Sunday, 22 August 2021

A Catch-up Chat...

Clara's Lake at dawn.

Alright?! Good to see you - come over and take a seat! It's been far too long! Fancy a bevvy? Make yourself comfy - it's high time we had a bit of a catchup chat!
Let me see... last time we spoke must have been just over two years ago. Blimey!
So much has happened since then. Not quite as much fishing as I'd like but can you ever do enough fishing?! 
My daughter's 4 now and loves coming along with me. She's caught a fair few roach on a bamboo pole my friend donated to her and caught her first carp on rod and line last summer. Freelined crust; cast it herself, played it nicely, the lot! OK, so Daddy might have helped a bit... but still, a proud moment. Mummy and our boy joined for the photo too. My son's not quite big enough to hold a rod yet but he's interested in everything... Give him time!

Family shot with my daughter's first carp!

I spent most of the first lockdown refurbishing some of my old rods and reels, making a few floats and tidying the garage. My octofloat needed everything doing, scary stuff, and I finally got my first barbel rod (old-skool kevlite Northwestern) up and running again. I'm fortunate enough to have a few mates who know what they're doing with such things and humbly took their advice. The octofloat has been put to very good use down at the moat but I've not managed many trips on the river. I lost a good fish, sure it was a barbel, back in July on the Bristol Avon but other than that my season on the river has  consisted of a few good chub and a few sightings of an otter.

A fair chub from the Bristol Avon on opening morning.

The summer of 2020 blessed me with a few very productive trips to the moat. I have to admit, I spent more time stalking the carp than I ever have there before, sadly with my lowest ever success rate. I had a few on ledger tactics in the margins just after dark but all my stealthy float-fished offerings and freelined baits all got mouthed and rejected. Real heart-in-mouth stuff. On the other hand, I've not spent that much time going after the crucians but have had my best season ever as far as they are concerned. As you might remember, most of my trips these days are super-short overnighters with a couple of hours on the float after sunrise and back in time for breakfast. Each of these produced a carp or two overnight and a few tench and couple of crus on the float next morning. I did stay out as late as midday on one session and managed to catch 8 decent crucians in the space of an hour - and lost 4 others. Not bad, eh?! All on bread under a quill slider-float. Proper fishing ;-) Not sure I'll manage to repeat that but even though I had a couple at 2lb 8oz, I definitely lost bigger so I'll be back with a vengeance as soon as I can...
Catch of a lifetime?

I had a message out of the blue from Chris Turnbull last year - he has curated a book for Little Egret Press devoted to crucians and asked if I would write a chapter about fishing for them at the moat?! He didn't have to ask me twice! I think I owe a bit of a thank you to a certain 'Sweetcorn Kid' for putting my name forward. I really enjoyed writing it and can't wait until it comes out. It's a real honour to be published alongside the likes of Chris Yates and Hugh Miles whom it's no secret have been inspirations to me since my childhood, as well as a number of others who speak with authority on the subject such as Peter Rolfe and many far better anglers than I could ever hope to be. Hopefully, I've done the moat and its beautiful crucians justice...

I also was asked to write a piece for 'Improve your course fishing' about float fishing for crucians. It was a different style of writing for me - a little more technical than my blogs and not as poetic as I often aim to be. However, I enjoyed the challenge and was delighted to be given two double spreads for my piece.

Earlier this year I turned 40.  To celebrate, I trotted a worm down the river wylye in hope of a grayling. In truth, I had a pretty awful day - I fished badly, lost lots of tackle in snags and the one fish I hooked - a fairly sizeable grayling, came off at the net! Furthermore, I snapped my cane net handle in a goofy accident and got thoroughly soaked! My friend Jake however, had an excellent day topped off by this fantastic salmon. We did not weigh it as it was caught out of season but a quick snap before returning to the water did no harm I'm sure...

The rest of 2021 has been quite unremarkable as far as fishing is concerned. I've appreciated getting out for a few moments here and there though, enjoying some peaceful contrast to my otherwise hectic life and occasionally the company of my dad or my daughter who have fished with me. I have discovered some beautiful spots such as Cara's Lake in Dorset [pictured top] and thankfully had sufficient fish to reassure me that my angling skills haven't yet completely packed their bags though I won't be bragging about the size of my captures for now!
I'm sure there's so much more that could have been said, but rather than yarning on about the past, I shall make an effort not to leave it so long before I write to you next. I mentioned my rod restorations - this has become a bit of an obsession! I have done a few reels up too and am currently working on a Mk IV Avon. Perhaps when this is done I'll share the results and a bit of an insight to a few of my projects. 
Anyway, how've you been getting on?

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Looking back at 2018

My syndicate lake in the autumn.

Finding a balance between work and family life can be tricky enough at the best of times but throwing an obsession with angling in to the mix and a series of unfortunate events and circumstances to boot can make for an even harder task. I will spare you the details of my complaints but suffice to say 2018 has been a difficult time but the solitude and serenity provided by even the shortest tarry on the bank has been greatly appreciated and served a valuable therapeutic purpose.

My first winter since returning to the West Country was cold and at times, hostile. The River Frome provided some respite from the working week where hours spent driving in dismal darkness topped and tailed days of relentless challenges. The Frome, even in the bleakest days of winter, seemed to be teaming with life and from this I took solace. Time has not been my friend for some years now but as I have found in recent years, by cheating myself of sleep I could be set up on the bank, ready to trot a float or watch a quiver-tip just as the first semblance of sunlight scouted ahead of the horizon. The simplicity of fishing here itself was good for me, a perfect antidote to the complexity of problems faced elsewhere. Over the months that followed, I enjoyed a consistently satisfying stamp of roach, dace and some fair chub to boot - even when a carpet of snow adorned the patchwork fields that surrounded the stretch. This snow did not prevent the fish from biting but when it caused me to turn my car over on my way to work with my rods still in the boot, my river fishing was put on hold for a couple of weeks until they could be retrieved and consequently the last knockings of the season were missed.

Chub and Roach caught on the River Frome and my mondeo shortly after I rolled it on the ice.

Whilst the rivers were still closed, my friend Jake took me for a short session on his syndicate lake on a quest for a carp. It was quite an interesting venue with very little in the way of visible features. Thankfully, a carp gave its whereabouts away by topping out of the water while we were setting up and so this mid-water location became one of our baited areas. It transpired the topography of the lakebed was akin to the inside of an egg box with belligerent boulders towering up from the silt, making for a heart rendering battle when early in the evening a powerful fish took off with my maple nut popup. I could feel the line rubbing against the rocks and pinging free one by one, each time causing me to think the fish was lost until the slack was taken up once more with another valiant bid for freedom. I have only targeted carp twice in earnest this year, both were successful and coincidently, Jake was fishing in the adjacent swim both times causing me to see him as something of a lucky charm!

My biggest carp of 2018.

A few weeks later the seasons had changed dramatically. It was only the beginning of May but felt like the height of Summer. It was an honour to have been invited on a very special social trip to Charlie's Lake near Ashford, for my friend Shaun's stag do. The camaraderie and banter was top-notch throughout the whole weekend, as was the fishing. Thankfully, everyone managed to catch at least one wels catfish which was our intended quarry. My own catches started small and progressively increased in weight resulting in this 30lber taken from tight to snags on the far bank. In all honesty, I don't think I have ever had my string pulled so hard! However, once away from the submerged branches of the tree I had cast to, the open water in front of me was free from hazards, meaning it was just a case of holding on and hoping the fish would tire to the point of submission before I did!  

New PB catfish at 30lbs caught at Charlie's Lake.

Sunrise on the syndicate.

I had joined a small syndicate myself, not far from home with the hopes of catching a few of their newly stocked crucians, or even one of the fabled original stock if I should be so lucky. It turns out I was not lucky at all. Over the whole summer, I did not catch even one here, though had one on the end of my line a couple of times before embarrassing blunders betrayed my success. This lake was a tranquil haven, devoid of other anglers almost every time I visited however I was kept company by a carnival of animals; badgers, tawny owls, kingfishers, swallows, deer... all popping past to pay their respects! Eventually, I put my ambition for a crucian from this water aside and targeted the perch. I caught a number of good fish, both with a worm beneath a traditional bobber and also on a more modern approach with rubber lures fished on a very light drop shot rod - the latter of these two methods producing the best fish of the summer for me.

A chunky drop-shot caught perch.

I was fortunate in the summer to be invited back to The Moat to fish for a few days. This venue is special for numerous reasons but the quality of the crucians here is right up there. So much so perhaps that the characterful, dark carp that inhabit the same waters are often overshadowed. However, I am equally keen to target both whenever I am fortunate enough to visit.
My previous trip had seen me catch some tenacious tench and a very credible crucian but all in all was a tough session with each bite being hard earned. This time though was quite the contrary. Several carp were taken each night and at first light and a couple of crucians each over 2lbs made my mornings along with others lost and a variety of non-target species for good measure.

A dark mirror caught at night at the moat.

One of the things I am enjoying in my fishing these days is the fluidity I have acquired between traditional and modern methods. In fact, I no longer see them as separate entities: it's all just fishing! I will happily fish with cane or carbon, depending on my chosen tactics and often will combine the two. The moat lends itself especially well to this in my opinion.

A cane caught cru'.

My last trip of the summer was with my dad who was keen for us to do some sea fishing from Chesil Beach. In a way this brings me full circle, as this is exactly how I got started. These days, I don't really own a lot of sea tackle and so had to improvise - a carp fishing rod pod combined with storm poles from my brolly became my tripod and my spod and marker setup became rudimentary beach casters. It all held up well, in spite of my doubts and the fact that it was put through its paces by a vast variety of species including gurnard, whiting, dogfish, mackerel and others which could certainly pull hard such as conger eels and thornback rays, was testament to its adequacy. A couple of fish were taken for the table, all the rest were returned. It was great to get out with my dad again - we always seem to leave it too long but have a great time whenever we do get our act together. 
Once I returned to work after the summer break, my fishing resumed its previous form of short early morning sessions at the weekends. The object not being so much to a catch fish as to catch up with myself in a moment of quiet.
I have certainly managed to get on the bank more frequently than last year, when being a new father brought my angling to a standstill for a time, but aside from a few overnighters,  I have only fished during the day on two occasions - all the others being no more than a few hours at dawn each time and so with this in mind, I am quite pleased with the fish I have caught and the experiences I have had. I am already very excited about some piscatorial plans for 2019 and can't wait to be able to share them with you as they transpire. Until then, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Tight lines,

Beach casting with my spod and marker rods at Chesil Beach!

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.