Monday, 31 December 2012

Merlin Magic by Mark Barret

                                                          Merlin’s magic
          Well beings as it’s the time of year of goodwill to all men I hope that you will forgive me if I wander slightly off the pike topic from time to time within this, well from a pike point of view at least as this story covers a five year period of my life when I had some of the best fishing that I have ever had, especially for pike, but also, and with all respect to my human fishing companions, the best angling partner I have ever had. So sit back, grab a glass of something good and enjoy.
As long as I can remember I have always loved dogs. I was brought up with them around; though never in my direct family my Nan and Granddad had a succession of dogs, from a sausage dog called Rory, the first I can remember to their last a King Charles spaniel. My uncle also had a gundog and as I got increasingly more interested in shooting as a sport so I wanted a gundog too, but for some reason I had my heart set on a Springer Spaniel. After much convincing of my parents who I lived with at the time I managed to convince them that I was responsible enough to own my own dog and after visiting a specialist breeder I walked away a few weeks later with a liver and white ball of fluff that was to become Merlin.
Though my primary reason for getting him was of course as a gundog, if he was to be my dog then he also was going to spend a lot of time by the waterside. So it was that at just 8 weeks old we embarked upon our very first fishing trip together, along with my best mate Richard to the Great Ouse with zander as the target.

A large zander, bait caught.
 As it was a summer’s night I dispensed with my bedchair and was going to spend a night on my chair. This I did but very quickly I ended up with a puppy asleep on my stomach, curled up underneath my coat! Sometime in the middle of the night one of my rods roared off and as it was quite difficult to get up with a dog on me Richard grabbed merlin and put him on his own bedchair before I could warn him not to as the first thing that a puppy does when it wakes up? It pisses and left Richard a lovely puddle in the middle of his bedchair that he had to spend the remainder of the night sleeping on!
However after a fairly shaky start, merlin soon got used to this strange activity and over the course of the next few months got accustomed to fishing just in time for the start of the pike season.
My main venue at the time was a series of gravel pits not far from home which enabled me to get down to the lake as often as possible. It also meant that merlin got extremely accustomed to that route and had developed the habit of bouncing up and down as we got near to the turn off for that lake, my Carp Lake or workplace as he went to them all and all were right hand turns off the same road. On the rare occasion that we didn’t turn at either he used to look at me from the passenger seat as if to say “what’s going on, you have missed the turn”!
My main target had been the largest lake on the complex for a while but it had been pretty hard going with just a few doubles amongst a succession of jacks. However from time to time a big girl would reveal herself by either grabbing a jack as it was being played, or by being caught. I well remember looking on as a gorgeous 24lber was caught one Sunday afternoon by a young lad with just the merest sniff of envy as not only was it a great fish, but fin and scale perfect, the perfect pike in every way.
However there came a fly in the ointment in that the previously private trout lake opened for all this year and was there to offer a new exciting challenge. Initially though I stuck with the main pit and after several years of trying I finally got one of the big girls from the lake, oddly at exactly smack on twenty pounds. With that monkey off my back and the possibility of something new on the other lake I decided that I would give the big lake a miss and give the trout lake a go. It was a decision that I shall be eternally grateful for as on the first trip there I had a pike of 25lbs 6ozs and my mate Richard caught the same fish a while later and added a 19.14 to nearly get a brace of twenties when in fact the 25lber was his first ever twenty.
I could wax lyrical about the rest of my time on the lake, but in reality I have done that before in PAC30, but we had some of the best piking we ever experienced including my still personal best of 27.10. for the first two seasons it was also still pretty quiet especially in the week and often I would turn up after a shift at work and have the lake to myself. This would lead to me getting the rods out and then curling up in the back of my van to get some kip, whilst merlin would either be out chasing the rabbits or assuming the role of spaniel hot water bottle, curled up by my feet! He had also developed a little trick by this point that used to amaze those that hadn’t seen it before and that was that if I had my rods slightly spread out should one beep then he would run and sit behind the rod that had sounded. He never got the wrong rod and would sit there and look at me until I either did something about the rod or called him back!
One trick that he did pick up that was less enamouring was to get the dead rabbits that had passed on by myxamitosis and rolling in them coating himself in rotten rabbit. So it was that on one occasion I spied merlin coming back to our little base behind the Christmas trees with a dead rabbit in his mouth. Not fancying a journey home with stinking dog I jumped up and hid behind the car ready to grab the rabbit from him before he knew what was going on. Stage one of the plan worked perfectly and as he came sauntering round the car I leapt up and grabbed the rabbits legs to pull it free, but here the plan went well awry as merlin reacted as quickly and clamped down on his prize which proceeded to let out the most horrendous squealing! I must have jumped ten feet into the air and Richard who was fishing just up from me ended up with a cup of tea in his lap!
If the winter was good then the following summer was idyllic. I had taken on the lease on a lovely little pit in Cambridgeshire called Pingles and along with my mates we spent every moment that we had at the lake. Summer days seemed to pass by in a blur of sunny days, beautiful carp and tench and a mad spaniel either digging holes everywhere, swimming out alongside me in the syndicate boat, running heedlessly round the field or at night curled up in a ball at the bottom of my bedchair. It really was a great summer often spent in my favourite swim at the far end of the lake with not a care in the world.
After such a great summer I was really fired up for the winter to come and with a few waters on the agenda it looked like a really good season could be had, and that turned out to be the case, but that it was also to prove to be the last I spent with merlin made it all the more bitter sweet. Wherever I cast a line that winter I could do no wrong. It should also be said that the fire was burning very bright that year, probably to an extent that will never be repeated as the advancing years just quell the flames a touch. By the end of the winter I had managed to land eight pike over twenty pounds from five different venues but it was the last pike of the winter that was to prove the most special.
I hadn’t had any intention of going fishing that day. I had spent the night at work and was due in again that evening but my mate Olly rang up early telling me he had copped a sickie from work and he would pick me up in half an hour to go. Despite my protestations he wasn’t taking no for an answer so I grabbed my gear together, hooked the last few baits that I had in my tank which were barely good enough for perch, let alone pike and piled the lot, plus merlin into Olly’s van. Our venue for the day was the Old West River, which is actually just the old course of the Great Ouse, but more importantly to me is the fact that it was the river that I grew up on. Every summer holiday we would spend days on its banks, strapping rods to our bikes and being gone from dawn to dusk trying to catch whatever came along. One area of the river produces some great fishing in the winter months and it’s close to home so it didn’t take us long to get there and despite my initial reservations it really was a cracking day to be out, sunny with just a gentle warm breeze hinting of spring which wasn’t too far away and a temperature in the low teens.
We wandered down the bank about 200 yards and started putting the rods together. My first rod went out towards the back of a moored boat at the entrance to the boat turning bay that we were fishing. The bait was one of the tiny livebaits and I remember thinking that I might have an outside chance of a decent zander when the rod that I had just cast in sounded that something had grabbed a hold of the tiny bait. Merlin was already stationed behind the rod and I swept the rod back into a heavy weight that wasn’t much for moving. Eventually it did start to come back across the river but I had my doubts as to whether or not it was actually a fish such was the rather dour fight, but as it got nearer so it woke up and was obviously a very good pike, especially for this river which has no track record for big pike at all.
After a few runs back and forth in front of me Olly did the honours with the net and upon lifting it to the net we could see a really beautifully marked lump of a pike as fat as butter and obviously not too far from spawning. Noting this we handled her with kid gloves and soon had her on the scales where she went round to 26lbs on the nose a record still for the river I believe and quite a shock to say the least and my ninth twenty of my best ever season.

26lb on the nose, fin perfect pike.

Sadly they say that in life for every pleasure there has to be a little pain, however my pay off was to be just a little too much to bear.
The spring was back to Pingles but there was something very wrong with merlin who on the first session that we had down the lake had developed a hacking cough, but more unusually didn’t leave the bivvy all weekend and didn’t come out at all when I was in the boat. To cut a long story short after a series of tests at the vets they discovered that he had a tumour in his chest that was preventing his lungs from inflating properly, hence the cough. If that wasn’t bad enough they also discovered that there were more tumours coming up in his stomach, basically the prognosis was that there was no chance and there really was only one option, though the vets did think that with some pills they could make him more comfortable for a while and we went away for the weekend to think it over.
That weekend was enough to make the decision for me as my mate that used to tear around everywhere and wouldn’t sit still wouldn’t do much else and he really wasn’t the same dog and obviously in some pain.
So on the Monday morning I made the call to the vets and we took our last drive together. I can honestly say that I felt like a rat making that journey knowing what was about to happen, knowing it was for the best but still hating myself for it. The vets though were brilliant and came out to the car rather than make me come through a crowded reception room.  Anyone who has ever had to have a pet will know what happens next and it’s something I will never forget or hope to repeat.  There was only one thing left to do and that was to find somewhere to bury him, but I had already decided upon that. There could only be one place and that was in our favourite swim at Pingles. Changes to the lease meant that because of overhead power lines that swim could no longer be used and so it would be undisturbed and a fitting place to lay my best fishing mate to rest. As I pulled down the track to the lake on the radio came the song “zoom” by Fat Larry’s band and it just seemed so appropriate as one line in the chorus was “zoom, you chased the day away”, pretty much what merlin had done every day of his five year life and even now if I hear that song it takes me right back to that day, but also reminds me of the fun and disasters that I had in the five years that I had him and the days together on the bank which were some of the best I had.
The swim from where upon Merlin fittingly lies buried.
I have never bought a dog to replace merlin; in truth no dog ever replaces your first. As a passage in a gundog book that I read when I was trying to train him said “When your first dog dies it will leave a hole in your heart that all the others just fall through”. I think that sums it up perfectly.
Hope you all had  happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year to all.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Ever thought of provenance..By Neville Fickling

Mr. Laws asked me to write a bit about the deadbait business and I’m happy to do so as long as readers understand that I’m not doing it to drum up business! (As if people were so cynical.. Ed)

Years ago when you wanted some deadbaits you only had two choices, catch your own or go to your local fishmonger or Mac Fisheries. As kids we couldn’t afford many baits so a pike trip would see two of us with two herrings and a bag of sprats between us. We seldom ran out of bait, after all we were not that good at pike fishing. Despite that my mate Adam and I had four fish of 21, 17, 14 and 10 one day on two herrings. The sprats were useless. Smelt were sometimes available at the fishmongers and were like a wonder bait to us. Unfortunately there were no deep freezes in common use, so the baits bought had to last the weekend and were then useless. In the summer we caught coarse fish such as roach, bream and eels but again could only use them for eels and zander because there were no freezers.

Sad to say when I got my first vacation job in a canning factory I bought a freezer. Most 19 year old would have bought cloths or shoes, but dull old me bought a freezer! However it did mean that I had deadbaits to hand whenever I wanted them. This didn’t do my pike fishing any harm.

When I went to Hull University I was not far from the docks where any amount of herring, sprats and mackerel could be bought. My early experiments with prebaiting started then, A few years later in the early 1980s quite a bit of effort went into baiting up. It didn’t always work, but by mid 1980s it was paying off quite well. In the 1990s I wrote about lamprey as bait. Baitbox (who I get on with fine) suggested that they “discovered” this bait, but in reality we were catching pike with them down their throats in 1973. Baitbox did manage to get sufficient lamprey to sell them on a large scale as did we all in the end.

I got into the bait business because I couldn’t advance in my job in fisheries. My wife was set up in a good practise and moving was out of the question. I became friends with Trevor and Carole Moss who owned The Tackle Shop in Gainsborough. We got hold of some decent smelt from Ronnie Pendleton in St Helens and started to sell them. Later on I bumped into a Norfolk smelt fisherman and in March and April I was driving 300 miles a day to collect fresh smelt. The business grew slowly until Trevor spotted the obvious. The Tackle Shop had always specialised in mail order so why not mail order frozen fish. Luckily because Grimsby is quite close, poly boxes were easy to obtain for nothing. (To buy even a small one is £2). That solved the packing; finally we needed a reliable courier. We started with Parcel Force, but eventually switched to ANC/FedEx and have remained with them ever since. By the way we have never been able to claim for parcels that are delayed. Instead our carriage rates contain a small extra amount which means we in effect self insure. This way we can afford to replace the odd ones that go to Brighton instead of Ireland. (I kid you not!)

Since then we have grown steadily but the frozen fish are still only 35% of the shops business. The two sides complement each other though because in the summer when deadbait sales are slow the shop is busy with general sales. In the depths of winter the frozen fish keeps us going.

As far as bait firms are concerned we are not the biggest. One of the reasons we cannot get much bigger is the fact that there are only so many quality smelt and lamprey to sell. Herring and mackerel are not a problem, but you need the special baits to attract a wide range of customers. It is a bit like a one stop shop, customers want to get everything in one go. Sadly we normally sell out of the larger smelt by November and often are down to 5 inch smelt by the end of the season. This isn’t a problem because nearly all the other bait companies either never had any decent smelt or run out at the same time as us.

Changes in legislation have helped us. You can no longer legally raid your clubs waters to get enough dead roach for a season. Angler generally buy them now. You cannot take eels for bait though most bait companies sell either farmed eels or discards from the export trade. I’ll not go into the pros and cons of selling eels other than to say that they are a useful bait, but if anglers stopped buying them we’d stop selling them. The discards would go in a skip though which hardly helps.

There have not been many new baits lately. Baitbox brought in the bluey or Pacific saurie which is a really good bait. I looked at getting in silver smelt from Chile, but you need to bring in a forty ton container to get them. Even spread around the other bait companies it would take a while to get rid of forty tons. Fish does not last forever in cold storage so that idea has been knocked on the head.

The one advantage of running a bait business from my point of view is the flexibility it gives me. I can work evenings and fish mornings. As long as I get the work done my time is my own. How much longer will we keep going? Well there’s a chap in Ireland who runs a bait firm, he is 84 for I’ve a year or two yet.

Every predator angler will have their own views on which baits work best for them. Unbelievably there are pikers who cannot catch on mackerel still. A lot of it is confidence, after all a pike will pick up just about anything sometimes. At other times they can be a bit fussier. There are plenty of places to buy deadbaits though the oft quoted “They are fresher on Tesco's fish stand” is rarely true. Edible yes, but not as fresh as something frozen a few hours after capture. Freshness is good because a bait lasts longer in a cool box if it is fresh to start with. Pike though will eat quite rank baits, but with all the cuts and grazes we get from unhooking pike, handling rotting baits isn’t exactly a great idea! My wife has just nodded in agreement with this point(For those that don't know, Nevilles long suffering wife is a GP..Ed). It’s quite simple really, an off bait will have a high bacterial load and if you put loads of bacteria into a cut you are taking the risk of localised blood poisoning at best. If you must use crap baits wear gloves!

Finally some predator anglers complain about bait prices. If you can buy anything at source you can always get a bargain, but most of us do not have the time to drive to Lowestoft to stock up with herrings. Unless you are local there is nothing to be saved anyway once you consider fuel costs. What does add to the costs of bait is wages, transport costs, storage and of course running a walk in cold store. Even packaging is expensive. We use some rather expensive (but nice) bags which hold their seal better than the usual bags. At 12p a go though it is a large part of costs. No costs have actually gone down in the past 2 years so there is constant pressure on margins. Fish prices continue to rise slowly, but in the end you can still go pike fishing with a fivers worth of bait and catch pike. The average bag of boilys is £9.99 so £5 to £7 for a days piking is not that bad.

Finally am I glad I took the employment route I did? Yes I’m my own boss; I can work when I want. It might seem a crap job, packing fish, but it is not demanding either mentally or physically. There is no real pressure which is fine by me. I like the quiet life at work! 

Neville Fickling
View user profile

Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Baker's Dozen

One of the major attractions of pike fishing to its dedicated band of followers will undoubtedly be the enigma that surrounds our largest indigenous predator. Surely fishing per se just does not stand up without the feelings of intrigue and mystery that water evokes within us from a very early age? In fact if you have not looked at the surface of a pond as a small child and dreamed of what creatures might lurk beneath that watery mirror -and of course schemed as to how you might catch hold of one of them- then I would have to wonder whether you are a proper angler at all.

Mystery has certainly always been a crucial factor for me -particularly where pike are concerned. I suppose when they invented the trout-water pike things did change a bit, however when I initially began to fish for them one quite rightly expected the very biggest pike of all to be found in the most ancient, wild or completely forgotten recesses of our water systems. The quest to best our most formidable predatory fish has always gone in tandem with time spent in desolate and wild places: remote private river beats, bottomless lochs, seedy drains -in the furthermost outreaches of Fenland- ancient forgotten monastery stew ponds or long-lost estate lakes. These were the sort of places where those unseen and uncaught giants lived; obviously in complete secrecy.

That knowledge fuelled us as kids. We dreamed of casting our lamentable tackle into the most forbidden places imaginable in search of that overlooked monster. That legendary pike which had sometimes been encountered briefly in some overlooked corner and recounted to us by older anglers but had somehow, thus far, managed to avoid being tripped up by  rod and line. Such fish must have existed though of course. Even now I am sure of that. Somewhere on this island at various times in its history there will have been giant pike living out their macabre lives in undiscovered watery refuges in complete anonymity.

One local place in particular held us in awe as youngsters. A flooded quarry, a couple of villages distant, where the history and nature of the water ticked just about every box of the ‘pike water application form’. A near bottomless chalk pit of several acres surrounded almost completely by an impenetrable ring-fence of mature trees and bushes. It was situated on intensely private farmland in among game-keepered coppices, and as far as the would be fishing ‘guest’ was concerned those logistical pitfalls were only the beginning!

Not only was this water everything the erstwhile piker could dream of aesthetically, but it also had hanging over it that kind of troubled history which is a prerequisite for any truly legendary pike water.

 The story goes that it had been a working cement quarry in the early part of the last century; mining chalk from the mineral seam that ends where the gault clay of Fenland begins. Apparently close to the end of the quarry's working life they disturbed an underground spring in the chalk and the deep pit flooded with such speed that the work force had little or no time to remove plant and equipment. At some stage in its life the police are said to have used the deep pit for diving practice and the divers are said to have reported that there were still shovels and picks leaning against the sheds at the bottom of the pit, exactly where they were standing when the water level suddenly rose. Up until some time in the 1970's there was the ghostly jib of a crane towering out still from the midst of the quarry, but that has long since collapsed into the water and disappeared.

Local stories of ill omen abound. It is all at once a strikingly beautiful yet brooding and inhospitable place. To add further to the feeling of latent menace the rail lines on which the old diesel engine once ascended from the depths of the cavernous quarry laden with chalk now descend bizarrely back down into the deep water. The rusting tracks, bordered either side with fringes of  luminescent green weed, disappear eerily down into the gin-clear water like some kind of crazy sub-aqua ghost-train. Huddled together all around one corner of the pit is a vast collection of disused and defunct farm machinery, a sort of ‘combined-harvester’s graveyard’ if you like. The winter wind scouring through this weird metallic cemetery moans and howls and rattles entirely in keeping with the sepulchral atmosphere that veils the quarry.

We grew up as anglers affording this dark and secret water legendary status. An occasional tale escaped the lips of a counter-dweller at the local tackle shop alluding to the capture of fish of mythical proportion by unknown ninja-like pike fishermen however in truth none of us actually knew anyone personally who had genuinely fished the place. And despite the various tales we were never certain that there actually were fish in the quarry anyway.

Alongside a reputedly unapproachable and immovable land owner (who himself seemed to us as mysterious as his fabled pit) and his sons who policed the place far too aggressively to allow us any hope of access, the quarry was also defended around much of its circumference by deep and steep sided ditches which ran off the excess spring water that perennially bubbles up from the chalk. These could only be reached anyway after a considerable trek across open farmland which could mostly be seen from the farmhouses. Consequently it was not until during my teens that I even got to see the hitherto mythical pool.

We sneaked over there one sunny Sunday afternoon me and a fellow scalliwag, crossing from the blind side of the farm cottages and negotiating various dykes and hedges to reach the quarry. The route in took us through a denser wooded area that surrounded one corner of the quarry. A heart jolting ‘creep’ through the keeper’s penned off area -with pheasants whirling around our heads and thundering away vocally through the bushes- led eventually to an over grown spit of land that wound a semi-forgotten trail through thorny bushes and waist high bad-tempered nettles. We emerged finally on a virtual island, reachable only by the aforementioned jungle-like causeway, sweating profusely and full of stings and insect bites.

Having worked our way through the thick brush we came at last to a belt of ivy-choked trees that were perched precariously on the edge of the chalk-pit's white, cliff-like banks. In various places around the quarry those trees in the second rank had forced their neighbours over the edge of the chalk precipice and bleached woody skeletons -some dead, some still half alive- dotted the outer edge of the pool like mangroves.  Though it was difficult to fully assess the scene from between the leafy branches of these trees growing half in and half out of the water, we could nether-the-less see enticing glimpses of a deep, crystal clear pool of water, with near vertical chalk sides that were blanketed in silky green weed -the surface of the water many feet below us.
In the summer other potential swims are exposed

. Even from that limited view-point, looking down on the scene below from among the tangle of trees, the aura of the place and the strange sense of foreboding that hung over that unkempt water-filled crater was immediately apparent. Although in retrospect I doubt any of them held much validity, stories of drownings at the pit were rife and at that age we were all too willing to believe the ghastly tales. An almost palpable tension thickened the atmosphere surrounding the old quarry and, daft though it sounds now, it seemed for all the world at the time as though there was a feeling of hostility toward us from some unseen force. In truth some of that unworldlyness might be attributed in part to the fact that, as we lay there in the leafy shade peering down into that strange and mysterious pool, we whispered ourselves conspiratorially into a blue funk with tales of  horror and the possible paranormal potential of the place.

 Although of course we were not, in the naivety of youth, it was not too difficult to imagine that we were the first people to clap eyes on this incredible pool. One thing was for certain and that was that it looked all but impossible to fish without permission and a boat. We never saw any conclusive evidence that there were fish living there during that brief visit but it seemed virtually impossible to imagine that the intensely rich looking water was not home to a fish population of some form. We did not stop to explore any further but instead, mindful of the fierce reputation of the farmers, scurried back the way we had come, relieved in truth to be getting away from the place.

Over the ensuing years I continued to hear the odd snippet that suggested that this water had given up some big pike. Yes, some of the stories about the quarry's history and the fish it held had that pervasive odour of invention about them, after all, for instance, which water has not had the sunken windowless car in it where an absent-minded pike paused for a nap and woke up to find the water level had dropped suddenly and stranded it inside the car? You know, the one where the pike, when eventually discovered, is as thin as a pencil but none-the-less is that long that it can’t turn itself around in a large family saloon…

 Some stories did at least have the semblance of truth about them though, and the mystery of the flooded quarry only grew in both stature and appeal to me as the years past. At some stage in my life I must have become even keener on fishing for pike than I had previously been. And pike fishing being what it is the notion of a virtually un-fished but productive pit began to bleep so loudly on my water-finding radar that I could no longer ignore it. I resolved to try and cast a line in the quarry. Permission was of course going to be an impossibility, so my only chance lie in the use of the old ’universal permit’.  I determined that my best chance would lie in a Christmas day assault.

Over the next two or three years each December I hatched a plot to make an attempt on the pit on the 25th from the North Western approach. A route that took me over sticky ploughed fields, through barbarous hedges and across a couple of steep dykes with a healthy depth of water in them. I think the first year I turned back for the car at around a quarter of the way across the first field when my boots became about four stone apiece heavier in the winter-sodden clay soil. The second year I spotted a dog walker on an adjacent footpath and had to bale out early again. The third year I probably caught a nasty cold over Christmas - I can’t really remember. Either way, despite the firmest of resolves I just never seemed to make it there.

You just never know what might be around the corner though…

 A few years later I started work for a new building company. This saw me frequently travelling through the village where the quarry is located. There also happened to be a particularly popular bakery in the village. I stopped there now and then for my daily pack-up and had been using the place for many years. The baker (and owner of the shop.) obviously got used to seeing me on a fairly regular basis and, as you do, I would exchange pleasantries with him and chat briefly about this and that for the couple of minutes it took for one of the girls to knock up my sandwiches.

One week I had a picture published in the local paper of a nice pike caught in the fens When I went into the baker’s during the following working week he made a point of producing a copy of the paper and made some kind comments about my five minutes of fame. We got talking about fishing. He mentioned that although he didn’t fish himself his brother did and he seemed quite interested. One way or another I bought up the subject of the quarry, telling him how if there was one place I’d love to fish it would be the flooded pit on the farm land just outside of the village. He mentioned the farmer in question by name and told me that he knew him quite well and that he was a regular customer.

“I can ask him if you like.”

 he said.

I smiled and said it would be great if he could, thinking inwardly that there was probably more chance of receiving  a complimentary gift from DLST!  The same farmer still owned the land and he still kept the place under a heavy guard. I did not hold out even a glimmer of hope. By then the idea of fishing it without permission was out of the question for me too. I guess we all grow up eventually, and it is not much fun having to look over your shoulder while you are fishing.

Within a week or two of that I was given a little job in the village. I had to dig out a couple of bases and concrete them for the placement of a memorial bench in amongst the old graves at the front of the churchyard. The church looks directly across  the road to the baker’s. (which was handy) I got started digging and loading the spoil from the holes onto my pick-up, -planning to grab some lunch from the baker’s for my break at ten O’clock.

I’d pretty much dug the holes and had got a half of a ton or so of hallowed ground loaded on the truck when I heard someone calling. I looked up to see the Baker, outside his shop, waving and beckoning me across the road to him. Walking over to him with the merest tremor of excitement stirring inside me, I was intrigued at what he might want me for and telling myself ,

 “Don’t be daft, that is impossible.”

It wasn’t though. He came right out and confirmed it there and then,

“I managed to talk  to the farmer and he says if you’d like to give him a call he’ll talk to you about the prospect of fishing.”

I thanked him until I bled and then headed back to my grave-yard digging walking on air. It seemed almost beyond belief. After all of those years dreaming about the place and wondering what secrets it might hold. And there it was, as easy as that! I called the farmer the next day and we chatted for a bit. He was a little cool and asked me quite a few questions including whether I was a member of any local clubs. I mentioned the PAC and he happened to know my RO. It swung things for me I think and the conversation ended with him saying that I could fish a Sunday once a month and we would see how it went from there.

In late winter the only way to fish the quarry is to don chest waders and walk in. I keep the rail lines in sight below me at all times. A yard either side of the rods the water is well in excess of forty feet.
So that is where my fishing at the quarry began. I arrived one morning in late November at first light genuinely trembling with anticipation. It is in one sense a compelling and imposing piece of water but also a bleak and unforgiving place. It poses the would-be bank angler an almost impossible task at times. There are probably three or four small gaps where it is possible to cast from the bank.  At least there are sometimes. At other times there is simply no where that can be fished from the bank. Strange though that may sound, what happens is that during the late spring and summer water is pumped out of the quarry to irrigate crops in the adjacent fields. For roughly six months of the year the level drops anything up to ten feet which in turn exposes the three or four relatively safe spots to fish from.

On my first ever visit the water level was right up to the brim. That left only one tight  little gap in the tree line through which to cast a bait -into an uber snaggy part of the quarry- and the trees overhead limited that casting potential further still. I was a bit dismayed. It was all very well having the almost indescribable privilege of fishing permission, but what use was that if you could not get a rod out anywhere? I circled the entire pool looking for another potential swim but found nowhere that I could fish from. Finally in desperation I threw caution to the wind and climbed down an almost vertical chalk face using exposed tree roots as hand and foot holds and perched precariously on a pile of clunch boulders left there at water level some fifteen or so feet below the top of the chalk cliff by a previous land slip. It was madness really. With no one there to help if I slipped or the boulders gave way, in the event of a mishap I would simply have been drowned. When you are younger though, and the ‘quickening’ is upon you,  all sense of reason can depart. Rightly or wrongly I took my chance.

I had to climb up and down the steep slope two or three times with the rod rests, tackle, net and sundry items. Standing on that exposed spot made my knees knock and I resolved to bring a life-jacket with me next time, and a rope to tie around me to act as a safety lanyard. Weeks of planning for the event in my head were instantly trashed. I had planned to cast around a bit with searcher leads to check for snags and depth variations but I could barely cast more than about twenty yards, and that into open featureless water. Nether-the-less I prepared a popped-up half herring on my favourite hinged-rig set-up and, teetering awkwardly on my unorthodox perch, lobbed the bait out into the open water. I waited for it to reach the bottom and was amazed to see the line from the tip eventually swing back and drop all but vertically below me. I wound back in for a retry with the same effect. Further attempts and counting down showed that the quarry was well over forty feet deep no more than a foot or so from the bank. So the steep sided topography of the exposed banks was continued down below the water too. It was a sobering thought to think that if I took one step out into the water I would be in forty odd feet of water! I cast again this time pulling line from the spool to encourage the bait to sink nearer where it had landed in the water rather than swing back to land completely under my feet.

I dropped a second bait  in the margin under the rod tip and waited for a minute or so for the line to cease peeling from the spool…

I will be honest here and admit that my expectations had been severely crumpled. I could barely get a bait in the water anywhere and now that I had managed to cast a couple of baits out, despite my best efforts, in the unnaturally deep water they appeared to be fishing directly under my feet, albeit a bloody long way under my feet! That meant that of a possible ten acres or so I had approximately six square metres covered. At that point in my piking career I was not even sure that pike could be caught at such depth and the thought of climbing up with the rods again to change to float based rigs was a bridge too far for me.  My confidence was at zero level and days of eager anticipation had been forgotten in an instant to leave me a rather disillusioned and deflated piker.

 I had managed somehow to  prod and cajole my bank-sticks into cracks in the bone hard chalk and had wedged the wobbly set-up into place complete with front alarms and bobbins. In this fashion I crouched there uncomfortably for a quarter of an hour or so deep in rueful thought. With still no rock solid proof that there definitely were fish, let alone pike, in the quarry, in truth I had all but dismissed there being any chance of my capturing a pike from this unaccommodating water.  Then suddenly against all the odds the bright orange bobbin on the left hand rod started to rise swiftly towards the rod butt. In the time it took to unclip the bobbin and pick the rod up my mind was a maelstrom of whirling thought. Initial open-mouthed shock was superseded by a quick visual check to assess that the line was indeed moving away at the tip. It was. Hell’s teeth, it’s a fish! It’s only a bloody fish!!

Netting a pike from the side of the railway reef.
I picked the rod up and wound up what seemed like a mass of slack mono before feeling the defining thump of an angry head a long, long way below me. Thankfully this section at least of the flooded quarry proved to have a flawlessly clean bed and there was nothing but water between me and this fish. At last, after a lifetime of wondering I finally got to see for sure that this legendary old pit really did have pike in it, as the form of a raging, head-shaking pike came into view in the clear water. It was a fish of probably no more than seven or eight pounds but its impact to me personally was immeasurable!

I netted it easily first dab but once in the net the pike went completely and utterly beserk! Rolling itself into a ball of frothing fury in the open weave of my large landing net and thrashing itself around like a thing possessed. Seriously! You had to see this to believe it. I have never before (Or since.) encountered fish that behaved like it. Despite only a relatively light hook-hold It was an absolute nightmare to unhook. Not for one second did it give up struggling. From the minute I set the hooks to the second I finally released it back into the dark water below it thrashed around manically. In my teetering position down there on that boulder I simply could not countenance weighing and photographing the pike, which given the way it had behaved during the unhooking process may well have been a blessing.

I cannot really do this pike justice in words either. Not only had it behaved like no other pike I had ever encountered it had also looked like no other I had ever caught. It was an almost impossible shade of orange. I don’t mean that reddy-gold sort of colour you get with some pike. This creature was virtually the colour of a Christmas Satsuma! A vivid and unnatural ochre marked with red dotted coins of darker pigment on its back and flanks and the colour of clotted cream on its underbelly. It was a gorgeous fish in unblemished condition and from the look of its wildly glaring yellow eyes and its crazed reaction, up until that point this pike had not known humans existed!
An autumn fish. You can see the sheer side of the quarry below the water just behind me.

So then, in keeping with its unworldly feel this strange place was also home to an almost alien looking species of pike with an attitude that mirrored the quarry’s harsh nature. Three or four fish later that certainly appeared to be the case anyway -like peas in a pod they were. I ended that day feeling both exalted and yet also a trifle disappointed. Although I had not weighed any of the pike I knew that none of them had been anywhere near double figures. Of course I should have just enjoyed the moment but I had built the place up so big in my mind. I had expected a double at least and of course I had been dreaming of a twenty pound plus fish.

I had three or four more days there that season fishing for pike and eventually after some considerable effort and quite a few fish I put the net under my first double at 13lbs odd. It was not how I had envisaged things going. I had been certain there must be big pike in the pit but the form was beginning to look suspect. I had read about pools where the thin pickings lead to jack-only waters. Was that what this place was? Although the water was beautifully clear and I could see thick green weed clinging to the sheer chalky sides of the quarry below the waterline there was precious little by way of life out in open water, given the vast depth of the place. And of course no angler’s bait found its way into there to provide bonus food for the shoal fish. Attempts to catch live-baits seemed to corroborate this. Any fish I caught were no bigger than four or five inches long. Was it actually a hungry water? Were all species stunted accordingly? All of these negative thoughts occurred to me and I began to pigeon hole it in my mind as  merely a fabulous looking and exhilarating place to fish, rather than a prospective big fish water.

 And it was exhilarating! The bank-side opportunities were extremely limited. Even at times of low water, when a few more spots from where I could fish were exposed, any attempt to reach them demanded a soul destroying trek with tackle through thick brush and brambles and often also required a climb down the sheer chalk to reach the swim. Not an easy place to fish by any means. However, despite my relatively poor results at that stage, this challenging pool of water was still steeped with that quality of the unknown which is catnip to us pike anglers  There were other considerations too that made the place appeal to me, such as eels and perch.

 So I carried on fishing the quarry at the agreed monthly intervals. When I turned my attention to pike again the following October I dug the place out for an easy early season session. By now the water level was only just beginning to climb again. During the summer the water had dropped significantly and I had been able to fish a few more places. The easiest place to fish was the plateau on which the train tracks plummet to the bottom of the quarry. This juts out into the pool itself and in times of lowest water means I had approximately a ten or so feet wide plateau on which I could cast overhead with no hindrance. At least I could if I put on wellies and walked down the rail track a little way.

So far I had not fished in this swim for pike. I had earmarked it earlier in the summer when fishing there for eels. It was a eureka moment really. For a large part the only feature to fish to was the outer edge of the quarry where the trees overhung and the vast majority of this was impossible to reach. However the underwater rampart that disappeared down into the pit at a gradient -carrying the aforementioned rail tracks- strewn as it was on either side with thick life-harbouring weed, made the perfect underwater reef. I had given it a lot of thought over the months and I was convinced that there could be a whole territorial thing going on along this reef. It was the perfect place for the vast shoals of fry and stunted shoal fish to cling for safety and that would surely be where the bulk of the pike will be focussed?. I had made my mouth water thinking about the prospect of hanging a bait under a big float in the water that sat above the disappearing parapet and its accompanying rail line.

It was far from easy. The prevailing wind blew consistently into my face in this spot. Although it was only a moderate and sporadic breeze on that particular day it did make the task of holding a suspended float in the right place in the deep open water a busy task. And the same breeze always threatened to carry the float across the rail line. If left unattended the float would drift and the tackle would snag on the top of the sunken plinth. I particularly aspired to keep a bait hanging just off the side of the reef in the fifteen to twenty five foot band of water. This meant fairly constant re-casting -and re-baiting with the soft fleshed sea dead-baits that I favour. I did not fare too well with my baits on that occasion but did catch a pristine 14lb fish on a home made lure witnessing the whole approach and attack of the sleek predator in the eternally crystal clear water of the quarry. I was over the moon!

Back again a month later the conditions were unusually still. It was a piercingly cold frost that morning which was quickly followed by a rising temperature and persistent thin, cold drizzle. Despite the filthy conditions I was pleased to be there. It was Remembrance Sunday. I set up on the plateau. Although the water level was rising there was still enough of the chalky plinth exposed for me to be able set up a brolly and chair and as I looked out over the sombre sheet of rain dimpled water in front of me from under my shelter I could not help but think about the occasion and how lucky I was to be there. It seemed particularly poignant given the date. I can remember asking myself: what would some of those poor sods who’s lives were robbed at such early ages have given to share the privilege I was currently enjoying?

I sat there in relative comfort looking out over the quarry. Despite the unceasing sheet of fine rain the day was surprisingly still. I had by now developed some home-made oversized through-the-middle balsa floats specifically for the job and one of them sat motionless out in front of me, its suspended whole sardine bait hanging perfectly over the side of the sunken reef about twenty feet below the float. I wasn’t expecting much from the day really. Rain is never an ideal accompaniment to pike fishing. At least that was what I had read. Indeed some  pike anglers seem to have convinced themselves that our boldest aquatic predator does not actually like getting wet…

Anyway, I fired up my little camping stove and put the kettle on for a brew. I’m sure I must resemble a tennis fan when I am float fishing for pike. All the while, no matter what else I’m doing,  I’m constantly swinging my head back and forth to watch the float. It is like having a nervous twitch. As I glanced at the orange top of the big sliding float out in front of me between stirring sugar and milk into my steaming mug of coffee I saw it jump out of the water and lie flat. It was quite a surprise to me. Of course I had seen lift bites before on float set-ups but in this case  I could almost swear the float had made an audible slap on the water surface such was the violence with which it popped up out of the water. Something had clearly hit the suspended sardine at some velocity from below.

Given the ex-industrial history of the quarry I had always resolved not to delay a second before hitting takes when fishing there. With the kind of snags likely to be out in the main basin of this water those vital few seconds we sometimes allow the fish to get the bait inside its mouth just were not an option. I leaped out of my chair, picked up the rod and wound like fury! As the 60lbs bs Powerpro started to rip through the surface film of the water I swept the rod high above my shoulder, instantly feeling the tell-tale thumping of a hooked fish on the other end. I would like to tell you that a glorious battle ensued between angler and fish but the truth is, in my highly excited state, all I did was pump and wind like someone demented. I wound it back so quickly I think I must have caught it completely by surprise.

It was crucial that I kept control of this fish. I had to stop it from crossing back over the sunken rail line and I angled my rod and piled on pressure in an effort to encourage it away from the reef and into the open water to my left. It was not until I was certain that it was on the ‘right side of the tracks’ that I allowed myself time to think about what might be on the end of my line. Given the stamp of fish I had encountered in this water previously I began to wonder if this one had picked up a heap of weed. It felt extraordinarily heavy. Thankfully I now had it in the clear. As I brought it nearer to me though it seemed to reawaken. What had initially been a fairly subdued response to my bullying suddenly all changed and it  began to forge downwards and away from me in an explosion of power in the deep clear water to the left of the reef. It pulled like no other fish I had ever hooked and I began to wonder what in the name of hell I was attached to!

Now you can scoff if you want to but I will freely admit here that I was a bit unnerved. The sheer brutality of this ex-industrial site is seriously disconcerting. That dark flooded chasm still carries some of the atmosphere of dread we’d sensed as kids, and I was standing up to my knees in water on the thin strip of reef . The sudden sheer drop into watery oblivion either side of me was worryingly apparent and some manic unseen force was seemingly trying to pull me in. It pulled that violently on the locked-up tackle that it had me unbalanced a couple of times. I wedged a booted foot under the rusting rail track below the water to get a more stable foothold and kept in touch with it.

It seemed determined to get back down to the very bottom of the pit. I knew that would almost certainly result in a lost fish so I locked the rod up and hung on grimly. My Daiwa Dictator bent right through to the butt and the ultra strong braided line was given the strongest test imaginable. I shuddered inwardly fully expecting the hawser-taut line to part on some unseen snag or the hooks to pull from the fish’s mouth but somehow it all held tight. The fish hesitated for a second or two and I seized the advantage, drawing it back towards me relatively easily in the deep clear water. Finally I caught sight of what I was attached to as, aware of my presence now, the fish arced wildly across in front of me, shaking its head against the tight line and passing virtually over my booted feet as it negotiated the sunken rail tracks. It charged across the shallow water and into the next section of the quarry creating a huge wake on the surface, its thrashing tail throwing up a mist of spray as it passed me. I was a nervous wreck! It was a pike and it looked huge in the clear water. Bigger than anything I’d ever seen!

Given that in the section of quarry the pike had crossed over to on my right, I could see the huge rusting hulk of an iron wheel and numerous other metallic objects protruding from the slope of the reef,  I opted again for the bullying tactics and deployed a sort of underwater Heinrich Manoeuvre. I yanked the big pike towards me through the water with some force, and once again appeared to catch it by surprise. It glided over the sunken snags straight towards me (I’m sure only in a momentary state of confusion.) and just about over the cord of my outstretched landing net. I dropped the rod in blind panic (I am sure that I never will manage composure.) and lifted the submerged net from the shallow water. However the sheer size of the pike had me fooled somewhat and as I tried to raise the net to encompass the fish its hind quarter began slowly but surely to slide back out of the mesh. I had one of those undignified moments where you have to try and flip the pike back into the net like a pancake. It hung agonizingly for a second or two on the net cord on its own point of balance -the slightest of movements now bound to set it free -but thankfully, at last, slid unharmed into my landing net. I grasped the arms of the net and shuffled it gently into the deeper folds of the soft mesh in the shallow water and then just stood there briefly gasping for air and shaking like a leaf.

When I pulled the arms apart a second or two later to get a proper look at it I was almost overcome with elation. It looked monstrous in size! It had to be close to thirty pounds I thought. In fact it weighed only a surprising 25lbs 10ozs but clearly had the frame of a giant. In a trout-water or a commercial fishery this pike would have been the fish of a lifetime.

…what am I talking about? It was the fish of a lifetime! Or at least my lifetime anyway.

A monster from my childhood dreams.
I put her into a big tube and hung it in the deep water over the edge of the chalk parapet while I took the time to think about a picture. I was in Nirvana! A lifetime ambition had been realised that Sunday. I went on to capture a couple of bigger pike from the old quarry eventually, however none that moved me like that fish did. It was the material incarnation of a childhood dream. The pit of legend that had been the subject of my dreams as a youngster. I was there! And cradling a monster from its depths.  I set the camera up on a tripod under my brolly to protect it from the rain and recorded a few quick snaps. A few blurry moments later I returned the gargantuan predator to her spooky home.

One of the baker's dozen
(I mentioned earlier about the strange orange coloured pike that I had encountered on my first ever trip to the quarry? Well the curious thing is that since that day I have never caught another pike that looks like they did. The other pike I have caught have all been normal looking pike, albeit it possibly the cleanest and most strikingly marked fish I have ever caught. It has puzzled me to this day.)

It was a seminal time for me as a pike angler. It opened my eyes to a number of important factors and I suspect it will remain among my most memorable days until that day when I finally hang up my rods for the last time. Over the next few years I went on to catch thirteen twenty pound plus fish from the quarry before deciding it was time to call it a day. Repeat captures of pike made me feel I had got the best from the place. I still fish it from time to time for eels in the summer but unfortunately increased public access to the land adjacent to the quarry has opened the door to poachers. The trouble is it really is not a water for beginners and tackle losses amongst these often poorly equipped guests have all but destroyed the pike potential now.

Still, I will never forget my baker’s dozen…

Chris Hammond

Friday, 14 December 2012

‘You Couldn’t Make it Up: A Pike-Fishing Adventure From the Sarkar Archive

‘You Couldn’t Make it Up: A Pike-Fishing Adventure From the Sarkar Archive…’

   The myriad of extreme emotions an angler can experience within just a few seconds never ceases to astonish me – from euphoria to devastation in one nano-second flat. Sometimes such experiences are indelibly imprinted on our memories – and such is the case with a particular pike I caught back in February 1983. All these years later I remember that incident clearly – as I will now relate.
A piece of heaven: the ‘secret pit’ during the winter of 1982/3.

At that time I was only twenty-one but had been seriously pike-fishing for over five years. A friend of mine, Steve Cooper, was a bit of an all-rounder, although inclined towards specimen hunting, and in 1978 mentioned a particular Cotswold trout lake where pike had been pinching trout off his hooks when fly fishing. That winter we started fishing it, but with food so abundant it was hard going. After a few decent doubles and a lot of hours, I was lucky enough to catch my first twenty-pounder (23.04) there on 3 January 1981. Used to fishing rivers, this was a completely different creature: short and fat, more like a carp than the long, lean and fit river pike that we were used to catching. Barrie Rickards did some scale readings for me, confirming an annual growth rate of over three-and-a-half pounds. That being so, we knew that there was clearly potential for an even bigger fish. A month or so later, Steve had a 25.02, so we knew that we were on the right track.

3 January 1981: 23.04 – fat and trout-fed

   The following season, however, for some reason we didn’t fish the place much. The autumn of 1982, though, saw me back there with another friend, Alan Gwillam. It appeared that the owner had stopped stocking trout and was considering leasing the venue to a coarse angling club. There were some big carp present too, but not a huge head of silver fish – the pike, we reckoned, would be hungry – and so it proved. We also found what was undoubtedly the ‘hot’ area; results soared, with lots of pike, including several more good twenties, coming to our nets. On 2 January 1983, Alan and I had a twenty apiece, mine being 25.06 and a personal best at that time. We were, to be fair and as they say these days, a couple of young lads ‘having a blast’!
2 January 1983. Alan Gwillam with his first twenty: another trout-fed pike of 20.04.
2 January 1983: 25.06 – this is probably the 25.08 that caused the author such consternation a few weeks later!
 Following a freeze, one Saturday in late February saw Steve and I in the hotspot. Steve soon had a 23+ in the net. As I was unhooking it, the indicator dropped off my sunk-float paternostered livebait. I had just re-spooled my Mitchell 300s with new monofilament – Maxima in 10lbs breaking strain being de-rigour at the time. Back then, of course, the innumerable specialist lines available today – with high breaking strains combined with low diameter - had yet to be created, so choice was limited. Sylcast was a popular line, indeed it was said that oil rigs were towed out on the stuff, but I found it a bit too ‘springy’ – and Maxima had never let me down. As I approached the rod, line was peeling off at a rate of knots. The rod in question was a hollow glass fibre Fibatube F132. Now these things were fast taper and as stiff as pokers – fine for blasting out deadbaits but totally inappropriate, really, for close to medium range work. Anyway, like Maxima, the F132s had nonetheless never let me down. I wound down, struck – and the line – inexplicably - parted. It was brand new, unused and in perfect condition. I was utterly and absolutely gutted – mainly because I had consequently left a trace in what was potentially another big pike. A very dark shadow, therefore, was cast upon my day.

   Later that morning my float appeared in the middle of the pit – clearly with a pike very much attached. Taking a third rod from my holdall, I rapidly tackled up with a two-ounce lead and tied on a bunch of trebles – intending to cast over and snag the lost rig. As the cast was shorter from the far bank I reeled in my rods, left Steve to it, and made my way there. The pike continued to cruise about but always – perhaps inevitably – just beyond casting range. Try as I might, I was unable to get the extra few yards required. After an hour I decided the exercise futile, and began walking back to the pitch, intending to make another attempt shuld the fish come in closer. When about sixty or seventy yards from where I had been casting, I turned around, just in case the fish had moved. Incredibly the lost float was now only about thirty yards from my bank and making its way, slowly, parallel to it. I immediately turned about. As I hurried back, the fish came even closer – just five yards out! Crawling quietly on all fours, I carefully cast out over the line trailing behind the float and gently eased it towards me. Leaning out across the water I managed to grab the loose end and wrap it around my left hand – as the pike began moving off! I then bit the line off my rod and, knowing full-well from the pressure being exerted on my left hand that this was another big pike, somehow managed, with trembling fingers, to tie the two lines together. I was back in! By the time Steve arrived with the net, the fish was beaten, at long last, and safely landed. I can honestly say that I was absolutely drained of all nervous energy! On the scales this wonderful fish was a PB by two ounces: 25.08, probably being, I suspected, the 25.06 I had caught previously.

   It was a really beautiful day: sunny with a blue sky and prefect for photography. In those pre-digital days I used a 35 mm Olympus Trip. The film had run out, so I loaded a new roll. Pictures taken – what a result! On the Monday morning I wound on the remaining blank film and took the canister to a photography shop in Worcester for developing. Wednesday lunchtime I was straight out of the office and off to collect my photographs. Would you believe it – when the film was processed there was nothing on it! Apparently in my haste and somewhat excited state, when loading the film I failed to engage the sprocket which winds the film on. Not one picture of this fish had, therefore, been recorded. Gutted again, but I remember walking back to the office shaking my head in disbelief, reflecting upon the entire incident – it was as if that fish was absolutely determined not to be caught!

   A few days later I received notification of the date I was to become a constable in the West Mercia Constabulary – 7 March 1983. My season was, therefore, cut short, although I managed one more trip to the pit before joining the boys in blue. On that final session I was lucky enough to take a brace of twenties, 23.12 and 26.02. It had been quite a season. One thing I have learned is that everything in life changes, for good or bad. Joining the police, in which I served for over twenty-two years, changed my life forever. Steve was a fishing tackle agent and made the mistake of telling a customer who was a ‘circuit’ specimen hunter about our little bit of heaven. So it was that the scene descended upon the pit, which we had enjoyed to ourselves until that point – so that was never the same again either; rule of thumb: if ever you find quality pike-fishing, never tell a living soul. The following season a coarse angling club did indeed take over the fishing, so access became open to all. I did go back, and had a couple more twenties to 23.08, but these were no longer the short, fat, fish of a few years before. It was obvious that the moment had passed. Had the trout gone in for another year before the angling club took the water on, there is no doubt that the venue would have done a thirty. Unfortunately that was not to be – but we certainly had some brilliant piking, in peace and quiet, whilst it lasted.
16 October 1983: Dilip returns a 23.06, but by then the ‘scene’ had descended on the pit, trout were no longer being stocked and already the fish were longer and leaner.
Sun sets over the pit on the last time Dilip fished it in 1984: everything in life will change, but should you ever stumble across some special pike-fishing, never tell a living soul…

Because that winter was my last as a care-free youngster, before having to grow up rapidly and become a professional police officer, the memory of it will always remain with me – not least because we enjoyed such great fishing. Of all the memories, though, the farce of eventually landing that 25.08 will always be vivid. The following season, in fact, I had a day on the pit, for old time’s sake, and bumped into Des Taylor and Nige Williams. Recounting the tale to Des, I inquired as to whether he thought the fish ‘counted’. “Ar, too bloody right it does, keed!” said the big Brummie, which was good enough for me. Indeed, as I said to Des that day, “You couldn’t make it up – could you?!”

 © Dilip Sarkar MBE.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

One Way With Severn Zander by John Costello.

By John Costello
A Winter Dawn

I think it is widely recognised that the lower Severn is almost certainly the best zander fishery in the country, both for numbers of fish and overall maximum size. Somewhere like Grafham or the Great Ouse Relief Channel may turn up a huge unknown fish to break the record, but with the exception of Grafham nowhere else has produced an authentic twenty pound plus fish. Currently as I write (September 2012) the Severn has now produced five such fish. And it is not just the ultimate size achieved by some of these fish but the sheer numbers of big zander residing in the river that puts the river head and shoulders above any other venue. By big zander I mean fish of thirteen pounds or above, which are certainly not uncommon, and an achievable target for anyone regularly fishing the river.
                                                        13lb10oz Caught on a sunny day but with coloured water conditions
These fish are spread throughout the lower Severn from Gloucester upstream, which is the start of the tidal estuary, to the upper limits of the navigable river at Stourport. In all there is well over forty miles of river to go at. I suspect that upstream of Stourport, which is the start of the middle Severn, is probably their upstream limit, but downstream at Gloucester there are five or six miles of muddy river before it becomes an estuary proper. This part of the river has no history of fishing for anything other than elvers and who knows what might be living here. Between these two points there are miles of relatively un-fished water. When I say un-fished, I mean in the sense that there are stretches where no angling club controls the fishing and the banks have become so overgrown that fishing from these banks is nigh on impossible. It still amazes me that compared to the pressure on other waters, whether gravel pit complexes or other rivers such as the Trent, the lower Severn continues to see declining numbers of anglers, whether pleasure fishing, barbel fishing or zander fishing. So whilst I might rejoice at having miles of under-fished water on my doorstep it does sadden me that so many people turn their backs on such an enigmatic river. We all know that fish, especially predators, thrive on neglect, but I fear a point being reached whereby riparian landowners or similar seek other revenues of income to the long-term detriment of angling. So whilst I don’t welcome crowds of anglers fishing my venues I do know that if enough people fish and love the river as I do it’s long term future as an angling venue is more secure. So I hope this article helps a few others come to grips with the river.

Going back to Ray Armstrong’s former record fish in the early 90’s the majority of big zander caught from the lower Severn have been caught by anglers fishing from boats, current record excepted. The advantages of boat fishing a deep wide flowing river, with heavily overgrown and steep banksides are obvious. Mobility is an essential ingredient to success on any river, whether pike or zander fishing, or chub or barbel fishing, and a boat makes it so much easier to be so. Not only that, but methods can be employed from a boat that are impractical or ineffective from a bank. I am thinking of such techniques as float or lure trolling, trotting live or deadbaits and lure fishing. You can also present baits in the middle of the river from a boat much easier than you can from the bank. Even in normal summer/autumn flows you need two to three ounces to hold any bait in the middle of the river when bank fishing. I emphasise the ‘middle of the river’ because at times a lot of zander do seem to be out in the middle of the river, whereas a lot of pike are active on the marginal shelves.

Given a choice I would rather boat fish for one reason only, and that is to be able to effectively lure fish. My eyes have been opened in the last three years as to how effective lures are for zander, and if I was restricted to one method it would be lure fishing. But try lure fishing from the bank of the lower Severn and it is a different story. I am not saying you hook any less snags boat fishing but the ability to simply be able to go the ‘other side’ of a snagged lure means most of the snagged lures come back. On the bank it is a different story, so much so that I very rarely attempt lure fishing from the bank these days.

But what of those anglers who either don’t have or don’t wish to fish from boats. I am thinking here in particular of anglers living some distance away or those who haven’t the fishing time available to justify boat ownership and its attendant costs. I hope that the following paragraphs will go some way in showing how you can effectively catch Severn zander from the bank.

It may seem like overstating the obvious but the most important aspect is location. Once you are in an area containing zander there are a number of methods which will work, but obviously none will if you’re in the wrong area. Before saying more about location what I would say is that unlike Severn pike, Severn zander are more predictable and once you find a good area which produces numbers of zander it is likely to remain so for some time. Some seasons such areas may not fish, or may only produce small zander, or may only produce zander under certain river conditions but over the years they will keep on producing.

It is around this point that I hear an echo in my head, namely that I have written much the same about lower Severn barbel. There are barbel swims on the lower Severn that have produced big barbel for nearly thirty years and are as good now as they ever were. Some years the barbel in the lower Severn do a disappearing act, but the point remains, that when it does fish, it is the same old swims that have produced in previous years that continue to do so. That doesn’t mean you have to fish with the crowds, like the barbel there are plenty of zander areas and swims that get virtually no attention from one season to the next. So please forgive me if from this point on I talk about both barbel and zander because I see more similarities between barbel and zander than I do between pike and zander, although obviously the methods to catch them are totally different. To me they are different aspects of the same river that has fascinated me for over thirty years.

First a little about the lower Severn, it varies between forty and over sixty yards wide. In most areas the depth drops off quite markedly about a rod length out from the marginal shelf down to anything from eight to fourteen feet. It then typically shelves gradually to the middle of the river which in most areas is twelve foot plus but can be as much as twenty-two foot. At normal summer level it flows fairly sedately but once there is more than a foot of extra water the flow picks up and could be described as heavy rather than fast.

So how do you locate zander in the lower Severn? Well initially there are a number of obvious areas to try, weir pools and the attendant lock cutting areas, river and stream mouths, built up areas where the fodder fish over-winter and such-like, the trouble is these areas see the most anglers. But there are a lot of zander throughout the river that do not reside in such obvious areas. You can start by looking around bends, no matter how indistinct, where the flow shifts from one side of the river to another, where the river narrows or deepens, but ultimately you need to go out and fish your way down a length of river until you drop on some fish. It does seem the case that some parts of the river are much more attractive to zander than others and you might find yourself fishing a mile or so of water until you drop on some fish. But once you do find these areas, they are very consistent. Obviously you can pick up odd fish virtually anywhere, but they do favour particular areas. These areas might be anything from fifty yards long to several hundred yards long. They will even prefer one side of the river to another, so much so that you could pass through a good area but be on the wrong side of the river and not be any wiser. You can fish baits right across the river in normal summer flows but with more than a foot of water on you will need 3-4 ounces to hold even half-way across. I have got a feeling they like to be near areas where the flow is relatively fast, but one area I fish has the best area on the side of the river where the main flow is and another area sees the main flow on the opposite side of the river to where most of the zander lie up. Probably the most important point to emphasise is don’t go looking for slacks, as far as zander on the Severn are concerned they are an irrelevance. They do seem to like a bit of flow, and even with two or three foot of water on will happily sit in the middle of the river. The only time I have had any success fishing slacks is when the river is in full flood.
19lb10 caught when the river was 6ft up

So in the absence of a boat and echo sounder/fish finder you simply keep moving until you drop on some fish. One thing in your favour is that in reasonable conditions you can expect takes very quickly if you are in the right area. Perfect winter conditions for me is with the river two or three foot on, moderate colour, and neither rising nor falling too fast. A fast rising river is often full of rubbish, making fishing difficult and a fast falling river is often accompanied by a falling water temperature. In either case I have never done much good for either zander or barbel. However a slowly rising river, particularly after the river has been normal for some time can see the zander very active. So much depends on how much rain falls in Wales. However unlike other rivers the Severn can remain in good condition for both zander and barbel for much longer than other rivers. Rivers such as the Wye and Warwickshire Avon run off much quicker than the Severn and the Severn will run a couple of foot above with a bit of colour for much longer than those other rivers. It is these sort of conditions that the zander thrive in and they will remain active for much longer, which makes the question of the timing of trips less critical. But I still get it wrong and can find myself looking out at a river almost bursting its banks, when reports the day before have indicated three or four foot of water. Still you can always barbel fish in these conditions!

I think river zander are similar to river pike, in that they are opportunists and will often take a bait within minutes of casting out in good conditions. In summer and early autumn, as well as times in the winter when the river is running colder and clearer, dawn and dusk may become more critical as feeding triggers, particularly for the bigger fish. I can’t really comment on after dark feeding because I have done very little zander fishing after dark. To be honest I am more likely to swap the deadbait rigs for a couple of barbel rigs and go back through the same swims after barbel, once darkness has fallen.

So assuming good conditions I would work down a stretch of river, moving swims every thirty minutes or so. I would fish a maximum of two rods and, depending on the height of the river, put one bait just over the marginal shelf and one up to half-way across. The rod on the inside would be cast out and left whilst the ‘middle of the river’ rod would be moved every few minutes, thereby covering an arc across the river. If there is a lot of water in the river, say five feet or more, fishing the middle becomes very difficult and I would concentrate on simply fishing the inside shelf. In this case one rod might be enough in most swims, unless you put another rod out for the barbel, which are usually very active in such conditions and can be often seen happily rolling mid-river even with ten foot on. Despite the temptation to do so, it does not pay to fish a second rod in adjacent swims. You will miss too many takes by doing so, I know, I learnt the hard way.

Nearly all of my bait-caught zander have been on deadbaits, usually roach. Livebaits are effective, although prone to jack attacks in clear conditions, and will help to produce a response in an inactive fish, but if mobility is the name of the game, then lugging a bucket along will just make it easier not to move. Besides which lobbing livebaits into the middle from the top of a bank, fishing them in a swim for thirty minutes and then moving onto the next swim is very hard on baits. So for this sort of fishing I stick to deads. The takes may be more subtle than livebaits but you will cover a lot more water. Most of the time I fish straight off the baitrunner, with the baitrunner set according to the flow. I sit on my rods and my main focus is the rod tips for initial indication. The rods are usually on buzzers but primarily I am watching the rod tips. At the first sign of a fish I pick the rod up and feel for a fish. If I am happy that the fish has got the bait in its mouth I wind down and strike straight away. By using smallish baits, up to a maximum of four ounces and size four or six trebles I am fairly confident of hooking most fish straight away. You can use various drop-off indicators which all work, but they all require the use of a back rest and to be set up again in each swim. So I just use a front rod rest which makes it easier to move from swim to swim. Most of the time I use a 36 inch net on a long extending pole, which is big enough for any zander and is a lot easier to handle than a 42 inch net. The banks of the Severn are steep and muddy and much of the time you need to be in a position to be able to net fish from six foot above the water. A smaller net makes it a lot easier.

Rigs are straightforward running legers which need no explanation. There are a lot of snags on the Severn and moving or twitching baits will regularly find them. You can fish leads on a weaker link, but most of the time it is the trebles that snag, so I tend to avoid super-strong trebles and rely on bending the hooks out when I snag. I like to have as much information coming back to the rod tip, or my fingers. If you’re looking for fish I want to see or feel any pick-ups and whilst there might be a place for bolt rigs with finicky zander I prefer to use running rigs. If I’m planning to barbel fish later I compromise on rods with two and a quarter test curves, but if I am purely zander fishing I use my standard 2 and three quarter test curve pike rods. The pike rods are better for setting the hooks if you’ve got a big bow in the line and striking through a four ounce lead in twenty foot of water, but sharp hooks and sensible bait size probably has more impact on successful hook-ups than rod test curves in this case.

Hopefully after a few trips some potential areas start to reveal themselves and one can concentrate one’s efforts in these areas. But even then I would be prepared to cover these areas as thoroughly as possible. There are many times when both zander and barbel will happily take a bait when presented on their heads, but may not move twenty yards to pick up a bait. Obviously if you’re getting takes you stay put, or if conditions are less than ideal it may pay to sit in what you think is the most productive swim until dusk or later. There have been plenty of days when we have wondered where the better fish were, having had a string of three or four pounders, and then at dusk we have been rewarded with often the best fish of the day. Dawn can also be good but is not so consistent, or maybe I’m not there early enough??
11lb8oz Caught at dusk on a clear river

One of the advantages of living relatively local to the lower Severn is being able to pop out for two or three hours at optimum times, mainly dawn and dusk. A lot of the zander that I have caught bank fishing have been on short afternoon trips in the winter months.
A short afternoon session resulted in this 12lb11oz fish

  My work ties me up in the mornings but even with family commitments I can usually sneak out a couple of times a week for a few hours. Those sort of bright winter days with a clear river are usually not much good for zander, but if these conditions persist for a few days, then the chances are that a distinct short period of activity will develop at dusk. My particular favourite in low clear conditions is the first or second cloudy day after several bright sunny ones. I usually stay an hour or so into dark, but with very little success. As for what happens much later in the night I don’t know. I can go weeks in the winter happily catching barbel in the dark, and not seeing one in the daylight but I prefer to fish for zander in the daytime. I might be missing something but at the end of the day I fish to enjoy myself.

A 14lb2oz late afternoon fish

I cant say for certain that there is a proscribed formula which applies to locating zander on the Severn. They turn up in all sorts of swims, but these swims and areas are quite localised. However they are very consistent, assuming they are not hammered. Having found such areas catching zander from such areas can be fairly straightforward in terms of the methods used. It is more important to identify the times to be out on the bank, when the zander are active and one day you just never know........