Saturday, 31 December 2011

Pool-View talks to John Costello

Pool-view - Hi John, thanks for taking time out to chat to the “Pool”. We know you have been out there quietly catching big fish for a good number of years. Predators aside for a moment, where did fishing start for you and what have been some of the highlights ?
John – I started in the 60’s as a lad fishing a small stream near my parent’s house in Warwickshire.  I think it was probably two years before I caught my first fish as I had no one to show me where i was going wrong.  The first time i used ground bait i couldn’t understand why it blew back in my face!  But it was the long summer vacations of the mid 70’s, when i was at university that i really started to get into fishing, initially fishing for chub on the river Teme and then when i had passed my driving test, barbel fishing on the middle Severn. So it was rivers and streams at first.  By now I was living near Tewkesbury and the banks of the lower Severn.  But at that time I had no interest in fishing there, to be honest it was too big and rather intimidated me.  I eventually spread my wings onto various local stillwaters, carp fishing at Eastnor near Ledbury and tench fishing on the gravel pits of the Cotswold water park.  However it was reading Rickards and Webb’s book Fishing for big Pike that started my interest in pike fishing.  I was very lucky living ten minutes drive away from the Severn.  By this time I had actually fished it a few times in previous winters for the roach when I was home from university and had even helped weigh a seventeen pound pike for a pike angler.  Yet despite seeing this fish and even giving the contents of my keepnet to a piker it was not until I read that book that I got the bug.  I still smile about my early efforts now.  Keen as mustard I would be on the water before first light, but it must have taken four or five trips before I caught one.  The Severn at that time was an out and out livebait water, and whilst I persevered with deadbaits on one rod for most of that season, it wasn’t until i had organised catching and keeping livebaits that I started to catch the odd fish. 

 I had turned up on the water a season or two after it had been discovered by the likes of John Sidley and Mick Brown, and I later discovered how they had wondered who was this Billy-no-mates who kept on turning up every weekend and who was usually on the water before them.  I was too shy to approach any of them and whilst there would be a nod or grunt of acknowledgement this was the late 70’s and super secret ultra cult etc. It was Mick Brown who helped to unhook one of my first pike and he and a bloke called Roy Greenwood, who was to become a good friend and my fishing parner for most of the 80’s, later photographed my first double.  But that first season I was on my own and learning as I went.  Barrie and Ray mentioned pre-baiting for pike so I tried going down at lunchtimes in the week and baiting up with chopped sprats etc.  On one such occasion John Sidley was fishing and having asked if it would be okay I baited up a nearby swim and returned to work.  It was the following season that John mentioned that half an hour after I had baited up, the tide came in and washed my pre-bait up to the other end of the dead arm, much to his amusement. 

So that was how I started out as a pike angler.  But in the summer it was barbel that filled my dreams.  I was by now catching bags of three and four pound barbel from the middle Severn and the occasional five pounder, but dreaming of seven pounders.  Remember in those days a double figure barbel was virtually unheard of outside of such rivers as the Hampshire Avon and Dorset Stour, and a seven pounder was about the biggest you could possibly hope for from the middle Severn.  As I  drove up the Severn valley from Tewkesbury to the middle Severn, I started to wonder if I could find barbel nearer home and how many barbel was I driving past. There were rumours of barbel in the lower river, but to most people there were too few to consider fishing for. Match angler Barrie Brookes, had a weekly column in Angling Times, and despite his view that barbel had ruined the middle Severn as a match venue and that it had become a lottery as to who drew the barbel pegs who framed, he mentioned in one article that Severn Stoke was producing some good barbel.  So the next summer, (1980) I started fishing Severn Stoke, maybe once a week, in between my regular trips to the middle Severn.  In about ten or twelve trips I caught one four ounce barbel, but I did see a couple of barbel roll so I knew that the rumours were true and I started to dream of catching big barbel.  It was not until the following autumn that I caught my first lower Severn barbel, all 5lb 7oz, from Uckinghall, below Upton.  How we found that first barbel swim was more by luck than skill.  Roy had taken his nephew David fishing on the Severn and David had somehow ended up hooking five barbel landing three whilst float fishing maggots for whatever came along.  The biggest was an eight pounder, bigger than either of us had caught and it was a stunned Roy who phoned me with the news that evening.   David was to come back and haunt me nearly twenty years later with a massive zander but more of that later. Over the following two or three seasons we explored that part of the river and slowly started to catch barbel of a size we had only dreamed of, seven eight and one or two nine pounders.  Not just one or two hard won fish either, sometimes bags of fish,  Roy one day literally lost count of how many he had but it was somewhere between twenty-five and thirty barbel to over eight pounds. I am not sure if we were the only anglers targeting the lower Severn barbel at that time but we were certainly amongst the first.  I can remember talking to  Des Taylor about the lower Severn barbel around 1985, when we were piking the same gravel pit and, and Des saying that Stef Horak was going to take him on the Dorset Stour for some big barbel. 
 I even had a couple of articles about lower Severn barbel published in Coarse Angler around the mid 80’s, so whilst I have always considered myself as an aspiring allrounder the lower Severn barbel have been a near constant in my fishing over the last thirty years.

Pool-view- You have been associated with the Barbel Catchers Club for many years. You will in that time have seen the popularity of barbel fishing explode over the last decade or more , what has been the good and bad in your opinion ?
John –One of the reasons i joined the Barbel Catchers Club in the mid 90’s was to meet more barbel anglers because although i had been fishing for barbel for over fifteen years the number of specialist barbel anglers i knew could probably be counted on one hand. I think barbel fishing began to really take off in popularity around 1990, prior to then it was rare to see ‘specialist’ barbel anglers on rivers outside  the Wessex heartland.  Up until the mid 90’s I had always switched from barbel to pike around the end of October but with the responsibility of a family and running a business it  became difficult to commit full days to pike fishing and it was easier to slip out for a few hours in the evening so predator fishing took a back seat for the next ten years or so.  I hadn’t so much fallen out with piking, just that the pike fishing that inspired me was not available locally and I had lost interest in soaking deadbaits in gravel pits.

I am sure it is coincidence but the rise in popularity of barbel fishing has been mirrored by the decline of pleasure anglers and match anglers fishing rivers.  Obviously the proliferation of carp puddles has accentuated this as well.  I think it is great that there are more people fishing for barbel and who hopefully are committed to ensuring clean, healthy rivers.  But I do find it sad that there are so few anglers fishing for roach, chub, dace on rivers now.  Back in the 70’s and 80’s it was frustrating having so many club stretches closed for matches at weekends but float fishing running water requires a lot more skill than feeder fishing and so many pleasure and match anglers have totally given up rivers for the  overstocked stillwaters.  I cant remember the last time I saw someone fishing hemp and tares for summer roach which is sad.

Barbel fishing has become a lot more popular and some waters do get a lot of round-the-clock attention, but you can still get away from the crowds.  There are miles of both the Severn and Wye which hardly ever get fished.  Likewise you do get a few nobs fishing for barbel, but that is true of all fishing.  At least barbel are relatively hardy compared to pike and can take the pressure.  What does seem to have happened in the last ten years is that we’re all fishing pellets and/or boilies and it has become a bit of a one-method discipline.  Hopefully the fish are wising up and we’ll have to start thinking about how to catch them again.  Again watch a good angler trundling and you can appreciate the relative skill compared to waiting for a fish to hook itself.  Mind you I am crap at trundling and still love the sight of a rod going round as a fish hooks itself.  So maybe I am finding modern barbel fishing a bit of a one-method game but I still love fishing for them, but not all the time.  Summing up I would say barbel are my favourite fish because I enjoy every fish I catch but pike/predator fishing is my favourite type of fishing simply because you can fish for them in so many different ways.  Not every pike I catch gives me pleasure, but there are so many different methods to master and so many different sorts of water to understand.

Pool-view – You slipped a 40lb+ pike into Neville’s great book “ Mammoth Pike” and under the radar of the pike angling world, then a decade later quietly drop an article into Pike and Predators magazine holding a 20lb+ Zander. That is a fantastic angling achievement in anyone’s book. Could you recap and tell us Pool-siders a little detail about these two fish.
John - It was Jaimie Kemp who was responsible for us eventually getting permission to fish that ‘west country water’.  Initially we were allowed on it for two months from mid January to mid March.  The first day we were allowed out the lake was very coloured and partially frozen so it was no surprise that we all blanked but over the next few days it started to clear and Jaimie had a couple of jacks on a mid-week trip. By the following Saturday the water colour had changed from brown to green which as anyone who fishes for pike in rivers knows is probably the best conditions. A couple of hours later I was paddling ashore with an enormous pike in the landing net, something which I thought would be my fish of a lifetime.  The sight of that fish powering under the boat will live with me for ever.  She weighed 37lb 3ounces and was more than ten pounds bigger than my best. The jungle drums were beating that night between the four of us.  Dave May then had  a 32 pounder a few days later and the following Saturday Jaimie and I shared a boat full of expectation.  Naturally enough nothing much happened, we had a couple of jacks and a couple of dropped runs, but I was out again the following morning.  It was a day of early morning rain clearing and a freshening south Westerly with intermittent sunshine and big puffy clouds, perfect fishing conditions.  Nothing happened most of the morning, I was drifting and float trolling a couple of livebaits over one end of the lake whilst Dave May was at the other end covering the water in a similar fashion.  With lunchtime approaching I set off downwind to say goodbye and float trolled a couple of baits behind.  Within a couple of hundred yards the baitrunner starting screaming, picking the rod up I wasn’t sure if it was weed or a take and as I was being blown downwind I wound down and felt a solid thump as the fish realised something was up.

The fight was nothing like the 37, which had fought well and within a couple of minutes I had her in the net.  With the bright late morning sunshine in my face and a fair chop on the water it was difficult to estimate her size but my initial guess was a high twenty, maybe thirty but smaller than the 37. I unhooked her in the landing net as the boat drifted towards the shore and when she beached I took her ashore to weigh her.  With the weigh sling zeroed I placed her in the weigh sling and watching the dial on the Avons spin around I started to lift.  As I took the strain I carefully counted each revolution until the weigh sling was clear.  That cant be right, the scales have gone around four times, so I lowered her back onto the mat and repeated the procedure.  Again the scales went round four times.  Voices in my head kept saying this cant be right, I might have lifted a third time to make sure, I cant remember but securing her in a sack I walked out on a point and managed to get Dave’s attention.  When he came over I asked him to check the weight on his scales, I didn’t say how big I thought it was, simply that I thought my scales might be playing up.  On his Happy Hooker scales he read out a weight of 41 pounds 12 ounces, which was what my scales had been saying.  We photographed the fish and most of the time I didn’t even lift her up as i was conscious of the her enormous bulk unsupported by water.  We returned her and she seemed to go off alright but sadly in the close season four very big pike were found dead by the owner.  There was one day in early March when we saw a very big pike swimming with difficulty on the surface and there was a sudden cold snap at the end of the month which might have also stressed the fish. Whether us catching those fish was too much for them or whether they were near the end of their lives I don’t know. But what an amazing water, in one season it produced a 41, two different 37’s, a 36 and a 32.  I fished it the following season and had a mid-twenty but I dropped out after that.  Four friends continued to fish it for a number of years afterwards and although a number of high twenties and three or four thirties came out it did not, to my knowledge, produce anything over 34.  So maybe it was just lucky being in the right place at the right time.

I think it was around 1985 that Mick Brown and Bob Jackson did a talk on zander at the NASA conference.  They finished their talk about fenland zander with a picture of a small zander which one of them had caught from the Severn and ended by saying that in their view the Severn was going to be the zander venue of the future.   How right they were. But you cant do everything and with fishing time at a premium I was always being dragged in different directions so for much of the last twenty years zander remained an unfulfilled ambition. A few days boat fishing the Severn in the mid-90’s gave me a starting point to work from,  a couple of areas were found that zander frequented and bank fishing one of those areas gave me my first double.   A season or so later I fished the other area I had found, accompanied by David, the lad who had unwittingly found our first lower Severn barbel swim nearly twenty years earlier.  It was probably the first time he had been fishing in a number of years and it had to happen of course, that the first zander he ever caught was a monster of 16lb 7oz.  You just have to view such things as part of the attraction of fishing. I find it difficult to comprehend now, but even that fish never really sparked me into an all-out campaign and over the next ten years or so my zander campaigns probably comprised four or five trips a season when the conditions for barbel were rubbish.  By 2009 I had realised that, with the time I had available, I would have to forget barbel and concentrate on zander if i was going to get anywhere with them.  There is a lot of common ground between Severn barbel and Severn zander, in terms of what water and weather conditions they favour, and even what sort of swims they prefer.  Definite progress was made that year and come September 2010 Dave May and myself were chomping at the bit.  Tactically we had decided on semi-mobile deadbait fishing from the bank and float trolling live/deadbaits when out in the boat to locate fish, occasionally anchoring up and fishing static baits in specific swims.  Third trip of the season, the river was up a couple of foot, perfect conditions and having fished one area a mile or so downstream, I anchored up in a swim which had produced a fourteen to me the previous season and less than a hundred yards away from where David had had his sixteen nine years earlier.  Twenty minutes later the float bobbed and moved across the river. I can still remember the furious head shaking when I lent into her.  She seemed to rise right up in the water and I was half-expecting her to surface in the twelve foot deep swim.  So I was certain  that it was a zander, but as I played the fish i could not believe how heavy she felt.  I was using standard pike rods and 15lb line and you know how much bend you have to put in a rod to lift a fish.  It just didn’t seem right, but i made myself be patient, to pull out of this fish without seeing it would be horrible. I cannot say the fight was spectacular, typical zander, mind you i would say the average zander fights as hard as the average gravel pit pike. In the net i could see it was a big as i could possibly imagine!. Unhooked and into the weigh sling, lift the scales, watch the dial do one complete revolution and then another. Those are the moments that stay with you forever. She was a fantastic looking fish, big shouldered with a huge head, not as full as late season zander often are. It was just a privilege to see and hold for a few minutes,then gone,maybe never to be seen again. That is one of the attrations of the Severn for both zander and barbel as you can't target individual fish. I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

Pool-view – Are you looking at catching a huge perch to complete the “ Mammoth” UK predator set of fish ?. Or perhaps you’ve already done it and are keeping it under the radar !
John - I have got several friends who are quite keen on perch and perch fishing but I have never set my stall out for them.  Maybe one day, maybe try a bit of drop-shotting on Chew off the Woodford bank when the pike are not playing, or maybe something else.  I have always aspired to being an all-rounder so if not perch, maybe something else, ferox, catfish, but definitely not eels.  Too many dark hours of nothing would not be good for my sanity......or my marriage!

Pool-view – You have been spotted occasionally on Chew Valley Reservoir over the years John !. How have you got on and what are your thoughts on the venue ?
John – Noddy comes to Toytown?  I have had a couple of days on Chew most years since it opened in 2001.  In fact in some years that has been the only pike fishing I have done.  In the early years, up until about 2007, getting tickets was never really a problem, it was more a question of how many you were prepared to buy, and I regret not making more of it at that time.  Lures seemed to work over a longer period of time than they do now when it seems after the first few days they lose their effectiveness.  The trouble was that initially we spent too much time trying to make float trolling work, when either static deads or lures would have been better.  Both Dave and Jaimie had done well on Deggy float trolling big deads and they each had a 30 and several big 20’s so it was difficult to understand why it didn’t work on Chew.  One difference of course was that you could use coarse fish deadbaits on Deggy which might explain why it worked there but not on Chew.  Between us we have had fish to around 18 on trolled deads but to be honest we would have done better sitting on static deads.  I personally find sitting in a boat watching a couple of floats very boring but if that is the method then I suppose you have to do it.  I have had some very enjoyable days lure fishing on Chew taking large numbers of fish but my biggest on a lure is 21 and latterly I have sat watching static floats and my biggest has been 23.  But the biggest problem in recent years for both Dave and myself has been getting tickets, in 2010 I had three boat days and two bank days and in 2011 I only got one boat day.  So if any one at Chew is reading this my application is the one in the pink envelope with green ink!!  Seriously I love fishing it, sure you have the competitiveness that occurs at such times but that is part of the fun, if you don’t like binoculars and mobile phones going off then don’t fish it.  Chew seems to be a unique pike water insofar as the fishing has yet to show any signs of deteriorating, provided the water company don’t extend the season or numbers of boats I see no reason why it cannot keep on producing.

Pool-view –Do you have any little “edges” of differences to your approach to catching big fish John. If so do tell !
John -I suppose nearly all of us envy anyone who can fish more often than ourselves but having too much time can make you lazy and you stop thinking about how to maximize your limited opportunities. In my own case I have to be realistic about what I can do in the time available so weekends in Norfolk  or weeks on the Western loughs are out.  However what I  try to do is to maximise my efforts at those times when my chances of success are greatest, and to try and be on the water reaping the rewards before anyone else.  Most of my fishing is within fifty miles of here so I can keep an eye on local weather and water conditions and make the most of any opportunities that present themselves.  So if we have a cold snap which is broken by a spell of warm rain I know that the barbel will be feeding, and, depending on when I can go I could choose between three or four local rivers.  Temperatures on the Bristol Avon will rise much quicker than the Severn and slightly quicker than the Warwickshire Avon so if the only day I could  go was tomorrow I would go on the Bristol Avon but if it was three or four days later I would head for the Severn. If I was committed to barbel fishing on the day of a frost I would fish the Severn because I know it will hold its temperature better than a smaller river.  If the pits had been frozen and I was piking I would make every effort to be the first on the water.  The last gravel pit twenty I had came from a water I had never fished before. When I turned up on Saturday it was still frozen so I went home and returned the following morning, fished for a couple of hours, had a 21 and 17 and went home happy. As much as anything I try to identify those times when the fish I am seeking are not feeding and then make a big effort to be out when conditions change and they are hopefully active and feeding.  It was very noticeable when we got onto that ‘west country water’ that three of the four biggest pike came out in the first  week as a prolonged cold snap was replaced by a period of mild weather.

Pool-view – Any pet hates in angling today ?
John –Not really, life’s too short and fishing isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.  Obviously people who spoil other people’s sport, people who are intolerant of other’s views or methods, people who take themselves too seriously, people who place unnecessary restrictions on others, people who pollute, people who kill pike or zander, cormorants and fish-chasers but there’s a lot more good guys than bad ones in fishing.

Pool-view – Outside of fishing what else floats your boat ?
John – Well if I had the time and money I lots of things. I enjoy shooting and sailing but don’t get much time to go other than by not fishing.  I do enjoy writing and have really enjoyed doing this. I just hope people enjoy reading it.

Pool-view – Many thanks John for this interview, Pool siders very much appreciate your contribution and time. Have a great winter !

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