Some people in the Walton PAC region may remember a small (but perfectly formed) friend that used to attend meetings and functions with Brian and I some ten or so years back.
His name was Tony ‘Stumpy’ Smith and he was a major part of ‘Fishing with the Family’, as we call our piking adventures (trust me - you don’t have time to watch the video). He was also co-author of ‘Bank side cooking with Thommo and Smiffy’ which features in an earlier article published in an edition of ‘Drop Back’ from way back when. (I'll have to dig it out). This is well worth looking up as it has the recipe for Uncle Ben’s three-minute rice! Sad to say Tony was diagnosed as terminally ill in the summer of 1997 and was only given nine months to live. In typical style he made it to February 1999 and in the time in between we played lots of cricket, toyed with sports cars, drunk a lot but more importantly fished whenever he was up to it. This included a damp but hilarious week long boat trip to the Broads in which the nature reserve hosted one of the finest Guy Fawkes displays in the country that night of the 5th. November 1997. It also included a very special trip to Lough Derg in Ireland.
Throughout November and December Tony had chemotherapy and was a bit low when 1998 arrived. A group of us had tried to give him targets to aim for but at the time we had no plans on the go. One very drunken night Tony mentioned that a friend, Chas, had said that if we went on the Broads again he’d like to come with us. I had private reservations about being stuck out on the waterways if Tony was taken bad so I suggested we should think of hiring a cottage somewhere new – what about Ireland or Scotland? Smiffy immediately found an ad in one of his magazines and I phoned there and then. To take a drunken caller at 10.30 at night seriously shows what a laid back character our now friend John Finn is. John only had one cottage in use and that was booked but he told us he was decorating a second and that would be ready shortly. He advised leaving it until May but I explained our position and he worked (a word not high on his vocabulary) his socks off to have it ready for February. Our trip to Lough Derg, the largest Lough on the Shannon, was definitely on. The intrepid party was made up of myself (Dave Thomas alias Thommo), Tony Smith (Stumpy/Smiffy), Simon Coxwell (Coxie), Dave Hodges (Aussie Dave) and Charles D. Whiteoak Esq (Chas).
We arrived with a gale blowing and although Hodges and I were adamant about fishing on the first day we had to be content with slinging the Beno eel out in the harbour, all to no avail. Looking out at the Lough you would have thought you were at the sea front with six to eight feet waves crashing down. There were two trophies up for grabs, ‘The Beno Eel Challenge Trophy’ (for the largest pike caught on a Beno Eel) and ‘Doing the Derg’ (for the total weight of pike caught in the week), but it looked like we’d be lucky to fish at all unless the forecast for the week was wrong.
We settled in to the cottage. With the peat fire and a glass of Jamesons in your hand it didn’t matter that there was a gale blowing. It was all rather snug and so far away from the rat race that you wanted to stay forever. The next day was the same and we had to be content with fishing the river. This at least gave us the chance to show off our boating skills to John and by the end of the morning he knew he was dealing with a load of idiots, with Hodges being at the top of the pile. He and I were sharing the smaller boat and when we announced we were going to do some trolling John asked who would be rowing. The grin that spread across his face when Hodges picked up the oars said it all. As Aussie was to say many times that week ‘He thinks I’m stupid’. John then announces that we are going to cross the Lough to fish the sheltered side (it’s miles across!). The mad Irishman sets off with Coxie and Smiffy and Hodges and I have no choice but to follow. We went straight at the waves (the only safe way) and within seconds we are so wet from spray that I’m waiting for my life jacket to inflate itself. I’m on the engine and remember thinking how I wished Brian was there to see Aussie Dave’s face. He was clinging to the middle seat, grimacing as every other second we were flung high in the air, only to come crashing straight down again and receive another soaking. I should have been as worried as he was but he looked so funny that I got the giggles and had to shake myself out of it to set off in pursuit of our host and friends. The speed we had to troll at would have taken a very fit pike to keep up with, let alone snatch our magnificent selection of lures (yes, the total staff of Harris lures had a holiday in the Caribbean on the proceeds from us). Even though the weather was hostile the enormity of the Lough and the scenery was breathtaking.
We commiserated with ourselves at the ‘Whiskey Still’ that night and drank the most superb cider we have ever tasted. It was so good we had to taste a lot. The result was that early next morning John Finn was knocking on the door and getting us up to report a short break in the weather. The plan was to immediately move the boats to another part of the Lough where we would be sheltered and reasonably safe from the weather that was forecast.
Coxie had gone to pick Chas up from the airport so Stumpy and I were taking one boat, John would lead in the other and Aussie Dave was to take the car round to the new mooring. John had drawn a map. He told Dave that it would take us 45 minutes in the boats so he had better leave in the car straight away. It took Dave 10 minutes – ‘He thinks I’m stupid!’. The frightening thing about this trip was the huge rocks just visible below the surface but it was worth it as we were now in a sheltered part of the Lough and should be able to fish for most of the remaining week. John took us out and showed us some likely spots, always with the rider ‘its better in the Spring’. One area he showed us was called ‘the Peat Lough’. Just imagine an area of about eight acres, twenty feet deep and enclosed by reedbeds, totally sheltered from even the worst of winds. It was love at first sight. It was here the fish would come to spawn in the Spring but it had to hold pike all year round. Surrounded by huge green, green hills that even looked as if they glowed in the rain and with an ivy clad ruin looking down on from years ago. What a place to sit and unwind. Who cares that there were no fish that day? At the board meeting that evening Hodges and I decided to get up early and be on the Lough at first light. Smiffy, Coxie and Chas were to have a lie in.
A misty cold morning, still dark, Dave and I steer the boat into a bay and start to troll twenty yards from the shore. Dave’s using a lure and I’m using a dead roach under a Fox trolling float (very good). Dave gets snagged, I stop the boat and we start to row back over the snag. My float, no longer being towed, disappears. Panic! We’re drifting into the reeds and rocks, Dave’s lure is snagged and I’ve got a fish on that’s already run fifty yards from left to right. I’ve got to keep it out and away from the reeds and Dave’s anchored line but we’ve also got to stop the boat from being blown on to the rocks. Fortunately, we’re the only two people stupid enough to be out at that time in the morning and no one can witness the mad behaviour that is taking place in the bay. Dave frees his lure and rows us away from the rocks just as the fish is tiring after putting up a tremendous fight. It comes to the net, Dave lifts it……… and the landing net handle snaps. Phew! The net catches on the rowlock and the fish is still in it. My first Irish pike is boated. Seven and a half pounds, how can it have fought like a good double? Smiles and photos all round and back for breakfast. Guess what – the others don’t believe us.
One big shock on the way back. We pass within feet of a huge rock, the size of an iceberg, six inches below the surface, thoughtfully marked with a rusty metal rod, which is visible from all of ten feet (in good light). When we asked John why it was not marked better he said if it was more boats would come round into that bay and that’s not to be encouraged. We return in the afternoon. Dave, Smiffy and I are in the large boat and poor old Chas is with Coxie who is in a very philosophical mood (meaning of life, smacking children etc). No takes so we decide to try a small hidden Lough that a gamekeeper had mentioned. Coxie and Chas decide to go back round to the Peat Lough. As soon as they are out of our sight their engine cuts. Warning to all users of boats, check your fuel at least every other day! Better still, Coxie, every time you go out! Poor old Chas has to row a few miles. Seriously, lucky it happened on a calmer day.
We go in search of the stream that will lead us to the Small Lough. By the time we’ve found and negotiated our way up it we have very little time to fish but it’s got to be worth returning to. Down the small stream and out into the main Lough. Full speed round the bay and past the Peat Lough, head straight for the mooring. This has all taken forty minutes and its got quite dark. The shoreline is even darker. Look for a landmark. Was that street lamp near the mooring? Is that Dave’s car in the gloom? Luckily yes. Now look out for the rocks each side of the channel. We’re back! What bloody idiots! Worse than Coxie? Probably, yes.
Day five, Tuesday. We fish the Peat Lough to no avail whilst Hodges stays at the moorings and tries his luck for coarse fish. Good news, Hodges has caught some perch! Bad news, they’re all over half a pound. We sack them up at the mooring for use in the afternoon (when they’ve died). These dead perch need two floats to stop them swimming to the bottom and even then they‘re still capable of holding them down for five seconds every now and then. It’s really quite exciting but the expectancy comes to nothing. Back to the cottage along the windy country lanes. We’re joined in the road by a hapless hare that tastes lovely cooked in red wine with onions.
Day six. Bad weather, lots of waves. We know the Peat Lough is sheltered but we’ve got to cross a lot of water to get to it. Smiffy and I decide to try, Aussie is going to stay and fish for anything but pike (and draw pictures – he’s gone all arty). I tell Smiffy to shout if he thinks I’m pushing our luck and head out into the Lough. We have to do two sides of a triangle, straight at the waves and then back at an angle to avoid capsizing but we make it to the Peat Lough, moor up in the reeds and fish out into deep water. The two Spiny Normans are working well but they still have the annoying habit of constantly taking the floats under for five seconds. This is the last day we’re to fish together as three of us leave tomorrow; Stumpy and Coxie are staying one day more. I desperately want Tony to catch but sods law comes into play and it’s my float that goes under. This time it stays down. Has Norman snagged or is he being eaten? Tighten up, feel the tug, STRIKE. Line peels off and the fish heads for the middle of the Lough. Great fight from a nine-pound fish! Make no mistake; Lough pike fight like hell.
That was the last time I pike fished with Tony. John Finn took them out the next day and didn’t come off the Lough until Tony had caught (a couple of jacks but Irish pike none the less). We did do a few carp trips in the summer of 1998 but that trip to Ireland was very special. When Tony died we vowed we’d go back and this we did in April. This trip produced lots of fish and I intend covering it in a future piece but for now I hope you haven’t minded me reminiscing over that first and memorable trip to the Emerald Isle.
This story was first published in DropBack, the official magazine of the Walton on Thames Pike Anglers Club. For more stories and information about Walton PAC, have a look at their web site - http://members.aol.com/waltonpac