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.


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.