for me, the 1974  original remains the definitive cinematic version, and to watch any other would be tantamount to heresy. 

It wasn't until much later, in adulthood, that I discovered that Arthur Ransome, the author of the stories, was not just a keen sailor (that much was obvious from the books), but am impassioned angler with a colourful life story. In fairness, I shouldn't have been entirely surprised, as the Swallows and Amazon books see the children fishing for perch and pike in the Lake District, and catching a monstrous pike on the Broads in another of the stories (my memory is slightly vague on which one, but I lean towards thinking it was either "Coot Club" or "We didn't mean to go to sea."

Ransome, who was born in 1884, a Victorian, and who died the year before my birth, in 1967, was once described as a "Don Quixote with a walrus moustache, a sentimentalist who could always be relied upon to champion the underdog." In the First World War he'd been a newspaper correspondent covering the war on the Eastern Front, and was a sometime spy for the British during the Russian Revolution, although he possessed some sympathy for the Bolsheviks, knew Lenin and Trotsky well, and eventually married Trotsky's secretary, Evgenia.

After the war he became the Manchester Guardian's first angling correspondent, and his short fishing essays (available in print as "Rod and Line" or "Arthur Ransome on Fishing") are superior even to his children's novels. His turn of phrase is evocative, and like Chris Yates today, he then, was the possessor of that rare gift of being able to explain in perfect prose  why we love to fish.

Of carp anglers he wrote "a man who fishes habitually for carp has a strange look in his eyes, as if he had been in heaven and hell." (this, remember, was in the days before bolt rigs and overstocked commercials, when carp were considered all but uncatchable.) He also observed, correctly, that "no man who has ever travelled with a fishing rod ever finds himself able to travel as happily without one." Ransome was eclectic in his angling tastes, as happy to fish for trout with a worm, or bream with a maggot (which he would doubtless have described as a "gentle") as for salmon with a fly, and was totally devoid of angling snobbery.

The historian AJP Taylor wrote of him that "Arthur Ransome was one of the most gifted and attractive literary figures of all time", and Ransome certainly knew the value of a good fishing book, noting that "to read a fishing book is the next best thing to fishing." A sentiment with which all right minded fisher folk must surely concur.

A doyen of both angling and angling writing, I guess like another angler of literary fame once quipped, it might also be said of Ransome, that he was double blessed in that he "he made a recreation of a recreation", and you can't say fairer than that.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Return to the Fens

Frost crunched under my feet as I stepped out of the car onto the sloping banks of the Sixteen Foot Drain. I took a deep breath of the chill air and looked around at my surroundings with appreciation. Fenland is "big sky country", and despite the temperature registering only marginally higher than zero, the sky was blue, pleasant and carrying no threat. It'd been two months since I'd last fished. A long time. Too long. It was good to be back.

In dribs and drabs, and wrapped against the cold, other anglers appeared, ready for the annual Christian Anglers pike fish-in, a friendly get-together where while catching fish is every bit the intention, the pursuit of predators is reasonably casually undertaken, and the landing of pike is secondary to the renewing of friendships.
By mid morning, there were 14 anglers drawn from the Midlands, the South East, Yorkshire and a handful of local "Fen Tigers". Soon rods were pointing like weapons protruding from a machine gun nest towards the drain's far bank. Deadbaits of various sizes and types were positioned on the near marginal shelf, middle of the drain or far bank according to the intuition or theory of the individual angler and the assembled fisher-folk huddled down and waited..... and waited. And waited some more.

Roy had a run within minutes of setting up, but his strike met with nothing, the pike having dropped the bait, but by midday no more action had been forthcoming, and the aroma of burning charcoal drew the anglers towards the gathering point at the top of the bank high above the drain where Andy, young Ben and John were cooking burgers, sausages and bacon. Being the "resident clergyman" it fell to me to say grace, before the meat feast was fallen upon by the assembled throng. With hunger satisfied, I was asked to say a few words, a little sermonette of less than 10 minutes that linked the story of a lavatorial mishap and the memory of my first ever tench with the message of the Christian gospel and Jesus' claim to be "the Way, the Truth and the Life"- yes, I know it sounds an implausible set of links, and you probably had to be there but it seemed to be a well received little homily.

 And so, now physically and spiritually fed, it was time to recast and rejoin the battle with the Sixteen Foot's reluctant predators. I had opted to fish a herring three quarters of the way across and a small joey mackerel closer in, both presented on the bottom under floats. Unfortunately, said floats remained motionless. It was Pete who, characteristically, decided to change things around and take the initiative, winding in his deadbaits, grabbing his baitcasting outfit and setting out on foot further down the drain. His thoroughly deserved reward was a brace of small jacks that took a liking to his deep diving firetiger crankbait, and turned out to be the only pike caught by the group.

We had once again been guests of Ray Field, a local angler of repute who owns the fishing on this section of drain, a proper gentleman whose company is always a pleasure. Ray's son, Andrew, earns his living as a builder of fishing rods, and a master float maker, and he had made a special bespoke pike float as a prize for the captor of the largest pike, and with Pete the only one to catch, the prize was his. A real object of beauty, the float features tiny hand painted ICTHUS fish symbols and the words of Matthew 4:19 in which Jesus encourages his disciples to become "fishers of men"- a wonderful gesture from a master craftsman.

 The day ended with a presentation to Pete, the prize being handed over by John MacAngus, one of the steering team of Christian Anglers, and the organiser of this particular event. Goodbyes were said, tackle was packed into cars and vans, the unanimous consensus was that a good time had been had by all (it is, remember, called "fishing" and not "catching") and a procession of cars headed out to return from whence they'd came, with excited conversation in cars about our next get-together, a Springtime quest for tench in  a reed fringed, lily pad dotted, lake in Leicestershire.
And so, for another year it was farewell to the Fens, whose drains have been responsible for the capture of my personal best zander, a handful of good pike, the occasional jack, and now my first ever Fenland blank, and- most important of all- a collection of uniformly wonderful memories. Bleak, sometimes barren, but always beautiful. I'll be back....


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 clich├ęs, 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).