My earliest childhood recollection of being taken fishing is not of catching my first fish but of falling in! My dad had taken me with him and on arrival at the river had waded out into mid-stream to trot for dace. I was left alone on the bank and being a fidgety 4 year old it wasn't long before had I tripped over a tree stump and plunged headlong into the drink. I remember hauling myself ashore to be greeted with chuckles from the middle of the river and an instruction that I'd better toddle off home to dry off. This I did - squelching through the streets of Belfast sodden to the core. This must rank as one of my earliest childhood memories and I also seem to remember dad getting more of a 'tongue lashing' from mum than I did, when he eventually made it home some hours later.
My first catch - 7 roach that I was allowed to reel in after my father had cast out - came some months later. I remember getting soaked on two other occasions in those very early days accompanying my father. This probably accounts for my mum's total insistence, a few years later, that I be a strong and confident swimmer before being allowed to venture out on my own. A wise move as I've been getting wet ever since!!
A couple of other memorable (and I'm sure highly amusing if they'd been observed) soakings come to mind. Once as a teenager I was perched in an alder trying to get a peek at a large chub stationed behind a raft of debris. Over-balancing, I belly flopped into the river in spectacular style. Luckily, this was just a reconnaissance and the only thing I lost was my pride. It was a warm July day so, thankfully, I was able to strip off and carry on fishing! More recently I got nearly as wet when I stepped on what I thought was bank but which turned out to be a raft of grass concealing a 4 foot hole. Although this occurred in February I had some spare clothes with me, so again my trip wasn't curtailed.
Even my wife has been known to get in on the drenching act! Before we had children she would often accompany me, sometimes to indulge her pastime of drawing and water-colouring. Now Jaq can be quite fastidious at times and would always try to retrieve discarded line from trees and riverside bushes so as not to ensnare the local bird life. It was during just such a mission that she came a cropper and ended up in the river. I'd only just started fishing AND it was the last day of the season but somewhat reluctantly I had to agree to pack up. Echo's of my father - eh?
More recent dunkings have at least afforded me the luxury of stripping off first. In the past couple of seasons, I've waded out to free tethered carp, swam out at 4am to retrieve a rod that had been pulled in the previous night as well as various excursions to collect free tackle - I rarely have to buy controllers!
All these soakings have been in the local gravel pits. My last trip IN the river brings me, eventually, to the subject of this piece. During the 1999 close season I spent a lot of time preparing a likely looking swim, ready for some night barbel sessions. Bait and hemp was introduced, the bank was made safe and a minimal amount of 'gardening' took place to give me access to the water.
The plan was to fish this swim in 'after work' sessions and my first visit saw me arriving at the bank at 5.30pm with the season only 2 days old. With high expectations I climbed the gate turned the final bend in the path and arrived to find my pitch unfishable! A dead alder had fallen in, right in the middle of where I wanted to fish. I briefly toyed with trying somewhere else but the thought of all the bait and hemp that I'd introduced in the previous week soon saw me stripped off, up to my armpits in water, removing the offending trunks (and, as I soon discovered, some other, hidden snags on the perimeter of the swim).
Perseverance with this swim certainly paid off. Once it got dark I was getting bites on my introduced bait (monster crab paste) and by the time I was making my way home at 3.00am I'd accounted for 4 barbel to 8lb 10oz and a surprise, lean common carp of 7lb. This latter fish being a severe disappointment as, in the dark, I thought I'd landed a monster chub.
The sight of dead alders in the river is one that will, I'm afraid, become a common sight in the next few years. Alders adorn our river systems and the British alder stock is quite literally being wiped out by disease. At the moment, I would estimate that on some parts of the Kennet as many as 25% of trees are already dead and a similar percentage showing advanced signs of disease. I first noticed this plague a couple of years ago and dead trees have now become a common sight. Diseased trees are also equally easy to spot as their leaves are
fewer, smaller and a paler green than those of healthy, mature stock.
This tragedy is similar to the Dutch Elm disease that accounted for so many of those splendid trees in the 1970's but for some reason has only attracted a mere fraction of the publicity. The reasons for the Alder's decline are complex. Whilst blame has been laid at the door of the larval stage of the insect Cryptorrhynchus lapathi which burrows into the trunk, most trees are actually succumbing to a host of fungal attacks most notably Phytophthora, a type of root
The impact that these tree deaths will have on our rivers can only be guessed at - certainly it will give me fewer vantage points from which to fall in!! More fallen trees will create, and change the face of, many swims. Also, I can point to 2 places locally where yards of bank have been washed away in last winter's floods as a direct result of being exposed by dead alders. In one of these cases it has resulted in a healthy tree being undermined and falling in the river. This is a worrying consequence for landowners and fishery managers if repeated along the length of the river. And finally it is such a sad sight to see so many bare branches at a time when everything else is green and lush.
This year my close season preparations have been a bit more half-hearted, though I have got my eyes on a couple of likely looking spots I've never tried before, for later in the season. My 'fallen alder' swim became something of a 'banker' last summer and so it was to this spot that I returned for my first session on the river this season and WHAT a session it turned out to be.
Monday 19th June 2000 was a HOT day. Forecasters were predicting that maximums would exceed the 91F of the previous day and boy, was I pleased I had the day off to go fishing rather than face being shoe-horned into a carriage full of sweaty commuters on the Victoria line.
I spent the morning enjoying a couple of hours stalking chub on the Holybrook and by the time I returned home to have lunch with the missus I'd accounted for 7 fish on free-lined bread-flake. No great size, biggest wouldn't have made 3lb, but brisk sport none-the-less. After lunch, final preparations involved removing all non-essential items from my tackle boxes - I had a long walk ahead which I definitely wasn't looking forward to in the high heat and humidity. By mid-afternoon I arrived at my swim and was pleased to note from the state of the bank-side vegetation that it had not been fished over the opening weekend. The river looked in great shape; up a bit and still coloured from the heavy spring rains, it filled me with confidence for a successful session.
Not expecting any action till the evening, I wasn't in any particular hurry to get started so began by tackling up a trotting rod. I was pleasantly surprised to quickly get a couple of small chub and a pound and a half perch. A couple of hours of this and I was ready to bait my swim. Three pints of hemp plus assorted bits of meat, paste and pellet were introduced via a bait dropper. Time to start fishing! With more hope than expectation I cast out my two rods. One into the crease of an eddy tight on the near bank, the other to a hole beneath an alder (still healthy - for now!) diagonally across the river. After all the commotion of the bait dropper, I wasn't expecting much to happen for a while so settled down to a beer and a bite.
Now it is an unwritten law of angling that there are two things an angler can do to guarantee a fish showing an interest in his bait. One is to go for a pee, the other is to have a bite of food half way to his mouth! Sure enough I'm just about to have a second bite at my sausage roll when my 'across river' rod gets pulled round in one long sweep. It's less than 10 minutes since the last bait-dropper's worth of hemp 'splashed down' and I'm already into a good fish. The fight is ponderous and when the barbel surfaces near the opposite bank my heart misses a beat - that looks a VERY good fish. However early season enthusiasm has got the better of me and a couple of minutes later I see it's not the double I've longed for but a good fish none the less. At 8lb 1oz, a very satisfactory start.
Re-casting with the hope of continuing my tea I get a bite 'on the drop' and less than a couple of minutes after returning the barbel I'm slipping the net under a 3lb chub. This is a VERY promising start. All is quiet for the next hour and my food is eventually polished off without further incident. (Though a half eaten sausage roll is added to the baited areas having been fished out of the maggots!) Then bang, bang, bang; 3 chub in quick succession, the first a whisker under 4lb the next 2 some 10 or 12 oz lighter. The next 2 hours continue in this vein until by night fall I've had 10 in total. Last summer I fished this swim on 6 nights throughout June, July and August, averaged 4 barbel a trip but didn't get ONE chub. Now I was hauling out a whole shoal of them. They were obviously dining out on the free offerings and no matter what bait I tried, all I turned up was more chub. So, somewhat ironically, a day which started trying to catch chub ended trying not to catch them!!!
Bites slowed as night fell and I landed my last chub at 10.30. Shortly before 11.00 a gently 'rustle' on the quiver tip resulted in connecting with something 'solid'. Not a chub this time but not a barbel either and after a surprisingly dogged fight I pick out a nice bream in my head lamp. Now, I have heard tales of big bream(up to 8lb) on this stretch but this is the first I've ever caught. At 5lb 4oz it's also my biggest bream from the Kennet.
I had to wait a while for my next bite. I'd just peeked at my watch and was thinking that both baits had been out there nearly an hour and was having the usually anxieties about whether I should recast or not. Then it happened. It started with the most savage barbel take I've ever witnessed, so vicious that when it was all over I found my quiver tip had splintered!! Such was the ferocity of the take and the way it screamed down river, I had first thought it a carp. The take, however, was really the only notable thing about the short battle. After the initial rush it turned round and powered upstream and then seemed content to to-and-fro under my feet while I coaxed it to the surface. The fight was over in a shorter time than the previous fish but when I got it to the net I knew it was bigger and definitely a new personal best but would it make 10lb? Before I could find out, mayhem broke out with a 'clonk' on the other rod. A smaller fish had hooked itself and all I could do was loosen the clutch and leave it while I dealt with the barbel in the net. A quick weigh saw the needle swing comfortably past 10lb. HOORAY! 10lb 4oz - a double at last!
After a quick picture the fish was swiftly returned and swam off strongly. Attention quickly switched to the other fish which was still on and swimming freely in midstream (and I was using barbless hooks). A small fish of under 5lb I unhooked it in the water and let it free.
And that was it - I fished on for another hour and a half but had no more bites and by 2.00am I was in bed at home reflecting on a truly glorious start to the season - it will probably be downhill from now on!!