Monday, 26 May 2014

Capital Breaming

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Recent travels have led to some really exciting fishing. And while it might not be the main reason I go fishing, the prospect of the odd much larger than usual sample has only added to the spice. What constitutes a "big" fish to any of us? It's one of the most misleading (and often pointless) topics in fishing, because it's entirely relative to what you know, and more specifically the venue where you've chosen to park your backside.
When that venue happens to contain fish that dwarf your local samples, things do get exciting- which was exactly the case on a trip to north London.

Big waters can be daunting, but with my host Will Barnard pointing me in the direction of a reliable area I was hopeful of finding the fish at some point. The first vital concern was to introduce a good carpet of bait, since big bream can demolish a serious amount of food and won't stick around for long if you've only offered them a starter.
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I decided to be nice and positive with my feed, with two kilos of pellets and lots of random particles, along with about four kilos of ground bait (50/50 Bait Factory Krill and Crab/ Brown Crumb). At sixty yards or more this is a challenging task in itself. You could be there for a week with a swim feeder so out came my spomb set up, which is a great way to feed accurately a long way out and admittedly quite good fun until you hit cast number fifty something.
Nor did it take massively long to get a response, because within two hours the first fish intercepted a double 10mm boilie hook bait. In typical bream fashion it didn't exactly run like fury but the bend in the rod suggested something heavy, before I caught first sight and had a moment of revelation along the lines of "holy shit that's a pretty big bream."
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It was bigger than any bream I'd ever laid eyes on anyway, so I had to weigh it. At 10lbs 12oz, this was comfortably my best ever. And the indicators dancing almost immediately after a recast suggested the show was still warming up. A boilie tipped with a worm was quickly grabbed by bream number two, a male which I didn't weigh but looked around eight pounds and actually fought harder than its big sister:
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It's always nice to catch the fish you wanted early, so you can totally relax. In fact my next concern was whether it would be sensible to night fish and possibly forgoe all ideas of sleep, given the number of fish showing. I opts to add some bigger boilies for carp, saving the real onslaught for first light. It was a plan that resulted in some peaceful sleep at least- which is the civilised thing to do when you have your girlfriend also bivvying up. A beautiful sunset it was too, with all the gear drying out after some serious thunder showers in the afternoon.
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A phenomenally fat "football" bellied carp did show up in the night (although a few yards down the bank I'd also bumped into Dean Macey who managed a thirty in the night!). The action for me really began to kick off at first light though, when I crept out to send out another good helping of bait. This did the trick again- and while I could bore you with the exact details of everything, a summary will do nicely. Rigs were a piece of piss: a two ounce method feeder with a three inch hook length worked best, with the winning bait two 10mm Bait Factory Coconut Cream boilies. Tipping the bait with half a worm also seemed a good way to get bites quicker- and I always like some extra wriggle, especially when the fish have a real carpet of similar baits to choose from. On the techy side, long range fishing needn't be rocket science either: fancy running rigs are fairly pointless once you have sixty plus yards of line out, with semi-fixed presentations nice and positive. Back leads are equally unnecessary because all the line near the feeder will already be flat on the deck due to the great distance involved and the relatively flat angle of the line.
I did also try more conventional feeder rigs, but these needed watching a lot more closely for twitchy bites and some really exaggerated drop backs. No such trouble with the method feeder and some astonishingly positive bites! I had another few fish, including two over the ten pound mark at 10.9 and 10.3, while Paulina also landed a double of her own for good measure. Throw in a bottle of wine, an epic game of scrabble and a fried breakfast and it amounted to a very civilised overnighter.
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Friday, 16 May 2014

Sunburned Glory

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This latest blog instalment comes with a slight health warning. This might be England and it might be decidedly cold when you load the car at 5 in the morning. But that's no excuse not to pack some sun screen. It's a lesson I learned the hard way as I was slowly toasted.
A session at Linhay Pond, on the Rackerhayes complex, began in idyllic style however. Cool mist and the odd rolling fish. It wasn't so much the sun, but the great depths of the lake that I had anticipated being the crux of the challenge.
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The pole is one obvious way, but for me it was an excellent excuse to dig out the 15ft Hardy Marksman float rod- a great weapon where the bottom plummets away alarmingly quickly. I was joined by Russ Hilton, who reckoned the tench would be patrolling just where the weed stopped and the margin dropped to a good 8-10 feet. And as tends to be the case, the bugger was correct! I put in four balls of ground bait laced with chopped worm and caster and it didn't take long for the wrestling to begin:
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Sport wasn't exactly rapid, but bloody hell do tench fight well. And in the gaps, Russ also caught plenty on the whip, while I slowly got frazzled. I could have posted up a picture of my sorry, red, sweaty shoulders, but instead here's a random photo of a bee:
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Was it worth it all in the end? I'm tempted to say yes, because the tench were beautiful. Not small by Devon standards either. Perhaps the whole tench fishing scene has been crashed by fat gravel pit fish that grow enormous- but in the Westcountry, a fish of six pounds is still pretty respectable, not to mention beautiful. This was the best of three:
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The session was very much a case of quality rather than quantity. Would we have got more bites fishing lighter? I can't say, but with hooklengths of 5-6lbs, you're much safer. A size 16 hook and a worm and caster cocktail was by far the best bait on the day.
The idea was that I was to return home looking like a Greek. The reality was more like a lobster. Joking aside, do be warned- the sun is no laughing matter and when you're enjoying your fishing it's incredibly easy to forget about protection.
My next trip by waters was without the rod, but this time with plenty of sun block. I had a wonderful walk with Paulina to Ladram Bay in fact, where I took the picture below. It was a really lovely scene: the youngster and his dad approached the old angler and no doubt he was asked all those sorts of questions that six year olds are so excellent at randomly coming up with:
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I'm also in the process of answering some of met own questions with the arrival of a rather novel book this week from my good friend the angler and conservationist Theo Pike. "The Pocket Guide to Balsam Bashing and How to Tackle Other Non-native Species" is a fascinating if alarming read. Documenting all manner of undesirables from mink and crayfish to horrible, alien plants this pocket sized guide makes eye-opening reading. Most importantly of all though, it also explains how you can do your bit to stem the tide of these unwanted blighters, whether that means reporting, cutting down or even dispatching with boot or bullet. Perhaps those which I particularly hate the most are Himalayan Balsam (which is everywhere these days) and the dreaded mink (the main reason I haven't seen a water vole for over a decade). I took the shot below as a bit of a joke- but the issue of invasive species is very serious. The most important weapon is not a gun, but knowledge, which is why Theo's book could be extremely important.
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Monday, 5 May 2014

Lucky Days in May

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Fortune and form, just like so much in angling, tend to work in cycles. You have periods that test you, and others that repay your faith. This week has simply been one of those when lady luck has not so much smiled on me, but bought me free beer and pizza before slipping a tenner in my back pocket.
In the case of Chew Valley Lake however, I'm tempted to say "about bloody time." Not sure what it is about the place, but previous visits have been a case of so near but so far. One previous experience had stuck in my head above all others, of watching one of the biggest pike I'd ever hooked spit out the fly before the net could be sunk. The valley still probably echoes with my swear words.
I'm not mad keen on the pike trials here, much preferring to fish when it's quieter. You can take your time a bit more, and be a little more civilised for one thing. And as well as my significant other, Paulina, I was in excellent company this time. The Angling Trust's Paul Sharman was my fishing partner for the day, while we also compared notes with the esteemed pike fly fisher David Wolsoncroft-Dodds.
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Look at the grinning faces in countless Chew pictures and you might assume the place is a dead cert for big pike. Look at the sheer size of the place and the amount of fishing pressure however, and the task is far more challenging.
One thing I've learned from previous visits is to be single-minded. Sure, you can take trout tackle as well as pike flies, but you can't single-mindedly do both. With trout rising for a thick hatch of buzzers on our visit, I'm glad I only took a pike fly set up, because they could have proved an almighty distraction. Instead, we stuck to the task in hand relentlessly with large flies and in my case a nine weight set up. Some of Paul's creations were truly monstrous:
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With sport tough, we fished really hard for just a handful of bites. It was Paul who had the greater number of takes and two scrappy fish in the net:
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I, on the other hand, had just one moment of inspiration- but it was worth every drop of rain and fruitless cast endured. It had followed Paul's suggestion to move to a more distant area that proved critical. At the end of an umpteenth cast, I saw a large shape follow, which slammed my fly (a 3/0 Savage's Baitfish in roach colour) right at the last gasp in heart stopping fashion! It was a terrific fight, with fly line disappearing rapidly at first, before she gave several outrageous wallowing runs close to the net.
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At 21 pounds 9oz, this was a fish to repay my faith- and banish my Chew jinx - all in the space of five or so nerve shredding minutes of action. In fact I was still grinning when the sun finally replaced the drizzle two hours later. We spent a fine afternoon drifting the lake and chewing the fat, the three of us enjoying some warmth and talk of travel and fishing.
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As delighted as I was with my pike though, a mild start to May seemed an even more appropriate time for some further trout fishing. I'm not about to make myself the bane of the locals by naming the exact locations, suffice to say there are several terrific free river stretches among Devon's towns (Theo Pike's book "Trout In Dirty Places" has some excellent leads). How is this, for a little gateway to the stream, just behind suburbia?
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No need for nymphs this time, just about everything was rising: sedge, olives and even some very early, classic mayflies. The trout were so up for it, I resorted to progressively larger flies. Rises were positive and gorgeous, wild fish just kept coming. Well, apart from this rather cute oddball; I've never seen such a stocky, squat looking wild brownie:
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The best was yet to come too. I had spotted a larger fish by a boulder that simply refused to move for anything. I'd seen the devil on two previous strolls in fact, each time tormenting me. It was to be third time lucky for me though, and the answer was to change tactics. I landed a large dry sedge near his lair, before giving it a provocative twitch and suddenly, at last, he finally lashed out:
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The story doesn't end there however. I had wandered just 50 yards beyond the boundary of a public park when I spotted something that left me speechless. The dog otter which swam right past my position was a great big creature. He went by quite unconcerned, diving briefly opposite me, before resurfacing downstream. Many a time I've heard talk of otters on Devon rivers, but never been face to face with one. It's a shame I couldn't steal a better picture of him, but the eagle eyed among you will make the otter out here:
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A rare treat really- and while I understand concern for some coarse fisheries, I can't help feeling that these creatures belong in our native land. Nor do they seem to have a huge effect on wild trout in my experience, because I've found droppings and footprints on some really prolific trout streams.
All in all, I've had a wonderful spring, but an even greater satisfaction than my current lucky streak is the release of my book, Canal Fishing: A Practical Guide.
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Thinking back over all the adventures, trips, research, phone calls, emails and anglers involved, it's wonderful to finally see the project realised in print. It was a tough call to compile a book with just about every species, method and canal fishery in the country- but the result is what I hope will be regarded as a really entertaining and comprehensive guide to canal fishing. It can be ordered now from all good angling book stockists, or you can order a signed first edition from my very own site (

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Resurrection of Brian (Fishing in Poland)

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Do British anglers have an accurate picture of their European cousins? It's a question I've often pondered. Our culture is in many ways unique compared to the rest of the world and mostly in a positive way too- we are the most pro catch and release country in Europe. As for the continent, we tend to assume that everyone fishes just for the table. But is it true?
Perhaps I can lay some claim to having knowledge of Europe, beyond our own crowded island. I'm half Swiss and enjoy speaking (or trying to speak!) foreign languages. A trip to Poland with my girlfriend Paulina seemed a great opportunity to see the country and meet its' anglers for myself, and try to do so with an open mind.

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Staying near Wroclaw, by the mighty River Odra, was a perfect location to discover more. Our first encounter with Polish anglers was with the new generation. A chance encounter on a city bus led to us quickly making friends with two student anglers Mateusz and Tomasz (Matt and Tom, if you like!). And what a fine afternoon it turned out to be, sipping a beer and casting out for bream.
Pretty quickly, my knowledge of Polish fishing would grow. These are not crude anglers, for one thing. They used sensitive quiver tip rods and feeder tactics. Nor are they fishing solely for the pot. Unlike the older generation, they are very familiar with catch and release fishing. They're fairly well informed in general as it happens- you actually have to take a test to get your license in Poland.
We caught nothing on this occasion, but the lads were great company. Like most young Poles, they speak English too- and are much closer to their British counterparts than popular myth in fishing circles might suggest.

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The Odra is a beast of a river. It has most species, including carp, pike, zander and bream to double figures. It also has fantastic history and romance, as you can see from the above picture, on a historic bridge in the city where thousands of couples leave padlocks bearing their names, to symbolise love and commitment. Makes a nice chance from the usual urban graffiti I'm used to anyway.

Our next outing was less romantic however, as the skies opened, it thundered and we got soaked in the company of Paulina's neighbours, fishing again for bream. Still the Polish have a saying along the lines of "When it's rainy as hell, the bream bite well." A cracking fish of 5 pounds or so was caught, and I winced slightly as this was roughly crammed into a small keepnet. Was I one to question though? This was not my country. The weather, however, was just like home:
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The experience also marked the clear divide between young and old Poland. While young anglers are more enlightened about conservation and open in general to the influence of other cultures and practices, the older generation are more set in their ways. Not altogether surprising, having lived through the bitter times of Communist rule, where life was extremely tough and the local river would have been a vital source of fresh food. It's not true that Polish anglers "eat everything they catch" however. In Poland you must record all that you catch: there is a minimum size for each species and strict limits to what you can keep.

Even so, I was a bit shocked at the treatment of that large bream. Wrestled from the net, it spent a twenty minute car journey flapping about in a bucket with no water! I didn't really want to take the fish, but our host told us to keep it, and the poor beast was dumped onto the lawn at Paulina's folks' house. Amazingly, just as I was wondering whether to put it out of its misery, I saw the tail kicking. Out of pure optimism I then held it in the water of a tiny garden pond. For some time it lay on its side helplessly. I tried holding it upright and was about to give up when much to my amazement, the fish swam away!

I half expected the fish, now Christened "Brian", to be dead the next morning. But on the contrary, it was well revived. In spite of rough handling and a long period out of water it was miraculously ALIVE! A hair-brained plot was hatched to get the fish back to the water.
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Making sure the neighbours weren't watching, I scooped Brian into a large bucket and balanced this on the handlebars of a bicycle, while Paulina took the dog on her bike. After a ten minute, distinctly wobbly bike ride and I released the fish back to the water. I was still shaking my head as the fish swan back strongly and a miraculous rescue was complete!
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I'm not sure what the bream's captor would have thought of this. My guess is a mixture of confused and offended, but I couldn't let such a cracking fish simply die. Paulina's family played their part too- her father, Richard, approved I think. He keeps carp but refuses to ever kill one, even at Christmas. Anyhow, hen the neighbour came round later and asked "how was the fish" we all smiled sweetly and said "mmm, delicious". You really couldn't make it up. A bit like Jesus in the tale of Easter, our friend Brian had been beaten up, persecuted yet somehow rose from the dead.
Our journey didn't end there however, as we were also to find pretty waters in Sokolowsko, a little mountain town full of history. Poland is such a beautiful country, but sadly run down in places.
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The above site is a pretty, semi-abandoned Russian Orthodox church tucked away above some pretty ponds on the outskirts of town. Once upon a time the place was thriving with not just holiday makers, but health centres where visitors came for mountain air. Parts of it now look not so much quiet as haunted, like this beautiful old house:
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More discoveries were also made about fishing and anglers here. One old local was especially friendly, explaining how they stocked local lakes here. He was catching roach on bread, using a pole (how appropriate), but had zero interest in eating them. Much like an old school British angler, he was simply relaxing after work with a spot of float fishing.
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So where does the truth lie in all of this? Someone much smarter than me once summed it up perfectly: "The plain and simple truth is that the truth is rarely plain and never simple." From a UK perspective, the younger generation of Polish anglers are getting the message about catch and release and modern, sustainable practise. I've changed my mind to some extent here: these are intelligent people who move with the times. It's the older generation who need educating that eco-systems are precious, and not just a source of food.
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Our journey in the mountains was fascinating. Carved pagan relics like the one above only adding to the mystery and derelict beauty of rural Poland. We also stopped over in the Czech Republic, where I spotted fried carp on the menu. For some reason, I just had to try a little, so alien and unthinkable was the concept to me. Slightly earthy for my taste, but actually quite sweet and palatable- not that I would ever conceive of this in the UK! The pilsner was excellent too, and we had a cracking lunch for two, with beer and a dessert for around ten quid. Travel certainly opens the mind then, but doesn't always empty the wallet.
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