A Story Of Thirty Years A Fisherman In The South
I was 10 years old when I had my first fishing outing. Uncle Laurie, the only member of my family that fished took me to the Greenford canal, underneath the Electricity pylons. The day finished badly, in the local hospital having a size 12 hook removed from my index finger! The small roach and gudgeon that had been caught earlier though had been enough to inspire and capture the imagination. All these years later I still can’t pass a lake or river without "having a quick look" Indeed, wherever I am in the country I just know if water is nearby.
School days – Rickmansworth, Croxley and The Grand Union Canal
Glorious days were spent during the next few school holidays, some holidays that neither my school or mother knew of ! Hemp Bridge at Ricki was a favourite, even though it meant a 12 mile bike ride from Pinner, up an almighty 1 in 8 hill.
Roach here grew nearly to 2lb, and everybody caught something – great when you are a young lad. It was here that I learnt one of the most useful lessons of my fishing life – bigger fish are cleverer than little ones. The smallest quill possible with a tiny shot and hook plus a single maggot accounted for bigger and better fish than my colleagues using THE BAIT – hemp. The only secret was concentration; sometimes the float never moved, but the water film around it did, it either bulged or broke – I swear those roach simply mouthed the bait and spat it out if something was wrong. Oh for these powers of observation and the eyesight nowadays!
Behind the canal was the River Colne, very narrow and shallow, it was here that "The Perchman" was spotted. To my young eyes he must have been at least a hundred and forty! Flat cap and dirty anorak, he couldn’t be bothered with us youngsters and never communicated with more than a grunt. Yet could he catch fish. The biggest perch I have ever seen, up to 4lb unless my imagination and memory have failed. His method was simple, another lesson to learn; 2 swanshot six inches above a minnow liphooked to a size 6 hook. This was gently swung into the weir tail and the rod tip was watched for bites, First a tap and then firm pull, success every time.
I spent the next year exploring the Colne and canal, biking between Rickmansworth and Croxley Green dropping in at every bargeside with my float fished minnow or gudgeon. Nights were spent under canal bridges with mates, fishing by our feet and catching glorious perch and even the odd chub. The 3lb 3oz perch caught at age 14 still remains my personal best.
It was during these frequent adventures that my cousin Martin discovered the Paper Mill River. This ran behind the canal at Croxley, and dependent on the type of paper being processed it would be various shades of cream, or sometimes bright pink!
When it was pink it carried globules of what can only be described as candyfloss. Environmentalists nowadays would scream, but the water was always the temperature of a sauna, and what fish it held. There were times when the perch would shoal the minnows up to the weir, and the fish would scatter, even onto the bank to escape the carnage. It was just like the famous Bernard Venables picture. The roach were of excellent size, and all strangely spotted, not unlike a grayling. The locals called them stone roach. Again, watching an old timer taught me the way to catch. It certainly seemed strange to a 12 year old, wrapping the fine silkweed plucked from the weir sill around a size 12 and trotting it through the eddies at the tail of the pool. The roach loved it though, and held on long enough to give good bags of fish to a pound and the occasional small chub.
Of course it wasn’t called that then, but any youngster seeking to improve his angling skills would do well to watch the "old hands" invent the newly invented. On the Colne at Ricki I sat and watched an old boy with increasing fascination, he was catching chub over 3lb and excellent roach from a swim immediately underneath the weir overflow in what was a very powerful stream. My attempts to catch from this section had been useless, despite regularly spotting cruising fish in the tail of the pool. Having spotted me watching, he generously invited me down to show me his "method" Of course this was in the days when fishing wasn’t so competitive and fish didn’t have names! His end tackle consisted of a barrel lead on a running ledger stopped by a swan shot, Around this lead he moulded a cricket ball sized lump of bread, layers mash and groundbait. After making sure his line was still free running and that his piece of flake was imbedded into the outside of the mixture, he would gently swing this under the weir sill, holding his line to feel for bites. It was a method I never mastered, although I often now use a cage feeder with mashed bread and a large paste hookbait inside.
A Birthday Pike
On my 13th birthday, after much pleading, Mum granted a day off school. With rod strapped to the crossbar I pedaled to Ricki to fish the Colne (still ignoring the Private Fishing sign!.) Three times I hooked the small pike before the nylon trace withstood the razor teeth, At last I was a true fisherman, one who managed to cycle the one and a half hours home with a trophy strapped to the handlebars, the tail flapping in the wind. The family’s lack of interest rather than the later developed conservation thoughts meant I never killed a fish again.
Boys were younger then, without the quick fix video games, and our borrowed Creel magazines quickly became dog-eared as we wrestled with BV’s Salmon on the Avon, Peter Wheat’s Fighting Barbel and wondered where Fred Taylor’s secret Tench lakes were hidden. Simply reading the superbly told stories transported us from our grey council flats to a location fresh with sparkling streams and monster fish hidden in the depths.
Roy Rogers and The River Kennet – Benyons Estate
After being requested to leave school, and shortly afterwards taking employment with British Airways I bumped into the man I owe much to, and his name really was Roy Rogers.
Roy was the handyman and carpenter at the Ruislip offices, and just loved fishing. (he also managed to build a superb 16 foot punt in the workshop in his spare time!)
He was also tolerant of cheeky adolescents and I managed to wangle an invitation along to his Kennet days. He really was a superb angler, his setup would frighten the modern fisherman, but it still works. Roy would trot or stret peg the river with a porcupine quill float at least 9 inches long taking between 2 and 3 swanshot. He always fished so that his shot trailed along the riverbed. It was truly effective and he cou
ld cover at least 30 yards of river if a bronze flanked chub, portly barbel or silver dace didn’t stop it first.
Superb Roach and a Record Bream
It was a call from Roy that told me to be at his house in the morning for some special sport, and indeed it was. Autumn and the roach were shoaled up and feeding like crazy. Casting above the weir, the roach were flashing in a frenzy as the hemp and tares were fed into the river. The average size was above a pound with my personal best of 1.15 being achieved 3 times. Over the 3 sessions we had with these roach each time we caught more than 50 lb of fish each. I have still yet to catch a two pounder (I will!) though I have had over 20 between 1 and half and 1.15.
Strange as it seems during these session I caught 4 bream, two of them new records although I didn’t know it at the time. They were caught on small redworms at the sill of the weir and weighed over 2lb. They were genuine silver bream, the only place I have seen them and I have never fished for them since.
A First Barbel
My first barbel was a fluke, but one I keep repeating 30 years on. A barbel off the bottom. Standing well back from the bank and using a small quill I had caught half a dozen prime Kennet roach on hemp. The swim was only a foot from the bank and around 4 feet deep. Having lost contact with the roach that had moved up in the water I changed my depth to 2 foot and the next run through was met with a steady surge upstream that signaled chub. This one didn’t stop though and it was 10 minutes before my first barbel was in the net. No monster at 3lb but a challenge on 2lb line in a streamy swim. Roy was elated for me, and even when I saw his best fish, a seven pounder taken on a lump of bread paste the size of a cricketball it couldn’t reduce my glee.
Until I was 21 the Kennet held me spellbound. All the time my skills increased, watching good and bad anglers and learning how to get the best from the day and the conditions. Sometimes the fish would be impossible to find, on others they would be positively suicidal. Two days in particular spring to mind.
Aggression in the Shallows
The second day of the season, and below the weir, shadows gliding on the gravel, cleaning themselves after spawning. I fully understand how some of the biggest barbel recorded have been taken on spinners, they are far more aggressive than anglers realize. Flicking out the minnow and allowing it to roll amongst the shoaling fish met with an immediate response, the barbel turning and striking at the small fish in the same way as a pike would, a flash of gold followed by a downward pull on the rodtip, the fish hooking themselves. Nine barbel and four chub later I tired of the sport, it was simply too easy. I have often wondered whether the fish were still protecting their eggs from small fish or simply desperately hungry after spawning.
A week later the barbel had dropped to the lower shallows, and with hemp as feed and tare as bait I managed to have the wonderful experience of the fish gliding alongside my feet as I drew them upstream.
A move to Heathrow meant a need to explore the local waters nearby. Witney Lake was one of the small waters alongside Syon Park and just a couple of miles by newly acquired Mini motor along the Bath road. The Lakes held carp of all shapes and sizes, but they were extremely hard to tempt. You would often see them rooting in the shallows, open mouths gulping at the soft bottom no further than 2 feet away, massive broad flanked fish that sometimes would inch towards the bait, clearly take up to five minutes to inspect it, only to bolt away.
The largest fish I ever saw there made the biggest bow wave when disturbed by a bloody dragonfly! Another lesson – practice to be quiet.
I finally cracked it after a frustrating 12 months. Cat food – sardine flavour mixed with flour into a soggy mess with a size 6 hook embedded in the middle. Too soft to be cast I used to lob it out from floured hands with an open bale arm to release the line. The line was then allowed to settle on the bottom with a loop held between fingers as I lay on the bank. I caught carp up to 14lb from a lake smaller than an acre including a crucian over 3.8 that was very close to the then record. However exciting and challenging this was, moving waters were flowing fully in my blood and I felt again the pull of the river.
The River Loddon
Moving a few years and another house on found me living in Woodley, near Reading. Fishing had to a degree been forsaken for traveling every week to another country in my job as a catering manager for BA and the trials of bringing up a family.
On one of the weekend walks, after a long drink at the Lands End pub, our kids joined the ones splashing and swimming in the River Loddon. Great fun, but I had spotted pairs of great white lips sucking the surface downstream where the floating debris from the playing children was collecting.
The following week and a change in the weather meant that the river was free from swimmers. Five fish in five casts, all 8oz Rainbow trout! Not what I had intended.
Moving upstream alongside a willow that dragged its fronds in the water, I fed in a pint of hemp and fished maggots on a feeder setup. Constant twitching on the line, felt between the fingers, kept me interested until I managed to connect, a long fight revealed a 4lb plus barbel hooked in the dorsal fin before the small 16 hook pulled free. That afternoon I foulhooked 2 further fish around the same size before returning home perplexed. Fish were present, feeding well yet why couldn’t I hook one fairly?
The next free day I returned to the same swim, a size 12 hook with two tares nipped so the point was exposed and fished with a straight bomb did the trick. Bites were full blooded, pulling the rod tip well over, and taught me the lesson that a thinking angler will always catch more than a fixed method one. To this day I have probably caught more barbel in summer on tares fished over hemp than any other bait, even if it seems strange to ledger or stret peg them. I encourage you to try them, especially if fish appear to be feeding but you are not getting bites.
The Loddon continue to feature in my outings with regular sport and a personal best barbel of 7.7 to rolling meat ( this was 1975 ! ) I was conscious that a lot of my fishing was "dodgy" and pretty close to private club waters, even though I rarely saw another angler. The local club, South Lake AS ha
d some still waters for an annual fee of £10.00 so I set off to discover their possibilities. South Lake itself was reputed to hold a 30lb plus one eyed carp named, of course – Nelson, but I didn’t fancy angling for a carp with a name, and still don’t. It did however hold monster tench up to 8lb plus a good head of roach and pike and I managed a 6.6lb tench on my first outing. All my best tench have been caught on breadflake after baiting with a small amount of mashed bread, this hasn’t changed in all the years that the doctor fish has given me sport.
Another of the lakes, Tippings, was to give me my largest fish bag on the first day of a season, 144lb of tench and roach before midday, covered in slime a tired but contented angler made for home. The other lake Redlands was deep and muddy and was probably the least fished of the waters on offer. Here I entered my first match and practically my last, the frustration of standing by the water whilst the best fishing hour of the day disappeared and being told where to fish did not appeal to my natural hunting instincts. I won the match, I wasn’t lucky, but remembering my roaching days watched the water around the float as it fractionally dipped and caught 16 skimmers for £35.00. This is the only time I have had an audience, the greatest fun being those that couldn’t work out why I was striking. The day did offer another first though. As we were allowed 2 rods for the match I chose to use a sprat with a treble in the lip on the other. Cast out, the float simple carried on downwards and after a series of very heavy runs I managed to net a club record and pb Pike of 22.4lb. Some of the regular match anglers wanted me banned for fishing for Pike during a match!!
I don’t fish many matches now……
The Thames at Marlow
Moving to Maidenhead in 1984 opened up still more waters, Jane and the children getting wise as to why our Sunday strolls always seemed to take us along a river bank. Sitting on the grass at Marlow gave me the chance to observe an angler fishing from the rear of a boat with a centrepin, a heavy sea rod and at least 10lb line catching great dustbin sized bream with large pieces of bread. It was not until I appreciated the amount of bread fed to the great flocks of ducks and swans that I realized here was a bait that could possibly fool these sometime fickle fish.
My first attempt was a total washout, bite after bite without once connecting to a fish.
I considered the amateurs successful approach to my professional failure, changed my sensitive ledger road to a heavy tench rod and caught immediately. Big slabs averaging over 4lb, interspersed with dace and the occasional good roach. Quite simply the stretch of the line along with the flexible rod probably hardly moved the hook on the strike in the fast middle water of the Thames. Even today I use a 4oz carbon tip and heavy feeder on the Thames.
As most of the section here was run by the Marlow club the free swims just alongside the bridge started to disappear as the waterside flat owners developed their mooring areas with grass, fences and no fishing signs. There are still a couple of swims and I could tell you that after a session and just before you packup, try wobbling a large dead fish through your swim. Of the three 20 plus pound Thames pike taken by me over the years, two obliged this way.
St. Patricks Stream
I had heard of St. Pats from friends, and my first glance at the water was love at first sight. Like the Kennet, but much more intimate with willows dipping and waving in the stream, deep pools and reed lined shallows. The "Pats" is a two mile cut from the Thames at Sonning, linking with the Loddon before flowing powerfully back into Father Thames. As I strolled along the bank for the first time I noticed a fish roll on the inside of a bend. Creeping on my stomach and peering into the clean water I spotted a dozen barbel not more than 2 feet from me. Amazingly they attacked the elderberries flicked in above them with abandonment. I joined the Club!
In the same spot my first St. Pats session yielded 9 barbel, no monsters, but up to 5lb on over depth float fished tares, and how they fought, all in pristine condition without a single mark to indicate they had ever seen a hook. Even more amazingly, this was in August, and not another angler was fishing the stretch either upstream or down, I was in fishermans heaven.
My exploits on the Pats continued, trotting single maggot underneath the willows on the "point" where the Loddon joins my first fish was a chub of 4.6. a pb and good enough to win the annual trophy offered. This was followed by three more chub between 3-4lb and a new pb barbel of 7.7 that stripped line in one sustained run and then came doggedly to the net. This fish was one eyed, very dark and apparently old, the only barbel I have caught on the Pats that wasn’t in peak condition.
A favourite winter method, cage feeder held bread mash, using large pieces of breadflake on a size 8 hook was to increase my local best chub through 4.8 up to 5.1 and although I have had fish to 5 .15 on the Avon, these are far more satisfying.
The secret of fishing with bread is not to spend too much time in one place. My gear consists of a couple of loaves (one stale to make into mash) a heavy feeder rod, reel and a cage feeder and swivel, hooks and a few backup bits in case of losses. I roam from likely swim to swim, working downstream and spending no longer than 15 minutes in each. It is suprising how frequently the same swims come up trumps. Generally if you catch from a swim expect one or maybe two more before they die. If you have time, and you fancy another walk, start at the beginning and work through them again. Suprisingly, changing over to a heavy float rod with a 5/6 bb float and trotting through can get you the better, more wary fish this time. The secret is, keep moving.
The Pats continued to produce to many methods, but I felt that a change to the River Loddon for the last part of each season would lead to bigger fish, especially as the water is often more coloured this time of year and, in my experience, St. Pats fishes better during light colour and the Loddon turns on when brown soup.
It was on one of these end season expeditions that rewarded me with a new largest barbel and minnow at that time, but the day wasn’t without its hiccups.
The Loddon at Twyford and a Winter Double
It was the last day of the season in 1993, and knowing that the barbel tended to converge in the deeper water prior to moving onto the upstream shallows to spawn,
I arranged a tempting salmon bait of three lobworms on a size 6 hook, midstream in the coloured yet slow moving water. After 3 hours without a touch I considered moving, yet a small tremble on the line caused a
premature strike, winding in the weed that enveloped the hook and removing it I found an absolute monster of a minnow! Seriously, it must have been 2oz as it was a good four inches long. I contemplated freezing it and sending it of for verification and maybe a record claim, but honestly can you imagine the backchat from the "lads."? For those interested, tackle was a size 6 hook to 6lb Maxima with a Shimano Twin Power rod and bait used was a triple lobworm!
Paul, a regular fishing chum came down to join me late in the day to see if I was ready to pack up, just in time to see the rod hoop over and a powerful fish take line as it strained to reach the sunken tree upstream. A dogged fight now, under the rodtip once then back to hold in the midstream current. Steadily I edged it towards the bank, Paul missing it at the first chance, and deciding that If this fish was to be lost, I would do it myself, I took the landing net and promptly slid down the bank into two feet of water and 3 feet of mud! The fish was in the net though, and amazingly, after a 10 minute battle, another larger one that had accompanied it to the net veered of at the same time! The fish weighed 9.9 and I might have been wet and cold as I squelched back to the car, but was I happy. The following year, on yet again the last day of the season I caught my first double, a magnificent, shorter, fatter fish of 10.2. with exactly the same method.
Severals Fishery – The Avon
The Avon nearly always beats me, but I am determined if not master it, to at least give a good account of myself. It is a frustrating river, as so many times the fish, that have been absent all day suddenly turn on and go crazy half an hour before us ticket guests have to leave. My best day gave 12 chub between 3 and 5.9lb in the last hour of fishing to trotted flake. The seven hours before this were totally biteless! Likewise another day gave five barbel and 4 chub in the last hour and a half. Yet sometimes it treats me badly, like the time Paul sat down, cast out a feeder and caught two "peas in a pod" chub of 5.13, then a pb level for us both in 10 minutes. When I retire I will spend time trying to unwrap the prize of success, for this river still holds some monster fish. My one day spent with the Barbel Society during the late winter fish- in on the Royalty has given me my biggest chub to date. Pity the surroundings of this famous fishery doesn’t match the quality of the fish.
Back to the Pats
The last few years have seen the barbel at St. Patrick’s Stream, grow to an amazing size, maybe they will never match the Great Ouse fish for weight, but from my experience it is rare to catch a fish there that appears to have ever seen a hook before. Watching, listening and experimenting has brought me fish up to 13.1, a river record until earlier this year, and on that same day I managed a 11.6 and five other fish all in 4 hours. Last year I managed five other doubles as well as a carp of 16.6. but the beauty of it is that it is a river, and a river constantly changes, and the challenges remain.
Despite giving a few figures to illustrate success, as time moves on I become more satisfied with simply being there, indeed now the flush of youth has passed (and then some !!). It allows more time to reflect on the beauty of the surroundings. Sitting on the banks of the river, I am constantly amazed at the ways nature has to heal itself after the winter frosts, the flooded banks and the dry parched spells of summer. I sometimes dream that in hundreds of years a young angler can come to this place, with tackle no more modern than mine and still find the same pleasure and enjoyment from simply being there and catching fish.
Graham Elliott – 2000