An Early Start

I was woken at four in the morning by my father, it was sometime in July 1958 and I was going carp fishing for the first time. Today was the culmination of several weeks of preparation, my cousin had modified our rods by building solid glass tip sections and replacing the snake rings on the butt section with large stand off rings. The short cork handles were extended by 6" to facilitate a longer cast and finally the cheap brass ferrules were replaced by reinforced ones to withstand the shock of striking into a fast moving carp.

So there we were with matching rods, four foot six inches bamboo butt sections and four-foot solid glass tips, stand off rings throughout with butt and tip ring lined with Agate and very bulky gunmetal coloured ferrules. Nothing had been seen like them before and quite probably never has been since.

In order to reach the carp with freelined baits my father had bought a pair of intrepid deluxe reels and loaded each with fifty yards of nine pound breaking strain line. We had one each, mine immediately became my most treasured possession and stayed that way until he built me a bite indicator a few days later. He had bought himself a Heron alarm and had quite simply copied it. Large hooks had been bought and sharpened, there was no such thing as chemically etched hooks in those days, in fact you could only rarely buy sharp hooks! The hooks were tied direct to the reel line. It would now be a simple matter of putting the reel on the rod and threading the hook through the rod rings when we arrived at the lake.

Anyway back to four in the morning. Our tackle and food were loaded into the Ford Anglia that my father had hired for his holiday and we set off to pick up my uncle and cousin who had made similar preparations a few weeks earlier. My uncle had a pair of three-piece homemade bamboo carp rods, my cousin had one three piece split cane carp rod and a two piece solid glass spinning rod. He also had a Mitchell reel to go with his split cane rod. The venue was to be Summerhill Lake near Tonbridge, chosen because on opening day of that season my uncle had caught two mirror carp, one of five pounds and the other a monster of six and a half pounds. The photo of the five-pound fish was enough to inspire me but the six and a half-pound fish took my breath away when I saw it swirling around in the bath. Whether that fish was ever taken from the bath and released or just left to expire I never did know. I suspect my uncle released it into the local ponds at Keston, but he would never say. I don’t think he wanted anyone else to catch it. It must have been a hardy fish, it survived the twenty-mile bus trip from Tonbridge to Bromley wrapped in a wet towel inside a haversack.

We arrived at the lake at about five a.m. and swims were chosen. My uncle in the swim where he had previously caught and the rest of us as close to him as we could get. The tackle was assembled and hooks baited, this was when I began to feel nervous about what we were doing. The crust was removed from a slice of bread and a whole slice was squeezed onto the hook to make an enormous ball of flake, surely any fish that could eat that would pull me in! The baits were cast out and a bit of mashed bread thrown in for ground bait.

Nothing happened for the first hour, I was beginning to think I didn’t like carp fishing much when my uncle had a run. His Heron started to buzz and a bow wave appeared going quite quickly out of his swim. He picked up his rod, closed the bail arm and waited for the line to tighten. Just as it had said in Dick Walkers book "Still Water Angling". He then struck hard, in fact he struck harder than I have ever seen anyone strike, before or since. A carp of about two pounds left the water and sailed up until it was about six feet above the surface of the water where it seemed to hover in the air momentarily, the line snapped with a crack like a starting pistol being fired. Exciting stuff this carp fishing, but this never happened to Mr. Crabtree!

Before we could recover from the shock of learning that carp could be made to fly my father had a run and like my uncle, his technique was just as the book had said. His strike however was more moderate and his newly re-built rod was soon into its fighting curve, that is three different curves with flat spots in-between. The next fifteen minutes were spent by the fish going anywhere it wanted and my father pulling it back when it got there. Every time it approached the net it would lift its dorsal fin out of the water and turn away. I watched spellbound, thinking it was a good job we had decent rods to play them properly.

Eventually it was netted, unhooked and laid on the grass, I sat and stared at it. All the fish I had previously caught paled into insignificance and although it was nearly forty years ago I can still remember every scale on that fish. By today’s standards this fish, a mirror of five and a half pounds, would not warrant a second look, but at the time it was huge. All I now wanted to do was catch a carp myself, nothing else mattered. The fish was weighed and put into our keep net, it showed us why you shouldn’t put them in nets an hour later by smashing it to pieces and escaping. Despite all my fathers preparations I don’t think he believed we would really catch one. We were by the standards of the time, very well equipped but no thoughts had been given to landing or retaining of fish. This was rectified a few days later when a larger landing net was bought and five potato sacks appeared in the garden shed – he had become quite hopeful!

Our next trip was planned for the last day of my father’s holiday. The same early start was made and the same tactics employed, only now I was in my uncle’s swim and my father was in the same swim as last time. You see we accidentally forgot to tell my uncle we were going, its amazing what the thought of catching a carp can do to some people, isn’t it? The day was very slow but at lunchtime I had a run and hooked a carp which tore yards of line off the reel that had had its clutch previously set at the test curve of the rod, just as the book had said! Despite continually winding the reel handle with the clutch slipping and doing everything else wrong the carp was eventually landed. A mirror of four and a half pounds and that was that. Holiday over and no chance to visit Summer Hill again for at least a year.

Having now caught a carp I wanted to catch more but the local waters just didn’t have any carp in them and with no family car they were all I had to fish, also at eight years old I could only fish with my father who was too busy to fish other than a few hours at weekends.

The rest of that season was spent fishing Sunday afternoons at the Rookery for anything that would eat the bread or worms, we float fished by any set of pads that looked as if a few fish lived under them. As the weather began to cool we started to fish for pike with the tackle that was used at the time; Jardine snap tackles, big bulbous floats, big wooden centre pins, line that looked like string and heavy wooden rods that wouldn’t break when you hooked a monster that when landed would bite your hand off if you
weren’t careful how you unhooked it. I can’t remember ever catching one bigger than about two pounds, but I enjoyed it. It was a pleasant way to pass the time until we could get back to Summerhill. When the weather got cold, like everyone else we just stopped fishing and so the season finished. Although I now had five years experience of fishing my only vivid memories were the two days spent at Summerhill, I couldn’t wait to get back but things were to change and it would be six years before I was to return.

June sixteenth 1959 and I had to go to school, my father had taken a day off work and so had my uncle. I remember feeling how unfair life as a child was, my father’s business had taken second place to fishing for one day at least and I had to go to school. You don’t have to go to school at Christmas and that was of no importance compared to the first day of the fishing season. I sat at school for the whole day not hearing anything the teacher said, my mind was elsewhere and I would be there as soon as four o’clock came round. Eventually it arrived and I ran home, got my bike and was off to the Rookery. When I arrived, full of enthusiasm as all kids and anglers are, I was informed that my father had caught a carp. It turned out to be a crucian but at three pounds was almost as big as anything we had previously caught. It certainly made us see the Rookery through different eyes but later that evening something very significant happened, a carp jumped! No doubt about it definitely a carp and bigger than anything we had seen at Summerhill.

The next evening was spent sorting out the carp tackle, everything was as it had been left, the reels were oiled, the line checked for strength and the hooks brushed up with a sharpening stone. The rods were then checked for any cracks in the varnish, not that it could have been a problem with the tip sections. I secretly knew that these rods were far superior to the mark fours that everyone was talking about. It would be another few years before it slowly dawned that these rods were quite useless but even if I had known nothing could have been done about it.

The next trip was a Saturday afternoon, we were going to stay all night. My father and I had a blanket between us and we would sit on the ground, if it rained we were going to reel in and go and sit in the old summer house or the Cloisters, I hoped it would be the summer house as everyone knew the Cloisters were haunted. I really hoped it wouldn’t rain, this was our first attempt at night fishing and it was deduced that as no carp had been caught from the Rookery in the day then they must feed at night. We set up in four swims in a line, all around the area we had seen the carp jump. No carp were caught that night but we did catch bream, tench and large roach all on large balls of flake or lobworms. We continued to catch these well into Sunday morning, if nothing else our carp tactics were a better method of fishing the Rookery for the other species. During the night my father had hooked a very large fish that had run straight out into a bed of pads and snapped his line. When he reeled in the end of his line was coated in slime and so it was decided he had only lost a large eel. I now believe that it was a carp that had grown its extra layer of slime to protect it during spawning that was responsible and not an eel at all, so this was probably our first contact with a Rookery carp.

A fortnight later we were back, same swims, same tactics but my father and I had a new method to try. It was quite simple really, the hook was baited with a lobworm and a slice of bread that had been dipped in the lake was moulded around the worm. This way a freelined lobworm could be cast much further. When the bait hit the water the impact would cause the bread to fall off and allow the worm to drop slowly to the bottom. Our baits were cast out and we went to talk to my uncle, when we returned to my father’s swim his reel was nearly empty and his line could be seen entering the same pads as the previous fish had gone into. As he tightened up his line sprang free from the pads and was seen to be entering the pads by the far bank, it then sprang from these and my father was attached to a Rookery carp. Unfortunately it was in the rushes in front of the boathouse and after a couple of swirls the line dropped away slack. The reason the buzzer hadn’t sounded was that it had been set too coarsely and as nothing was put on the line to indicate a run (as it was believed it would stop a carp from running with the bait) the resistance of the line leaving the spool was not sufficient to set it off. Balls up number two! A few bream and tench were caught through the night but no carp, in fact there were no signs of any carp activity for the next three sessions. As the nights started to get longer and colder it was arranged that we would fish a full weekend as our last carp session of the season.

We duly arrived on the Saturday morning, it wasn’t very long before I hooked a roach and while reeling it in it was taken by something else. The fish was landed, a three and a half-pound perch. I was certainly catching fish beyond my wildest dreams, no carp but big bream and tench and now a big perch. My friends at school were struggling to catch small roach and perch from Keston and on a Monday morning at school I would rub in every minute of our Saturday night trips.

This last session was very slow, my perch being the only fish caught, but on the Sunday morning my father hooked another carp and like the fish from Summerhill it went anywhere it wanted. We had by now learnt to tighten up the clutch after a fish was hooked, leaving it fairly loose to strike the run and then playing them direct from the reel handle. Nevertheless the rod made no impression on this fish and it was a full half-hour before it came to the net where it was seen to be a mirror of about fifteen pounds. As it was about to go into the net it surged to the side and dived, the rod hooped over and then sprang back as the line parted. If only he hadn’t done the clutch up so tight. Oh well, balls up number three!

We again had a couple of pike sessions but as it got colder the season fizzled out, the tackle was put away for another winter and fishing was to a degree forgotten about. We had caught no carp in the 1959 season but hoped the next season might be different. The loss of the last fish was truly a disaster for my father who would almost certainly have made the front pages of the angling press had he managed to land it.

As the 1960 season approached my father went to renew his Rookery membership and was told that children could no longer accompany their fathers when fishing and would have to get their own permits. Unfortunately there were no vacancies and that for the time being was the end of my fishing at the Rookery. We wrote away for day tickets at Summerhill but the letter sent back didn’t contain any tickets just a small note explaining that due to the popularity of the water tickets were to be restricted to local residents only. My uncle, whose parents lived in Tonbridge, could still fish there and he looked a little bit too happy at the bad news. I repaid his grin by accidentally dropping a Jumping Jack in his boot at our next bonfire night party. So that was it, my only option was to fish Keston with my friends.

The summer was spent catching small roach and perch, until one evening I caught a tench of nearly three pounds. My friends had n
ever seen anything like it but the older anglers at the lake told me that there were lots of them in the pond, including some big ones. Later that evening after telling my father about the tench he suggested that I try ledgering with bread or worms for them. I tried it for a few evenings but only caught a few small perch, until one afternoon when I saw some larger fish swirling in front of the boat house. I set up alongside it and cast the small redworms in to the disturbed water, almost immediately the line tightened and I struck. Whatever I had hooked seemed hell bent on burying itself in the mud and just swirled under the rod until I eventually beached it and dived on it. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, a mirror carp at least as big as the one I had caught from Summerhill and I had caught it on my own. Within seconds two older anglers arrived and weighed the fish for me, four and a half pounds, the same as the one from Summerhill. These older anglers prevented me from taking the fish home and marked its length on my rod with a pencil so I would remember how long it was. After arriving home full of excitement and telling everyone about my fish, a night trip to Keston was planned for the first Friday that my father could get home from work early enough.

The day duly arrived and so we set of at about five p.m. to do a night at Keston. After setting up, not very far from the boathouse, the two anglers that had weighed my fish arrived and set up alongside. These were the first serious anglers I had ever seen, they had a tent, two split cane carp rods each, a Mitchell 300 on each and a buzzer for each. They told us they were fishing for large perch, and we believed them!

The night passed uneventfully but shortly after dawn I had a run which when struck swam from one side of the pond to the other and bedded itself in a large bed of pads where it broke my line.

"Probably one of those big perch" said my father, not being as naive as I was.

I don’t remember fishing again that season, or the next but as the 1962 season approached, the Rookery changed hands and everyone had to re-apply. The membership went from two to five pounds a year and a lot dropped out, my father and I were both accepted and I was happy. I just couldn’t wait for the season to arrive, Saturday nights spent catching bream and tench, hoping for a carp, this was better than any birthday or Christmas. In reality my father’s business had got very busy and he was spending more time abroad than he was at home, he no longer had any time for fishing and so I had to go on my own. I wasn’t allowed to do nights so I had to content myself with early morning starts. It was not very long before I realised that my early start began as soon as my parents were asleep or when my father was away as soon as my mother went to sleep, which could be as early as ten p.m.

As I was starting in the dark I had started to leave the reels on the rods with the line threaded through the rings and the hooks in the tip rings. I had commandeered my father’s rod, reel and buzzer and was now fishing with two rods. On one occasion one of the reels detached itself from the rod and fell in the road and shattered. My father was abroad and I couldn’t repair it, so there was nothing else for it, I had to raid my moneybox and buy a new one. The only reel I could afford was an intrepid monarch which was okay except the handle was on the wrong side, at least as far as I was concerned it was. You see up until then I had only fished with the reel being wound with the right hand, now I had to learn to do it the other way round. The first time I used my new reel I realised that we had always been wrong and reeling in left-handed was much more comfortable. I found it very easy to fish with the left-hand reel positioned to my right and the right hand reel positioned to my left. By sitting between the rod butts I could strike a run very quickly and not waste any time changing hands before I could play the fish, in fact I fished like this right up to the advent of bolt rigs.

My trips to the Rookery became habitual, I would spend all week at school thinking about what I was going to do the next weekend when I went fishing. The only books I ever looked at were fishing books and the Angling Times was bought and studied every week. My parents became quite upset when my end of first year report was sent from the grammar school saying that my work had deteriorated from model student to complete dummy over the course of that first year. No one could understand it and no one ever suspected fishing was the cause. I didn’t care, summer holidays were here and I could go fishing every day if I liked and so I did. I still caught bream and tench but I also caught three carp, all commons of about three pounds. These fish had been stocked when the lake changed hands and were probably very easy to catch but seemed like great achievements at the time. I also lost a couple of much bigger carp, I only ever questioned my ability, never the tackle, and certainly never the rods that were purpose built. I would have quite happily stayed at the Rookery forever, everything I ever wanted was there. On the slow days I could catch roach and perch on one rod and still leave the other out for something better, hopefully another carp. Towards the end of the summer holidays the bottom fell out of my world, we moved to Hong Kong.

About the author

Nick Buss

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