Thursday, 6 June 2019

It's a wonderful (fishing) life

Maya Angelou, the American poet, once said "we need much less than we think we need." She was right. It doesn't take much to make me happy. Give me an afternoon on a pond with fish in it, the pleasure of using traditional and vintage tackle to angle for said fish, and some friends with whom to share the enjoyment and I'm content, and wanting for nothing. 

It was midday when I snapped the lid of my laptop shut and bade farewell to my colleagues in the Mission and Ministry Department of the Diocese of Leicester, walked out of the office, past the Cathedral and to my parked car. Next stop: the lake.

With a mild breeze dappling the water's surface, and to the musical accompaniment of a choir of chirping, whistling and singing birds, I swung the willow basket from my shoulder and began setting up the old glass avon rod, coupled with a Mitchell 304 of even greater antiquity, and faced the first puzzle of the day- which float to use.

I elected to employ the use of a handmade 3BB waggler style float with a sensitive bristle insert and once the preliminary necessities of depth plumbing had been completed dropped the float into the margins about a rod length out, with a grain of sweetcorn on the hook. Loose feed was applied on a frequent basis, in line with the old angling maxim of "little and often."

The lake was a "who's who" of my angling accomplices and friends. A number of us had co-ordinated escaping from our respective workplaces, and Roger, Pete and David were variously ensconced in pitches around the lake, with David in the swim next door, and Roger (pictured below), like me, choosing to employ a traditional approach with retro rod, vintage reel and  handmade floats.

A gentle rain began to fall, and the lake glimmered and steam rose from the water as the mid afternoon sunlight broke through the misty precipitation, and a handful of torpedo shaped carp languidly cruised the upper layers of the water column, very occasionally rolling or leaping clear of the water and slapping their tails on the surface. A scientific answer to the question of why carp choose to behave in this way doubtless exists, but I like to imagine that they do so merely from a sense of joy, if such an emotion can be properly ascribed to  fish. It was not carp, however,  but roach and rudd that were my target and soon the float was dancing and disappearing and both were being brought to hand or net with reasonable, although far from spectacular, regularity as I surveyed the scene from beneath the now erected umbrella.

All four of us were catching fish of similar size and stamp, with either sweetcorn, hookable pellets or maggot as bait. Pete, Roger and I all opted to float fish conventionally, with David preferring to use a pole. None of us fished particularly hard or with any intensity,  Pete left the lake at school picking up time and returned an hour later with his son Max, Roger was only able to escape for a couple of hours before taking his leave of the pond, and and it was one of those afternoons when simply "being there" was its own reward. David allowed himself to be  seduced for a couple of hours by the thought of a carp and switched to fishing floaters with a controller, but to no avail. I briefly changed from sweetcorn to maggot and promptly caught a gudgeon of gargantuan proportions, before returning to my favoured tinned "yellow peril." And so the afternoon continued, serene, unhurried and calm, rain and sunshine alternating, with the birds continuing to serenade us with their gentle avian symphony.

The rest of Britain might have been  getting high on rage, both manufactured and actual, at the visit of President Trump and our own protracted Brexit debacle (and, hey, "people in glass houses" and all that, I'm perfectly capable of getting angry about both), but this afternoon by the lake such things receded into the background, replaced by the healing balm of time spent in God's creation, friendships based on bonds that are deeper than political perspectives, and the absorbing pastime of deceiving not the electorate, but fish.
Sometimes beneath an umbrella is the best place to be.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

"All by myself ..."

It's a rare thing these days for me to fish without company (I'm blessed with an excellent circle of fishing friends), a rarer thing still for me to make an impromptu and unplanned sortie to the water's edge, but this afternoon I did both.

It was all courtesy of my wife's suggestion that I spend the afternoon fishing (she and our two grown up children were set on a trip to IKEA to feast their eyes on meatballs and gorge on flat-pack furniture ... or have I got that the wrong way round?). My wife's spontaneous offer was met by an equally unplanned gesture from our daughter- "hey, here's a tenner, have it as part of an early birthday present" (I turn 51 at the end of this week), and so in the time that it takes to pack a car, buy two tins of sweetcorn, and drive to the lake I found myself at one of my favourite fishing haunts.

The weather was pleasantly mild and warm without being unpleasantly hot, and as my eyes took in the prettiness of the lake and my ears were tunefully assaulted by the twittering of birds, I set about the first of the afternoon's puzzles: which float to use?

I elected for a 2BB Norfolk reed waggler, the work of floatmaker Ian Lewis, mixed some groundbait, plumbed the depth and dropped the aforementioned float, along with a size 18 hook baited with a grain of sweetcorn into the margins.

It wasn't long before the float was darting beneath the water's surface with pleasing regularity, but it took a while, and an adjustment of the single number 6 "telltale" shot, to get the timing of the strike right, and even then I probably only connected with one in every five, the culprits proving to be modestly sized, but stunningly  attractive roach, with a silvery sheen that would not have disgraced an upmarket jeweller's window display..

Despite the rapidity and regularity of bites, the afternoon passed in leisurely fashion, time seeming to collect, to the accompaniment of a symphony of birdsong, the procession of uniformly sized roach being punctuated by the occasional visit of an equally pristine but larger example of their kind.

The float dipped and submerged once more, but this time the strike met with an altogether more strident response, and for what must have been close to 10 minutes I engaged in a fraught game of tug o'war with what was clearly an indignant carp. After a couple of abortive attempts I successfully drew a long and lean ghost common over the rim of the net.

After admiring and returning the exotically hued carp, I fished on for another half an hour which produced 2 or 3 more roach, but a voice inside my head was telling me that "enough was enough", and I couldn't escape the suspicion that to linger would be to spoil the magical spell that the lake had cast over me. It had been a near perfect afternoon, and by my calculation "near perfect" is "good enough with interest."

I bade the lake farewell, and returned to a world no more real, but much fuller of responsibilities, knowing that it would not be long before the lake's siren voice drew me back, hopelessly yet happily enchanted as I am. Like someone else once confessed "I am haunted by water."

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Angling as pleasure

Although, in common with most anglers,  I prefer to catch larger fish (particularly in Winter, when it's only the dream of an outsized perch or a gargantuan pike that enables me to sit with frozen fingers while "frosty wind makes moan") I have always described myself not as a "specimen hunter" but as a "pleasure angler". In recent years as my love for collecting and using vintage tackle has come to the fore I have also applied the nomenclature "traditional angler", but I am in essence, purely and simply a "pleasure angler", and the moment I stop taking pleasure in angling will be the day when I hang up my rod and consign my creel to a dusty corner of the garage. Today, along with friends from the Christian Anglers club, the only plan for the day was to immerse ourselves in the pleasures of angling. We knew that the fish would be beautiful, but not outsized, and that catching up with friends and taking time away from the rods to chat would be as much a part of the day as the catching of fish, and thankfully the day itself did not disappoint, although that had much less to do with the somewhat reluctant fish than the quality of the company and environs .

The venue was Ash Lake on the Homeclose Fishery complex in Rutland, a small pool containing tench, chubby little crucians, bream, roach, rudd and stunning orfe of both the golden and blue variety. I set up in a reed fringed corner swim, dotted with the first signs of emergent  lilly pads, and delicately plopped my handmade float next to the pads while trickling in a steady stream of loosefed maggots. I was giving my Allcocks Wizard its first outing of the calendar year, and had teamed it with a lovely little Mitchell 304 CAP reel, the first time I'd paired my favourite cane wand with a fixed spool reel rather than the more usual centre pin combination.

There were ten of us on the small pond, and on my second or third cast I plucked a small but perfectly formed crucian with buttery flanks and sulky mouth from the water. Despite the biting wind which was whipping accross the lake, the omens looked good.

The early promise, however, failed to find fulfilment, and around the lake the fish were feeding with no great appetite or enthusiasm. Most of the fish which graced the bank were small, with little roach, rudd and crucians being supplemented by the occasional better skimmer. Pete landed an early tench, while Roy caught the first golden orfe of the day, but around the lake, as bright sunny spells briefly punctuated the overcast conditions, our merry band of angling brothers corporately struggled to get amongst their finned protagonists with anything approaching regularity.

Around lunchtime, with my personal tally at somewhere around 6 or 7 crucians, my float submerged and the strike resulted in more spirited (albeit brief) resistance, the cause of which was a vividly coloured golden orfe, which was duly recorded photographically for posterity.

Roger, who had spent the morning in a corner swim rendered close to unfishable by the wind moved into my swim and we fished and chatted (mostly the latter) as the recalcitrant fish maintained their obdurate obstinacy.

About an hour before packing up I landed my tenth and final fish, my first tench of the year and only the second of my captures to require the use of my wooden framed, cane handled, landing net.

By the time we shook hands and bade our farewells, every angler had managed (some only by the narrowest of margins!) to avert the dreaded "blank", Pete had proved himself top rod with close to 20 fish, a catch which included a brace of tench and several net sized bream, and, despite the cold wind and challenging fishing, it was unanimously agreed that the day had been a good one.
There will in the future  doubtless be better days to be had from a fishing point of view, but few fishermen better than my peers among the Christian Anglers group with whom to share the day.
Once again, the designation "pleasure angling" had proved to be as true in nature as in name.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

A farewell to stripes

"Old men", TS Eliot contended, "should be explorers."
While not yet quite an "old man", my years on earth to date would qualify me as one who inhabits that brief and necessarily temporary space in time best described as "too young to be old and too old to be young", and I am aware that with age and passing years I have gained a greater appreciation of the fact that every trip with a fishing rod is an adventure; an escape from the responsibilities that restrict and define modern life and a journey back into something altogether simpler, a now fast disappearing world that once existed. A world that takes me back to the earliest days of my angling journey, themselves explorations and adventures in which visits to an old-style tackle shop (sometimes just to stand and stare), evenings spent pouring over the same collection of fishing magazines and books, and the drawing of maps of lakes and keeping diaries were as much a part of the adventure as the plucking of modestly sized roach, rudd, perch and the occasional plump tench from the local club lake.
Perhaps my fishing is a returning to something I thought was lost. Perhaps that's why I choose to continue my adventures with vintage rods and reels. Perhaps that's why my favourite of all British fish is the first fish I ever caught: the perch.

With Spring almost upon us, and Autumn and Winter nearly spent I had opted for one last session in search of perch and returned to the "perch pond" that has accounted for some fine specimens for me, in the knowledge that soon the adventures will change shape to become forays after tench and crucians in keeping with the changing of the seasons.
Float fishing triple red maggot on a size 18, I was soon experiencing bites, which resulted in a succession of tiny perch and the occasional 3 or 4 ounce roach being swung in to join me on the bank. This is a pond where large perch lurk but, whether using worm or maggot, the voracious hordes of small fish have to be waded through before connection is made with the prize.

After about an hour and a half of striking and making contact with either "thin air" or a mini perch or small roach, I found myself attached to something much more substantial. The vintage glass fibre avon took the strain and after a tussle of two or three minutes a wonderful fat-bellied perch was being drawn over the waiting net. A glance at the fish in the folds of the net led to me wondering if I had, at last, fulfilled my ambition to land a three pounder. The fish was shaped like a football, and I knew it would be a close thing. In the event, it couldn't have been any closer: the digital scales, once the weight of the net had been subtracted indicated a perch of 2 pounds and 15 ounces.

I slipped my prize back into the water, and spent the next quarter of an hour sitting behind my fishing partner for the day, David, and chatting. It didn't feel right to dive back into the pursuit of perch without savouring the after-glow of a new personal best.
David was legering with pellets as bait, his intentions for the day revolving around carp and barbel. (yes, I know: always controversial when stocked into stillwater, but we don't own the lake, we just fish it, and in all fairness the barbel of this pond always fight with determination and look as fit as the proverbial fiddle.)

Sport had been slow for David, with just a few small roach and an F1 to show for his efforts, but eventually his quivertip swung round and a muscular fish powered towards the middle of the lake, leading a few minutes later to him admiring and holding aloft for the cameras a handsome barbel.

By lunchtime I was ready to pack up. In married life there is "no such thing as a free fishing session", and there were two lawns to be mown. The sun was high and hot, the perch had faded away into the shadows (although I did contrive to lose another perch, that looked to be about a pound and three quarters, a loss which disappointed me less than it might have done but probably more than it should have done, in the light of my earlier success.)

In conclusion, this morning's short adventure contained all that is best in fishing; beautiful scenery, good company, memories made and a fish glorious in both appearance and stature.
There are many worse ways to spend a morning, but few better.
And so, for this "old man explorer" the quest for a "three" (and thereby the adventure), for the sake of a mere ounce,  continues ...

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Swapping stripes for teeth

It's been a long time since I fished for pike.
Too long.
I blame the perch.
My recent preoccupation with all things spined and stripy has meant that an entire Autumn and Winter has passed without me wetting a line in pursuit of pike, and with Spring, one hopes, just around the corner it was "now or never" if that state of affairs was to be altered. I rang Pete and we hastily convened a Saturday morning appointment with the Grand Union Canal with old esox as the intended quarry.

The early morning air was chill, although the forecast promised a morning that would get milder as it progressed, which thankfully turned out to be the case. We tackled up alongside each other in an area of the canal that has proved productive for us in the past, and set about the task of catching livebaits (itself a diverting and pleasant pastime) with which to tempt any marauding green and copper hued water wolves who might be lurking in the vicinity with hungry stomachs and malevolent intent.

Catching the livebait presented a greater challenge than is often the case, but without too much effort expended we had enough small roach, perch and bleak to begin the more earnest task of snaring a passing predator. Our pike floats bobbed pleasingly on the water's surface as the, doubtless, less than pleased baits performed their underwater task. I was giving a debut to a vintage glass fibre carp rod made 30 or 40 years ago by the no longer with us but (by me, at least) much lamented ET Barlow & Son, rodbuilders of Thames Ditton, whose signature Vortex range was adorned with a cartoon perch logo. The aforementioned fish-bothering stick was paired with an ancient but reliable Mitchell 300 which proudly wears the noble scars and paint chips earned through years of hard use.

Pete's livebait had barely entered the water before it was snaffled by a lively jack which was soon suffering the indignity of being held aloft to enable it to snarl for the camera before being returned to its everyday business of harassing fish smaller than itself.

Thereafter things took a more familiar turn, with watching and waiting the order of the day. The lack of activity was not to the detriment of enjoyment, and conversation and coffee flowed as the sun broke through the clouds, and the grey winter's sky took on an altogether more Spring-like aspect. Pete had appointed himself "cigar monitor" for the day, and two plumes of aromatic smoke were soon drifting towards the heavens as we willed our floats into disappearance.

In the event my float, livebait and a passing pike contrived to fulfil one of the classic cliches beloved of anglers: the last gasp, last cast "blank saver". With the morning almost up, and lists of chores awaiting each of us in our respective domestic lives the float bobbed, ducked, disappeared and pulled away with determination. I closed the bail arm of the Mitchell, wound down and struck and brought to the net a pike of extremely modest proportions. No matter that it was one of the smallest jacks I've had the fortune to make the acquaintance of, I was delighted not only to have plucked victory from the jaws of angling defeat, but also to have "christened" the rod with such a plucky pup of a pike.

I returned the pike carefully to the water, and we watched it lie up sulkily for a full minute or two, exuding surly indignation at  the insult to its pride caused by being briefly plucked from its aqueous home, the fish bringing to mind DH Lawrence's pike: 
"A slim pike with smart fins and grey striped suit,
 A young cub of a pike,
 Slouching along away below, half out of sight,
 Like a lout on an obscure pavement."

... and then, with a flick of her tail she was gone, frozen in time in my memory as a disgruntled embodiment of defiance and fragility, aggression and vulnerability.
Pike desire sated, I reckon I've got one more perch session in me before the cycle of the seasons turns my thoughts to olive flanked tench and chubby crucians.
Obsession ..... what obsession?

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Perch: the unabating obsession

I huddled deeper into my winter clothing, collar raised against the chill air and returned my hopeful gaze to my float. Some words from Shelley floated into my consciousness: "O wind, if winter comes can spring be far behind?" and I mused on how easy it is to be philosophical about the weather when sat by a fire struggling only with the strophes, antistrophes and epodes of lyric form. Sat by a lake with no warming fire, philosophical postulation gives way to existential discomfort.

Pete, my fishing companion and I, had returned for the morning to the pond from which just a few week's earlier I had plucked a perch of 2 lb 10 oz. Confidence was high, not only as a result of our firsthand knowledge of the deep bellied, broad backed giants that lurk in this lake, but also due to our recent favourable run of form with perch. Pete was fresh from the capture a fortnight previously of the fine perch pictured above, pulled from the depths of our local canal, and despite the biting temperature we harboured a hunch that this would be no ill wind devoid of cheer.

The perfunctory tasks of tackling up and depth plumbing completed, we commenced in earnest, float fishing with worms while regularly feeding small handfuls of red maggots, and we settled down for a long winter's wait. Bites, when they came were occasional and lightening fast, with lengthy intervals between them. With a similar lack of frequency, a weak wintery sun occasionally made a half-hearted attempt to brighten the insipid pale grey of the sky, but any such attempts were short-lived, futile and ill fated.

Eventually Pete connected with a roach of about 4 ounces, swiftly followed by a micro perch, before the bites again dried up. A spirit of inert lethargy seemed to have the fish in its thrall, reinforcing what every angler knows to be true: it is a far simpler task to catch fish in July than it is in January. After three hours of concentrated effort, I had only one small roach to my name when my float shot under, and to my surprise the strike was met by something solid; the fish barely fought, and offered only token resistance on its passage to the waiting net. At about a pound and a half , although not "monstrous" in size, this was a fish worth capturing and admiring, and worthy of the effort that had been expended for its capture.

An hour later, and it was time for me to depart. It had been a pleasure to give the vintage glass Avon and Allcocks centrepin their first adventure of the New Year and to share the morning with Pete. The weather had determined that the fishing would be a battle not only of wits, but also of attrition between angler and perch, but the last gasp fish ensured that I left not only with fingers numb with cold, but also with the satisfaction of a "job well done."  An hour later, while thawing out at home my phone pinged- Pete, who had remained at the lake following my departure, had caught a perch that looked to be every ounce of 2 pounds, probably with a bit to spare.

For both of us it had been a gruelling contest between man and fish, and Pete's perch was a deserved reward for fine angling and dogged persistence. Sometimes, in fishing as in life, the margin between success and failure is a fine one; this is the first time in four years that my January opener has not seen me blank .... perhaps 2019 will be my year.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

"... & a river runs through it."

"A river is water in its loveliest form" wrote the Canadian angler and naturalist Roderick Haig-Brown in his charmingly titled "A River Never Sleeps." He wasn't wrong either. Rivers, whether small  meandering streams narrow enough to be traversed with a single leap or mighty bodies of water inexorably pulsing towards the sea, have a beauty that no seascape, nor landscape devoid of water can come close to equalling, let alone surpassing.

This year I have reacquainted myself with water of the flowing variety, which as I consider myself to be predominantly a stillwater angler, has been a source (no pun intended) of great satisfaction. I have caught chub, dace and pike from the Trent, blanked while pursuing old esox on the Fens and landed barbel from the Severn, as well as swinging a succession of bleak, gudgeon and small perch to hand.

My teenage angling self was often to be found on the banks of the Loddon or Thames of my native Berkshire, and I several times fished a delightful little stream called the Embrook from which I plucked minnows, gudgeon and dace a plenty and the occasional chub of about half a pound. (I once caught 6 of these in a single morning, which constituted a "red letter day" from this diminutive stream of childhood memory.) It was at this young age that I first discovered, and then grew to love, the distinctive smell of a river- a composite of aromas: wet grass, wild garlic and a strange yet pleasant olfactory  oxymoron: the  simultaneous juxtaposition of freshness and mustiness. 

I like rivers for their appearance, their sounds and, as I've already confessed, their smell, but beneath their physical beauty flows a metaphysical current. Rivers run, and in that flow many have discovered a metaphor for life, a movement from source to conclusion with twists and turns, back eddies and carrier streams along the way - cradle to grave, times of being gently borne along, moments of fear as the floodwaters rise. There is a wisdom to be found in rivers, as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow acknowledged: "Thou hast taught me Silent River, Many a lesson deep and long, Thou hast been a generous giver."

The rivers of my youth, the rivers I remember fishing and those I've forgotten, the sensation of standing in the current while trotting and feeling the gentle but persistent pull of the current, all these have become a part of me, and I and my piscatorial exploits a fleeting episode in their much grander story.
A story that will outlast mine, "and out again I curve and flow, To join the brimming river, For men may come and men may go, But I go on forever" wrote Tennyson, momentarily personified as a small stream in his poem "The Brook", or, as Paul Robeson would have it: "That ol' man river, he just keeps rolling ..."

But until I stop rolling, the river and its inhabitants will keep calling, and whenever time permits I'll grab my rod and creel and head for the door in answer of the call.