Back in the 1950s when I was a little kid, perch were the most common species for small budding anglers to catch. We wanted to catch roach but roach were slow off the mark to take our baits compared to the voracious stripy. Perhaps if we had used bread as our favourite bait we might have caught more roach and less perch but somehow bread seemed to be far too boring compared to the exciting worms that we had to work so hard to dig prior to going fishing.
In those days no tackle shops sold worms, only maggots, and these were completely out of the price range of little kids who, due to the post war austerity, had never even heard of the words 'pocket money'. So, by day we hunted the brandlings and red-worms in the garden compost heap, which was easy, and in the dark of late evening we would hunt the giant lobworms on the lawn by torchlight, which was much harder. The torch was lifted from Dad's bicycle and woe betide us if we didn't replace it as soon as we were finished or there would be hell to pay; the bike was Dad's mode of transport for getting to work each day. It's hard to imagine anyone these days cycling 17 miles each way to work but it was nothing out of the ordinary then.
Worms caught us perch from Victoria Park lake, from the Regents Canal and, later, from the paradise of the ponds at the back of the Essex council estate where I completed my apprenticeship with a fishing rod. Paradise, because the ponds were surrounded by countryside rather than concrete.
The method of the day was float-fishing. We used home-made floats made from crow and peacock feathers, though where the latter came from I can't remember. I do know that there were no peacocks in Essex at the time, though perhaps there are a few now. The peacock quills were my favourites and these were weighted with lead solder wire, coiled around a matchstick to provide a smooth, snag free 'olivette' type weight. The depth, no matter where we were fishing, was set at around two foot, because it looked right, no other reason!
Carp were virtually unknown at that time, other than as mythical creatures that were said to inhabit one or two of the larger lakes in the area, but nobody I knew, even into my teens, had ever even seen one. So the float fishing for perch and roach, as described, was the staple diet of those early years. Only on trips to the River Lea backstream did we ever remove the float, and sometimes the leadwire, to roll sausage-meat down the far bank for dace, chub, roach and the very rare barbel. At all other times we automatically set up the float tackle.
I can remember clearly when, about five years ago, and thirty-five years on, Bill Rushmer discovered that my float box contained only lengths of peacock quill and a couple of Avon bodied crowquills. As a top-flight float angler, Bill was aghast! In deference to his appalled looks I have since bulked my float box out with more modern, brightly coloured plastic creations; though in truth, I still rarely use anything other than those same old peacock quills. I can honestly say catching fish by watching a peacock quill float is still my most favourite form of fishing. For instance, one of the most memorable captures I made this season was a 5lb tench I caught from a fairly hard local pond. The fish was nothing special in terms of size but I took it on a float rod with a pin, lift-biting with a peacock quill - and that made all the difference somehow.
In lakes I use peacocks as wagglers or as lift-bite indicators for carp and tench. In rivers, fixed top and bottom as sticks-floats. Though when I was a kid, a float was pretty much a float. Not till the 60s did the distinction between the types of float start to penetrate my thick skull. Didn't seem to stop me catching though, and over the years I have gained enormous pleasure from watching those old bits of feather.
And then the world changed.
On September 11th, yesterday as I write this, the dreadful terrorist attacks on New York took place and, like many others, I was numbed by the TV footage. I don't know how it affected you, I'm sure everyone reacted in some way, but I was very angry, and looking for an outlet, somewhere to vent that anger. That evening I was being given some hints and tips on improving my fly-casting. (Not much good in that state of mind but anyway..) Alan Tomkins met me on the banks of the Thames at Runnymede to provide some tuition when a National Trust warden pulled up in a Land Rover. I guess I must have been spoiling for a fight because I tore into the poor sod, venting green smoke from my ears and ranting on about everything the NT has ever done to offend me. To his credit, despite my appalling behaviour, the warden was a perfect gentleman and wouldn't rise to the bait. Then, when I got home, I ripped into the kids for playing up, nothing special, they were just being kids, doing what kids do but I… well, I was upset and stressed out. I determined to do something about channelling my anger and trying to relax a bit.
So, this morning I spent beating myself up at the gym and then, penance paid, I went fishing.
I called on Billy O'Connor just in time for a fried brunch and levered him out of his chair and down to the river. He didn't need too much persuading, he never does. Before we left he nipped out to the garden and dug up a few worms, just enough for a quick afternoon session, and we were off.
I arrived at the river still in a half dazed condition. I travel to New York almost every year and always marvelled at the World Trade building. A few years ago I went to the top of it, as tourists do, amazed at this magnificent achievement that man had created. I still can't believe it's gone.. and all those people gone with it. So I still had my head in confusion as, on auto-pilot, I tackled up, pretty much as I had when I was a kid. Float rod threaded with the butt-ring missed out, poorly tied hook-length etc and after guessing the depth at 7ft I cast out, trotting a worm down the stream.
I must have guessed the depth correctly as on the second or third trot down the stream, the float stopped and then dipped. I stuck into a fish which flashed silver deep down but then came straight to the top. My initial hope it might be a big roach vanished as a 3lb bream slimed it's way into the net. Urrgh! At least Kennet bream are not as slimy as some of their brethren in other waters. Faster water does seem to result in less slime on fish generally, even the odd tench that I've had from the Kennet seem to be 'dry' ones.
Billy came to fish alongside me and we chatted, wondering whether the change in world politics would allow our planned sturgeon trip to Canada, now just three weeks away. It was at this point that my poorly tied hooklength came to our attention. My float was halfway down the swim when it vanished, just like that. Not 'dipped under' or any normal type of bite at all, it just vanished and immediately I had a fish on. I never had time to strike, I was on a short line anyway; the fish had hooked itself and was headed for Newbury leaving me struggling to cope with a centre-pin that had somehow lost it's locking nut, the spool spinning wildly against the maximum pressure I could exert without allowing the spool to spin off the reel and… Anyway, I lost it. It was either a barbel or a carp and without doubt would have been the biggest fish of the day had I landed it. In my slap-happy frame of mind I had grinner-knotted the mono hook-length to the braided mainline, that was the knot that gave. It wouldn't happen again. I'd lost a fish but regained my focus.
Inwardly chastising myself I tackled up again, using a small swivel this time at the crucial join and carried on fishing. After hooking one of the bigger fish in the river, my next fish was one of the smallest. A gudgeon.
Bill and I had just been discussing the potential of the perch in this stretch of the river. I had been extolling the virtues of using livebaits to sort out the bigger fish and here was a perfect chance to prove my point. Pike are somewhat of a rarity on this stretch of the Kennet these days so I wasn't too bothered about using a wire trace. I merely kept the gudgeon lip-hooked, brought the float down to mid-depth then went wandering upstream, dropping the bait into likely looking spots in the margins. Almost every big river perch I have ever caught have come from the margins and so it proved this day.
I was fishing in almost the identical manner as I had when I was a small boy and with almost identical tackle. At the tail end of a trot-down, six inches from the bank I held back, allowing the bait to rise up in the current. I felt three hard bangs on the end of the line and tightened up. Nothing. I'd tightened up too soon. I say 'tightened up' because to strike would be to lose the gudgeon, a gentle tightening of the line is all that was needed in this instance. Determining that the bait was still in good order, I tried again. This time there was no mistake, a fish was hooked and landed in short order, despite a spirited fight. On the scales it turned a respectable 2lb 4oz and this capture put us both firmly into perch-mode.
Lacking livebaits we fished worms for the rest of the afternoon, taking a perch here and there along with the odd chub as we wandered up the river bank. None of the perch were quite as big as the first one taken on livebait but an interesting point was made when one of Billy's fish spat up a small crayfish claw as we unhooked it. The crayfish explosion in the Kennet is a controversial issue. There is a good argument that these creatures are providing a valuable food source for the barbel, chub, carp and perch, allowing them to attain weights never before known, but there is a flip side to the coin. I wonder just how many fish eggs these beasties eat, and whether they are decimating the future stocks. If they didn't grow so big I might not be so concerned; when the crayfish are fully grown there are few fish in the river that are capable of tackling them - some are the size of lobsters!
We packed up when it got dark and I walked back to the car in a completely different frame of mind to that of when we arrived. It had not been the best fishing session of the season, at least not in terms of fish caught - but it had highlighted something for me. My fishing is about far more than just catching fish. The therapy contained within these few hours on the river bank had proved to me that the child inside me is not dead and, knowing that, and despite those misguided people who try to force their ideologies upon us, that there is hope yet for the world.