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.

Monday, 4 September 2017


The crow quill fell flat on the surface, laying snug between beds of lilies. Meanwhile, unseen, shot plummeted to absolute depth, taking with them an appetising bell-shaped bread-flake with clouds of white fluffiness around the gape and dough clenched tight to the shank of a small wire hook, causing the float to cock, standing slowly to attention; simultaneously gaining mine.
A year had passed since last I sat beside these waters, during which in my mind, fantasies played out frequently of my return. The revery had haunted me so often that now it was almost impossible to tell if this was dream or reality. Reflections of weathered red brick, softened further by the perpetually restless rippling of the water became further obscured by trademark bubbles betraying the secret presence of tench. I had watched the float disappear with my eyes firmly shut many times before and this was no different until the tangible response, as my cane connected with tinca tinca, told me that this was no longer a passive fiction but a reciprocal reality. I had indeed returned to The Moat.

My thumb, pressed firmly against the rim of the pin, could not prevent its turning as this dark purveyor of power peeled line from spool and heart to mouth. The swims' serenity shattered as this tench tore through it in a fine display of masculinity. Any hope however of encountering a quiet crucian faded with the light whilst this gladiator from the depths submitted to my net at dusk.
Perhaps in an attempt to reenact triumphs of the past, I settled for the night in the place of my previous tarriance. This however, proved to be a foolish endeavour as the carp I tried to tempt thought best to let me sleep! I woke with the dawn, birdsong, strong coffee and Full-English nourishment, ready also to devour the day.
I set out from my place of slumber for a tree-lined stretch, thick with weed and waterlilies only sporting the occasional clearing through which to post a line. I had intentionally taken the long route here in order to invest some time and conversation into friendships old and new, as is my way and of at least equal importance to the pursuit of fish. Here however, I was sufficiently removed from the melee of anglers and felt a sense of solitude and serenity- a sensation to be savoured by a new father!
Stealth, watercraft, patience and good luck came together in something of a hurry as my first cast accompanied by a small ground bait appetiser remained undisturbed by me until the float began to twitch. At first, only subtle ring-shaped ripples emanating from my homemade float were distinguishable but as the surface fizzed with pinprick bubbles and the archetypal gentle lift ensued there was no mistaking this for the delicate bite of a crucian carp. Every hypothetical scenario that had paced in circles anxiously around my head regarding when to strike was rendered completely irrelevant as autopilot took over and before I knew exactly how I had done it, a weighty crucian carp caused my rod to arc over as it spiralled down in search of sanctuary. Noble though its bid for freedom was, it was also thankfully short-lived and before long the sense of elation every angler lives for consumed my being.

Two further fish flirted with my float, each giving themselves up with relative ease at the thought of free food but neither were so uncanny that they would succumb to my net. Late morning swiftly slid into an afternoon lull and though not negating the enchantment of this Crabtree paradise, I had to create a little magic of my own. While persevering with cane and quill, an additional ledgered offering of worms watched over by my ever faithful optonic quickly conjured a plump tench to break the silence by triggering the alarms' distinctive tone. With demonic drive the doctor fish charged, relentlessly wreaking havoc and testing my tackle beyond comfort. Without fail each near submission was followed by yet another 'last' bid for freedom. The fitness of these moat fish is in my view unparalleled.

Nightfall denoted the final hours of my stay. I watched the stars circle slowly in the sky as the hours passed waiting hopefully for a final fish. As it became too dark to see without the assistance of a torch, line tore hurriedly off the spool of my left rod and I lifted into a hefty specimen. I anticipated the danger of nearby snags and held on for dear life, attempting to kite the carp to open water with side-strain. The line suddenly went slack and my heart sunk. I sulked back to bed and so began the dreams of my return to settle this unfinished business...

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Nostradamus 2012/ A very carpy winter...

The end of life as I know it has been foretold and whilst the true believer does not fear death, any mere mortal inevitably clings to the life they have known with a sense of desperation. I am now counting the days to the very opposite scenario, a new life - my own daughter whom I cannot wait to meet and yet since Christmas have felt the necessity to fulfil something of an angling 'bucket list'.

Winter is seldom as I remember it as a child: Toboggan rides, snowball fights, those blue Parka jackets with orange lining and faux-fur hoods that every school boy wore in the 1980s and the disappointment of another weekend I could not fish at Lake Shearwater because it had a thick lid of ice on it. I never thought I would crave the cold but warm winters are not conducive to pike fishing and so as soon as the frosts first came I was out looking for esox lucius.

My first few excursions conformed to the cliche of the modest jack that was 'this big' by the time I spoke of it and of course tales of the behemoth 'that got away'. Minutes past home time frequently accumulated, spent with frost bitten fingers, mentally conflicted between the perceived shame of an unproductive trip and the trouble I would be in when I arrived home late. I have a habit of giving a 'final countdown' from 1 - 60 after which I am obliged to pack up but during which, if I have a bite - or any indication that could possibly be perceived as a bite, then the countdown must start again. On this occasion I had completed this ceremony faithfully without even the most tenuous excuse for a nibble on my float-fished sardine and so dutifully picked up my rod to reel in, which in doing so agitated the bait slightly and suddenly the float slid away... 

A 15lb Pike from a stour valley stillwater.

Grayling are synonymous with winter and regarded perhaps comically as a commendable quarry for carp anglers during the colder months. Last February I made my first pilgrimage with Matthew to the River Itchen where I was baptised into the cult of cane. Such fun was had with the 'ladies of the river' that we seem to have made it an annual fixture. Once at the waterside we went our separate ways until our mid-morning donut was due. "How many?" he asked - "Three" I said proudly "you?" - "Thirty!". Thankfully I didn't hold on to the embarrassment but continued to enjoy the day losing lethiathans and landing littler ladies, untangling birds-nests and admiring a hunting marsh-harrier. 

My mornings most weekends begin with a couple of hours at dawn, trotting a worm beneath a bobber along the jetties and between moored boats on the River Stour watched over by hungry and highly-opportunistic robins, redwings, blackbirds, song thrush and this not so koi kingfisher.

This has spot has been a tranquil haven for me, providing necessary escape and solitude until recently as it has become overrun with pike anglers clutching at the last straws of the season. By no means is this a criticism but in order to maintain my enjoyment, ever mindful of the sands of fishing-time slipping through my fingers, I opt not to compete.

As the season draws to a close, my tickets approach expiry and the wriggles and kicks visible on the surface of my wife's incredible baby-bulge become evermore violent, I know that each trip may be my last. For a while at least. I assign myself one last mission to catch a carp from one of the gravel pits abundant in this part of Kent.

I spent Saturday morning swimming with my wife, which is the only form of exercise she can really do at this stage of pregnancy, then on to mothercare and boots to buy the remaining miscellaneous necessities in preparation for our daughter's debut. By the time we were done and my gear was loaded into the car there was an hour left of light. Once at the lake my eyes strained to make out far bank features and after tentatively casting a lead towards intended spots only to find a multitude of overhanging branches I decided I had time for 1 cast per rod before dark- at a push and so put the rigs on and confidently pinged each rig precisely into position. That was a first for me!
Making use of landmarks on the distinctive treelined horizon I fired free offerings out in the dark with my catapult, a wild shot in the dark if ever there was one!
As I nestled down for the night beneath an almost full moon, the onset of sleep was intermittently interrupted by line-bites - encouraging to know that carp were chasing around after their widely scattered supper. The witching hour was announced by the tone of my alarms, a bite which dropped back rapidly as the fish took the bait away from the reed bed it had been kissing since sunset.

 As I lifted this glorious common carp out of the water I realised it was bigger than I had first thought in spite of its feistiness. As I held the scales aloft the dial turned to 20lb 12oz. 
"20, 12" I said aloud. The implications of this ominous number began to dawn on me as I recollected Nostradamus had predicted that the world would end in the year 2012. Could it be that my angling might also end with this 20-12 in accordance with the prophecies of the many wise sages coupled with anecdotes of their own parental experiences? 
Thankfully, Nostradamus was wrong!