Friday, 26 August 2016

Turning back time on the canal

One of fishing's abiding charms is that a middle-aged man with a fishing rod manages to retain something of the young boy he once was. An unexpected window of angling opportunity  opened up for me this morning, and I fancied a "dob for perch" - to wander up and down the footpaths of the Grand Union Canal, with just a bucket containing my bait (a tub of worms and a small bait box of Predator Plus infused brown crumb groundbait), a net, a rod and a reel. There's something liberating about divesting yourself of the rod holdalls, carryalls, seats, umbrellas and paraphernalia that normally accompany a fishing trip, and going back to basics, fishing in a manner that even Huckleberry Finn would have readily related to.

 My eschewing of carp or tench, and deliberate pursuit of small perch on a summer's day may seem unusual, as, too, was my choice of rod; although the plan was to perch fish with a proper boy's perch bob, I wanted a rod that was short and light, that could be pushed through gaps in the bankside foliage, and was easy to carry while walking, and so I opted to use my "pride and joy", a custom-built 6 and a half foot spinning rod, made for me by my American rodbuilder friend Don Morse, and to employ it as a float rod.

The canal was at its most attractive, today's bright sunshine making patterns as it reflected off the water, with the bankside vegetation verdant from the previous day's rain. The temperature was in the 80's ("old school", me), and the sunshine bright, not ideal perching conditions, but I was confident. As it turned out, my optimism was well placed, and by creeping from moored barge to moored barge and dropping my worm close to the hull, I was soon winkling out a succession of small perch.

 My float was a small 2BB perch bob in the Harcork style, which looked jaunty in the water, and bobbed and disappeared with pleasing regularity. None of the fish were big, but they were plenteous and greedy, each one exuding the air of swagger that one associates with the species.

 The assorted walkers and barge owners who stopped to chat, or who waved cheerily as they slowly motored down the centre of the canal in their brightly painted boats, were universally friendly and convivial, and I was happy to make the acquaintance of "Tiger", a playful kitten belonging to a pleasant hippy-like pair of young boat dwellers. I momentarily envied their alternative lifestyle, but not the gummy grin of the male of the couple, whose toothless smile wouldn't have looked out of place on the face of a guest on the Jeremy Kyle show!

After a few hours of walking and "dobbing", my angling addiction had been sated, and I was ready for home. I wasn't counting, but almost every swim produced a couple of perch, some far more, and I must have caught 30 or 40 small, spikey and stripey fish with eyes bigger than their bellies.  My very first fish was a perch, caught on a worm, when I was still a boy back in 1981, and today, for a few precious hours, I was once more that boy ....  despite the greying hair and crow's feet around the eyes, still excited when a quick strike leads to that juddering sensation of a hooked fish, still awed and in wonderment whenever around water, and still able to receive far more happiness as a result of capturing a 2 ounce perch than any "normal" person could possibly understand. Like the poet said "the child is father of the man", and may it ever be thus.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Favourite floats - function, form and my personal top three

Anyone who knows me well will attest to these two truths: firstly, I would rather catch a fish on the float than on any other method known to man, and, secondly, I am an inveterate list maker. I enjoy cataloguing subjective lists of my favourite books, films, football matches, records ... you name it, and I'll happily list my top twenty, ten, five or three. With all that in mind, it was only a matter of time before I combined my penchant for list making and my love of floats and float fishing, to bring you my favourite floats list. (Out of respect for, and in  deference to, the patience of my long-suffering readers I have restricted the list to just three.)
At number three is my "go to" float. The one that if I were restricted to just a single float to use for all of my angling would be the one I'd unerringly opt for; the straight Norfolk Reed Waggler. (which like all of the floats in my list was made for me by professional floatmaker Ian Lewis from Devon.)
There might be an argument that states that, in view of what I've just said about the position it occupies as primus inter pares in my float box that it should top my list, but while (especially in its flamed version) it is aesthetically attractive it lacks the "wow factor" of some other designs. This is a workaday float, a float for all seasons and one to trust implicitly, but it doesn't quite have the totemic status or panache of the other floats that eclipse it in my top three. Having said that, my three biggest ever perch, including my 2 pound 5 ounce personal best, were all caught using one, so it's a float that I owe "big time."
At number two is a type of float that I only very rarely turn to (I doubt if I've used one more than a dozen times in over 30 years of angling), but its stunning appearance and its inextricable and iconic link with tench fishing propels it into second place. The driftbeater, fished overdepth and overshotted, complete with outsized, buoyant sight bob and a large bait, may only be given the very occasional outing, but is worth a place in any traditional angler's collection for its beauty alone. Sentiment and "good looks" secure second spot for this "most English" of Stillwater floats.
... and so (this is the moment to conjure up in your imagination a dramatic drum roll), to my all time number one float. A float that brings to mind boyhood fishing and traditional angling at its finest, a float that makes up for in appearance what it, arguably, compromises in sensitivity .......... I present to you the ultimate totem float, the perch bob. I have perch bobs of all sizes, from mini 2BB Harcork style replicas right up to creations buoyant and tough enough to support a lively gudgeon livebait and requiring a couple of swan shot to cock them. Prettily coloured, well crafted and a joy to look at, for me the perch bob is the epitome of all that float fishing represents, and every angler should have several in his or her collection. I've even got a handful of them where the body is crafted from an oak gall
 Of course, the frustration of a list such as this is the artificial need to reduce to three. My real life float collection numbers several float boxes, and leaving out such standards as the porcupine quill, the cork bodied or the fluted avon, feather body decorated wagglers, quill lifters, goose quills and a host of others doesn't sit comfortably. One float that was desperately unlucky to fail to "make the cut" was Ian's "crucian mini bristle float" (pictured below), which is a great float for presenting small baits to finicky fish close in.

Also, I'm aware of the limitations of my own judgement and the subjectivity of the  vagaries that lead to the inclusions and exclusions in any list. My list is just that- it's my list, and yours would likely be different. However, that's a part of the fun of list making. Of this, though, I'm sure: there's no better way to while away a day than by fishing, and no better way of fishing than with a float. The dip, lift, bobbing or disappearing of a brightly varnished orange or red tip exerts an addictive draw that only the angler understands. The late Ted Hughes, one time Poet Laureate, described the experience like this: "I have spent hundreds of hours staring at a float. Not drowsily, very alert. So that the least twitch of the float arrives like an electric shock." Nice words, I wonder if he was a list maker .... ?


Fishing "where the heart is"

To William Blake it was a "green and pleasant land", for Shakespeare's John of Gaunt "this other Eden" and after a week on holiday in France I was itching to reacquaint myself with the English countryside in the best possible way, by sitting next to a green and pleasant tree lined lake and chasing a few of Eden's fish.
With a busy first week back at work, time was at a premium and so, accompanied by my son and daughter, it was off to Beeby, one of my favourite local lakes, and one that over the years has proved generous in giving up its fish.

In the event, the fishing was a disappointment, but the evening itself was thoroughly enjoyable. Although James regularly accompanies me on my angling travels, Ruth (once an enthusiastic angler) has discovered a plethora of other ways of enjoying her spare time, and so her company on the bank was a rare occurrence to be cherished.

The plan- to the extent that there was one- was for Ruth and James to pole fish with maggots for whatever was biting, while I would float fish with worms and sweetcorn with the intention of sorting out the larger fish. To complete the piscine assault a Method rod was cast a couple of rod lengths out with the agreement that if the bite alarm sounded we'd take it in turns to play any fish that had engulfed the banded pellet, although the eventual non-compliance of the carp and silence of the bite alarm rendered the agreement unnecessary.

Ruth and James were soon swinging in a succession of small, but greedy, perch and rudd with the bristles of their pole floats dipping and disappearing with great rapidity. My floatfished worm approach, as anticipated, saw a slower response from the fish but failed to provide the improvement in size and quality of fish caught that the size 12 hook and lobworm was intended to ensure. Small perch have large mouths and even bigger appetites, and a procession of juvenile stripeys set about the task of reminding me of said facts to my increasing frustration.

Switching to sweetcorn proved unsuccessful. The bait, so successful on my last visit when it accounted for a nice carp as well as a decent haul of silver fish couldn't raise even the slightest of trembles on the float. Worms continued to provide small perch, interspersed by the occasional roach or rudd of equally unimposing stature.

After just over three hours of fishing, and with dusk approaching we decided to accept defeat with as much grace as we could muster. Sometimes, as the Old Testament prophet Zechariah said, it's best "not to despise the day of small things", and although the fish we'd caught were indisputably small, they were each of them perfectly formed, and we'd enjoyed a splendid evening in beautiful and peaceful surroundings.

Henry David Thoreau reckoned that "some men fish their entire lives without realising it wasn't the fish that they were really after", and while I suspect that even he would admit that without fish the pastime would lose the major part of its enduring appeal and raison d'etre , the fact is that there's a whole load more to fishing than the capture of finned creatures of leviathanesque proportions. Time spent in special places with special people is its own reward, and tonight the fish were incidental to the enjoyment. Like the prophet said small isn't to be despised, and as the old adage has it "small can be beautiful." Tell you what, though: while all of that is true and central to my own fishing creed, I'm hoping for bigger when I visit the famous Marsh Farm fishery in Surrey next month. Even my magnanimity has its limits.


Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The fine (monofilament) line between obsession and madness

Time was when I played rock music while driving. Loud .... very loud. If I forgot to turn the volume down before exiting the car, I was risking a telling off from my wife if she was the next to drive it, as her musical tastes are softer, quieter and more refined than mine. These days it's not a problem. Radio 4, that "wonder of the modern world", informed, entertaining, intelligent, eclectic (all the things I wish I was!) now provides the background to my vehicular journeys, and it was via a broadcast on Radio 4 that I discovered the enigmatic Dexter Petley, an eccentric in the great English tradition of individualistic battiness, and a carp angler, to boot.

Petley's obsession with catching carp has led to his almost total retreat from the world, and his autobiography, "Love, madness, fishing" gives a titular clue to the life he leads. Now permanently based in Normandy, he lives in a yurt, is an erudite but amateur naturalist and philosopher and fishes full time for the giant carp that swim in French lakes. His ecological perspective allied to his passion for angling have led to him, by his own admission, not having been to the dentist since 1977, the barber since 1983 and the doctor since 1989. Last year, in 2015, he cleaned his teeth 12-15 times, cut his hair twice (he leaves his hair outside for the birds to build into little grey nests), and is a man who can make a bar of soap last two years, a tube of toothpaste three. His coffee mug and coffee pot have been unwashed for a decade and he recycles everything. His one concession to personal grooming is the fact that he eschews the bearded look and still shaves.

Dexter Petley, it cannot be doubted, is "in over his head" when it comes to his commitment to the gentle art, but anyone who has ever wielded a rod will understand (perhaps with a slight sense of envy) how he's ended up where he is. My friend and fellow church minister Stewart Bloor (pictured below) once set himself a challenge of fishing for a small part of every single day in a  calendar year (he succeeded), and for myself and many of my fishing friends, ostensibly normal, respectable men with families, jobs and all the modern accoutrements, our fishing is able to engender a passion that some might say borders on insanity.

The challenge to me, as a Christian, is how to cope with what sometimes feels remarkably like an addiction (and as an ex smoker, whose grandfather struggled with alcohol, I feel I know a thing or two about addictions!). For me, the answer has been "integration"; the bringing together of my faith and my fishing. Finding in fishing an opportunity for meditation on the God who created the natural beauty that surrounds me as I fish. If a sacrament is defined as an "outward and visible sign of an invisible grace", then God's common grace can be seen in all that surrounds the angler, and so fishing becomes a finger that, for those with eyes to see, points to the Almighty. I rather think that the great sage, saint and angler, Isaak Walton,  would have wholeheartedly agreed, and that, my friends, is good enough for me.


Monday, 11 July 2016

Carp quest- the "supermarket session"

Carp feature relatively little in my angling these days. It wasn't ever thus, for a few years they were almost my sole quarry, but in recent times smaller, but to my mind more interesting, species have monopolised my attention. As a schoolboy angler back in the early 1980's, the capture of any carp ensured several weeks of near legendary local status, but these days carp are ubiquitous, and I often find myself regarding them as something akin to "nuisance fish."
However, following my last trip to the lake at Beeby on the Christian Anglers retreat weekend, I felt I had a score to settle; despite catching rudd and perch regularly throughout the day on float fished maggot, my mini-boilie and Method "sleeper rod" had garnered no runs, and, unused to failing to catch a carp "on demand" at this particular venue I decided it was time to even things up, and so a short evening session in the company of a few friends from the Thurnby Church Anglers club was called for.
In order to make things more interesting, I set myself the challenge of spending less than £2.00 on bait, with the further twist being that all the bait used must come not from the exotic confection laden shelves of the tackle shop, but from a local supermarket. In the event, £1.54 was enough to provide  me with a tin each of chick peas, black eyed beans and sweetcorn. The battle lines had been drawn.

However, it was roach, not carp, that were the first responders. I fed heavily under a near bank tree to the left of my swim and dropped a chick pea tipped with plastic sweetcorn under its branches on a bolt rig, while floatfishing sweetcorn a rod length out on the right hand side, using a traditional quill float, over-shotted and fished "lift method" style, and it was the float line that was soon rapidly seeing action. None of the roach were giants, most, like the one pictured, round about 3 or 4 ounces but I caught them to a maximum size of about three quarters of a pound, if not in "quick succession", certainly in a steady stream.

Pete, in the swim next to me was on the Method on one rod, and floatfishing maggot on the other, and landed this lovely roach of about a pound and a half on the Method, as well as a parade of lesser roach, rudd and perch on his float line.

As late afternoon began its leisurely journey into early evening, the carp began to feed. Pete was the first to land a carp, before David picked up the mantle of "King of the Carp" landing three commons, two on surface fished dog biscuits and one on a zig rig.

Greg was also soon doing battle with a carp, a fish that gave a fight of such dogged determination and stamina, that it's comparatively modest size was something of a surprise. Several times it almost reached the sanctuary of some foreboding looking tree roots, and attempted numerous alarming dives under the wooden fishing platform. It must have been a full ten minutes before the fish succumbed, despite the 7 pound line and avon style quiver tip rod Greg was employing. A second carp at "last knockings" completed Greg's welcome brace.

After a time, I joined the carp catchers party, although it wasn't the chick peas (with which the carp were singularly unimpressed), but the sweetcorn that was responsible. As the float lifted and buried, my strike was met by a long and steady run from a powerful fish that was clearly no roach. Greg managed to capture some nice pictures of the fight, and after a short tussle a common of around 7 or 8 pound was nestling in the folds of the net expertly wielded for me by Paul. With the fish returned, and parity restored between me and the Beeby carp I was able to relax  into the rest of the session.

Paul was the only one of our party to fail to connect with a carp, but was happy with his catch of roach and rudd (including one very handsome and sizeable rudd)  on an evening  when only a curmudgeon could have failed to be lulled into a sanguine frame of mind by the lake's beauty and the peacefulness of the surroundings.

The highlight of the session, however, was when the lake's owner, John, presented me with a copy of a Noel Ford cartoon depicting an angling Vicar that had recently come into his possession, giving it to me with a grin and the catchphrase "I saw this and thought of you."  A fitting end to an idyllic evening. And the "Supermarket challenge"? Next time I'll save even more money, dispense with the chickpeas and black eyed beans, spend all of 50p and rebrand the experiment as the "Jolly Green Giant challenge." The "Sweetcorn Kid" or "Angling's Mister Scrooge"? I'll leave you to decide.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

"The Sun shines on the righteous" - Christian Anglers Retreat (day 2)

Day two of the retreat saw welcome rays of sunshine breaking through the early morning cloud as the campsite stirred into life. Anglers emerged from tents, coffees were made and drunk before a short "service" (well, it was a Sunday) at which I gave a brief talk about spiritual lessons drawn from using fake sweetcorn for bait (I guess you "had to be there"), followed by some prayers led by a few of the other campers before we headed off for the second of our venues for the weekend, Spring Grange Fishery in Beeby. ( )

 Another favourite venue for the Leicester based Christian Anglers, we were keen to introduce it to our travelling club members. Although some might argue that it's technically a "Commercial", it neither looks like one, nor is it managed like one. John and his wife, Anne, have lovingly nurtured the two lakes, which are surrounded by mature trees and vegetation and created a top class environment for fishing and an oasis of tranquility. They'd also allowed us to book the Coarse Lake for our exclusive use, and cooked and delivered to our swims their rightly lauded "triple decker breakfast sandwiches".
We spread out around the lake, and soon a variety of techniques were being employed to try to fool the lake's inhabitants. Some of our number were on bolt rigs, boilies and PVA bags, others were float fishing with maggots, some fed hemp and casters, while yet others tried floaters or opted for the ubiquitous Method and pellet or mini boilie approach.

 As on the previous day at Homeclose, carp were caught (and in greater numbers), but not as prodigiously as they sometimes are at Spring Grange. David and Mick had one apiece on surface baits, Pete managed one on the Method, Jez landed a brace while float fishing and Roy and Greg had three apiece, Roy's on the float, Greg's on the Method. The pictures below show Greg and Jez displaying, gripping and grinning before returning their prizes to the water.

Several carp were lost, some within seconds of being hooked as they careered for safety towards the bushes and tree roots in the margins, one (for Mick) sickeningly right at the net, and most unlucky of all a hook pull for James after playing the carp for what seemed like an age on the pole. Sam repeated his feat of the previous day and landed a pole caught carp after several minutes of adding and subtracting sections and "letting the elastic do the work."

It wasn't all about the carp. Pete, Keith and Roy all managed to land roach in excess of a pound, and lovely golden rudd with extravagantly coloured red fins, such as the one displayed here by James, were in plentiful supply.

Perch were also much in evidence, and the perch of Spring Grange exhibit the bravura swagger that is a defining characteristic of the species, as shown by this spikily indignant little fish, one of many that greedily swallowed my double red maggot.

Roy had tucked himself into a pretty little corner swim with a a cluster of lilly pads and used a jigger float, match rod and centre pin to conjure out a succession of quality fish including a staggering half dozen crucians of over 2 pounds each.

 One or two anglers struggled in relative terms, but although not all of the fish were monsters, most of us caught somewhere between 40 and 70 fish. I gave up counting somewhere in the "high 30's", as did James, but we both estimate that we caught about 60 plus fish each, and although neither of us landed a carp, when you're catching regularly in beautiful surroundings and in the best of company, who's complaining? Quite simply, it was another perfect day.

 And so ended the first ever Christian Anglers Retreat. Friendship, faith and fishing: it's not just what we do, it's who we are. After all, wasn't it Jesus who said "go fish"? ( Matthew 4:19)

Monday, 20 June 2016

Dreams, visions and an angling retreat ..... Christian Anglers Retreat (Day 1)

According to the Old Testament prophet Joel, "young men have visions" while "old men dream dreams", and as someone who can lay claim to being pretty much bang in the middle of those two categories I conclude that I have a right to both. Another prophet, Zechariah (why did they never have ordinary names like "Steve" or "Jim"?) warned "not to despise the day of small things", and while I caught plenty of fish this weekend they were all pretty small, but that didn't dampen my enthusiasm for one of the best weekends I've ever experienced. Neither did the initially wet weather, and the weekend was a significant step forward in starting to realise the vision that several of us had when starting UK Christian Anglers ( and the fulfilment of one of our dreams to host a weekend fishing retreat.

 I was fortunate enough to miss the sight of a bunch of men setting up camp in a farmer's field in meteorological circumstances similar to the ones that sent Noah scuttling into the Ark, as I'd spent seven and a half hours in a car ferrying my daughter to and from a University Open Day, and I joined the anglers from Leicestershire, Yorkshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire in the homely village pub just a few hundred yards from the farm, where they were enjoying a meal.
After a wet night we awoke to a dry day, and although the fields were as muddy as I'm told Woodstock was in 1969, the sun was peeping through and we were in high spirits as we cooked a bacon and sausage breakfast in the gazebo style camp kitchen. Breakfast was followed by a "Thought for the day" delivered by Andy, one of our number, and a few prayers, and then we were off to our first fishery, the excellent Homeclose Fishery. ( ) near Whissendine. The lakes here are pristine (each with its own adjacent reedbed for filtration), as is the condition of the fish. Most of the anglers opted to fish on Sallow Lake ( a pond of about one and a half acres with a small island), while two, Jez and Keith, chose to pursue crucians on the lovely Ash Lake. Both are reed fringed and dotted with lilly pads.

On Sallow, bream such as the one I'm displaying in the picture below, dominated, and anglers results varied. Andy and Mick forged ahead with close to one hundred fish each, Andy's coming to the pole while Mick's (seen here playing a carp)  fell to a mixture of waggler and swimfeeder tactics.

Carp were scarce, with only a few putting in an appearance, with the younger anglers (with the exception of Mick, who is a bit more, er .... "senior") almost monopolising the few carp caught. Ben (top) took this fish borrowing his dad, Roger's, rod and centre pin, while Sam caught his carp borrowing his dad, Andy's pole. Unfortunately, my Dad doesn't fish and wasn't there, so perhaps I never had a chance!

 My son also had one of several miniscule, but truly beautiful, carp that turned up, this pretty little linear being an example of perfection in miniature.

 Only a couple of golden orfe were landed on Sallow, with the honours going to Andy (top) and Pete.

Meanwhile, over on Ash and tucked into a couple of inviting little corner swims dotted with lilly pads, Jez and Keith were "cleaning up" with golden orfe, the occasional blue orfe and some gorgeous plump little crucians, with each of them catching somewhere in the region of a hundred fish.
The fishing on Sallow wasn't nearly as prolific as I've known it in the past, but most anglers managed around twenty fish apiece (with Andy, Mick and young Sam the most successful), and despite me having led for most of the day in the dad/son "match", James rallied and an excellent last hour saw him end up beating me by two fish, leaving him with a knowing smile and the much coveted family "bragging rights".

After packing up and returning to camp, and with the weather now in benign and amiable mood, we chatted, while Pete bossed the barbeque and Andy supervised the younger lads in building an enormous bonfire. The barbeque was followed by us breaking into two smaller Bible study groups, spiritual sustenance to complement the physical sustenance, for which compliments go to the chef.

 The evening finished with the bonfire, an enormous pyramid of straw bales and wood, which sent flames licking high into the night sky. Day one, dominated by bream, gave way to night, conversations gave way to sleep, and the older men "dreamed" of the next day's fishing.