Friday, 24 August 2018

Black and Gold

There is a place which is truly wild whilst being contained within man-made walls; a place where common creatures dwell and yet are like no others of their kind; a place where one can find solitude and society simultaneously; a place which is amplified in magnificence within the imagination and yet exceeds expectations when experienced in reality. To be invited to spend time here, beside The Moat is a true privilege and certainly not something I will ever take for granted. However, the idyllic nature of the venue does not imply the fishing is easy. In fact, at times it can be infuriatingly difficult! The rewards of perseverance however, can be plentiful.
As per previous visits, in order to make the most of my allotted time here, I employed traditional float fishing tactics by day to target crucians and then fish with modern methods by night for carp. This seems to allow me to maximise the opportunities available to encounter the unique specimens that inhabit the moat.

Fishing commenced mid-afternoon on a humid and overcast Friday. I decided not to feed any freebies or groundbait at all at first - an approach I often take at the beginning of a session as I don't know what has gone in before my arrival and if there are already hungry fish present, then I want them to take my bait first before they become preoccupied with anything else. 
Sure enough, no sooner had I cast in a carefully formed bread flake, the float lifted and then glided off stage-left towards the curtain of nearby lilies. I bent into a very strong-willed male tench, quite adamant not to be netted, making several lunges into weedbeds and generally wreaking havoc! To me this tench is something of an archetype. Dark and decedent on the dorsal line blending through British racing green down to its mango undercarriage. It glistened in the light as though it had been painted with 6 coats of yacht varnish and looked on patiently through its beady red eyes. Two other slightly smaller tench followed, decimating the swim in a similar fashion and then the bites dried up.
A perfect tinca!
I fished until I could barely see my motionless float. Just before I decided to call it a day and set up camp for the night the smallest, barely distinguishable movements came from the silhouetted swan-quill. I had been introducing small amounts of groundbait - as per the rule, very little, very often, in the hope it would generate some interest in my hook bait. Before long the activity snowballed into a confident lift which I did not hesitate to hit. The connection was made, this time clearly not a tench- I caught a glimpse: it was a crucian, albeit one that thought it was a tench! Rather than spiralling aimlessly it darted purposefully towards a weedbed to my right. I managed to kite it round and carefully positioned the net in its path but it dived down deep and found more weed cover just out of  my reach. I gently raised my rod tip and the fish came to the surface, bringing with it wreaths of Canadian pondweed about a foot from my outstretch landing net. As I slowly brought it closer I could see a beautiful, deep fish, clearly of adequate proportions to fulfil all my crucian dreams! It came within an inch of the rim when suddenly the hook pinged free. I lurched forward to try and scoop the fish up but my efforts were in vain and my prize swam gleefully away. I am not sure I managed to internalise my frustration on this occasion but fishing between good friends Jake and Graeme provided empathic consolation in abundance. I placed the hook on the bottom eye of my rod, tightened up with the ratchet on and went to prepare my swim for the night.

On arrival at the moat I had started trickling bait into a margin spot beneath an overhanging tree on my right and into a channel between two beds of lilies on my left and had popped back to this spot mid afternoon to keep this going with a couple of handfuls of boilies scattered around each area. As I arrived back at the swim following my crushing crucian defeat, a huge wave emanated from the margin spot. Perhaps whatever it was had been spooked by me walking up the bank but it was a promising sign. A little more bait went out along with my rigs to each spot. I made use of small PVA bags, partly to protect the hook from the silk-weed that lay on the bottom and from the Canadian pondweed and other flora that were floating in rafts around the swims.

Jake was also carping through the night in a nearby swim and he called in to see me before settling down for the night. We discussed the moat's 'no braided hook links' rule - one which made sense when considering the potential for tethering in such a hazardous environment but one which put us both outside our comfort zones in terms of bait presentation and rig-mechanics. My left rod was fishing a hinged stiff rig which I have done well with in the past but on the right hand rod I presented a snowman on a fluro blowback D-rig. I know this works well for others but it is not usually part of my repertoire and so my confidence in it was not especially high. We wished each other luck and parted company. After a generous portion of tortellini and a phone call home, I tucked up into my bed chair and started to snooze.

I am glad I gained a head start on sleep because it didn't last long. Single blips and 'false runs' plagued me throughout the night. I blamed my rig for the lack of hook-ups. Eventually I reeled in, sharpened the hook and put on a heavier lead but the irritating bites continued, eventually culminating in one I was able to hit at 3 am, leading me to land a fairly decent sized bream. Whilst it did not give me the typical limp-handshake of a fight that typifies a breams usual efforts when hooked and I certainly don't mind catching them on lighter tackle intentionally, tonight this is not what I was hoping for! I contemplated not re-casting so I could get some sleep but decided to chuck the rig back out as it was with an underarmed handful of boilies to accompany it. I instantly regretted this as the line bites and false runs resumed - and sleep did not. So I decided to embrace the day, made a cafetière of very strong coffee and eventually a full English breakfast followed.

At about 6am, just as the sausages began to sizzle, my carelessly cast right rod ripped off rapidly. I picked up and bent into a very powerful and determined fish which made an easy arc of my stout carbon carp rod. Thankfully I was adequately gunned to turn this fish from nearside snags and far side lilies but as it tore around the swim from one weed-raft to the next, a huge weight accumulated on my line until eventually it was near solid and exceptionally heavy. Remembering the scaled down but similar situation the day before, I was especially careful as I tried to coax this dead-weight to the net. I managed to get it over the cord and tried to lift the net but as I did the water erupted and the collective mass of fish and weed  sped away from me once more. This scenario repeated several times until eventually, as my arm felt like it was about to fall off, I managed to lift the net, securing an incredible carp that still seemed not to have tired. However, due to the time of year and the exertion this fish had made, I rested it for some time in the net before lifting onto the mat for the usual post-capture drill. Photographing this fish gave me a great opportunity to admire its dark, chocolatey tones. What a magnificent creature!

A dark, chocolatey moat mirror!
I recast and tucked into breakfast - the ecstasy of my recent capture masking the taste of my slightly singed sausages! Before the fry-up was finished the left rod followed suit as line started fizzing from the spool. By comparison the battle was tame but I rested the fish in the net nonetheless. Whilst doing so, head-bailiff Mark popped in to see me and was able to identify my capture by its many quirky features as Ivan - a real character-fish if ever there was one! Mark obliged with a quick photograph and then I slipped Ivan back without too much fuss. We joked about how often Ivan trips up and that it would not be a surprise if I saw him again!

I was delighted to capture the characterful Ivan!
After this I reeled in the carp rods, topped up the free offerings in the swim and went over to the stretch I had fished the day before which was more conducive to float fishing and where I knew a few friends would also be fishing. While others were swim raking and building their swims with bait, I continued with my conservative baiting strategy and initially cast my bread flake hook bait with no freebies at all, tight to some lilies extending out from the bank. My float must have sat there for about half an hour without even a twitch and then, with no warning at all, lifted straight up followed shortly by my rod tip. Having made the connection, the fish charged off assertively, depriving me of the gentle bout I was hoping for and had I not caught a golden glimpse, once again doubt would have been cast on the identity of this small cyprinidae. This time with the benefit of hindsight I took extra care to steer this fish around the various obstacles and breathed a sigh of relief when eventually I had it in the net.
A crucian from the moat - caught on my own handmade swan quill slider float.

Aside from regular rendezvous with small roach, the rest of the day was relatively quiet. As time moved on, I felt increasing pressure to make things happen. By mid afternoon my swim was raked and an accumulating layer of groundbait was keeping the crucians quite occupied, leaving them with no desire to do any more than nudge my hook bait tauntingly. It might not have happened anyway but by now I had definitely wrecked it! I packed up but lingered for a while to see how my friends had fared before returning to my night time swim.

Perfection in miniature.

Jake also had success with the crucians!
I approached the night in the same way as before but with new-found confidence thanks to the morning's fish. I mentally prepared for another sleepless night filled with poorly-timed blips and bobbins yo-yoing aimlessly which, much to my horror, resumed just after 11pm. When finally a sustained drop-back occurred I struck in frustration thinking perhaps I would land this bream then keep the rod in until first light. However, as I struck, it was not a bream I hooked! An explosive altercation ensued, not dissimilar to the first fish of the morning but with increased power and the added complication of having to conduct this close-quarter confrontation  in near complete darkness.
Once this monster of the moat was resting in my net, a message came through on my phone from Jake, who had heard the commotion and was asking if I wanted a hand with photos. I hesitated because I knew he would have to reel in and I didn't want to disrupt his fishing, but as I looked at this incredible fish I realised that I had to accept his offer to ensure the memory was preserved and the fish was well looked after in the process. In no time Jake was round at my swim. He was invaluable in getting this process right and I am extremely grateful!

My biggest Moat Mirror!

After returning this magnificent mirror to the moat I topped up the swim with bait and nestled back down in the hope of some sleep. Three angry double-figure commons had other ideas though...

The first of 3 angry mid-double commons that kept me awake!

... and even Ivan decided to pop by to say 'hi'!!!

The infamous Ivan (again)!

As the sun just started to peek over the horizon, a family of swans decided to have breakfast in my productive margin spot. I couldn't risk hooking one so reeled in and started breakfast. It was now my last my last morning at the moat and so I packed away all but my float rod and made my way back round to try for one last crucian.

Swans and their signets decimating the swim.

My first cast gave me a gift of a lift which I failed to hit as did my second. The third time was indeed lucky - I held my breath as I silently played the fish to my net dedicating all the concentration I could muster to the task. The tension was tangible. Thankfully there were no complications this time and soon enough I was looking at a beautiful bar of gold on my unhooking mat. Jake, being the good-egg that he is, popped over again and did some photos. I couldn't believe how fortunate I had been. I could have tried my luck for another but decided to quit while I was ahead and get home early to see my wife and daughter, both of whom I was sorely missing.

My biggest crucian of the session caught on one of Graeme Pinkerton's delicate slider floats.

Just as I was saying my goodbyes I heard a commotion down the bank. Jake had caught another crucian which gave me the opportunity to repay the favour from the night before with some photos.

It had been an absolutely incredible session - 7 carp landed (well, 6 different carp!), 3 tench, 2 crucians, 1 bream and several silvers! Jake had also caught two crucians, several sizeable carp as well as a number of tench and bream. My other friends all caught plenty - some also did well with the crucians, others enjoyed a steady flow of roach and rudd and the odd carp was caught off the surface. I observed how my success with the carp came partly, I believe, from keeping a steady flow of bait going in to the swim, allowing them to gain confidence in feeding and as far as crucians are concerned, I had the most success where I was restrained in the amount of free food I offered. I had anticipated the weed, which appears thick in places, to be a problem but with a little consideration for bait presentation and by using adequately stout tackle, there was no need for any concern.
Should I be fortunate enough to return here once more, whilst I would hope to continue to enjoy the carp and crucians, I would like to target the various predators to which the moat provides a home. For now however, I am content and elated having had such a memorable experience. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Enchanted Lake

The Enchanted Lake.

"There's a lot of water to cover so we best just walk and leave the rods behind" said my new friend Ian, offering to acquaint me with some of my new angling club's lakes and their stretch of the River Frome. "Of course, we'll have to park at the pub... and I could even show you my secret syndicate lake". Well, what's the point in having a secret if you can't tell anyone?! I appreciated the gesture enormously. I am not new to the area but have returned here to the West Country after just shy of twenty years away and am determined not to spend the next twenty reliving my childhood and so, whilst I am a sucker for a bit of nostalgia from time to time, I concede that treading new ground is the only way forward.

It wasn't until late spring that we finally managed to make it to the lake. It was as if all the obstacles to us visiting earlier in the year were placed in our path intentionally to delay my debut until the full glory of the season was upon us. As we emerged through the treelined track, scattered light from the low morning sun rendered an impressionistic picture of a microcosm of paradise, mist-draped water, laden in lilies and enshrouded in dense woodland.
We really were in the middle of nowhere. There was no noise from traffic or trains, just the antiphonal menagerie of birds and the distant gurgling of falling water from beyond the dam wall. Then Ian spoke the magic words "I've never seen another angler on the bank here", which constituted an even greater incentive than the prospect of giant uncaught crucians and wily scaly carp, the latter of which could be seen milling around in the upper layers, some frolicking in the weed.

So I set about joining the small syndicate which only has a handful of members, most of whom live far away and seldom visit. Fortunately my application was accepted and apparently assisted by my leaning towards a traditional approach which is favoured by the owners.
I came home from work one evening to find an envelope on the door mat, containing a key which formally represented my right of access to the lake. That night sleep was hard-earned. I awoke from one parallel piscatorial Utopia, thanks to the cursed cackling of crows, as the sun was little more than a suggestion of dawn on the horizon and decided there was time before work to begin making these dreams a reality.

Swallow feeding on insects over the water.
I arrived at the lake suited and booted, aesthetically and mentally braced for another day dealing with the stresses of teaching in a challenging Bristol school. Though it felt therapeutic to be in a natural setting at a time when I would normally be beginning the tedious commute, my walk around the lake's surrounding woodland was disappointingly purposeful - a task to achieve within a deadline to avoid facing certain consequences. However, with this attitude I did the circuit in good time and when I came to a fishing platform on the final stretch of my mission I realised I had a full thirty minutes just to sit, be still, breath and watch the swallows and house martins swooping over the water. Finally the therapy commenced.
An array of traditional tackle
I returned again as the sun rose on Saturday. Earlier in the week in an online conversation, another member had spoke of the unstoppable power of the carp and how they were almost impossible to land. Having caught a fair number of sizeable carp in my time I arrogantly dismissed this quandary and proceeded to cast a free-lined crust into one of the larger clearings between sets of lilies. The carp were mostly said to be doubles with the potential for some upper twenties but I was sure I could tame a fish of this size on my fairly sturdy fibreglass Bruce and Walker rod and ever-reliable Mitchell reel sporting a full spool of 10lb fluorocarbon line. It wasn't long before a broad-shouldered mirror sucked in my hook bait and unleashed all hell. For a fish which appeared merely to be an upper double at best, its power was imperceivable. I could not turn it, stop it or even encourage it to kite around. It tore line from the spool in spite of the clutch being set quite tight and my thumb pressing against it hard. There was no stopping it from reaching the sanctuary of the lilies where when reached, the line pinged and the fish got away.

It was some time before I stopped shaking. Perhaps I had been too quick to disregard the warning I had been given. Perhaps too there would be a place for my stout carbon carp rods here after all. On my next visit I packed a stronger rod just in case carp caught my attention again but decided to focus for the time being on trying to catch a crucian. To this end in the past, my best results have fallen to bread flake as a hook bait, however here this brought me roach after roach with the occasional Rudd catching it on the drop. A change of tact was in order if a change of species was to occur. I put a little krill paste around the hook and cast to the same spot. Almost immediately, tiny pin-prick bubbles materialised around the tip of my homemade crow-quill lifter float. The following thirty seconds played out according to the text book and as I struck on the lift I connected unequivocally with a crucian. As it spiralled towards the surface, a deep golden brown high-backed beauty revealed itself, possibly pushing towards a pound at a generous guess. As I gleefully reached for the net one last bid for freedom was made resulting in another sudden ping, the cause of which remains a mystery as the line was checked for blemishes before fishing commenced. I watched helplessly as my fish and float disappeared into the depths.
Hurriedly I put on a prized float made by my good friend Graeme Pinkerton. This slider float, designed by another friend, Colin, specifically for crucian fishing in weedy waters was given to me by Graeme when we first met at the magical moat in Hampshire. After checking the line once more and repeating the rigmarole of plumbing perfectly, I cast out again to the same spot. More fizzing appeared and a confident bite ensued. Without further thought I lifted the rod tip and expected a commendable yet inadequate scrap typical of my gentle quarry. Imagine my horror then as an enormous carp rose to the surface and sent my centre-pin spinning. My 4lb line stood no chance and needless to say I have not seen that float since.

The view from my bed-chair! 
I decided to fish through the night in the hope that carp and crucians would face less competition from the roach and rudd once darkness fell. As I would not be able to watch a float throughout the whole night, even with a glow stick attached due to the need to sleep, I decided to put my purist ideals aside and fish one rod on 'the method' for the crucians and the other with a 'wafter rig' on a helicopter setup to overcome the problem of silt, targeting the carp.
By 10pm all remnants of the sun's memory were fading from the horizon and a serene stillness descended upon the water. I settled in my bed chair, which I had set up beneath the stars with no canvas masking my view, and started to submit to inescapable slumber until incongruous shrieking followed by a tawny owl's distinctive hooting alerted me to its silhouette swooping over the lake and up to the branches above where I lay.

Each valiant attempt to return to the land of nod was thwarted by some quite reasonable sized roach with very unreasonable manners! At 1:30am when I was reluctantly recasting the feeder rod in the vain hope that my devotion to the crucian cause would come good, I heard a hellish chattering coming from the other side of the lake. The ungodly cacophony continued, edging ever closer through the undergrowth and as it approached I realised there were two creatures coming towards me at great speed and they sounded angry! Petrified, I hid in my bed as a crescendo of thudding hooves and malicious snarls reached its climax, charging straight past where I lay and diminuendoed into the distance. Relieved it had past I sat up only to find the second creature careering straight for me, stopping less than 2 yards from my face. A magnificent badger stared straight at me, not breaking eye contact though clearly holding the same expression of surprise to see me as I undoubtedly reflected back to him. After an uncomfortable Mexican stand-off my opponent relented, turned about and caught up with his mate by an alternate route. My heart proceeded to palpitate.
By sunrise several more roach had graced my net and a sporadic series of single bleeps on my carp road had been and gone. I reeled in to find the whole hair on my knotless knot had been munched off by some clawed culprit.

A more modern approach.
My next night at the lake followed a similar pattern in terms of the fishing and lack of sleep, though this time due to not to nature but nightmares! As I started to drift off, I am sure I heard an etherial voice singing some kind of atonal operatic aria which was joined by a chorus of the undead formed from the mists which rose from the water. My recollection of the rest is hazy to say the least but needless to say the little rest I received between roach was troubled and tormented. As I wound in my bait-less rigs at first light, I decided to try something a little different as clearly my quarry was not playing ball. I walked to the car and returned with a dropshot rod and made a few speculative casts in hope of an early season sergeant. My first few efforts returned without a touch but before despondence had a chance to set in an unexpected hit came and juddered my rod tip into an impressive arc. I caught sight of a large flash of fish and suspected, at that size and with this amount of force, I might have hooked one of the resident wild trout but as the fish began to tire and approached the net, I realised I had caught quite an impressive perch!

A stripy sergeant!
My next opportunity to fish came the following week. It is worth a mention at this point that, due to being a teacher on summer break, the frequency of my trips is greater than I could ever usually hope for. However, being a committed husband and father with my wife and daughter at home, my trips are considerably shorter than more care-free days gone by, as I desire more greatly than catching all the fish in my dreams, to spend quality time with my family. Therefore, all the tales I tell take place whilst they are sleeping or at times they will miss me the least i.e. overnight or very, very early in the morning so that I can be back in time to spend the best part of each day with them. I hope this serves to demonstrate though, how one can make it work and seize the day if a little sleep can be sacrificed.
I had given considerable thought to the issues I had been facing - namely the presence of unwanted crayfish and the absence of desired crucians. Crayfish, I understand like cover and so I decided, when fishing for carp by night to cast into open water and scatter bait across the general area to encourage them to search and compete for food. With regards the crayfish, this plan worked perfectly as I slept through the night without a single bleep, unfortunately not even from a hungry carp.
Crucians also like cover and although I had been fishing tight to lilies I had had very few indications of their presence. The swims I had favoured had been on the side of the lake that gets the first of the morning sun's rays whilst the other side is enshrouded in shadows until well into the afternoon due to a wooded hill that adjoins its banks. Could it be, I thought, that the crucians feel exposed in the light and that the shaded stretch on the other side provides some additional security? There was only one way to find out! Just before reeling in my carp rods at dawn I sat quietly for a moment and, whilst enjoying my habitual seven strength ground coffee a kingfisher came and perched on my left rod as it sat dormant in its rest. She, I think it was a 'she', just stared at me, occasionally bobbing her head and I stared back enjoying the moment not wanting to ruin it by reaching for my camera. After some time had passed I felt the bird was sufficiently confident in my presence for me to risk it but alas, as I did she inevitably flew away. I took the last sips of my coffee then went over to the dark side! 
The seance commenced as my planchette, a swan quill slider float I fashioned as a replica replacement for the float of Graeme's I lost, cocked slowly into position. Motionless at first, as the world beyond ignored my offering but then, sure enough, faint ripples came to manifest on the surface. Contact had been established. Several times the float lifted slightly and I attempted to connect prematurely. In my zeal I put a larger piece of paste upon the hook and reached out to the hidden world once more. My call was answered but not by my intended recipient. Another roach came to hand, then another and then another. My float danced a merry dance and the koi, cautious bites synonymous with my quarry seemed to have disappeared. I noted the cause and prepared a tiny ball of paste, barely enough to cover the size 14 hook and the careful crucians crept back onto the scene. Unfortunately this meant more missed bites and frustration as the clock ticked past home-time, past 'I can make it if I rush' and into 'go now if you value your life'!

Yet another roach!
Later that week I decided to exchange a nights fishing for a night of photography at Stonehenge. The  climax of the perseid meteor shower was a non-starter due to a completely overcast sky but the following night was perfectly clear and, once on Salisbury Plain, so dark that I could see the entire arc of the Milky Way with my naked eyes. I parked up on the A303 in front of a gate to a farmer's field that I anticipated would not need to be accessed circa midnight and walked up the permissive path which used to be the A344 towards the stones. I was met by a couple of other photographers who were already in position. They greeted me warmly and exchanged tips and anecdotes whilst I busied myself with test shots and fussing with settings. Once I finally began shooting, after taking a few collections of images to be pieced together into panoramas, I was so delighted with the results on the review screen that I didn't dally but rushed home to edit them. I tinkered until two with my cat, Muesli, at my feet enjoying occasional strokes in exchange for top-up trips to his food-bowl. In an attempt to squeeze as much out of life as possible, fully aware that I was burning the candle at both ends of the stick, I set an early alarm and napped until I came to regret my carpe diem moment as it rung out at five then tinkered some more whilst drinking my wake-up coffee. Muesli joined me for a while and then took up his usual spot on the windowsill in our front room from which he 'waved me off' as I then headed back out to fish, arriving at the lake just after six. 

The Milky Way, Mars and Saturn over Stone Henge.
The next few hours were filled once more with continuous catches of roach. I decided not to string it out and headed home with time to spare. I arrived home to be told by my wife that our cat Muesli had suddenly died, just after 8am for no apparent reason. He was only 5 years old and seemingly in good health. The impact of the grief that came over our family at that moment cannot be reduced to words and is still resonating now.
Our cat, Muesli -  R.I.P
I didn't go back to the lake for some time after that. I felt an enormous guilt for not being contactable when my wife had needed me and needed some space just to be sad. I did however venture out for a couple of days to another magical venue - the moat, which restored my confidence in my ability to successfully target crucians!

A crucian from the moat.
I have since returned to the enchanted lake though, as the seasons begin to change, so too do my piscatorial attentions. This place has captured my imagination and, though I have remained spellbound, driven me through obsession and quite close to insanity! Whether it be large, old-stock crucians, brilliant bristling perch, wily carp with the strength of behemoths or even those pesky and persistent yet fin-perfect roach, I'm certain these waters will throw up a number of surprises as I spiral deeper into its depths. 

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Social

The 5th and 6th May had been occupied on my calendar for months and the excitement and anticipation in the advent of this weekend had become all consuming. My good friend Shaun, whom I met whilst pike fishing on Fordwich 7 years ago, is getting married this summer and decided to spend his stag-do indulging in his favourite past-time with a group of likeminded companions. The chosen venue was 'Charlie's Lake' - a small water in the garden of England, predominately home to catfish but also containing a good head of carp and silvers. We had fished here together before, firstly under the previous management then again with the now not-so-new owners, Steve and Karen, and the transformation was unrecognisable. The banks and swims are well maintained, reasonable fish-centred rules are enforced and facilities such as specialist catfish tackle hire (slings, mats and nets) and toilets and showers are available. Now, wild fishing in an untamed nowhere-land this is not but it was a comfortable venue for such an event and whilst some watercraft is still required, at this time of year regular runs are not uncommon.
And so seven of us convened at the gates to the fishery early on the Saturday morning. For me this marked the halfway point on a 424 mile round trip! Tickets were purchased, pitches were chosen, rods assembled, rigs checked and away we went. Owner, Steve, gave some good advice regarding rigs, spots and bait. Without wanting to seem arrogant I had my own ideas about how I wanted to fish on this occasion but decided to take heed to his suggestions on one rod and fish the other two my way and see what worked. Steve was suggesting relatively small baits on a shortish hair however, I had caught well there before on double 20mm halibut pellets and had had my PB on a 30mm bloodied eel pellet. Steve didn't object to me using these baits but seemed very doubtful that they would catch me any fish. So I tried all three and the double halibut pellets were the first to send the reels screaming. First blood was a tiny kitten but then a brace of low doubles followed in close succession and so I changed all three rods over to this approach and gave up on the small baits. The key to this success in my opinion, is that I drenched everything - loose feed and hook baits in glug. Catfish have tiny eyes which are not much use in the dark depths in which they feed. Instead, they detect their meals with their barbels which sense taste and smell from great distances. For this reason I ensure my baits leak as much attraction as possible so they are drawn to them easily.

Shaun with a 24lb wels cat.
Thankfully, as the day progressed most of us had caught at least one. The biggest of the first day went to Shaun at 24lb. Banter was ripe but all good fun. Most conversation was centred around the usual issue of 'carpiness' and taunts regarding the symmetry of our setups, or lack thereof. As the sun started to set a take-away materialised and we all sat together indulging in a veritable feast beneath the stars, affirming how good life can be and drinking to the happy couple.

Everyone promised to jump out of bed if anyone caught a fish but as my delkim started to sing at half past midnight, the antiphonal sound of snoring continued, undisturbed! I landed the fish alone without too much trouble and was joined as I came to take photos by a few of the others who witnessed the scales turn just past twenty pounds.
I had trouble sleeping after this and so, as the sky was clear and the stars were shining bright, I took a moment to take a few long exposures and picked up a bit of Milky Way. The orange glow coming up on the horizon is in fact the moon in its waning gibbous phase rendered a deep red becoming progressively paler as it rose.

The next day brought everybody success. Shortly after the breakfast ritual was complete I lost a good fish. I had never felt anything like it attached to my line. It had ploughed straight for bank-side cover and could not be turned. On the spur or the moment I decided that I could not give any line and that it would be better for it to be left with a short hooklink sporting a barbless hook which hopefully could be expelled eventually, than to allow it to reach cover and potentially become tethered. The line broke at the knot leaving me in a sulk. It did not feel good at all.

Jon weighing in a 23lb catfish under the watchful eye of Shaun.

My swim went quiet for a while and eventually I reeled in for a while. I distracted myself taking photos for the others, some of whom had not fished for cats before and could not stop marvelling at their incredible strength.
I recast and before long I was into another good fish. This fish was hooked by an overhanging tree but I muscled it out into open water early on in the fight by kiting it round in the direction it was swimming - I think I confused it! Nonetheless, this fish tore up the swim and took a lot of line. Shaun, who was fishing in the swim to my right, kindly reeled in to give me more space. There was no way I was going to loose another in the same way so a slightly softer approach was employed. The fish held deep, kicking up clouds of silt from the lake bed as large ripples emanated from each unseen epicentre. By now I was surrounded by friends all sharing their support and delighting in the moment together. An overwhelming sense of relief was felt and joyful cheers were released as a large-headed cat begrudgingly slipped into the net.
As I lifted the scales aloft I realised the sling contained a new personal best catfish of 30lbs 1oz! It is not one of the biggest in the lake and pales into insignificance when compared to captures from the Ebro or the Po but to me it is a spectacular specimen and I am completely made up about it.

My new PB wels catfish at 30lb 1oz.

What I have omitted to mention is that whilst I was battling my fish, Tom in the swim to my left also hooked into a good fish and so we took the opportunity to set the camera running and get everyone into frame for a quick group shot for posterity. Taking a still frame from the video resulted in a slightly lower picture quality but facilitated the shot with minimum fuss, allowing the fish to be returned quickly.
After this I was on a total high. The vibe amongst all the guys had been so positive throughout the weekend and between us, due to some not having caught cats before, there had been 5 new PBs! Aside from a little sunburn the weather had been kind to us and we said our goodbyes with sore necks and aching arms.
So all that remains is to thank Shaun for bringing us all together for a cracking social and to congratulate him and his future wife, Katy, and to wish them every happiness.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Overnight success!

It's been a long time!

I feel completely out of touch and out of practice with regards the finer points of carp fishing, having not spent a night on the bank since August and before that, March last year. The usual causes of abstinence, such as the stressful demands of work, have diminished recently following my uprooting and relocation from Kent to Wiltshire. Now my lack of presence by the waterside is due to a change in priorities, where family - especially my now 1 year old daughter Jessica, is right at the centre and what a blessing she is! However, once the addiction has taken hold, I think it is impossible for a carp angler to be cured completely.
I met Jake on one of my first visits to the magical moat where we both targeted crucians by day and carp by night. Green shoots of friendship began to grow, however geography hindered its fruition until I moved to his neck of the woods. Recognising my desperation for some fishing-therapy, Jake set up an inaugural outing- an overnighter on his syndicate lake.

My muddy set-up!
A fair amount of rain had fallen during the week but temperatures were rising and, on arrival, a reasonable wind had began to push into the South East corner of the lake. We duly positioned ourselves on the receiving end of these gusts and began to look for signs of fish activity. Nosing around the margins with polaroids proved pointless given the choppiness of the water, clouding of its own volition. Just as we were exploring the far margin with a lead from our chosen swim, a fish crashed out in open water to my left. As it happened again it seemed obvious that I had to get a bait on that spot! Three cross-wind obscured casts later the trap was set and the scattering of boilies  around the general area served as a welcome distraction from the embarrassment I was suffering owing to my rustiness.

I had opted to fish single pop-ups on what Martin Bowler has recently been calling a 'real Ronnie' but it is in essence the same as Lee Crampton's 'claw rig' which I have been using for years. I like this presentation as it affords the bait plenty of freedom to move and will turn and set perfectly when approached from any angle. I had however lost a number of fish due to poor hook-holds last summer when using an incarnation of this rig which featured a long-shank hook with a small gape. Whilst this was almost impossible to eject, it did not set deep enough and cost me fish. Therefore, to remedy this I went to the other extreme and tied the rigs up with size 4 wide-gapes. At home I wondered if this might be overkill but I had not forgotten the size of the mouths of the fish I was targeting and proceeded with my course of logic.
Once the rods were out and shelters assembled, gas stoves were lit, beverages poured and conversations commenced. It had been almost two years so we had a lot of catching up to do!
In hindsight the following sequence of events seems almost predictable but the sudden screaming of my left alarm interrupting the serenity of the moment could not have been more unexpected.
Line stripped rapidly from the spool as I clumsily tripped over my dormant right rod to get to the erupting left. As I applied my thumb as a break and the rod arced round the tempo slowed but I began to feel the power of the fish forcefully towing onwards. Erratic vibrations transmitted a warning of the lake's intermittent rocky areas down the line. Very little could be done to navigate a clear path through this treacherous topography. On one occasion all movement ceased and the line seemingly became fixed to a point in the water. A sudden ping and the line went slack. My heart dropped. 
A turn of the handle and I connected once more with what I initially thought to be the snag- until it started making its way off into the distance.
I had attempted to steer the carp with side strain, keeping the rod tip low to encourage the fish to rise. I realised this was futile as it kited across into Jakes line causing his alarm to sound. He reassured me that my apologies were unnecessary but I felt bad. Had I bullied it a little more perhaps it could have been avoided but losing this fish was not a risk I was prepared to take.
As a rather plump looking mirror carp finally surfaced and came cruising over the net cord we both cheered in celebration.

A scaly mirror in the net!

The carp had a considerable belly and a single scar on one side, otherwise it was in impeccable condition. The hook was set perfectly in the bottom lip and was reassuringly dwarfed by the cavernous mouth of my quarry. As I lifted the scales the needle pulled round to 26lb 10oz.

The wind slowed and the sky cleared and as the light began to fade the temperature dropped. A tawny owl could be heard hooting and rather excitable frogs fascinated with my bobbins set my alarms off sporadically throughout the night along with occasional gusts. This and my lack of appropriate clothing for the conditions (in spite good advice from my better half) caused me not to sleep a wink. The night was long.

First signs of summer?!
As the sun rose swallows appeared swooping over the waters surface in search of insects, a heron was seen busily nesting, buzzards soared in circles in the neighbouring field, an English breakfast sizzled enticingly and fresh coffee was consumed. Mist evaporating from the water obscured my view of the fish swirls and fizzing. My semi-slack line tightened up on my left rod once more and a single bleep sung out. I leapt to attention. The rod, though high in test curve, twitched like a quiver tip showing sensitive bites. As we debated whether or not this bite was worth hitting, the moment passed. Before long we agreed to pack up as we both had other commitments that day to get back to but who knows what might have been if we had stayed. It was great to be back on the bank, in great company, beautiful surroundings and thankfully, a tale to tell.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Reflections on my angling 1999-2017 (or re-learning to fish and then unlearning to fish!)

Reflections on my Kentish Angling (1999 - 2017)

I arrived by bicycle at Fordwich Lake shortly after 6am one misty July morning, now many moons ago. This was my maiden voyage to this formidable venue and, armed with the weapons of my youth; my trusty Silstar 10ft match rod, Mitchell 300c reel, Keenets pan landing net, 2 cans of luncheon meat and a loaf of bread, I was hopeful for a carp or two. Running ledger rigs, freelined crust and simple waggler tactics had served me well on the lakes of the Longleat Estate where I learned my craft and, with the aforementioned mishmash of tackle, had landed carp to near twenty pounds, which in the 90s in my locality was a noteworthy capture. In perfect innocence I faithfully fished until dusk, content just to be amidst such idyllic surroundings in spite of my lack of success, laughably unaware of the futility of my approach or the culture shock that awaited me...

Now over a decade since this memory was forged and 18 years after I first moved to Kent, I am now preparing to depart and return to the West Country from whence I came. It therefore seems apt at this juncture not only to reflect on the year gone by but also the evolution of my angling since I first cast a line into the Kentish Stour in 1999. Here I could fish in the way I was accustomed to fishing and caught chub and bream with sufficient regularity to convince myself that all was right with the world. My angling didn't truly start to develop until 2010 when I first joined the Canterbury and District Angling Association.

Me, aged 13, with my first margin stalked carp. I thought I was Chris Yates.

I am grateful that my childhood experience of angling was a simple one. I began as a young boy throwing a jam jar on a string into the River Wylye at Henfords Marsh, catching minnows, three-spined sticklebacks and bullheads before eventually progressing to rod and line. Whole summer holidays were spent mastering the art of float fishing for tiny perch and roach which later became slightly bigger specimens and a wider array of species. A Passion for Angling aired on TV at the perfect time in my formative years to truly capture my imagination. This was also the catalyst for my obsession with carp. I learnt watercraft as a course of necessity and became adept at catching within my simplistic means. At that time, Wiltshire seemed to be something of a bubble, sheltered entirely from the rising movement of modern carp fishing that was developing elsewhere - perhaps most notably, at Fordwich!

There is perhaps some poetic justice in the water where HNV baits were pioneered being the place where I submitted to using them. I cannot pretend I did not buy the odd bag of Richworth Strawberry Jam (I will never forget that smell, evocative of so many memories) or Tutti Fruity boilies as a teen but I always much preferred to use natural or traditional baits and felt some sort of unsubstantiated superiority for abstaining from anything that did not conform to my purist ideals. However, there came a point in my campaign for a Fordwich carp where I had to conform. The rod was the first to change and eventually I succumbed also to boilies, alarms (which previously I thought laughable), spodding, bivvies and barrows. I may have sold out on my traditional Utopia but finally I was able to compete and stand a chance of catching. However, it was very humbling to suddenly switch from a position of competence to being an absolute novice with everything to learn. However, I made learning my business and therein I found a new satisfaction. Figuring out Fordwich became something of a jigsaw puzzle and putting together the pieces one by one derived much satisfaction.

Whilst I starting experiencing success at Fordwich prior to the summer of 2014, that is when the stars really aligned for me. I had by this point acquired lots of knowledge from seasons of trial and error and, particularly over the summer, I had plenty of time available to spend at the lake - not only fishing but sometimes just walking the lake, watching the water and talking to the regulars. It paid off with a good string of carp to 28lb 4oz and a sense of accomplishment and elation.

A chunky Fordwich Mirror.
My best fish from Fordwich, 28lb 4oz.
The following season felt strikingly different. The warmth and camaraderie seemed to be replaced with aggression and hostility. Perhaps I'm over-sensitive but the influx of new members, caused by another local club raising their prices, all seemed to have a sense of entitlement and I got tired very quickly of being forced to disclose when I intended to leave my swim only so that they would then sit, sometimes camp, behind me until I left. So it was time to move on. I took what I had learned at Fordwich to Mid Kent Fisheries' Handle Lake and their lesser-fished Chartham lake and found the solitude that I was no longer experiencing at Fordwich.

22lb Chartham Common caught on the mag' feeder!

7lb male tench, the best of last season's tinca campaign.

Something else I will take with me from my time in Kent is friendship. I've learned so much from the other anglers I have met along the way. Iain, the barbel master and incredible all-round specimen angler, has been quite an inspiration over the years and one of the most helpful people I have ever met on the bank. 

A good barbel, nudging double figures, that I would not have caught without a point in the right direction from Iain.

Social trips with Shaun, Richard and Goo will always stay with me - you can't take yourself too seriously with these guys and they remind me that we engage in this pastime for fun! 

Left to right: Richard, Shaun and Goo all with 20lb something wels cats.
Kent and I at Bury Hill last summer.

Kent has become a dear friend over the last few years and a great companion for road trips up to Bury Hill. Gareth is quite a character. Endearingly eccentric. We trained  to be teachers together almost 12 years ago and formed a friendship based on our shared love of angling. We both enjoy writing about our experiences in the great outdoors. I always enjoy reading Gareth's Postcards from the English Outback which truly capture the romance of the garden of England.
Matthew not only befriended me but has had a significant influence on my angling and greater still, my enjoyment of angling. My first trip to the River Itchen with Matthew, when he was adamant I should experience the sensation of catching a lady of the river on a cane rod, made quite an impression. This was the catalyst for change. From thenceforth I gradually learned to focus less on catching fish and more on enjoying the experience of fishing. After all, work had over the years become increasingly stressful and with the birth of my daughter this March, time to angle was severely limited. My approach became more gentle, stealthy and traditional. It is almost as if, in order to receive the therapy I required, I had to unlearn everything I had learned in my time at Fordwich.

My new muse, the lady of the river.

In spite of my limited time on the bank this year, 2017 has still furnished me with some significant captures. The highlight of which has to be the crucian carp I caught when I was invited back to fish at The Moat. Most of my sessions have been spent trotting on the river stour for silvers and in the autumn, dangling a lobworm beneath a bobber float. These sessions have been highly therapeutic - quite productive too and whilst nothing large was ever brought to the net, this was neither a bother or my objective.
A crucian from the Moat.

A 20lb 12oz Handle carp caught on my last 'proper' carp sesh before my daughter was born.
A good double figure pike from Chartham lake.
An Itchen Grayling from back in January. 
The staple of my weekend angling these days!
So now for the recapitulation of this piscatorial sonata (sorry for the musical reference but it works quite well) as I return to the West Country to be closer to family and have the opportunity to visit some of my old haunts but now with the benefit of the experiences I have gained during my time away. I will greatly miss the Kentish waters and those I have whiled away the hours with there but every great story needs exciting new chapters and this will be no exception.