A Tale of Summer Holiday Fishing, 1980-style

Originally Published as “A Devilishly Good Jumper” in WATERLOG Magazine, Issue 55, Spring 2006

The year 1980 was a time of great sporting achievements. Nottingham Forest won the European Cup, punching above their weight for the second year running. Coe and Ovett were inspirational to a 14 year-old like me with an interest in all sports, and a bloke called Yates broke Richard Walker’s 28 year-old Carp record. Even I had my own list of achievements in 1980, albeit far more modest. I held the lead in the River Wansbeck’s unofficial trout fishing championship and had just won the school triple jump competition – my first and so far only triumph on a sports field! Of course these sorts of success didn’t come without a small amount of kudos. A “devilishly good jumper” was the decidedly un-catholic term used to describe one of my inter school efforts in early June. But to me, a ‘good jumper’ was a small trout that snatched at a fly with such abandon that it failed to touch the water on its way over your shoulder from the strike!

Trout fishing was my bread and butter, as the Wansbeck was devoid of any other species, but the previous year’s summer holiday had introduced me briefly to the delights of coarse fishing. I’d managed to catch a carp, which whilst only two pounds, completely eclipsed the biggest captures of all my rivals on the Wansbeck scene. This year, it was to be Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, where my Mam, younger brother Mike and myself would be staying with my uncle and aunt, and the pressure was on for me to prove to my mates that last season’s ‘monster’ had been no fluke. So the fishing tackle had been eagerly packed, but as Uncle Joe was no fisherman and cousin Simon a golfer, the whole escapade was a step into the unknown. All we could say for sure was that it was definitely coarse angling territory. The rest would need to be determined with an urgent visit to the local tackle shop.

The Bury Angling Centre was an Aladdin’s Cave of fishing information and hardware, the like of which I had never seen before. I was used to the functionality of traditional North East tackle shops like Robertson’s in Newcastle and McDermott’s of Ashington, where I would stare in wonder at rows of stout salmon, trout and sea rods racked out like the forward section of an infantry division. This place couldn’t be any more different. Rather than waxing lyrical over a particular piece of kit and its ability to do a definitive job on a given day, the shop assistants discussed bait and tactics with their regular customers, they parting company with their hard-earned in return for gallons of multi-coloured maggots and sacks of groundbait. It was a different world smelling suspiciously of the flavour enhancers and additives blended into the most deadly groundbait mixes. The aroma drew you in and instead of the insatiable yearning to buy you walked out with an unquenchable craving to be on the bank fishing.

Our turn to be given the undivided attention of the proprietor was soon at hand and our enquiries bore fruit. Yes the local club, Bury Angling Society, did issue junior guest tickets and for a pound each of our holiday money, Mike and I were soon in possession of club books, allowing us guest access to the club’s waters for a week. With the necessary two pints of maggots, plus sundries we were on our way and ready for our first East Anglian fishing adventure.

I couldn’t wait to try out the mouth-watering Rushbrooke Lake, undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Bury’s waters, but as it was closed to guests on Fridays and weekends, the tiny river Blackbourne at nearby Sapiston would have to do for starters. And what an alternative it would be for an eager but still wet-behind-the-ears coarse fisherman! I’d set myself the ultimate target of a carp – to repeat or better last summer’s achievement – but of almost equal importance was extending the list of coarse species I’d caught. According to the membership book, this place offered the perfect opportunity – gudgeon, dace and chub in abundance, none of which I’d caught before – and with some of the latter reportedly of specimen proportions. A fish of sixteen ounces would have done me!

That lazy July Friday afternoon was idyllic and to this day it lives on in my memory like it was yesterday. I can just switch it on and I’m back there like quarter of an hour might have elapsed, lest more than quarter of a century. The sun shone, the bird song echoed across the fields and after a frustrating half hour adjusting to the lightning speed of dace snatching at my freelined maggots, I got one – another Latin name to add to my growing list of piscine endeavour. The process continued, more missed bites, another dace and so on for what must have been three hours. Even the scream of jet engines every ten minutes, as another Buccaneer skimmed the hedgerows on its way back to RAF Honington less than a mile away couldn’t interrupt the peace I was at with the world. And once flying practise had finished for the day, a more serene peace descended on the flat countryside and another far more appealing sound soon became apparent.

If the late afternoon sunlight was starting to make seeing bites difficult, then the periodic “splop” of a large chub taking insects off the surface in the pool just upstream was playing havoc with my concentration. I knew it was a chub, as I’d read all about them in my bible, The Encyclopedia of Fishing in the British Isles, edited by Michael Pritchard. This was exactly the sort of place they hung out, in deeper well- oxygenated pools under tree roots and rafts of weed, just like the swim on which I now concentrated my efforts. But I also knew that they were fearfully shy creatures and could ghost off out of the swim at the merest hint of a disturbance. So I kept low, kept quiet and made my casts, now aided by a single swan shot as effortless and inconspicuous as possible. My cautious approach was certainly out of the textbook – I didn’t put the monster down – he continued his ritual, loudly slurping flies off the top whilst bunches of maggots trundled unnoticed or ignored beneath him. But whilst my technique was adequate, my presentation still left much to be desired. The big fish remained coolly indifferent and I would have to wait another seventeen years for my first specimen chub!

And the wait for a chub of even a pound would last another six. At least there were some much smaller specimens in the shoal – distinguished from their cousins that I had caught earlier by the convex shape of their dorsal fins. As the sun slid beyond the thatched roofs of Sapiston, a gudgeon extracted from beneath the sill of a tiny weir extended my list of species still further. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

 

The problem with a Catholic upbringing is the emphasis on church and a Saturday ‘pilgrimage’ to Walsingham in Norfolk, as well as the regular Sunday morning mass, were the penance Mike and I would have to pay for our Monday at Rushbrooke Lake. As we were dropped off at our piscatorial shrine, all the prayers of the previous two days appeared to have been answered – there were no other anglers to be seen – we had the whole place to ourselves!

It took me years to discover how to curb my raw excitement and crass impatience when I was setting up on a new awe-inspiring fishing venue and in 1980 I was still near the bottom of the learning curve. Vivid images of carp forming in my mind as I prepared to do battle with my first Rushbrooke leviathan led me to choose a nearby and wholly unsuitable swim rather than walk round and investigate the partially wooded five-acre stillwater. Worse still, the eagerness with which I tried to get tackle into the water in as short a time as possible also resulted, critically, in less than admirable presentation. I couldn’t have understood it at the time, but the place I’d caught my first carp the previous summer was an early example of the now commonplace ‘muddy puddle’ phenomenon, where catching involves more functionality than watercraft. Rushbrooke, with its tree-lined banks was a classic old-fashioned small lake where carp had first to be located and lack of adequate preparation would be punished by barren hours on the bank.

So it transpired, as my bright float sat motionless on the flat calm lake for all of three hours. The ever-brightening sunlight was only making matters worse and I abandoned my open pitch in favour of a new swim shaded by overhanging trees towards the inlet. If I had bothered to walk the three hundred yards to discover this peg in the first place I might have gained some reward earlier in the morning. As it was, the bright sun, at its zenith, meant what little shade there was extended only over the shallows and my afternoon’s fishing remained as fruitless as the morning had been. All too soon it was time to go and my first attempt to reprise last season’s holiday adventure had ended in failure. But at least I’d learned something from my disappointment and I realised that the tree canopy I’d fished under lay on the western bank, making it the perfect spot for an evening session.

The following afternoon, I was back, dropped-off by Mam at four o’clock with strict instructions to be back at the car park by 8.30, but this time the place was far from deserted, with local anglers, both junior and senior, lining the bank. My self-confidence took a severe knock as I observed the plethora of tackle that ringed the lake. Everyone except me possessed a keepnet, a hollow glass rod over 11 feet long sitting in rests and stored their tackle in some kind of seat box type thing. My 9-foot three-piece solid glass rod from McDermott’s, complete with Winfield ‘Bait Caster’ reel, stood out like a sore thumb as I headed round to my chosen spot. Heads turned and eyes looked round in disbelief at my folding trout landing net that I’d been so proud of when it was bought from Robertson’s only two months before.

“Yerrr’l nevrr ca-atch anything on tha-at!” insisted one voice rhetorically as its owner turned back to the more urgent business of his fishing. I said nothing and continued on my way.

At least the area I intended to fish was deserted, except for an old man who seemed to be asleep on his camping chair as I slipped past him towards my peg under the trees. I was more conscientious about setting up, discovering to my surprise that the deeper area a rod length out from the bank was about ten feet deep as I plumbed it. A good job, then, that I’d read that bit about fishing the slider float in Allen Edwards’ coarse angling section of my beloved fishing encyclopedia!

Within half an hour of my first cast, eruptions of tiny bubbles began exploding on the surface all around the float in response to regular introductions of free maggots. Every now and then, the 4AAA antenna would lift tantalisingly almost to the cork body that should have been a good five inches underwater. Then it would slip back down to its original position seemingly never to plunge downwards into the depths. I was so focussed on the behaviour of my float that I didn’t notice the old fellow as he sat down on the bank a few yards away to take a closer look at proceedings. “Tench!” he informed me. “There’s quite a few of them up this end, but they’re devilishly shy. They’re only nosing round on the bottom when your float does that… never be tempted to strike until it slides away.”

I told him that whilst I would be grateful of a tench, or any other inhabitant of Rushbrooke bar an eel, carp were my principal quarry.

“Devilishly difficult to catch, mind!” he warned and went on to tell me how they had been so heavily fished for over the last few years that they only ever got caught now by anglers fishing specifically for them at night. “You stick to what you’re doing, lad. You’ll get something!” With that he went back to his own fishing.

I was slightly disappointed to realise that I was unlikely to emulate my carp of 1979 but heartened by the fact that tench bubbles were still bursting all round my float. Suddenly, without any of the earlier warning signs, the float darted under, quickly vanishing into the murky depths but my strike yielded nothing but slack line. I cursed silently and turned to the old man who was now packing away his tackle.

“Too slow!” he told me. “Devilishly fast biters, tench. Keep hold of your rod.”

With that last gem of wisdom, he was gone, but the tench weren’t. Bubbles continued to burst throughout the swim and with the light just beginning to fade; the fishing seemed to be nearing a crescendo. Suddenly, the float started dancing again, rising up out of the water before plunging into the depths once more. I struck, this time feeling resistance – a paddle like thud, thud, thud, close to the bottom of the lake. Then the line went slack. I cursed again, this time out loud but it seemed the gods weren’t with me… time was running out fast!

The disturbance of the hooked fish seemed to ‘kill’ my swim. The bubbles had gone and in desperation, I tried the old watch trick, winding it backwards to give the impression it was running slow. But the watch still reached 8.30, albeit ten minutes later than it should have! No more indications of those wily tench were forthcoming and seeing my mother now standing in the car park, I decided the time had definitely come for one last cast. I flicked out the float, feathered the cast and watched line trickle through the eye of the antenna, as it lay flat on the surface. But something wasn’t right. Not nearly enough line had run through to drop ten feet and instead of cocking, the float slouched lazily at 45 degrees half way up out of the water. Not knowing what was wrong, I wound in, hoping to release the ‘stuck’ line and cock the float properly. As the line tightened, I could feel something pulling on the other end. I struck and once again felt resistance, this time a more sedate but insistent pull in the opposite direction to my pressure. Without too much of a fuss, the culprit came sliding over the rim of the net – a nice bream that went to almost a pound on my arcane spring balance – it must have taken the maggot on the drop! Like so many times since, the day had been saved right at the death; and I had added another species to that all-important list!

Realising that I probably wasn’t going to catch a carp after all, I persuaded Mike that our best chance of glory lay with trying out as many of Bury’s other waters as we could fit into what was left of our week’s fishing. A rainy day back at Sapiston was enough for Mike; he gave up, leaving me two more days on my own trying to land something of interest. I nearly gave up myself after a fruitless and totally frustrating afternoon trying to come to terms with the streamer weed and powerful flow of the Little Ouse at Santon Downham. Back on still water, a sunny day at the newly flooded West Stow Gravel Pit proved almost equally frustrating: two tiny perch was all I had to show for over four hours of solitary perseverance.

As I contemplated what to do next on the sun baked and almost featureless banks of the large lake, a wicked ‘last ditch’ scheme entered my head. Running immediately behind my peg on the gravel pit was the river Lark. It was marked as “strictly private” in the guest membership book and signs further up the riverbank confirmed that it was indeed out of bounds, belonging ironically to some local trout fishing club! But I hadn’t seen anyone around all day and it looked as if both waters were rarely fished, the nearest car park being over a mile away. So I took the chance and sneaked over the steep levee, taking just my rod, net and tub of maggots.

I slipped onto the only accessible part of the bank as stealthily as I could, and saw a shoal of decent sized roach cruising amongst the ranunculus fronds as they snaked back and forth in the strong current. A few maggots tossed carefully into the gin clear stream had exactly the effect I was hoping for – the roach swung round and flashed in the sunlight as they squabbled over the free offerings. The Lark was like a smaller version of the Little Ouse and I knew it was a one chance swim – one false move, bum cast or missed strike and I would probably put the fish down for the rest of the afternoon. I flicked the stick float about five yards upstream of the shoal, hoping to allow my hookbait to drift down, but as they had with the loosefeed, the roach darted towards the bait and one of the larger fish grabbed the double maggot, dragging the float under. I struck, the rest of the shoal darting for cover as expected, and played the lively roach in, out and around the streamer weed until he was almost within reach of the landing net.

The trouble was, even with the handle fully extended, I couldn’t get the rim into the water beyond the dense shelf of weed lining the near bank. Instead, I attempted to drag the fish up and onto the weed bed in order to scramble down the bank with the roach beached and then slide the net under the fish. The first part of the plan was a success and the roach flapped about on the green mat, just waiting for the net. But in all the excitement, the hook had pulled free and my prize, looking well more than a pound, lay precariously on top of the weed bed just one flip from freedom. I slid down the steep bank with the net, rod abandoned, keeping a steely gaze fixed on my quarry, ready to seize the opportunity and drive the net into the weeds and under the roach.

Then disaster: the fish flipped again and jumped straight back into the river just as I completed my descent. I was disconsolate, but amazingly I could still see him in the glare, holding station in the slack flow just beyond the edge of the weed. It was do or die now – I plunged the net under the fish, water flooding over the top of my wellies as the forward lunge took me into the water. But it was well worth the discomfort – I lifted the net and there it was – a pristine river roach gleaming in the sunlight, all one and a half pounds of it!

After weighing and releasing my ‘leviathan’, I scrambled back up the riverbank and over the levee to spend the last half hour before making my way back up to the car park, drying my socks out on the bank of the gravel pit, not even bothered about doing any more fishing. I had another species to my name and to the best of my ability I had emulated the fishing of last summer. As I enjoyed the late afternoon sun a figure approached, a man walking a dog – the first person I’d seen there all day. “Hell of a long dog walk…” I thought to myself as the scrunch of footsteps on gravel drew closer.

“Caught anything?” inquired a strangely familiar voice. Unbelievably, it was the same old fellow I’d met at Rushbrooke earlier in the week.

“One and a half pound roach!” I reported proudly.

“Must’ve been one of the ones that jumped out of the river, then… Devilishly good jumpers those river roach!” he replied with a glint in his eye, revealing his ‘head baliff’ badge.  “We stocked the lake last month, biggest roach was six ounces. Funny how so many of the junior members are catching ones over a pound! It’s a shame about that river though, no-one ever fishes it. We’d have loved to take the lease out on that as well, there’s some cracking fish in there!”

That was the last day of my ticket and despite being drawn deeper and deeper into coarse angling in the intervening years; I’ve never been back, although in my mind’s eye the memories are still as clear as ever. I’d love to go back one day to see if Rushbrooke Lake is still the same as it was, if the Backbourne at Sapiston is still as beautiful, and how West Stow gravel pit has naturalised thirty years on. I didn’t break my own personal carp record that summer, but a certain Chris Yates did. The fact that his fifty one-pound British Record stood for almost twenty years – a fish caught by traditional methods at Redmire Pool – was a triumph for good old-fashioned watercraft over bland technological advances. At least I’d learned that much myself, and more importantly, how to enjoy my fishing whatever the outcome in the most glorious of surroundings. Because of the summer of 1980, there will always be a fondness in my heart for Suffolk’s flat and tranquil countryside.

©Pete McParlin 2006. All Rights Reserved.

Many thanks to Waterlog for giving their kind permission for this article to be reused.

Posted by Pete on Jul 29th, 2010 and filed under Angling Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response by filling following comment form or trackback to this entry from your site

4 Responses for “A Tale of Summer Holiday Fishing, 1980-style”

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