Confessions of a Specimen Hunter

A news item in several papers recently caught my eye, it was about the tragic drowning of some children who were in a car which rolled in to the Blue Lagoon at Arlesey in Bedfordshire. It is a long time since the name of that village has come to mind, but some forty odd years ago the area was quite important to me.

The Blue Lagoon is one of a number of waters in the area at which I spent quite a lot of time trying to tempt the fish that were known to inhabit them. It was one of those pits that reputedly flooded over-night, and whether that was the case, I have no idea, but certainly at the time I was fishing the pit there was a crane jib protruding from the water in one corner of it. Even in those days, it had a morbid kind of atmosphere because not far from it there was a home or hospital for mentally sick people, several of whom were reputed to have strayed from the institution and eventually drowned in the cold water of the pit. I caught a few fish there, but nothing that I remember, so it was a water that really didn’t repay the effort I put into it, and certainly one that didn’t have the pleasant kind of atmosphere which made it a pleasure to fish. However, a number of the other waters in the area did produce some fish and some exciting times for me, and the years I spent fishing them are probably some of the most enjoyable years of my fishing life. They were years in which an increasing number of anglers were trying to catch better than average fish by design rather than by accident and we called our selves, "Specimen Hunters".

While the term Specimen Hunter is probably not used any longer, and those of us who were involved in that type of fishing probably pursue other interests, the waters still exist, some of them vastly changed by the introduction of other fish, and some with changed names. However, they were all part of the changes in angling that set it on the course it follows today.

It is nearly 25 years since I last fished in the UK, so I have never used a lot of the methods or rigs that are used today. While some of them appear to be extremely successful, much of the success seems to be due to the anglers playing a waiting game where-as in the late fifties those of us in specimen groups were constantly trying to make something happen. We were impatient anglers, and we took no pride in counting the hundreds of hours per fish as some anglers appear to do at present. Boilies, for example, were unheard of, but we still went carp fishing and we caught carp. True, they were not the monsters that are caught today, but they were fish we were pleased with, and often they were individual fish that we had stalked and trapped with a bait cast to it or near it. To get into that kind of fishing wasn’t as easy as it would be today because so few people were doing it the waters containing big fish were not quite so well publicised, in fact many of them were largely unknown, so before you even thought of going for good fish, you had to set about finding their locations.

I first wet a line in freshwater in 1956, previous to that I had lived on the north-east coast and although I had been fishing from about the age of four all of my fishing had been done in the North Sea. Most of the fish I had caught were finger-long coalfish – we called them pennick – small whiting and mackerel. I had seen bigger fish and I wanted to catch them, but before I could work out how to do it, my family moved south to Luton and my fishing came to a sudden end. In 1956 I went train-spotting with a friend to a place called Pitstone which was on the LMS line from Euston Station in London, and that was the day I saw the Grand Union Canal for the first time. With in a few weeks I had scraped together the ten shillings necessary to buy a rod, reel, line, hooks and a few floats from someone who didn’t want them any more, I hopped on my bike, cycled the eleven miles to the canal and began fishing. Of course with the little I knew of fresh-water fishing all I caught were gudgeon, ruffe, small roach and tiny bream, but at the time they were sufficient to keep me happy along with a few perch and bleak from the Ouse at Bedford. However, I wanted more from my fishing and when I bought my self a 125cc Royal Enfield, (hand gear change) I was able to look for waters further afield and experiment with different methods of fishing. A little further along the road from the canal is the Tring group of reservoirs, and I soon learned that by ledgering maggot baits with a swim-feeder I could certainly catch better fish than I had been, so I became a frequent visitor to Startops Reservoir and for a while I was delighted with the bream of up to about two and a half pounds I was catching. The fish were better than anything that most of my friends were catching, so I felt that I was doing pretty well. Then one day, I went into the pub across the road which, at the time, was the Old Queen’s Head, (now the Angler’s Retreat), and I saw the huge bream set up in glass cases in the bar. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted from my fishing and from that day onwards I was looking at and watching any angler who fished differently to the average run of the mill angler.

One weekend, I had spent a night on the bank of the Great Ouse at St. Neots. I hadn’t fished the night as I should have done, simply because I didn’t know how to go about night fishing, I just waited for first light and commenced fishing then, only to catch the small stuff I normally caught in the river. Tiring of that, I had a walk along the bank and came across a couple of anglers fishing differently to anyone I had seen fishing the river, they were ledgering – without swim-feeders – and they had caught a couple of chub larger than any I had ever seen. I got talking to them, and quickly became friends with them, their names were Dave Bowler and John Barber, both of them were interested in better than average fish, and both of them were using Richard Walker MkIV carp rods. John had an Ariel motorcycle and sidecar and by that time I had a James 225cc motorcycle. Dave had no transport. Of the two, Dave had more interest in looking for new waters and going night fishing for carp, so before long we were off to Ampthill Park which was reputed to be solid with carp. Certainly we had plenty of runs, but sadly we connected with none of them. It could have been that they were too small, but if they were sizable fish it was probably just as well that I never hit any because I was using an Apollo Taperflash steel match rod! It was obviously time for me to upgrade my tackle and so I asked Dave to make me a MkIV carp rod which he did.

In my search for new waters I had found a small lake between Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable. It was owned H.G. Pentus-Brown, the owner of a haulage company. I figured that the only reason I didn’t have permission to fish there was because he didn’t know I wanted to fish the water, so I went to his house and asked him if I could. He couldn’t have been nicer and told me to ask his secretary at his office and she would give me a permit. I did that, got my permit, fished the lake and caught a lot of fish that might or might not have been crucian carp. I put it that way, because there were a lot of fish in Bedfordshire that looked very much like crucians, but they had just the suspicion of some barbules. (A water that was a major producer of these was Jones’s Pit which is by the side of the A5 a little north of Hockcliffe. It was producing some pretty big ones too, and while I had some of the smaller ones, I had more success with
some of the reasonable perch in the water). Anyway, they were nice fish to catch, and while I was catching them I put out a carp bait, (again on the Taperflash), to see if I could tempt one of the carp I had been told of. I had a run which I missed, but I wasn’t too disappointed because it was the first time I had tried for a carp on my own, and I had actually had a run. I took a box of chocolates along to HG’s secretary and a couple of weeks later I asked for another permit – one that would admit Dave and John for a night’s fishing too. We got that, and during that night, Dave caught two carp, each of six pounds. Obviously what we were doing was paying off. As time passed and I learned more about the fish I was pursuing, those carp became easier, and I could go along to the lake on any evening and catch at least a couple of them. Sadly, the day came when HG needed the land as a parking area for some of his trucks and the lake was filled in. I don’t know what happened to the fish in it, they may have still been there when it was filled, though I would imagine that Fred Groom of Leighton Buzzard Angling Club would have had his ear to the ground and may have saved some of them for his club’s waters.

One day, Dave mentioned that he had fished Dick Walker’s stretch of the Upper Ouse which was frequently featured in the capture of large chub. I wanted some of that and asked him how we could go about getting a permit to fish there, and he suggested that we went and asked him. That sounded good to me, and one Friday evening we took a run over to Dick’s place and asked him if we could have a permit for three to fish at Beachampton! Not only did we get the permit, but also he invited us into his home and talked about fishing for the whole evening. During that evening, he showed us some pictures of some nice barbel, and I said, "Fish like those just don’t come to me" and Dick replied, "they never will, you have to go and look for them." That was the most important piece of advice I was ever given! In any branch of angling, no matter what fish you are pursuing and wherever they are, that advice is applicable.

I didn’t really know what to expect when we went to Beachampton, but I was a bit taken aback to find a very narrow stretch of river densely packed with bulrushes. There didn’t seem to be room to fish anywhere, but after a look round I settled into a swim that I later discovered was called two-willows. I gently cast an unweighted lobworm into the water at the foot of one of the willows and almost immediately I found my self fighting a chub the like of which I had never seen, let alone caught! I had left my Taperflash at home and I was using a five-foot long solid glass rod with a pistol grip and a Mitchell C.A.P. fixed spool reel. Eventually I got the fish to the net and was delighted to discover that it weighed 3lbs.14ozs. That was my biggest fresh water fish at the time. The day made me look at heavily weeded stretches of river in a different light, and it wasn’t long before I was catching nice chub from places like Lavendon, Clapham and Kempston. In those days, not many people liked all of the bulrushes etc and the fish hadn’t seen too much in the way of fishing tackle so they were often pretty easy.

During my reading of books and magazines, I had come across other waters, some that were easy to find and some not so easy because the names of them were not their true name. Maylin’s Pool was an easy water to find, it is at Henlow and was owned by Joe Maylin who had a café beside it. The Café was called the Pool Café. No problem in finding it, and easy to get permission to fish it too. Hitchin Angling Club had the rights, so by joining that club I was able to fish that lake and also Arlesey Lake. Maylin’s Pool contained carp, but I never saw one of them on the bank. There were the tops of quite a number of trees sticking up out of the water, and to be in with a good chance of hooking one of those carp, you needed to be fairly close to those trees. I hooked three of them but all three took me into the trees and escaped. One of those carp takes was one of the craziest I ever had. I had seen the fish cruising backwards and forwards on a warm sunny afternoon, so after it has gone to one end of its patrol, I cast out a lobworm below a bubble float. Unbelievably, on its way back, the carp spotted the worm and took it. My strike connected, there was a tremendous splash and crash in the water as the carp took off in a panic and seconds later I was standing with very shaky legs and a broken line. Some anglers were more successful than me and I believe one of them – Don Wray – caught quite a number of them. I believe that the majority of the Maylin’s Pool carp were wildies like the fish in HG’s lake. They were hard fighting fish with huge paddle tails for the size of their bodies. Maylin’s Pool is now known as Withey Pool and it now holds carp bigger than our wildest dreams in those days, indeed, at the time the twelfth biggest carp caught in England was the 26 pounder caught by Buckley in Mapperly Reservoir in 1930, most of the others came from came from Redmire or Billing Aqua Drome. It also holds some enormous catfish, which were never in the lake in those days.

One evening I was having a look at Arlesey Lake with the intention of looking for a swim to fish at the weekend and while checking out the "Stump Swim" I met another angler who turned out to be someone I had read about in the angling press, it was Frank Guttfield. We got talking about our fishing and he told me about the specimen group he had formed – the "Arlesey Whopper-Stoppers". I was interested in what they were doing and asked to be considered as a future member should there ever be any vacancies. Frank must have considered my enthusiasm to be of more value than my expertise because a few days later I received an invitation to go to a group meeting in a pub in Arlesey. I went and was accepted as a member of the group that evening. That was a tremendous step forward in my pursuit of good fish, and in a number of instances I was pleased to find that I was doing pretty much the same as the other members of the group, all of whom were successful anglers. Frank had caught a number of very good fish, Roger Millard had recently had a six and a quarter pound chub, which was a fish of my dreams, and Alan Brown was probably one of the best all-round anglers I have ever met. During parts of the season we split up into pairs and each pair fished for different species of fish so that as a group we would learn more about several species instead of just one. It was a good idea and Alan and I spent a lot of hours fishing together and I learned a tremendous amount from him.

One Friday, I was astonished to see a report in the Angling Times of a 26lb carp being caught in Tiddenfoot Pit! Tiddenfoot!!! I had fished there on many occasions and had been told about the carp in it, but I had never seen any sign of them, so I really didn’t believe they were there. The following week, I was in a tackle shop in Dunstable with John Barber and he pointed out the captor of that carp, that was the first time I had seen Peter Frost. A week later, Peter did it again, this time with a thirty-one pounder. Fish of that calibre were putting Tiddenfoot into the Redmire and Billing Aqua Drome class, where Bob Reynolds had caught the best bag of carp ever recorded in England, and while I can’t remember their weights, I know that at least one of them weighed over 30lbs. Obviously, Tiddenfoot Pit was worthy of some investigation and I had intended talking to Alan about fishing the water, but on the evening of the
4th August 1960, many of my plans were suddenly terminated and I was lucky to survive the incident. I had been to Arlesey Lake so see a Sheffield angler, John Brookes, who had been fishing the lake and was returning to Sheffield the next day. On my way home a car came out of a side turning in front of me, and I hit it fair and square. Unfortunately I never cleared the roof of the car and finished up with horrendous facial injuries. I had what is called an, "out of body experience" and seemed to be looking down at people working on me. I guess that I was lucky that the car was a police car because they had radio communication and an ambulance was on its way almost instantly. Not only did the crash total my motorcycle it put me out of action for three months so my opportunities to fish with the group became severely restricted. On occasions I was able to get a bus to Frank’s place and then travel with one of them from there, but sadly it wasn’t a very satisfactory situation, and I gradually drifted along a different path.

During my search for new waters, I had read about the Temple Pool in the book "Drop me a Line" by Richard Walker and Maurice Ingham. I had been fascinated by the talk of a large carp in the water and which had been christened, "Pickle-Barrel". It was a fish that Dick and, I believe; Maurice had pursued, but had failed to put on the bank. I fancied having a go at that and managed to identify the water as a man-made lake on an estate not far from where I lived. One day I crept quietly around the lake and sure enough I saw some carp that I would be very happy to catch. I went home and wrote a letter to the titled lady who owned the estate and asked her for permission to fish her lake one day. Of course I played on the fact that I was recovering from injuries received in a road accident, and of course I enclosed a stamped addressed envelope. A few days later I received my permit.

I never caught a carp in the Temple Pool that day, I caught a few roach all of which were heavily marked with black spot, but I did see a lot of carp. I never saw any as big as I imagined Pickle-barrel to be, but a good number of them were into double figures and a few of them would have kept me happy. When I got home I wrote to the owner thanking her for my day on the lake and saying how much I would like to fish there again. The next time I wrote I again got my permit, plus a book-full of tickets for a raffle which was to be held during a fete on her estate. The idea was obvious so I thought about the tickets for a while and then took them into work. I explained what I was doing and why, to all of my friends who bought the tickets so when I sent the stubs back to the fishery owner every stub had my name and address on it. I had told everyone who bought a ticket that I would bring the list of winners into work, and that I would pick up the prize if anyone of them had won. They were all happy with that, and to the owner it looked as though I had bought every ticket myself in gratitude for the fishing permit. The next time I wrote for a permit I got one giving me permission to fish the lake whenever I wanted to. I also got a book of raffle tickets each year too, and each year I did the same thing, but only once did I have to go and pick up a prize. I did catch a few carp there and I hooked a lot more, but unfortunately there was a lot of soft weed growing from the bottom to the surface of the lake and frequently so much of it caught up on the line that the fish was soon lost.

During the time I had no transport I had been ‘phoning Dick Walker and one day he told me that he was building a, "Fishing Hut" at Beachampton, and would I like to go along and help. I was more than happy to agree, and so I went up there with him that weekend. There were five of us there, the Taylor Brothers, Fred, Ken and Joe, Dick and my self. Ken and Joe were the skilled men in the building situation and Fred and I did the fitting and nailing down etc. Dick gave advice and delegated various tasks to each of us. Dick was always very good at that, he often had ideas that involved a bit of hard work, but the idea never involved him doing it! I remember him getting me to remove a tree stump in his garden once. He had started the job, just; I turned up in a suit and ended up finishing the job for him. No one worried about that though, as far as I was concerned it was the only way in which I could repay him for all of his generosity and the help he gave me during the years I knew him.

By the time the hut was finished I had wheels again, a Ford Thames van and I was getting out and about. At a club meeting I met Peter Frost and Dave Cheshire and we talked about Tiddenfoot Pit. Pete told me that he was going to fish it regularly for bream during the coming season as he was certain that there were some pretty big ones in the pit. I was pretty interested in that so I arranged to go with him. Consequently we fished most weekday evenings from about 7.30pm until mid-night for those bream. We had lots of bites but no fish. On a number of evenings, we heard a large carp jump not far from where we were fishing, so one evening I cast a lump of balanced paste into the area in which it jumped. Around the time we normally heard it I had a good run which failed to connect, and we never heard that fish again.

Very early on in the season, I had taken a day off work and gone up to Beachampton for some chub fishing and Dick had told me that there would also be someone else there. Sure enough, when the best fishing time was over, I found a guy crouched in the two willows swim, we introduced our selves and it turned out to be Jack Hilton, an angler whose name was becoming associated with big fish. Indeed, that morning he had caught a beautiful chub of over five pounds, pretty good for his first time on the river. We spent a while talking and he told me that he was quite interested in Tiddenfoot Pit, so I suggested that he spoke to Peter Frost, he did so, and shortly afterwards turned up at the pit one evening when we were fishing for bream. He asked Pete for advice on a swim, and Peter showed him one that he believed to be snag free and which was patrolled by carp, so he settled into it. Now I can’t remember how I came to be so close to Jack later in the evening because it wasn’t an area in which we generally fished, but I suddenly heard Jack strike and the clutch on his Mitchell give line. I moved quietly along the bank, picked up his landing net and crouched beside him. I could see from his rod that he was fighting a huge fish, it wasn’t moving very fast, it was obviously bulky power that was bending his rod as it was. I can’t remember how long he had the fish on, but I had visions of me netting one of the biggest carp ever caught in England when it suddenly found a snag and it was all over. It was very disappointing and Jack must have been really upset about it, quite understandably too. However, I was disappointed in the way he described the incident in his book, Peter couldn’t possibly have known about every snag in the pit, I thought it would have been nicer for him to acknowledge the fact that Peter had put him into a swim that gave him the opportunity to hook what would have been the biggest carp he had ever caught up to that time.

The finished hut became a meeting place for many of the anglers who were making things happen at the time, it was not unusual for Dick, the Taylor Brothers, Peter Stone, Peter Thomas and others to be there at the same time. I met many other good anglers from various parts of the country and it was good to be able s
wap experiences and ideas with them all. At about the same time the first of the Tackle Shows at Olympia was held, and this also proved to be a wonderful opportunity for anglers from all over the country. Anglers who had heard of each other, but who had never met. Dick and I travelled down together and of course that made it so much easier for me to meet many of them. All of them wanted to meet Dick who became the focal point and so I didn’t have to go and look for them. I met some very good anglers and made some good friends at that show, some of the friendships exist to this day, and other would have done but for those friends no longer being with us. Dave Marlborough, David Carl Forbes, Bill Keal, Peter Mead and Leslie Moncrieff are some who have either died or been killed since those days. Dave Park is still alive and kicking (still catching some good fish too) and so is our friendship. The show also gave us the opportunity to meet the editors of the various magazines to which we were contributing, and I enjoyed the company of Jack Thorndyke and Ken Sutton of Angling Times at that and subsequent tackle shows.

In keeping with just about every angler who knew what a carp was, Redmire Pool was the Mecca I longed to fish, but getting there was not easy in those days, the opportunity only arose from an invitation and I really never thought that I would ever be fortunate enough to receive one. However, late one Friday afternoon I was called to the ‘phone at work and was surprised to hear FJT on the line. I was even more surprised when he told me that Joe, his cousin, had dropped out of a trip to Redmire that weekend and if I wished I could join him, his brother Ken and Dick for the trip. Did I wish to join them? I quickly made it quite obvious that I did and so he told me that Dick would pick me up at my place at 6.30pm. I would like to say that I made a name for my self and caught some carp that weekend, but I can’t because I didn’t. In fact not only did I not have a bite, I never even saw a carp in the water because that weekend they just weren’t visible as they often are. I did hear one jump during the Saturday night, but that was my only experience with Redmire carp. It was still a fantastic weekend though and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Whatever else I did during a season, I always made time for a few trips to a weir pool on the Great Ouse at Hemmingford Grey. There had once been a water mill there but that had long gone and in its place is an automated sluice gate which is raised or lowered according to some sensor in the mechanism. I never caught anything of any great size, but it was a lovely place to fish and I normally finished up with a few nice chub and, in the winter, a few pike too. One November day, Chuck Nunn and I were fishing what we called the Buttress Swim which meant that we were beside the sluice gate. I was casting across the water flowing into the pool and allowing my ledgered cheese bait to roll through the flow to my side of it. I had picked up some small chub and was hoping for better as the evening drew in. As my bait rolled across the bottom I felt my weight lift and come slightly towards me, I struck and was immediately aware that the fish was better than anything else I had caught that day. My Wallis Wizard rod was well bent and the fish was giving a very good account of its self. I was sure that it wasn’t a chub, it certainly didn’t feel like a pike and it was obviously far too big to be a roach or dace. Chuck was ready with the net and we were both excited to see that the fish was a barbel. At that time barbel were almost unheard of in the Great Ouse. It was well hooked and before long Chuck slipped the net under it and I had my first Great Ouse barbel on the bank. I had caught barbel before – and bigger ones too – thanks to FJT who had taken me to a stretch of the Kennet, but this one was perhaps the most exciting because of its unexpectedness. Unfortunately I had no camera with me, so the fish was weighed and released and I left the river at the end the day with thoughts of getting more of them. Unfortunately after that winter set in and so there didn’t seem to be a lot of point in going for them. However, in February we got a week of very mild weather and so I decided to go and try for another Hemmingford barbel. My girl friend, (now my wife) decided to go with me but we were disappointed to find that the weather had changed drastically on that Sunday morning. It was cold and heavily overcast, but I figured that there might just be a chance. I went straight to the Buttress Swim, the water level was good and so I started rolling a ledger as I normally did. As I was fishing it got colder and began to snow and my confidence began to slip away. Suddenly however, I felt my terminal tackle lift slightly, I struck and was into what I immediately knew to be a barbel! Before long it was on the bank, again it wasn’t very big, but the important thing about the fish was that I had actually caught a Great Ouse barbel while fishing for them. It was so cold that morning that as soon as I had caught that fish, we packed up and left, but I knew then that I would catch more of them. The next season Chuck and I fished the water on several occasions and were featured in an Angling Times centre page spread written by Dick Walker and which he illustrated with photographs of several barbel we had caught quite deliberately. Of course small barbel from the Great Ouse are not news today, but those fish we caught showed that not only were barbel present in the Ouse but they were thriving too. At the time it seems unlikely that there would have been any at all above Bedford and more than likely that there were very few in the river below Bedford, but obviously the river could support them should any be introduced.

Also around this time the plans for Grafham Water were being discussed and at the time I was a delegate to the Great Ouse Fisheries Consultative Association (GOFCA) and at a meeting in either 1964 or 65, (I forget which) the question of just what to do with Grafham was on the agenda. There were several lines of thought, one of them being to create a trout fishery. That was not a popular idea being as probably all of the delegates were from angling clubs who fished only for coarse fish. However, it seemed a good idea to me, there were some very good reservoir trout fisheries making the news at the time, and with all of that newly flooded land I could see the possibility of trout doing very well for a few years. It was obvious too, that eventually the water would be a good coarse fishery because none of the coarse fish were going to be removed from the river, so a lot of them would also benefit from the wealth of extra food that would become available. So I proposed that we did try to make a trout fishery of Grafham on the basis that if it failed then we would still have a good coarse fishery and if it succeeded we might finish up with a very good trout fishery which would be available to all, being as the fishery – what ever it became – was to be managed by the Great Ouse River Authority. My proposal was seconded and carried with little further discussion. My hopes for it as a good trout fishery were justified and for a few years it was one of the best in England.

By 1965, Dick had given me a free run of the Beachampton stretch of the Ouse and also the hut. I didn’t need to ask to go fishing there, I could go just when I wanted to. However, if there were other people staying at the hut then I didn’t take advantage of my situation, there was plenty of time when the fishery was free so I kept to those times and managed to learn quite a bit about the fishery so that I caught quite a lot of nice
fish as the years progressed. Sadly however, it soon became apparent that Dick’s generosity with the hut was being pretty badly abused. Dick made it available to almost anyone who asked free of charge. He also allowed people to take empty gas bottles to a local hardware shop and to charge for the refills to his account. An astonishing number did just that. Some also felt that cleaning up was something with which they need not concern themselves. Gradually, the place was beginning to look run down and neglected, so eventually Dick asked me to take over the running of the fishery and the hut and do it my way. I did, and immediately introduced a fee for visits to the hut – and didn’t that cause some bleating! I wrote to one guy who had booked a week there and told him that unfortunately there would now be a fee to cover the costs of the running of the place. The letter I received in return was unbelievable, he told me that he should have taken the opportunity earlier when it was free to go there, and that he was disgusted with a fee being introduced when it was too late for him to book another holiday! (Another free one? Surely no one else was doing anything like that free of charge). Anyway, we eventually sorted it out, because Dick, being the guy he was, asked me to let him go free of charge under the circumstances. I wrote to the individual and, being as we had been having a lot of rubbish left at the hut, I told him to be sure that he took all of his home with him – something I had been telling all users of the hut for some time. I hardly had the letter in the mail before I had a reply from him telling me that he and his friends fished in many places around the country and they found it satisfactory to bury their rubbish and that is what he would do! He got letters from both FJT and myself on that one and I don’t think it would surprise anyone to discover that he never fished there again!

When I took over the running of Beachampton, Dick and FJT asked me to manage Snowberry Lake at Brickhill as well. There were large perch, zander and plenty of live-bait sized roach and gudgeon in it. It was a lovely lake, but it really needed some carp in it, and as it happened we had some. There was a bit of disused canal at Beachampton, it was quite near the hut and it was dammed at each end which gave us about a quarter of a mile of water and a few years earlier Dick had put some carp from the fish farm that provided the carp for Redmire into it. The carp were of the same strain and they grew quickly. About a year after they were introduced I peeped over the bridge and was astonished to see some that were obviously in the region of 2lbs swimming around. Two pounds a year growth rate seemed promising especially if they maintained it – which they did! About three years after their introduction I fished for some of those carp and I was catching them to nearly 7lbs. They were ready to go to Snowberry Lake which they did, and they continued to grow there too.

The fishing at Snowberry was run on a syndicate basis and it became a popular little fishery. I balanced the cost of a ticket against the number of anglers the fishery could handle, and although it wasn’t the cheapest fishery, those buying tickets knew that there would be room for them to fish in peace and quiet when they went there. Things ran smoothly, the carp put on weight so that there was a good head of doubles and everyone was happy. Then along came John who, having seen other people do the work, wanted a piece of the action and offered Don Mosely so much more than I was paying, he could not refuse it. I considered offering more, but that would have meant charging a lot more for tickets or selling a lot more of them, and I didn’t think that either options were viable for a water of that size or quality. I don’t know how the fishery fared after that, I did hear that all of the carp were lost, but of that I am not certain. However, some years later, I did see John’s name in an angling paper that was sent to me, and the report was that he had been fined something like six hundred pounds for moving fish illegally!

Shortly after taking over Snowberry, FJT heard that there was a danger that the fishing at Wotton Underwood – the scene of so many large bags of tench – was likely to be lost to anglers. The reasons for this were all of the usual ones, litter, damage to property and plant life, gates left open etc. etc. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Brunner – the owner of the estate – figured that the pitiful sum of money she was getting for the fishing wasn’t worth the problems anglers were bringing with them, and so she was considering closing the lakes to everyone. FJT and I arranged a meeting with her and we told her how I was running Snowberry and how successful it was. We told here that she would get a lot more money for the fishing, there would be fewer anglers on her property and either FJT or I would select all of those becoming members of the syndicate. She agreed to give the idea a try and at the end of the first year she was so happy with the system it is still running along the same lines at the hand of John Mason almost 30 years later. (Sadly though, Mrs. Brunner is no longer with us). John Mason’s position demonstrates the value of a thank you letter. He applied for a ticket the first year I ran Wotton but I had no more vacancies. I wrote and told him so, and I got a very pleasant letter thanking me for my time and trouble. A couple of days later, one of those who had been allocated a ticket told me he no longer wanted it. I did have a waiting list of hopeful applicants, but I was so impressed by John’s letter, I never looked at the list, I just contacted John and told him that the ticket was his if he wanted it. We soon got to meet each other, and before the season was finished, John was bailiffing the lakes for me. We still keep in touch to this day.

In between all of my projects, distractions, getting married and having a daughter, I still kept an eye on Tring Reservoirs, I hadn’t forgotten about those bream on the wall of the bar. However, I had given up on Startops, I felt that Wilstone was going to be the one, and one day in 1969 while fishing with Bob Bowley I had the evidence I needed to confirm my suspicions. Bob and I had one bream each, his was 6lbs 12ozs and mine was 6lbs 10ozs. My first six-pounder – a fish I had been wanting for years – but the exciting thing about them was their condition. They were quite small for their weight, but they were broad and heavily built, in superb condition and not dripping with slime. They were obviously growing fish, and I knew that there were going to be some very big bream to be caught in that water with in a few years. Each year I went back and tried for more of those six pounders, but for a couple of years I caught nothing. Then one day in 1973, I think it was, FJT ‘phoned me and told me that he had a boat booked on Wilstone for the next day, but as he couldn’t make it, I was welcome have it in his place. I ‘phoned Rod Lane and just after 3.00am we were loading our tackle into it. We knew where FJT would have baited up and we quietly anchored up in the area. We fished with a flake and maggot bait and used the lift method with peacock quill floats. Not long after I had cast out, my float lifted and slid away. The strike connected and I landed a bream of well over 7lbs. After that, they came to the boat regularly and every one of them weighed well over 6lbs up to eight and a quarter pounds. We had several more early mornings with the same results. We were obviously getting there and we were attracting other people’s attention too. I had been telling Gerry
Hughes of the Angler’s Mail about them and he asked me if I thought we could catch a few for the camera, I told him that I thought we could, so we booked both boats for a morning, and Rod and I fished from one of them, while Gerry sat in the other a short distance away with his camera. Sure enough, just after dawn the bites started and we had another good bag of fish up to eight and a half pounds. Gerry did a centre page spread on the outing and the word was really out that Wilstone was coming good. By this time FJT had also got into the action and one morning while with Roy Westwood, also of the Angler’s Mail, he got a good bag of seven and eight pounders. Surely we had to be getting close to the big one! In 1974 and ’75 we continued catching a few of the eight pounders and then the summer of 1975 began to give me hope that 1976 would be THE year. The summer was long, hot and dry and Wilstone was lower than I had ever seen it, a situation I was convinced was necessary for the bag of fish I wanted. The winter was dry too and I really felt that I was on a roll when I caught pike of 23lbs and 25.5lbs within eight days of each other at Wotton. The winter was a dry one too, so the level of the reservoir was just as I wanted it as the season approached. I was so confident about getting those bream, I predicted that we would and gave my reasons for believing so in one of the weekly columns I was writing at the time. Rod and Mick Lane and I baited up our swim for a fortnight before the 16th and at last the day arrived. Sadly Mick wasn’t able to join us despite all of the work he had put into the swim so Rod and I got to the water at 3.00am, just as it began to rain! Still that wasn’t going to be a problem, and at around 5.00am we began to catch bream – and what bream they were! My first was over 9lbs and there were more of those to come. The next couple of hours were crazy, and between us, Rod and I had 41 fish for a total weight of 373lbs. We both had two fish of over ten pounds and all in all we were more than happy with our start to the season. The fish weren’t quite as big as those that had inspired me so many years earlier but they were enough to keep me happy. The mind boggles to think of what the bag would have been like if Mick had been there too because there were so many fish in that swim, he would have been hooking them just as Rod and I were. Rod and I went back the next morning and Mick was with us, but we never had one bite between the three of us.

Of course, the bag of fish was featured on the front page of both the Angler’s Mail and the Angling Times, and while our friends, and a lot of people we didn’t know, were happy for us and told us so, there were still some odd responses from others. One guy anonymously sent me a cutting of a bag of bream someone else had caught. Apparently the guy had caught about fifty of them in a sitting, which is a lot of bream, but the biggest was less than 3lbs. Perhaps he was trying to tell me that fifty skimmers is better than 41 of the fish we had caught. I just don’t know, but obviously he was trying to tell me something. Even stranger was an encounter in the Angler’s Retreat one evening a couple of months later. Rod and I had called in for a beer, and we saw Herbie there, Herbie was the secretary of one of the Aylesbury angling clubs and as we got talking to him, he informed us that his club was boycotting Tring Reservoirs and none of the members would ever fish there again. We were quite astonished and asked him why? He told us that we were getting preferential treatment in being allowed to bait up swims during the closed season, also in having both boats whenever we wanted them and also because we were allowed to fish from the centre bank. And, (this was unbelievable) because very few people could afford the amount of groundbait we used! I don’t know if other people thought the same way about the treatment we got, but anyone else could have done exactly what we did. We asked Herbie if he had ever asked if he could bait up a swim – he told us he hadn’t. We pointed out that we had and that we had been allowed to do so. We told him that as far as having both boats was concerned we booked them both, just as any other angler was free to do. We figured that an extra quid a day was little cost to ensure that we would be the only ones fishing our swim. As far as fishing the centre bank was concerned, you were allowed to do so if you had a boat. Sometimes the water was so low that the boats were in one of the three reservoirs that make up Wilstone and couldn’t be moved to either of the others. I don’t know what his hang up about the groundbait was, because while we used a lot, it cost us very little. We used brandlings that we had collected at Aston Clinton sewage farm. They cost us nothing, and the place was much closer to Herbie that it was to us in Luton. We also used stale bread that we purchased from bakeries for next to nothing – and one of those bakeries was in Aylesbury not very far at all from Herbie’s house! I guess there always going to be people who resent the success that others enjoy. Thankfully I am not one of them and I can get a lot pleasure from other people’s successes – especially if they happen to be friends of mine as well.

A couple of months prior to the bag of bream, my wife and I had set events in motion that would ensure that I would have no further opportunity to fish Wilston Reservoir again. We had applied to emigrate to Australia as we felt it would give our daughter a better future than we felt she had in England. There were still one or two planned excursions before that materialised though, and one of them was a trip to Castle Gregory on the Dingle Peninsula. I had been going there on and off since Dave Park, Peter Grundle and I visited the place on the advice of Des Brennan in 1967. Mick and I had been working on a boat I had bought quite cheaply and we took it with us so that we could fish in Brandon Bay. It was a very successful trip with both of us recording some Irish Specimen Fish with one of those I caught being the second biggest painted ray ever caught in Ireland.

Shortly after returning from Ireland we received the news that we had been accepted as immigrants to Australia and so for the last couple of months of 1976 I did very little fishing and the times I used the hut was when I had friends there for farewell parties. It was a good central meeting place and the odd drunk was never going to be a problem to any one. Actually, there were a couple of them on occasions because a friend of Chris Tarrant’s made his own wine and potent stuff it was too! He used to bring it in demi-johns and skilfully pour it off the back of his arm into your glass. It was so tasty it was difficult to believe that it was as potent as it was, and the first time Mick Lane had some of it, he didn’t believe it. Half way through the evening he slumped unconscious across the table and about every fifteen minutes Chris would lift his head from the table and say, "Are you enjoying your self Mick" and then lower his head back to the table saying, "OK then, as long as you are having a good time". The next morning I crept off to try and catch a chub, and was suddenly surprised to wake up on my back with six friesians peering curiously at me. As I moved my head they all jumped backwards and then ran away. I decided to go back to the hut and as I was doing so I passed Chris who told me that another of the party was fast asleep, face down in some nettles. I think that Mick was still asleep in the hut.

During the time my freshwater years spanned, there were a lot of important changes in the angling world.
Anglers gave the Angler’s Co-operative Association the funds and strength to prosecute polluters, and people began to learn that it was cheaper to process waste rather than pay the price of polluting waters and killing fish. All wild life benefited from that and waterside life that was becoming rare began to flourish again. An increasing number of anglers began to think more deeply about their fishing and specimen fish that had once been rarities became commonplace. Some of the specimen groups became respected groups of thinking, and very successful anglers – others of course were a source of merriment to a lot of us. Generally, their first elected official was a "Press Officer", though what on earth they needed one for was never quite clear. There were those anglers who tried to make their fishing a science instead of using scientific knowledge to improve their fishing, but I guess we all enjoyed what we were doing. For me, the pleasure in fishing in the way I chose was to get things to work out as I wanted them. Of course I wanted any fish I caught to be big ones, but even if they weren’t, if I had seen it – or a shoal of fish – the greatest pleasure I got was from planning and bringing about their downfall. The same can be said about my fishing today even though coral takes the place of bulrushes, and tidal currents and rips provide the flow in a much bigger body of water than the rivers and lakes I used to fish. Instead of climbing trees, or creeping stealthily along banks to watch the fish I want to catch, I now put on snorkelling or scuba gear and get into the water to view their habits while in their element. As in freshwater it has all paid off and a lot of the fish I catch are above average size, I have held two state and one national records, though I think that one of the state ones has since been broken. I have had big skate, rays and sharks – one of which weighed 1200lbs – but I still have one real ambition left, and that is to catch a fish of over 100lbs from the shore. I have hooked plenty of them, but fish that size have a habit of panicking when they are hooked in shallow water and such a fish on a 12ft beachcaster is unmanageable. Hopefully, one day, I will work out how to do it.

chevin – 2001