The owl and the chub
Carp photos? What do you take me for?
I don’t often spend much time fishing for carp and when I catch one it’s usually because it’s snaffled a bait meant for a tench or a roach, a rudd or a crucian. That’s not to say I’m unhappy when one comes along, more that I’ve never seen the point of all the rod pods, bite alarms, monkey climbers and the rest that seem such an intrinsic part of modern carping.
The one exception to this is surface fishing, which I’ve done from time to time with some small success. In fact, the biggest guestimated carp I ever caught was bagged right at my feet on a day ticket water on floating crust - I’d seen them snorting about in the reeds and tackled up a rod for that very purpose. When one rose at my feet, took the crust and I struck, I don’t know which of us was more surprised.
Returning to a small lake in Sussex I’d had the foresight to visit Tesco’s and buy some Chum mixer. Took me long enough to find among all the other dried food (do dogs really need to eat fresh rabbit and country vegetables?) and in the end I had to buy an enormous BBQ briquettes-style bag. Still, they smelled good and pongy and I remembered the old trick for softening them for the hook when you’re in a hurry. Get a freezer bag, pour in the dried biscuits, boil a kettle, pour the water into the bag so it covers a single layer of biscuits at the bottom, then seal the bag and give it a good shake. By the time you get where you’re going they’ll be soft enough to hook.
So, the deal was this. Set up a float rod and fish maggots and corn for roach and rudd and periodically wander round one end of the lake in search of carp on the surface. I’d forgotten what fun this is, how frustrating and how extraordinary it is to stare a piece of water that has nothing in it, nothing at all, no sign of a carp - until in the next second there they are, singly, in pairs or occasionally in a line, like carriages in a train. These were beauties, too - dark and broad backed, silent and full of purpose. Two I disturbed as I walked out onto a wooden platform. They simply withdrew unhurriedly to the middle of the back bay and I never saw them again. Several smaller ones stayed in the rushes either side of the platform and were still there when I left, rooting excitedly among the reeds. In another swim, two fish cruised round the reeds and ended up at my feet. The bigger one drifted away as I lobbed the size six hook with two biscuits on it at his tail. The smaller one rose from the bottom, sucked in the bait and then spat it out again, far too quickly for the angler who was just standing there with his mouth open.
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Free lining has always been one of my favourite ways to fish - whether it's a large lump of luncheon meat rolled down the bottom of a fast river for barbel or a couple of dog biscuits floating on the surface for carp. There's also something special about free lining on a small river, and something pleasing about using a bait like breadflake, pinched onto the hook and then dunked to make it sink and give it weight for the cast.
I first free lined on the Adur out of necessity - there was so much summer weed that almost any method had real limitations. At the height of summer it meant that half the swims were unfishable using traditional techniques because the tackle would get tangled up and the bait lost in all that greenery. Free lined breadflake worked though because it was visible, smelled good, and was buoyant enough to roll over and through the weed. It became and occasional favourite and helped me winkle out some decent fish in difficult conditions.
Initially I had to get over my fetish for tightening up as if I was using a ledger rig - obviously this made the bait flap about unnaturally, but it was still hard to break the habit. No, the trick is to let the bait settle and then find its way in the flow - and this means leaving the line to bow slightly. You can still see bites (even really sensitive ones) and it gives you enough warning before an interested fish really takes the bait.
That's the best thing about freelining. It's almost as if the fish are taking the bait out of your fingers, first with tiny electric shudders that often don't move the rod top at all - even a delicate quiver tip - and then building to the point where they actually tug one way, you hold steady, they tug again and then you don't strike so much as sweep the rod gently in the opposite direction to make contact. It's like the fish are trying to pick your pocket. I caught two nice little chub and a roach like this, did some chores (dumping old, frazzled maggots and cleaning out the boxes) and bid farewell to my blow up cushion which finally gave up the ghost - air gently wheezing out until I was left sitting basically sitting on he soggy bank.
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Sauce for the goose
I don’t know what they’re feeding the geese at Flintstones but it’s going through them like a dose of the proverbials and means it’s almost impossible to walk two steps in a straight line without enountering something that squirted from a goose’s arse. Which is no fun when you’re wearing Crocs. I’d originally gone to check out the river to the north but that’s going to have to wait until another day when I have more time and access to an excavator. Meanwhile, Ray and I spent a couple of very happy hours catching small rudd and F1 carp of various sizes on ledger and float. There was a lovely sunset and the fish fed enthusiastically until dusk but although it’s pretty enough, Flintstones is a bit one-paced. A bit like Electricity but with bigger fish.
Pickwells on the other hand - I like the look of that.
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Sometimes it feels as though the rain has settled in for the summer. It’s had a good look round (the wettest April to June since records began) and likes what it sees, so it’s hunkered down and is here for the duration.
Fortunately, although the weather may be poor for anglers, it turns out that it’s rather good for angling - at least if you’re prepared. Now I’m a long time fan of the poncho. It’s light, reasonably waterproof, leaves your arms free, can cover the rest of your tackle if you’re scrunched down on a blow-up seat, and I just love the way it packs down to nothing. But for weather like this, when the rains have well and truly come, there’s only one thing that’s going to do the trick - a proper fisherman’s brolly.
Funnily enough, I actually own one but I’ve only ever used in anger on an Irish holiday because, let’s face it, the Irish know a thing or two about rain…it’s why the Emerald Isle is emerald, after all. It works fine but mostly I don’t use it because I can’t be bothered, can never get it set up right, move around a lot, moan, complain, bitch…
This time however, I’d decided to stick, rather than twist, and stay in particular spot all afternoon and evening, so it seemed worth humping the brolly down from the gate, through the field and round the lake to the far side, next to the old tree. Bank was hard as hell and I couldn’t push the brolly stick in so I scavenged round the banks and found a huge fence post, lugged it back round and then pounded that mother into the bank. Job done. Set the brolly up, span the top round till it tilted back nicely to protect me from the wind and then positioned the edge of the brolly flat to the ground. It felt solid enough but the first really hard gust of wind threatened to spin the bastard round. Fortunately I had a spare mini rod rest and the tie cord from the brolly was in exactly the right position - a minute later the whole structure was pretty solid.
In went the maggots and while let everything settle down after all that banging I tackled up with a pike rod, 12lb line, a rubber lure with a single hook and a long soft wire trace. There were decent pike in the lake I’d been told and with no-one around to mock my rotten sink and draw technique, I thought I’d have a go. Half an hour later, pretty wet by now, I’d tried half the lake. I couldn’t understand it. The lure wobbled so enticingly I’d almost jumped in a few times after it myself, but of the pike there were no sign. I leaned the rod against a tree and tackled up the Transformer - 6lb line, size 14 hook, centrepin, double maggot and a small 2BB antenna float. First cast - a small roach. Second cast - a smaller perch. Third cast - another small roach which halfway in is suddenly engulfed by a set of savage jaws. There’s a swirl, the roll of a large white belly and then everything goes slack. I reel in another foot and pike surges up from the bottom again and this time puts a death grip on the roach (which I never see by the way). Now it’s not as if this happened to me before but this time, everything seems to go right. The pike is hooked in the corner of the mouth (God knows how) and feels a bit sluggish - nevertheless, it’s dogged and angry and I’m delighted to see it on the bank and then in the sling. It weights 8lb 12oz which makes it a clear 7lbs heavier than my previous biggest pike. Amazing. It’s a nasty looking brute but I’m chuffed to bits and it goes back fast and in good shape, the hook having fallen out in the net. Phew.
After that it’s a question of enjoying the relative comfort of the brolly, brewing up the kettle (forgot both cup and spoon but a quick trip to the car revealed a plastic water bottle which, when cut in half, makes a serviceable mug) eating a sandwich and catching roach and rudd, one after to the other, virtually day. Here and there a tench takes the bait and tears off like a maniac, feeling twice its size and fighting like one of those demonic Blenheim tench of yesteryear. Magnificent fish they were.
I experiment with a Polaris sliding float which works OK but frankly the bites come so thick and fast (often before the float has settled properly) that I think I could have used the other half of that plastic bottle and I would still have caught fish. One roach weighs 1lb 9oz - but unfortunately by then the sling is so wet that it weighs almost eleven ounces itself. Damn.
As I hopalong through the following day with my arse feeling like I’ve been in the saddle for a week, it’s the final proof that a blow-up cushion may be fine for a couple of hours by the river but it’s no substitute for a proper chair if you’re planning a longer stay. There’s no doubt it was worth it though, as the pictures here demonstrate.
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Having kissed goodbye to the wind, it was time to try the river again, so I 'organised' a quick evening raid, figuring that I could get down there for 7.00pm and still have two hours plus to fish. The maggots were turning into casters and had a good strong smell to them (adding a handful of wholemeal flour helps with the sweats and the stench - at least a bit) and I fancied my original plan would still work.
So back to that beautiful uncut wild field I went and with the wind a distant memory, things seemed very much better. The river looks fantastic - good colour, plenty of flow, not too many weeds or cabbages. I made my way to a favourite corner swim and got to work with the surgical shears to make a bit of space for me and my gear. Out came the Transformer again - the 13ft float version this time - and on went the Leeds 'pin with 4lb line and a size 16. I went with an old favourite float - a sort of chubber I think - but no matter how many shot I squeezed on the line the bloody thing refused to cock properly and rode miles too high out of the water. I started with double maggot and soon re-acquainted myself with some small roach, then a dace and then a tiny chub.
But I was missing bites too and when I got into a terrible tangle I decided to re-tackle with a different float. This time I chose a small stick float that cocked perfectly with two BBs and just poked its nose out of the water. Suddenly I started to hit more bites. I caught more roach, dace and chub and the the first of three perch - the biggest of which is here and must have gone a pound and a half, thus making it my biggest ever perch. An absolute beauty that the photo really doesn't do justice.
So I got my June the 16th after all, only a few days late and it was a wonderful evening, the best on the Adur for some time and hopefully a sign of things to come. I saw the owl too, quartering the field on the Henfield side, and watched it dip silently into that long grass and then lift back up and disappear off into the trees.
Previously on River Running...
Except I don't remember much about the first trip. It was to Whitmore's lake, a favourite spot these days thanks to its relatively small size and the fact that so few people fish it. However, fishing as we know, goes in cycles, and my first visit of the new season lacks a certain something that was a regular feature last year. Fish. Despite trying various swims before settling on the smaller of the two islands (a lovely spot) I manage a single bite (a confident couple of bobs followed by a sail away) and a single fish (a small rudd of a few ounces). Still, the Kelly Kettle gets an outing too and that's a complete success - the trick seems to be to load it up as soon as it gets going, rather than feeding it sticks in drubs and drabs.
Seconds away, round two. A big club lake this time, a water I associate with surface feeding carp but that now holds crucians, decent perch along with rudd and roach that are growing fast. So what do I catch? Tench. In fact, it looks like the same tench, over and over again - a supersize bar of Pears soap that's just big enough to need the landing net. I go with new club member (and fellow band member - but that's another story) Sam, a sea fisherman who's more at home with 7oz leads with grippers and rods as big as coconut trees; this time round we both enjoy a cup of coffee, courtesy of the kettle. And if I can get the video uploaded, you'll be able to see for yourself.
Round three. My favourite club lake this time. Driving past the alpacas with their funny, Muppety faces, Sam and I find a single club member who's there having had a row with his wife. Storming out he remembered he had all his gear in the car so instead of going to the pub of tramping the streets, he goes fishing instead. Sensible choice. No such histrionics for either of us so Sam settles into my favourite corner swim and I tackle up next door on the other side of the big tree. I start by quiver tipping with maggots, but a succession of fish from the other side of the tree culminating in a lovely crucian carp convinces me to switch to a small float - a leaded, clear short bodied waggler. Luncheon meat goes on a small size 12 (bought from Trago Mills nearly 10 years ago and still sharp as billy-o) and produces a lovely little rudd. Over the next three hours this is followed by a nice bream, some good sized tench (the biggest is here at 3lbs 5oz) and that rarest of all freshwater aquatic creatures, a lip-hooked eel. It was the same day the flotilla sailed down the Thames in celebration of the jubilee, and while London sweltered and soaked in the rain, Sam and I fished into the silence and the setting sun.
Round four. June the 16th. The most important day of the season, for obvious reasons and for others that I won't go into here. It has to be the river of course, but Ray is cautious because of the wind and tries to persuade me to go the following day instead. I'm determined to go anyway and talk Sam into it ( this takes about two seconds) but as we head over the Downs the wind seems to rise rather than fall and when we park up by the stile, the uncut meadow grass sways this way and that in the ferocious wind. Still, it's the glorious 16th and it has to be done, so we go over the stile and stride purposefully through the grass to the river. It looks great, plenty of water, good flow and not too weedy - but the banks are almost impenetrable and the wind gusts viciously this way and that. We press on downstream. The river winds so much here that I'm certain we'll find a sheltered spot where we can tuck in out of the way but as we continue, the landscape increasingly resembles a sandstorm minus the sand. Long story short? I bottle it and we slink (actually we high step, it's the only way to walk through that bloomin' grass) back to the car and decamp to a small, sheltered pond up the road. Here we catch tiny fish after tiny fish all afternoon and into the evening. After an hour I've already caught more fish than I managed all of last season - rudd and little F1 carp which go like miniature rockets. Sam catches them too, ledgers for the first time, finds he doesn't fancy using a centrepin after all and finally introduces me to a wonderful beer flavoured with ginger. Although the day hasn't had the solemnity of previous June the 16ths, it has still had its moments. More important, I think all the players can appreciate that if a sizeable fish won't show itself, a quiet pint in a classic English pub on a warm, stormy summer's evening may be compensation enough.
I can sympathise. It's one of the reasons I like this here John Wilson Rovex 11-13ft rod, because it can be fished four different ways, as an 11ft float or quiver tip or as a 13ft float and quiver tip. For this flexibility (and because I'll be using it a lot this year and don't intend to keep calling it by its trade name) I've decided to call it something else: so Sir Rovex, I dub thee The Transformer - because although you don't turn into a table, you do allow to take four rods fishing but only one rod bag.
And there's another reason for the name. Fishing with Sam yesterday, I hooked a small carp first cast on the quiver after a bite so ferocious that it almost pulled the rod from the rest. As I struck and realised the fish was on, I let out a sort of weird, hooting chortle that - on reflection - sounded very John Wilsonesque. Maybe the rod has more transformational properties than I thought...
Sam with his biggest freshwater fish so far - a 4lb 5oz carp
But it's also the last day of the river season, so if I want to give it a go - and not let it gnaw at me for the next three months - it's got to be today. I take an hour in the morning and research various trace-tying methods online but they all seem to require tools or components I don't possess and in the end I put my glasses on, put magnifying clips on top of them and peer at the tiny instructions on the back of the trace wire packet that I bought months ago. It looks more straightforward than I remembered. So I have another go and after a couple of fails, I have something worth testing, so I tie on a 5kg weight, grab the carp rod and give it a try. The knots - and more surprisingly, the. crimps and various bits of folded wire - hold well enough. I make more and they come out like home-made rolls, all different shapes and sizes. No matter how I measure I always end up wasting wire and at the end I've got some traces twice as long as the others. But they feel OK and they look like the real thing.
The river is beautiful. Although in an official drought zone, the level hasn't dropped anything like as much as previous years and there are several anglers dotted along the half mile or so stretch. I walk to the top, tackle up with a little rubber perch-like lure (6 for £3.50) check my gloves, forceps and mat are all present and correct and begin to fish.
Three hours later it turns out I needn't have worried about my lack of pike handling skills since despite near-perfect conditions and the amazingly fish-like movements of my little lure, I don't get a single take. I do hook the bottom six or seven times though, and the only break I get is using the one shop-bought trace I'd had in my tackle box for about 10 years - my own mishapen, higgledy-piggledy ones work just fine thanks very much. So I'll claim a moral victory and return next year to try again.
As I'm packing up a small owl appears, following the course of the river downstream until it reaches the bend where I'm standing with my mouth open. Then it rises over the bank on the other side and floats silently into the trees.
You can just about see the lure above the creel. Sadly, not irresistable to pike after all...