There is absolutely no way that Bev, or myself, could have foreseen the massive impact upon our lives when she said "Yeah, of course you should go back again" In order that you might hope to understand the significance of such a simple sentence, then I need to turn back the clock to a very sunny afternoon in July 2010. My youngest brother, Simon, is celebrating his fiftieth birthday with a gathering of family and friends in his secluded garden in the quiet village of Aston Clinton, Bucks. The Wrafties were on fine form and the beer flowed freely. Benno was, very much. in the spirit of the occasion and started waxing lyrical about those childhood days when I'd taken him pike fishing to Loch Awe. accompanied by a bunch of very dear friends who were also huge characters and very gifted anglers in their own right. Way back then angling, or more correctly specimen hunting, was the single. most important, factor in my life - how utterly selfish? Still, it didn't maintain that status once I'd been to Madeira and experienced the adrenaline roller coaster of Atlantic Blue Marlin plus moving from Hertfordshire (a birding desert) to "The Garden of England" in the summer of 1993. For eighteen years, thereafter, I was fully immersed in the Kent birding scene, setting new county year-listing figures in 1999 - which was the catalyst for the break-up of my first marriage and, therefore, responsible for Bev and I getting together - every cloud? Kent birding was just as OCD but without fishing rods and, when we got together, that is all Bev had ever known me as, a birder, albeit a fanatical county lister.
Now that simple sentence has been put into perspective, thus having more gravitas, I will continue with this sorry tale. Ten years later it seems impossible to gauge how "one more time at Loch Awe" would so hugely impact upon our established relationship. Fortunately, this time around, I'm an awful lot more sensible? If you've made it this far and believe a single word of that last statement, then you've not been following this blog for very long! That 2011 Loch Awe trip was to light the blue touch paper for an adventure as obsessive and crazy as any other in my life's journey. It's part of who I am. If it's worth doing then it has to be full on. Yeah, I recognise the failings in this obsessive mentality, yet can't see any point if I don't give it my best shot? Being an individual, remaining true to myself and the values I hold dear, make sense when considered under these circumstances. It would be great to think that age and experience equates to wisdom but, I fear not. Age, if nothing else, mellows the soul and feel sure that many of my fellow bloggers understand where I'm coming from. Exuberance being replaced by a far more rewarding type of involvement with any chosen hobby/pursuit.
|The late Les "Cuddly" Dudley poses with a very nice pike taken from|
the peat stained depths of Kilchurn Bay. This was the late-80's and that keepnet
in the background contained a supply of livebaits which we would have
transported up from Hertfordshire!
So it was at the end of April 2011 that we returned to the banks of Loch Awe. Kilchurn Bay looking just as magnificent as I remembered from all those years previous. The only obvious change was the construction of a landing stage in front of the castle ruins. Health & safety must take president over aesthetic beauty, even in the Scottish Highlands. We all caught pike, Benno finishing the week off perfectly when he landed the first "Sottish" twenty that I'd ever seen. If I left Kent as a fanatical birder, I returned home a re-born angler and a new chapter in my life's journey got underway. Although I had packed up the hobby with a very creditable list of PB's, it was only pike angling which remained a constant during the annual cycle. Summer and Autumn might see me in pursuit of various species, each one targeted purely in order to put a statistic on a list thus allowing myself to be judged against my peers. I was pretty successful, as it turned out, and could hold my head up in most angling circles of that period. Eighteen years away from the hobby was to demonstrate how much things had changed. Carp and carp fishing dominated the sport to such a degree that, now, all other species are considered a nuisance by these new breed clones. In order to cater for this incessant demand there are now commercial complexes, stocked with huge carp, to provide opportunity for those who crave such things. To my way of thinking there are two massive benefits arising from this situation. Firstly, all the chavs, half-wits and lazy anglers are drawn to these venues like iron filings to a magnet and secondly, and rather more interesting from my point of view, many other species are able to prosper within these fisheries, completely ignored by this band of myopic carp chasers. I have absolutely no problems being considered a "weirdo" by these guys, just because I don't fit their stereotypic mould. Having looked like this for all of my adult life, I've gotten used to that type of assessment funnily enough.
|My best pike from that initial trip. A little over thirteen pounds, but that|
wasn't important. I rediscovered the thrill of a bent fishing rod and
the camaraderie of like-minded souls with a backdrop of outstanding natural beauty
Even away from the "carp puddles" river angling had changed far beyond anything I could have imagined. Ignoring the carp; chub and barbel were now attaining weights which were unthinkable twenty years previous. Of course there are many negative aspects caused by these extraordinary changes but, being a big fish angler, I have very little to complain about. So on our return from Loch Awe I set about reacquainting myself with the angling scene as it now is. The local commercials allowed ample scope to rediscover the thrill of centrepin fishing, with small carp providing the entertainment as they ravenously consumed whatever surface fished baits I offered. However, it wasn't too long before Benno suggested a trip to East Sussex, where a viable population of decent perch were known to inhabit a small pool. We ended up visiting this delightful fishery on three occasions, catching some superb perch to a top weight of 3 lbs 6 oz on my brother Simon's rods. My best perch went 2 lbs 10 oz yet my stand out memory is the capture of a 17 lbs plus, Italian strain, Mirror Carp using my 1 lb 2 oz t/c Tring Tench rod, a Fred Crouch Match Aerial centre-pin with 6 lbs b.s. line presenting a float fished prawn. As I drew that fish over the net chord, I knew that there were still carp fishing opportunities available, well away from the circuit circus.
The pike season of 2011/12 was to be one of incredible discovery as I embarked upon the first angling project of this new era. I wanted a wild twenty pounder from the drains of the East Kent marshes. It was a fantastic adventure, with so many highs, yet I was to fall short of my target because of the simple fact that a pike of that size did not exist in my chosen venues. The pike that did live out on these flatland were worthy of every effort required. Stunning looking fish within a network of waterways which made the Counterwash Drain out at Manea, Cambs, look decidedly large. That season ended with me having taken a good few doubles to a top weight of 19 lbs 5 oz. A magnificent pike which just ensured that the desire for a Kent wild twenty wouldn't go away any time soon.
The local commercials and a return to Loch Awe ensured that the close season passed relatively quickly. Tom "Bradders" Bradbury landing another twenty from Kilchurn Bay just to keep me on my toes. It was the start of the new season, however, that really started the next ball rolling. One of the guys that Benno had met, through work, had told of barbel, big barbel, being present in the River Stour around Canterbury. A photo was circulated depicting an eleven pounder that had been captured close to the Viking Mercedes dealership in Sturry - game on! As is only right, under these circumstances, Benno managed to snare the first two barbel of the campaign; the best one less than four pounds! What he did do, however, was take a six pound Chub and that was well worth checking out. Armed with my Fred Crouch Aerial centre-pin combined with a Tring Tench rod I set out my stall. A very interesting period of this angling adventure. I didn't come close to catching a barbel but did manage to land two five pound plus Chub for my efforts and, in doing so, knew that there was further effort required.
That winter pike season proved to be hard going, at an individual level. I changed focus from the local drains to the challenges posed by the pike of The Royal Military Canal. It wasn't until after my Mum passed away that, in mid-February, my luck changed. All alone, for a pre-dawn start, it was early doors on the 17th when the stars finally came into alignment. I'd just returned a nine pounder when my other alarm signalled a bite. This time around it was an all together different battle which resulted in that target fish being netted. 20 lbs 9 oz of, pike shaped, perfection. I have no shame in admitting that I was an emotional wreck, Mum was smiling that morning. There are times in your life when it's good to be on your own - this was one of them! Benno was roused from his drunken slumber and eventually came over to do the honours with the camera and then went on to catch a nineteen pounder for himself. It was to prove to be the start of a most incredible few weeks where we couldn't go wrong. One bite per session, but well worth the efforts involved.
Another close season, another trip to Loch Awe and another twenty on the bank, this time for my brother Simon, surely my Scottish twenty couldn't be too far away? Benno and I embark upon a barbel campaign on the Kentish River Stour. We kick started the effort with a trip up to The Severn at Hampton Lode where we both caught a few fish. Mine were the first barbel I'd caught since 1985! If we drove home on the Sunday, then it was the Monday when Benno got the ball rolling. He landed a superb fish, of 11 lbs 6 oz, from the Willow Close section of this fabulous river and, in doing so, ensured I would become as obsessed with this challenge as I'd been at any other period during my life! Bev had no chance of understanding the various influences at play but, to her eternal credit, did nothing more than encourage me to chase my dreams. Over the course of the next few weeks I was to break my PB three times. I captured five barbel during this period, so hectic it wasn't. However, when it came right it was angling beyond anything I could have wished. What was most rewarding was the fact that I did so using an approach that had been taught me my Fred Crouch, "Mr Barbel", himself down at the Compound on The Royalty Fishery of the Hampshire Avon, way back in 1984/5. Centre-pins and bait droppers, stuff that modern bait-runners and spombs have absolutely no chance of replicating. I have posted many images of those two "thirteens" so have chosen to use an image of my first double. What a memory, shared with my son - does it get any better than that?
|Benno returning my first, ever, double figure Barbel.|
11 lbs 9 oz of utter joy - a milestone moment in this individuals angling adventure.
The next year, or so, just meandered along. I still caught my fair share of decent fish yet, nothing outstanding? Loch Awe remained an annual ritual and The Stour barbel gave me, and Luke, some real highs but, it wasn't a particularly productive period. It wasn't until the 2015 Loch Awe trip that anything occurred to ignite the next phase in this incredible adventure. Well before 06.00 hrs on the morning of 26th April my bite alarm signalled the take from that pike which I'd been seeking for thirty three years! At 24 lbs 10 oz, it remains the most significant, although nowhere close to the heaviest, pike I've ever been privileged to encounter. If the twenty pounder from the Royal Military was an emotional experience, this fish took it to another level. Loch Awe is a big place and I had plenty of room to spend time with my thoughts. That pike was in the landing net by 06.00 hrs, I'd cracked open the first can of Kronenberg 1664 less than twenty minutes later. Cuddles and "The Mitch's" would have been proud of me, of that I'm sure. The next twenty-four hours were spent in an alcoholic haze - happy daze?
|The fish of my dreams|
The next few months were much the same as previous years, catching fish from small club and commercial venues with no real sense of purpose or achievement. That was to come to a very abrupt halt one sunny afternoon in July. I've blogged about this quirk of fate not long ago but, for those who might have missed it. I was only out on the flatlands due to EA weed cutting on the Stour rendering any attempt at barbel fishing to be a pointless exercise. I went off in pursuit of tench but, instead, was to encounter my first "wild" carp from these remote and intimate drains. At 18 lbs 2 oz, that Common Carp had it all. A magnificent fish from such a unexpected place, I had to go back for another bash, this time without any thoughts of pretending to be tench fishing. That second outing proved, beyond any doubts, that these carp were worthy of a sustained campaign. I landed two fish, that session, the larger one being another magnificent Common weighing in at 20 lbs 10 oz and, as such, my first over that mark since February 1984. The other one was equally worthy of capture, being a beautiful Mirror Carp of twelve pounds.
I'll return to the carp project later, but the next challenge I set myself was just about as silly as they get? In the October of 2015, I decided to spend a few sessions fishing deliberately for Eels. This is something I've never previously attempted, although I've caught many accidently whilst targeting other species. I had no problems catching these slimy, tackle tangling pests and became rather fascinated by them. This, in turn, was to lead me to set about catching an eel in every month of the pike season (October - March)? Having had pike baits savaged by these fish, right throughout the previous winter campaigns on both the drains and the RMC, I felt sure it was a realistic goal. Strangely, I could find no information about winter eel fishing, therefore it would be trial and error as I went along. I really can't remember ever being so intent, or focussed, on achieving a successful conclusion to any angling project than I was with this one. When, on a cold and dark 12th March 2016, I completed my challenge, landing the heaviest specimen of the entire project, 3 lbs 10 oz, I felt like I'd won the Lottery. I knew that I'd achieved something very few other anglers have ever attempted.
|Self takes of any fish are problematic, eels are virtually impossible.|
Under the circumstances, this ain't too bad.
Now this is where things start getting really messy. In December 2015, I'd celebrated my 60th birthday and my family presented me with a wonderful 1959 "Earls Court Boat Show" Limited Edition split cane Dick Walker Mk IV carp rod. Now the clue's in the description, it's a fishing rod, not an oil painting, so hanging it on the study wall was never going to be an option. I did take it down to the local club fishery for a few trial runs, before splashing out to buy a second example thus being able to fish them as a pair. Mitchell 300 reels completed the set up and by April 2016 Benno and I embarked upon a RMC carp hunt. Benno hit the ground running and landed three carp, two twenties, to 24 lbs, before I'd registered a bite. However, my turn came and the split canes did me proud as I landed a lovely old Mirror of 21 lbs 7 oz and I was off the mark. Back out on the flatlands for the start of the new season, I got away to a flyer. Three carp, two Commons of 19 lbs 4 oz & 20 lbs 10 oz and a "football" of a Mirror at 23 lbs 10 oz before the deteriorating health of my father put an abrupt halt to proceedings. Bev and I moved into his house to ensure he saw out his remaining time at home. It was at this point I made the promise to catch a thirty on the split canes and will use this as my motivation moving forward. We did our best and Dad passed away, peacefully, on 2nd August, our work was done and, after the funeral, returned to some type of normality. I got back out onto the flatlands and took another lovely Common of 21 lbs 14 oz before packing it in for another year.
These past few years, after Dad's passing, have been very testing as we've, subsequently, had to deal with the loss of Bev's father then, after a lengthy period of caring for her mother, who rapidly deteriorated into a bed ridden, dementia suffering, shadow of her former self, now find ourselves at the top of the family tree. Obviously my fishing is of no consequence, whatsoever, under these circumstances but I've still enjoyed whatever time has been available to me. The Marshside Fishery complex was to provide some outstanding Perch fishing for me over the 2018/19 season before I moved on to my local syndicate fishery.
The pandemic just about put the tin hat on it for me. Bev couldn't leave her mum, but at least I was able to get off to work to give me some break from the situation. It was the end of October that finally saw an end to the suffering of Denise. It might sound callous, but it was a relief for all those involved, family and friends, plus that wonderfully committed group of carers. As a couple Bev and I are stronger than ever because of these testing times. Getting back out on the banks has produced two moments of utter joy and give me hope for the future. It was the day before my sixty-fifth birthday when I land a superb brace of pike from the RMC, although my further plans were thwarted by the lockdown restrictions imposed before Christmas. Then, two days before the end of the season, with the angling Gods smiling down, I cross paths with that magnificent old warrior out on the flatlands. With retirement looming I won't see those two occasions as the end of the chapter but, instead use them as inspiration for the start of a new adventure.
Well that's my very personal overview of the last ten years spent on the bank. All being well, the next ten will be even more eventful given that time won't be so restricted?