Wednesday 29 October 2014


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After a fairly lengthy bit of toil, I can finally breathe out again and give news that my next book project is imminent. A collection of past favourites and current work, “Tangles with Pike” represents a decade of writing. Well, strictly speaking that would be more like every year since the age of about thirteen being hypnotised, thrilled, baffled and sometimes just a little obsessed by Pike. We're aiming for a late November release, with both a full colour hardback and a special e-book. And while you wouldn't always judge a book by the cover, I'm thrilled to have a David Miller special gracing the front.

Pike are still my favourite fish on the planet. I think this is for several reasons. One is the fact that even twenty-two years since my first, they still have that ability to jam my heart into my mouth and feed me that irresistible cocktail of excitement and adrenaline.

Nowadays, I tend to think pike are one of the easier species to catch. At least, if they're hungry they will tolerate line you'd never dream of using for say tench or perch fishing. But I didn't always think like this. In the very beginning, my dad would occasionally bring a bung float and sprats to the bank and I can remember thinking "this is never going to work!" Compared to my roach pole, it looked like shark tackle.

My first success was lure fishing in fact. Which is spooky, because an exact replica of the first pike plug I ever cast (below) was recently given to me by Garrett Fallon (the book designer and editor of Fallon's Angler). It was fairly shocking, to be frank. Yes, it wiggled frantically enough to be grabbed by my first ever pike, but then in mid battle it came apart in the middle. And disaster was only averted when… (I'm going to be a sod here and just say look out for the book!).
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Actually, this makes me think just how much better tackle is today. Those things I regarded as the height of sophistication in about 1990 (springy line, hooks with huge barbs, crappy fibreglass rods) were actually pretty dodgy.

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Anyhow, the tackle might have got way better, but I'm still after pike with varying degrees of success so many years later. Having dreamt of opening the 2014 pike season for a while but tied up with the book, it felt like a full circle effect to take my dad (above), the very person who first started me pike fishing. These days neither of us is that partial to a bung float and a bag of sprats. We catch way more these days with a fly rod in fact than we ever did in those early days.

The Grand Western Canal looked beautiful, if a bit weedy still. Nor were the pike massively hungry as we walked for perhaps two or three miles, watching and searching. I'm pleased to report that even on a Sunday, we also didn't spot any of our illegitimate friends with plastic bags in place of landing nets. Funny, but in the midst of all the current paranoia around poaching and the business of "naming waters" it seems to me that the sport could actually do with more not fewer legitimate pike anglers on the bank. That, and having people willing to talk to those in the wrong and report things rather than just whinge.
It's very easy when you're having a slow day to make excuses on the level of "this place has been poached!". But the answer usually lies with the angler or the conditions. On this occasion, it was just way too bright for the first two hours. We barely even saw a pike, other than a tiny thing that launched itself at my fly- and missed.
Pike fishing is so often a case of either drama or disappointment, with not much in the middle. And so it was on this occasion; just as evening arrived, all the fish appeared, as if some conjurer had magically restored life to a dead canal. I caught two little pound-or-so devils on my eight weight, before a well-aimed shot under a bush let to a slightly better class of carnage with a lively fish of about four pounds which I watched trailing the fly before rushing in for the kill:
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All good fun, even with modest sized fish and after so many years of piking. In fact the one thing I perhaps feel less need to do these days is to slog for hundreds of miles in the hope of something huge. I will definitely be dreaming of a monster from one of the larger lakes or rivers this winter, but actually just being there is often enough. Best of all, I just love the game of hide-and-seek that the small, clear waters can offer. These have fuelled my writing as much as the more famous places and big pike I was lucky enough to catch. But I hope that as well as a few monsters, "Tangles with Pike" will do justice to an extremely varied catch of absorbing and entertaining stories, rather than the standard "here are a load of big pike and here's how I caught them" affair. The aim is definitely to capture the atmosphere, besides the figures. And I want to entertain people, not just make them think "you lucky XXXXXXX".

Saturday 18 October 2014

Miracle on Flood Street

This week's blog begins with a major shock. The picture below is no hallucination, although I'm still in a state of utter disbelief. Yes, this is a Devon river roach of 2lbs 2oz. Not so much a slice of good fortune as something I never thought I would see in my life. After all, this is Devon, not chalkstream country. I love our little corner of England, but when it comes to wild specimen fish it is Plumbing Spares Cup rather than Premier League.
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How did I manage such a feat? With a bit of legwork and an even bigger slice of luck, is the honest answer. To be perfectly blunt, I've been seriously unsure whether to give the catch any publicity. But in this case, it's not just my ego but a not-for-profit organisation that could benefit in the long run. I owe the capture in no small part to Scott West, who suggested we fish some prospective water on River Culm, which is being considered for the Westcountry Angling Passport scheme. For those yet to try it, this is a fantastic idea to open up fishing water in the south west. Fly fishing has dominated so far, but there are some excellent prospects for coarse fish as well as trout, and the scheme gains more water every season. Nor is it "upper crust only" at prices from £5 per day. Watch this space for more info.
The fish itself however, came in less than textbook fashion. A bizarrely sunny afternoon with a muddy river following heavy rain are not your classic roach conditions, to be blunt. We'd had just a smattering of bites and were thinking of packing up when I decided to have "just a quick final chuck" in a pool at the start of the beat I liked the look of. I was on the feeder and bread approach and, more out of optimism than anything else, had been trying a big pinch of flake. It fought like a chub before almost giving me a heart attack as it came up. The fish was absolutely thick round the middle! I was sure Scott had jinxed it by announcing something along the lines of "that's a bloody big roach!" But my luck held. I've enjoyed roach fishing for quarter of a century in Devon, but never had I seen anything quite like the fish that lay in the net. A one off? Who knows. There is more unexplored water here and hopefully more of it set to open up to day ticket anglers.
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Otherwise, life has been a fair old slog trying to balance my new job with fishing activities. The Tackle and Guns show was very positive though, which I attended with Turrall. The sight that really caught my eye was near our stand, where a huge tank of predators was on display (above). Great to get such a clear view of these pike and perch. They seemed fairly indifferent to lures various reps were aiming at them- but you did fear for one or two of the little jacks once their bigger relatives grew hungry.

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We might be able to contact anyone at the click of a mouse these days, but you can't beat actually meeting up with folks in person. In two frantic days I met various people in the trade. Perhaps most encouragingly two of these were newcomers launching businesses in Devon. One was a chap starting a tackle shop in the Torrington Area, another was a representative from "Devonshire Reels"- a company looking to make top drawer, beautifully crafted fly reels (Mr Hardy eat your heart out). Brave initiatives these days, but I hope both enterprises succeed. Also at the show was artist Maria Gonzalez displaying some really fine work. It's tough as an independent trader, trying to stand out as a small fish in a big river so to speak, but her prints and designs are truly excellent- do take a look at her site MayFly Art (which has perch, carp and other beauties as well as game fish and fishing flies).
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Talking of which, I have also been busy sourcing art for my next book project, which will be a collection of great pike fishing stories. Under the working title is "Tangles with Pike", my cover image will be by none other than wildlife artist David Miller, whose fantastic work has recently graced a set of Royal Mail stamps. It promises to be a fun but hectic time pulling all the strands together.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Autumn Gifts

Sometimes in fishing it pays to... well, not pay anything. If I can make it, find it or tie it myself I generally do. This not only saves you a few quid but adds a certain satisfaction to the sport. I love catching on my own, home-rolled flies, for example. I also like swapping and receiving freebies from fellow anglers. As a fishing writer you have to make the most of these perks because, aside from the big stuff like books, much of the time you get the feeling third world child labourers are paid better.
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This lovely perch was one of several taken on some cracking "Martin's Minnow" flies sent to me by Martin Smith (keep an eye on for a step by step in the next few weeks- plus a link to order from him). I'd vowed to give them a swim ages ago but got snowed under with work. At long last though, I managed to take an evening stroll on the Grand Western Canal near Tiverton. Having located a shoal of fish under a bridge, I was happily wrestling one after another in on the flies- each as greedy, and small, as the last. I fancied a bigger one but thought nothing of it as I wandered onwards. However, on the way back to the car at the end the light was going and I had that gut instinct that makes many an angler late for dinner which says "I think I'll have just one more crack". I hooked the fish virtually on the bottom and it gave a nice deep, lolloping if unspectacular fight. With bits of dorsal fin missing and worn scales it had that retired, punched too many times boxer look. I love perch though- and at 1lb 13oz this was a good one for such a small canal.
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Equally appealing to my cheapskate side was a trip to Creedy Lakes today using bait that cost only some work with a garden fork in the compost heap. Call me tight, but finances are only one reason for this decision. Boilies are not only expensive but overrated on busy fisheries, in my humble opinion. 95% of visitors must use them- and as often as not blank on them. Why such a stranglehold? Simple- the whole carp fishing world is full of anglers who get free bait in exchange for saying "you must use this to catch." It is of course utter horse manure, designed to separate pound coins from pockets. Yes, boilies have their uses and I have also been a bait field tester in the past- but I detest dishonesty. As I've explained before, I'll often use boilies for less pressured waters- but if everyone is using them, carp will become extremely suspicious and there are much more effective baits. Worms are one of them.
Anyway, I digress but the main lake at Creedy proved tough. Strange because I really fancied the end where a mild wind had been pushing in all week from the same direction. Nobody on the lake was catching anything. I had a couple of small "pasties" on the worm but just couldn't hook anything bigger, so I tried baiting with some chopped worm right in one of the craggy corners, where the bivvies steer clear. I didn't fish it immediately, but kept returning for a look. A swirling tail pattern told me all I needed to know a little later. Within five minutes of lowering in a double red worm bait, direct to a size 10 hook and 10lb line, I was in:
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The fish ran like stink in the confines of a very tight swim. It was absolutely beautiful too, really long and strong for its' weight of fifteen and half pounds. When I think of how much tackle I had brought with me, it seems crazy that the only things actually involved in the capture were one rod and reel, a net, the most basic of float rigs and a handful of bait that cost absolutely nothing. Always a sweet, slightly guilty pleasure at a fishery where anyone not using three identical rods hurled across the lake is led to feel like they are some kind of lunatic.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Capital fly fishing and Coventry zander

There are few things I like better than a fishing styled road trip. Great fun but also a necessity if you live in one of England's more obscure corners. These missions tend to begin with a list of postcodes and a lot of random supplies. I don't so much try for two birds with one stone, but aim at half the flock.
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First priority on my list this time was to track down Garrett Fallon, the plucky Irish writer and creative brains behind the exciting new quarterly title Fallon's Angler (which has a great new site where you can get a preview and order:

What is the best part of being involved in books and publications? I think opening a box of newly produced material, with that wonderful smell of fresh print, has to be close to the top. You don't get that from an e-zine. Issue one looks fantastic. But even more importantly, it's a bloody treat to read the stories (you remember, those old fashioned things called "words" that sometimes distract you from the adverts and pictures of blokes with fish?).
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A day on Walthamstow Reservoirs seemed the perfect way to celebrate the launch and we had pike in mind. A roving session took us all around the upper complex of Higher and Lower Maynard at first. We chopped and changed swims, lures and flies, having a good walk and comparing notes. The place looked so pikey that even without early bites, there was a keen anticipation in searching around cover and imagining what might suddenly dash out at any given second.
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Also in fine condition was the Coppermill Stream (above). It looked clear, beautiful and for much of the way devoid of any living thing. That said, we did spot some thick-shouldered carp and one hulking great barbel. Like two skint shoppers, I think we agreed that there is a certain pleasure in admiring the goods through a window, even if you don't have the hard currency to make any purchase.

The current state of fishing literature, future plans and what exactly those bloody pike were playing at all made for some lively dialogue over a pint at lunchtime. The pike of past stories made up for a lack of action, including a monster Irish fish for Garrett that was played over thirty five minutes involving a broom handle rod, a broken reel and screaming runs along a sandy shore. But if you want more tales on pike and other topics you'll just have to buy a copy of Fallon's Angler.

After lunch we rallied our spirits for a crack at Reservoirs one and two, with Garrett bravely opting to have a crack at fly fishing for pike. After a bush or two, the perch pattern I'd lent him found the water with more and more regularity, but the pike were still not impressed. I would love to relate how his rod suddenly became possessed with a ten pounder, but it was not to be. Perhaps our Indian Summer had put too much warmth and greenish bloom in the water. Anglers write things off too quickly at times though and I think in a month or two these reservoirs will be well worth a shot for pike.

The saving grace was in fact a quick change of plan. With fly rods already set up, we decided a crack at the trout was a must (a good ploy at Walthamstow Reservoirs, because a two-fish ticket can quickly be grabbed: Further fishery info HERE). It had started as we spotted some nice rainbows cruising around close to the bank on reservoir No. 5. I took one look at my big pike flies and wondered how we would get any joy. The answer, I have to admit, came from my own messiness and multiple pockets. As A.A. Milne put it "The beauty of being disorganised is that one is always making surprising discoveries". In this case, my fly vest produced two buzzers, a Hare's Ear and two scruffy little trout lures.
Only after ditching the thick fluorocarbon would the trout launch an attack. With a slowish, jerky retrieve I got that first gratifying whack on the fly line. Trout number one came off, but the next assault came good with a decent rainbow.
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When you've been fishless all day, the simple joy of something kicking on the line cannot be understated. And with fish swirling on the surface and even leaping clear, I was sure we would strike again soon. I added another before Garrett struck into a nice fish:
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As enjoyable as it had been to have a very sociable ramble around the lakes, those rainbows were very, very welcome after our tough start.
Less welcome was the traffic I encountered on what was meant to be a two hour journey to Coventry to load in for the PAC Convention. Listening to Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" on cassette made the journey just about bearable, although there is a certain painful irony in hearing tales of open roads and mountains as you watch the arse of some dull people carrier while tail to tail in midlands traffic. I arrived in the nick of time to deliver a cargo of books, t-shirts and other stuff, including a whole shoal of pike flies:
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Always a fun event, the show was as friendly as ever and a great chance to run into old mates and share some goings on. But what I was really looking forward to was a crack at the Coventry Canal with Jeff Hatt. Staying at his gaff, we discussed the current fishing world as eight cocker spaniel puppies played tug of war with shoe laces and each other.
For those unfamiliar with Jeff's "Idler's Quest" blog, the guy is funny, always original and invariably worth reading. He's also a contributor to the first Fallon's Angler with similar hopes and fears about the current state of fishing to my own as it turned out.
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Perhaps the best place to mull things over was on a trip to the local towpath in search of zander. An eye-opening jaunt it was too. And while I must save much of the meat and bones for a proper feature, there were some key lessons to note. Firstly, that float fishing is excellent for the species. Jeff's home made wagglers beat my feeder set up hands down. Unless action was forthcoming we spent no more than fifteen minutes in each spot, using roach sections on some really big hooks. I was amazed at the size of these size 1 or so wide gapes- they looked crude, but by God did they work well for hooking the fish. Far better than my smaller versions, which produced mostly thin air on the strike.
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Perhaps I should have taken a leaf from his book in fact, because I just couldn't get amongst them. In my impatience, I kept trying the fly rod with jig style artificials, but other than a small perch and a lost zander it never quite happened for me.
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Meanwhile, the self-styled Chris Yates of Coventry kept up a decent strike rate. In spite of pressure here and the inevitable Eastern Europeans stealing fish to eat (some of these people need eating themselves), the zander seem to be doing pretty well.

I could never tire of exploring canals such as the "Cov". There are all sorts of species and stories present, and the day was great fun. And what better place to put the world to rights than at a classic looking waterside boozer where you can enjoy a pint while still actually fishing? In between sips of bitter I managed to hook and lose my third zander of the day. It might have been rather bad luck, but the next time I'm here, I'm definitely going for a large single hook and a float set up.
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I believe the biggest crime of all is that Jeff has yet to be commissioned for a properly paid regular column or book deal, in spite of producing much better writing and having attracted arguably more readers (some 15,000 a month in previous times) than many of the monthly fishing magazines.

But here's the rub: stacks of people have enjoyed Jeff's blog, but if he doesn't get paid a penny for creating it, could you really expect any writer worthy of the name to keep the words coming? Unsurprisingly, his output has slowed right down. My own present dilemma is similar: I really enjoy writing about fishing, it is my first love in fact. But I can make twice the wage in half the time in my present role writing copy on tourism and other subjects.

Nevertheless, I believe that things can and will change. The sales of many titles are falling badly as their corporate masters tie editors' hands and neglect the single most important commodity of all: well-written, original stories about fishing. In the end it will be the independents who win as readers get bored of sponsored drivel and repetitive, poor writing. In any profession though, the only way to beat mediocrity is to reward those who produce good work.