Of course, any sane angler would pale at this suggestion, but Mr Brookes was by no means insane. He wrote his treatise in 1740 and whatever you might think of his spelling or animal welfare politics now, his text set me to thinking: Why don’t we use the fruits of our countryside more often? Considering the fact that every inch of bank side is teaming with suitable baits that are not only readily accepted by the fish, but also free of charge?
I was reminded of an evening last summer, fishing with the master reel maker Paul Witcher on the gorgeous Bisterne beat of the Hampshire Avon. The day had been warm and humid and with every step across the water meadows towards the wide pool by the salmon hut, grasshoppers leapt to and fro and the air was filled with the sound of tiny minstrels.
We had deliberately set out to fish for barbel, with hefty rods and lumps of meat. But as the sun set, we were distracted by tremendous sploshes downstream, presumably created by chub or possibly trout. We discussed the extraordinary abundance of grasshoppers, wondering aimlessly if it might have had something to do with the previous wet autumn, winter and spring. We sat quietly watching the rod tips nodding hopelessly, wishing we had brought fly rods, blinkered in our approach to watercraft.
Later that night, with mist ghosting across the fields, we did manage to catch a couple of brassy chub, one of which must have weighed four pounds, but we were left with the frustrating sense of what might have been. We know for example, that on this very swim, people have caught chub and barbel of tremendous proportions, large enough to fulfil our most extravagant dreams. Fish that might glut themselves with natural baits everyday, like freshwater shrimps, mayfly nymphs…and land-borne minstrels.
Opportunity does not come very often, of course, so I am sad to report that I was unable to return to Bisterne, armed with a light float rod and a butterfly net, so I was never in a position to prove, or disprove the theory. I have vowed to try again next summer.
But now I have a new project: I have resolved to discover a natural bait. One that has evolved over the millennia to become so attractive to fish, that they will swim right across the river to intercept its passage. Better still, it will cost me nothing at all.
I must admit that my first attempts have been mixed in their success and not without, shall we say, unpleasant undertones.
For instance, R. Brookes prescribes the use of ‘cow pat grubf’ as an excellent bait for ‘dare’, which we now know as dace. ‘Find it in yourfelf to lift the cruft of a pat’ he writes, and ‘there are splendid baitf’. Unfortunately, much like many other 18th Century natural historians, I suspect that Mr Brookes took much of his information third (or should say turd) hand, so he is a bit of an unreliable source of fact. I think it’s also fair to say that digging under cowpats is not my favourite pastime on a Sunday afternoon, but in the interests of science, I am willing to try anything. Readers will not be pleased to hear that I discovered nothing exciting at all, apart from a few slimy maggots, so miniscule that they would be dwarfed by a size 20 hook. If I am to catch a one pound dace, I’m afraid I’m going to have to persevere with trotted bread flake for a while longer.
On the other hand, my ventures turning over logs in the woodland near home have proved far more interesting. The grub of the stag beetle is about half the size of my little finger, down to the second knuckle, leathery, plump and definitely edible. I found just one of these, along with a selection of slugs and other U.C.O’s (unidentified crawling objects). Believing that the stag beetle grub might be exactly what I was looking for, I impaled it on a hook and dropped it into a known chub hole on the upper River Wey. The bite, when it came, was slightly disappointing, with a large, spiny crayfish being the only capture of the session.
I wasn’t put off though, because I reasoned that if a crayfish might be interested, a chub should be too. Unfortunately though, stag beetles are not very common and, hard as I tried, I could not find another. On the other hand, the endeavour, which lasted the best part of an afternoon, did reveal a fabulous cornucopia of delicious creatures. In particular, there are any number of other beetles in our woodlands, much smaller than the great stags, that in the larval stage, appear hugely tempting as bait. In one jar, I collected a dozen or so larvae and in another I placed several adult beetles, reasoning that the latter might be carnivorous, so they should be kept apart.
Also, to my wide-eyed amazement I found a baby slow worm, all of two inches long and very much like a sliver of mercury with a delicate black stripe down its length. It lay on the palm of my hand, flicking out a tiny black tongue, tasting the air. After a minute or so, I gently placed it back under the log, unharmed. I hadn’t found one of these legless lizards for many years, since I was a child, when we searched the hills near Brownsea Island and where, one day, we turned a stone to discover a large evil-looking adder. Our slow worm hunts were far more cautious after that.
Back on the River Wey, I was filled with confidence and travelling light, with just a pocket filled with hooks and split shot, a delightful Hardy Wallis Avon cane rod and a trout net, I began dropping single grubs into suitable deep holes. At first, I had trouble keeping the grubs on the hook, since they had the irritating habit of bursting, but before long, I felt a strong pull of the line against my finger tips and found myself attached to a beautiful red-spotted wild brown trout that leapt and ran all over the river. It was an exhilarating experience, partly because I felt fully justified in my experimentation, but also because, in some small way, my hunter-gatherer instinct had been satisfied. Time was running out though, as was my supply of bait, so I was only able to fish for another hour before I had to leave. One small roach of a few ounces fell to the temptation of the magical grubs, curiously foul hooked outside its mouth.
This is definitely a pursuit I would recommend to other fishermen and I do intend to continue the experiment further, not necessarily with the adult beetles themselves, since they produced not a single tug. The grubs seem to be far more acceptable. But the main issue is that even in times of plenty, it is hard to gather enough bait for a decent day’s fishing, so my thoughts turned to new methodologies.
Next on my mental list, was an idea from a friend in California, who keeps a variety of snakes, tree frogs and lizards in huge vivaria.
I was watching him feed an enormous White’s tree frog, an Australian specie that has a comical grinning expression and a plump pale green body, equally as adorable as any Disney character. My friend was dipping meal-worms into a specially formulated nutrient-rich powder, which the American manufacturers had described on the packet as: ‘land plankton supplement for amphibious critters’. ‘Land Plankton’, according to my friend, is an American term for the myriad of terrestrial flies, hoppers, spiders and bugs that inhabit our planet, above water, of course. They are absolutely the caviar of all foods for white’s tree frogs and many other slimy pets for that matter.
Until recently, Land Plankton had been gathered by kids with large nets. They ran around in fields, scooping up billions of bugs into plastic bags, released them into the frog tanks and watched as the critters went berserk with excitement.
Back home, I replaced the mesh on an old landing net with some fine muslin and sent my daughters out into our field to catch as many bugs as possible, while I reclined on a picnic blanket, sipping cool cider and thumbing through an old copy of the Collins Guide to Insects of Great Britain and Europe. I am a great believer in labour saving devices and it seemed to me that this plan would serve several objectives. First, my children would enjoy the hunt immensely, expending kilo joules of energy in the process. Second, I would be able to test the biomass of bait capable of being gathered in a short period.
What I hadn’t bargained for was that my children would want to catch one bug at a time, then spend as long as possible identifying it, befriending it and then arguing with me about whether they could keep it as a pet. However, I did discover that even a tiny field, with long meadow grasses, harbours an astonishing diversity of fauna, in fantastic quantities. Whilst most of the bugs are too small to contemplate as hook bait, it does occur to me that a goodly bag of Land Plankton, combined with bread crumb, would form an extremely attractive ground bait and paste for the hook.
But before anyone launches out into the countryside with a net, I do need to make an important environmental comment or two: Organic meadows are few and far between these days and they may contain the nests of rare birds, dormice and so on. So our efforts should be restricted only to the edges of fields where you have permission to gather, creating the minimum of disturbance, sweeping only the tips of the grasses.
In any case, this idea needs further thought, since Autumn swept through my fishing life rather sooner than I felt ready and with its chilly winds, away went the Land Plankton.
Returning to R.Brooks for a moment, I am curious to try ‘docken-grubf’ found in the roots of dock, unsurprisingly, as well as ‘the brood of wafpf’ a well-known bait for chub. Equally, ‘dew-berryf’, ‘black fnailf with their bellyf flit’ both seem to have merit, although I am resisting the urge to suspend the carcass of a sheep above the river so that ‘gentlef therein drop into the ftream’.
I doubt that many anglers would be so foolhardy as to follow my example, wisely preferring to visit the local tackle shop or supermarket in search of bait and investing a considerably greater proportion of their time actually fishing. But I think they might be missing something rather special by doing so. I haven’t yet discovered a magical bait under a log, nor have I unearthed critter caviar from a warm cow pat. But I have found the effort far more enjoyable than visiting the Petersfield branch of Waitrose.