Despite my youthful good looks, I've been fishing a very long time. Back when I began the journey, the world and indeed the waterside was a very different place. Rods were made of fibre glass, reels didn't have skirts or cones and braid was for carpy hook lengths. Piking was a lot more open in those days too and the carp world secretive. However in all cases we eventually learned the error of our ways. Looking back in time has caused me a giggle or two along with the odd cringe, which I'll hopefully share here.
What can you say about the 80's? Where do you start? Thatcher the maniac, the Miners strike, Falklands war, Liverpool winning everything (yes a very long time ago). Mainstream music was generally dire, Punk was fizzling out and there was sod all to replace it. John Bonham, John Lennon, Bob Marley died... New Romantics? You must be joking! Heavy metal was the thing man. The fashions of that decade were just one disaster after another, trust me, I wore most of them. Then there were the haircuts, just plain scary but more on that in due course.
I became a Piker in the 80's, learning the sport from the patient PAC members I'd pester around my local waters. Back then Pike fishing was really buzzing. Watto and the Norfolk Pikers seemed to be almost always in the angling press with another huge Pike. Then there was the young kid on the block, none other than Neville Fickling making a name for himself. Nev's first book “Pike fishing in the 80's” blew me away. I read it over and over again and pored over the photos. It inspired me and was the reference point for my friends and I. Looking back at my own fishing photos of that time one thing strikes me more than anything else, the hair. There were some monstrous hair cuts in the 80's and I was afflicted with two of them. The first was the dreaded 'Pudding basin' but it wasn't my fault, no the blame lies with my mother. However the latter was entirely my fault and it's something I have something to confess to now. I had a mullet on my head. It's OK, I've had counselling and I can deal with it now.
My Pike tackle in the early eighties consisted of Mitchell 300 reels loaded with Sylcast line in 11 pounds as recommended by NF. (NB By NF I mean Neville, definitely NOT the National Front. Yes right wing loonies were around in the eighties too). Rods were a Daiwa carp rod (not recommended by NF at that time) and the classic North Western SS6, 11foot 2 ½ lb t.c. fast taper, state of the art equipment. Ready made traces were available back then too. I'm sure people will remember the Ryder trebles whipped on with some kind of red....stuff. These would have been perfectly adequate apart from one crucial fact, they were only about 9” long. My friends and I began making our own traces firstly using crimps and some plastic coated stuff from Woolworth's then later with 7 strand stuff, made by Drennan I think. I can't remember what brand of hooks I used in the beginning, probably cheap ones but later I opted for Partridge above all the other brands, not that there were too many to choose from. I'm sure they would have been size 8's as that's what all the proper Pike anglers used in those days. To twist our traces we had to clip a pair of forceps carefully on to the tag end of the wire and then spin the forceps around. If all went to plan we'd end up with a nice neatly whipped trace. If it went wrong the trace might have to be scrapped and we'd have to start again or even worse, the forceps would occasionally fly off with genuine threat to life and limb. Not for the faint hearted.
Most of the time we were fishing the local pits which luckily were pretty good fisheries and in fact actually improved for a few years. The day would begin as soon as the paper round was finished and involved cycling for a mile with gear precariously balanced all over me and my bike. I often had a bucket of live-baits swinging on the handle bars. I cant remember ever falling off but I'm certain I must have done at some point. Back then we usually free-lined our dead-baits. Obviously this is frowned upon these days but in truth I can't remember it causing many problems. We'd let the bait, almost always half a Herring, sink and settle then tighten up carefully and clip on bobbins made of cork. Front alarms were the original Optonics which were very quiet and discouraged wandering too far. Live-baits were fished on Paternoster rigs, always, except for the occasional trip to the River. Once cast out, dead-baits were often just left, all day, without a recast. If a Pike didn't happen upon them they could literally just lay there all day. Seems ridiculous now but that's what we did.
So much of our tackle was home made those days. To begin with I decided to make my rods cool. I stripped them down, painted one matt black to match the other and re-whipped them with Fuji rings. For whipping thread I used old Sylcast line as recommended by NF, as he stated “I am more interested in using the rod than looking at it!” My 42” landing net was 'made' in metal work at school. All I needed to do was bend a couple of bits of hollow steel into shape and add some kind of string for the cord. My teacher wouldn't allow this, I had to solder some bits here and there so I'd “actually done something.” I cheated and bought a spreader block & mesh. A notable piece of tackle missing from our kits those days was the unhooking mat, there simply weren't any. We made do with the weigh sling or carp sack, the mesh of the net and the softest ground available.
Apart from the odd attempt to make floats, which usually sunk, most of our creativity went into making drop off indicators. They began with Wine corks painted red to which we added a piece of string which tied off to the rod rest. Clips were made of small beads glued onto the ends of hair grips which allowed the line to run free and show drop backs. These were tightened up to hang below the spool. These worked fine but it was fun to fiddle around and tinker with them. They later morphed into Poly balls mounted onto the hinge spoke of an old umbrella now giving the thing a rigid arm. These were held onto the back rest by ingenious use of elastic bands. The last and best ones I created had stems made from quiver tips. These were tightened so the stem bent under pressure, any slack line was indicated instantly and they worked brilliantly. The only problem was I never found a really good way of attaching them to the rest so whenever I picked up the rod they tended to fly off in unpredictable directions. My mate Phil Moore managed to trump all of us by making his own 'Back biter' type alarms, they were so good I bought some.
In my memory I'm at my favourite pit which was dotted with islands, bays and features. It's one of those dull, showery days, mild with the occasional breeze springing up. Usually I'd fish with a friend but sometimes alone. My Herring has been cast in deeper water alongside a gravel bar. We know this is a good spot around lunch time but for whatever reason I usually fished it all day? It's early afternoon and the 'hot time' is passing quickly, will I catch? The mind drifts off, “football, girls, cricket, girls...” then thoughts interrupted by a tinny, high pitched sound. Glance up, the drop off is falling slowly, here we go....
As the decade began to wane, the music did begin to improve a little; hip hop and dance stuff started to creep in and the fashions toned down a bit. Unfortunately, as I eluded to before, my hair continued to get bigger. At this time we began to see some of the items of tackle we'd had to make ourselves appear in the tackle shops. A lot of it was aimed at carp anglers but ET began to supply proper Pike tackle. A real inspiration at that time was a book by Bailey & Page “Pike – The Predator becomes the prey”, by and large I think this book has stood the test of time and is still relevant today. The reader was introduced to a host of successful Pikers who fished a wide variety of waters and we learnt we had to adapt our methods to suit various types of water. In reality we didn't actually do this as we were still fishing the local pits however my push bike had been replaced by two wheels and an engine (a Suzuki 125) so my range was extended a little. This book also upped the bar for us, by now my friends and I had caught a few 'twenties' between us but 'Predator becomes the prey' nominated 25 as a target, a really big Pike!
There was one pit in particular that was known to hold a Pike that big in my vicinity but it was a hard water that didn't hold many fish at all. The known big fish only appeared a couple of times a season, she was a big, wise old fish but previously Giles Hill had hooked her on a jack live-bait but lost her at the net. The Suzuki trundled to a halt behind my favourite swim one damp day in November 1987, I only chose to fish that pit because it was one of the few that was unaffected by the first flood of the winter. The island I intended to cast to was just in range of the 11 ft tricast carbon rod and I put a legered smelt here. The 12 ft tricast was loaded up with a heavy lead and a spratt for a longer cast onto a plateau in open water beyond the island. By this time the free-line rigs were gone and my baits were fished on running legers with 2 to 3oz leads. I should add that this spratt was injected with 'Biotrak', the fashionable bait enhancer at that time as endorsed by the late Len Head (for carp & tench at least). Line would probably still be the Sylcast but by now I think I was using QED wire and VB double hooks, still size 8. I can't remember what reels I was using, probably still on the Mitchell's but around that time I began using the very first Shimano bait runners to be sold in the UK.
Around 0900 I had a take on smelt, a nerve racking moment on a 'big fish water' but the fish was small. I'd hardly returned this one when the spratt on the other rod was taken. Somewhere in this house I'm sure I still have my old fishing diary and it would tell me whether the fish pulled my arms off or just rolled into the net, sadly without it I can't remember. I can recall she weighed 25.04 and Giles came out to take the photos for me. The pictures show a lovely dark, spotty fish with a big ol head and tench crushing jaws. My own head sported a quite horrendous peroxide mullet.
Towards the end of the decade our local waters became renowned for the quality of the fishing, new faces arrived, some travelling quite a distance. Most of the newcomers were decent anglers but there were one or two that weren't. “Coincidently” the fishing began to deteriorate as did the condition of the Pike. Luckily two wheels had been replaced by four and our travelling range had increased again. We were very lucky that we still had good quality fishing within a short journey. Our Pike fishing horizons broadened but I still didn't get a hair cut until 1990.
Thankfully mullets are all but extinct nowadays but home made tackle is still around. Nowadays I use professionally home made lures by Dave Greenwood, drop arm indicators by Mark Houghton and the awesome Billy's back biters by Steve Bown. All of these are superior to any equivalent items of tackle made by any of the major tackle companies. My own home made spinner-baits have caught me loads of Pike but aren't in the 'professional' league of those guys. The happiest thought to come from my look back in time is it was during the mid to late 80's that I met and began fishing with Giles & Rich. These blokes are amongst my oldest friends, we still socialise and fish together a quarter of a century later and I'm sure we always will.