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Can't make wood

Back to the river again. The forecast promises thunder, but after faffing around - and feeling the weight of the umbrella, not used since Ireland three years ago - I decide to chance it and go with the poncho again. I can see I'm going to have make good on my foolish boast to create some sort of lightweight basha shelter that will replace the brolly for summer storms.


Again, the river looks fantastic, but the wind's picked up from the west and our original plan to fish the new big pool which has opened up downstream of where the old tree used to stand is scuppered. Wind blowing one way, river flowing the other - it's a recipe for disaster for stick-in-the-muds like Ray and I.

Instead we amble upstream and take up more or less the same positions as last Sunday. At least I do. Same 'tactics' of course. Same piece of luncheon meat if I'm honest. However, the first cast (into the same spot, naturally) produces a huge chub. Must be four pounds if he's an ounce, flashing eyes and a gob the size of a Big Brother contestant. I reckon I could get my whole hand in there if I tried.

Moving round the swim produces two eels at which point I decide to move. I don't like catching eels, and that's that.

I wander down to the bridge where the fast water pours through a concrete tunnel and there, just in front of the tree, rising and falling in the water, see a dark shape. A nice dark chub. Scurrying back with my tackle a fellow club member pitches up. No tackle, just looking, but he's keen to chat and settles down to watch me catch this chub. I can't do it. I nearly fall in sliding down the bank. The first cast is all wrong. My hands are shaking. I miss the first bite, fluff the second (though something's on for an instant) and then hit the third only to get hopelessly snagged on the bottom. He gives up and wanders off to talk the hind legs off Ray, while I reflect on my performance. I remember a Louis Theroux episode where he was talking to male porn actors and the general conclusion was that the hardest thing to do was to perform in front of an audience. They called it 'making wood'. Another reason I'll never make my living as a porn star then.

I remember now

The phone rang. I opened my eyes and looked at my watch. A quarter to four. The Seventeenth of June. It's the first time in years I've not been able to fish on the opening day of the season and I don't like it. I don't like it for lots of reasons.
I don't like it because it's been more than six months since I last fished. In between then and now I've written a fishing book. This is a big deal for me, and I wonder if spending all that time thinking and writing about fishing has taken the gloss off of it for me. I worry that I'll get to the bank and not know what to do. Worse, that I might not want to fish.

So I nearly don't answer the phone. It is 3.45 after all, and that's early by anyone's standards. At this rate we'll be at the banks just before tea time and as it doesn't get dark until about 10.00pm that'll give us about five and half hours to fish. What if I can't do it?

Forty minutes later I'm ready and watching out the window for Ray's car. Various bits of tackle have been retrieved from stowage (bait box from the window sill outside the kitchen, home to many spiders for the winter, fishing rod from underneath daughter's bed, landing net from shed) and emptied into the creel, along with the poncho - a last minute addition this, courtesy of superstition and a conviction that the BBC weather site isn't always reliable. Luncheon meat. Size six hook, quarter ounce Arlsey bomb, line of indeterminate strength (probably 5lbs) and a hat. Ready? I was born ready.

The river has almost disappeared underneath the weight of the lilies and bullrushes but thanks to recent rain there's a good head of water going through and just by looking at the banks you can tell it's not as low as it was even a day or so ago. We heft our gear and cross the style into the field. This is a marvel. A genuine meadow of wild flowers and grasses that hasn't been cut this year yet. It's alive in a way that cut grass isn't. Every so often half a dozen butterflies burst into the air in front of us. I'm getting the hang of this and we haven't even reached the river yet.

We fetch up at the bank and notice that soemone's been cutting swims. They're a bit big for my liking - need to accomodate those seat boxes, trolleys, poles, umbrellas and other paraphernalia y'know, - but they've done a good job and it means there are spots in the river that can be fished again for the first time in years. We meet a husband and wife who've been there since lunchtime and caught lots of small ones along with a good perch and a couple of jack pike. My fingers by now are actually twitching. We stave off the moment a little longer, ambling further downstream through the long grass to the bend where I notice something is missing. The tree that's been a feature of this swim for the ten years I've been with the club has gone. At first it's a shock, but then I really start to appreciate the result. The tree had half slumped into the river like an old drunk, all alone at the end of the evening, and was silting everything up. Now there's a large, open pool where all the clog used to be and it looks very tempting.

In the end we repair to the willows swim, back towards the bridge and set up within yards of each other. It only takes a few minutes and I'm back, sat on the inflatable cushion, a bit of luncheon meat in the bait box, knife at the ready, tightening up to the ledger that's sitting nicely just on the other side of the flow.

It takes 15 minutes for my first bite of the season, but even I can't miss it. A chub of about a pound, lean and hungry with signs that a pike's been after it. I let it go in the swim upstream from Ray.

Next cast, and it's a bream. A huge bream, or it would be huge if it had been eating anything. Fish this size are usually known as 'slabs', but this is more of a slice. Still, lovely fish and another unmissable bite. Unfortunately, so is the next bite - an eel of about a pound.

Ray comes round the tussock for a chat. He hasn't had a bite yet. We share a cup of tea and then it starts to spit with rain. I say that I don't think it's going to settle in but Ray disappears back to the car for waterproofs and a brolly. After a minute, I get the poncho out as the rain settles in.

It's actually quite cosy under this thing. The rain continues to fall. I re-arrange the material to cover my legs, move the creel behind the small of my back so that's covered too and then slide the bait box next to my side. We have another cup of tea and I'm able to retrieve it from the creel and take it out of its case while remaining inside the poncho. This is great. We drink the tea. I miss a sitter of a bite.

I re-bait and re-cast. The rain gets heavier. I become less cosy. I am, after all, just sitting on a blow-up cushion under 25 quidsworth of waterproof material on a wet bank. It slowly gets darker. There are no more bites. Somewhere around 9.00pm it occurs to me that I stopped fishing about half an hour ago and since then, have just been sitting in the rain.

Ray elects to pack up and since he's the designated driver, I'm not arguing.

I've negotiated the first day of my season successfully, even if I missed the first day of the official season. By the time we get back to the car, we're three times as wet, courtesy of that lovely, wild field. Strangely, neither of us cares.


Spoke too soon

So I'm driving my mum home after a very nice weekend when she's come down to see my daughter's musical and we've generally had fun. We're talking about fishing because I've just finished a book and anyway, after dropping her home I'm going to turn straight round and see if I can't prise a chub or two out of the river in Surrey on my return trip.


"Nope, I haven't blanked this season." I look half-heartedly around the car for something wooden to touch but being a modern Japanese thing, there's nothing, so I smile and touch the plastic dashboard instead. Can't mean anything, can it? Five hours later, as I squelch back across the the weir - fishless of course - I am of a different opinion, and I won't make that mistake again.

I've never seen so much mud. The trees were covered in it. Even the passersby were mud spattered. even the German woman and her ridiculous child who stood next to one of England's prettiest stretches of canal and shouted at each other because one of them could see something and the other could not, were covered in mud. (Though some in their mouths wouldn't have gone amiss).

Anyway. No Wellingtons for me. A pair of stout Doc Martins instead, which turned out to be about as much use skates on a frozen pond. Add to that the fact that the path pixies had been out in force creating trails that disappear or wind round in huge loops to deposit you inches from where you started except now you're sweating, scratched to bits and - yes - covered in mud.

It took me an hour to find somewhere to fish. By then I'd negotiated half a dozen 'paths' nearly been run down twice by cyclists on the towpath and almost put my own eye out. I'd also struck up a conversation with a fellow angler with the most bizarre hat I've ever seen (think Multi Coloured Swapshop) and a dog that didn't so much run up and down the banks as stand there vibrating at enormous speed. I thought it was actually going to explode at one point.

Anyway, I found a spot that was marginally less muddy than the rest of the river - i.e. only swimming in mud as opposed to being part of an actual mudslide - and settled down. The usual. Luncheon meat, size four, 8lb line, Arlsey bomb, short trail, 12' Lake Specialist. No bites in swim one (pictured here with the rod) but one or two good knocks further downstream (I'd caught a barbel there about three years previous). A guy turned up, scouting swims and he looked so much more comfortable than I felt - decent wellies, long socks, just neat and tidy, looking like he could sit down on the mud and it wouldn't touch him, but sort of slide off somewhow.

Anyway, I made the mistake of moving on and didn't get another bite until it was almost too dark to see the rod. I felt the fish for a second and then the hook came out. I took it as a sign and packed up.

When I got home the bannisters and radiators were covered in washing so there was nowhere to lay out my rubber cushion which was caked in you-know-what. So I put it over the back of my office chair and forgot about it until this morning when I finished this entry and leaned back in satisfaction. Now my hair is also covered in mud.


Barbelicious

It's been so long that I'm not sure I remember how to go fishing, let alone write it up in this thing.


I havn't set foot near water since my last diary entry here - too much going on at home, scouting round for work, finishing writing projects and starting new ones. Still, on my way up to sort my brother's broadband connection up I stopped off in Surrey to fish my favourite (indeed only) barbel river. The conditions were close to perfect. We'd had three or four days of solid rain so the river was high with plenty of flow but the forecast for Saturday and Sunday was settled with sunny intervals and warm for this time of the year.

Once again the river banks have changed. For two seasons now it's been a jungle here with only one or two fishable swims but now there are some beauties. An old guy was fishing in the top swim about 100 metres down from the weir. The bank juts out and gives you a great trotting swim where you can face sitting downstream. He had his dog with him but neither of them saw me.

I moved down to the swim I usually fish and it was free. The bank had partly collapsed and the water was coming through thick and fast but it looked - as you can see - very barbely. There are lots of fast bits of water, eddies, strange currents and, right in front of you, an enormous snag.

I baited up the swim with luncheon meat and tackled up. Blew up the cushion and sat on it. Set up the rod rest. Cast in. Enormous bite, just as I'm reaching to adjust the position of the landing net. Bugger.

Reel in, re-bait. Re-cast. Rod goes back on the rest. I wipe my hands on the cloth. The rod bends round as if attached to a small motor car and we're off....What a fight. Typical barbel. Stays close to the bottom, using all the traction it can get from its superbly designed triangular body, just hugging the river bed for all its worth.

Remember the snag? The barbel does and heads straight for it. There's been so much movement on the bottom of the river that I'm not sure where the snag is any more, but the barbel knows alright. Everything goes solid. The rod is in a hoop, 8lb Maxima thrumming. I ease off slightly and wait. After about a minute there's a succession of slow tugs and then the barbel's on the move again. About another ten feet up the river and back into the snag again. We repeat the tension-and-tug dance and eventually he comes out again. There are a couple of short dashes and another one when he breaks the surface but essentially he's done. I'm slightly disappointed that he's not bigger but it's still my first barbel of the season and my biggest fish all year. I estimate he's about 6lbs, in lovely condition and after the photos I ease him back into the water inside the net until he recovers and then, with a flick of that spade tail, he's off again.

I'm laughing. I don't mind that for the rest of the session I only get two more bites and catch an eel. Today I have caught a barbel. That's enough.


The secret bait

Having decided to try my new secret bait I felt I ought to do things properly, so I arrived at the water by about 5.00pm and left myself plenty of time to get settled and bait up with loose offerings. Once again the river has changed out of all recognition from last season. Club members have been down here already, cutting paths down to the water and making various swims safe - last season you had a choice of one and if someone was in it, you might as well have gone home. Or stayed to watch them fish.


This year we're blessed and I feel a barbel is going to come out this year for me...possibly on the secret bait.

But not this night. This night was for chub and luncheon meat (which, ever the coward, I switched to after I couldn't buy a bite on the SB). It was nice Old Oak stuff that smelled lovely. I almost ate it myself.

The chub enjoyed themselves and I caught five in about five hours, between one and a half and four pounds. Didn't photograph any of them though - nor the little pike that snatched the meat as I reeled in at about 9.00pm. He gave me a good fight though, before those fangs sliced through the line and the ledger pinged up into the tree behind me.

The river looked beautiful, just beautiful.

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