Sunday, January 29, 2012

In search of 17 pounders - they're really rare

"Yuh-huh, I've noticed that," said TLC, when I worked the weight out and said I couldn't remember the last time I'd caught a 17 pounder. "They all seem to be either 16s or 18-something."

A foggy start in the badlands somewhere south of Downham Market. You could barely see the far bank as we set off down the drain for what will be known forever more as Crap Bridge.

The main reason for this is some disaffected youth has sprayed C-R-A-P on it , in much the same way taggers spray their name on bridges and in my miss-spent younger days people sprayed things like Punk Rools on them. Back in the punk era, clearly.

TLC bags the lure rod we packed as an after thought and works a jig around the bridge, while I drop a couple of deads in and pop a can of Red Bull.

Fog still blankets the landscape. Wraiths of mist drift up off the floodbank like smoke. This is all very idyllic, but I can't ever remember catching much in fog. Maybe, just maybe, the tagger got it right. Maybe he was a pike angler, who has taken to carrying a can of spray paint in his rucker to vent his frustrations.

We give it longer than we probably should, mainly because you never see anyone else on this stretch of drain apart from the odd dog walker.

Fifty yards away, coloured water's pouring in from a little lode, so we give that another runless 20 minutes.

"Up there look - bait fish," says TLC, pointing up the drain, as the last of the fog clears and the sun breaks through. "Loads of 'em just jumped - I reckon something's after 'em." Another five minute yomp and we're where he thinks he saw them. Then again, it could be a bit further up.

"Ki-i-i-i-i-h, ki-i-i-i-i-i-yah," a buzzard soars overhead as we try another bit further up. I have seen an otter on one stretch of this drain and found spraints on another. As I re-arrange the rods for the umpteenth time, I see smashed mussel shells on the bank.

A little further along, there are several shells under the entrance to a bramble thicket. Half way up the bank, a former rabbit hole has been greatly enlarged. It's big enough to be a badger sett, but there is no bedding scraped out or other signs of brock.

It also lacks the rancid smell of reynard, or scraps of fur I'd expect to see snagged on the lower boughs of the brambles were it a fox's earth. Maybe it's an otter holt.

We hit the last few swims before we reach the car. I still think we'll catch something. I'm not sure why I think that, but TLC concurs. Yes, here we go - I'm away. A float does a jig before it slides off up the drain. I give it a good old ding and it hugs the bottom, throwing a headshake or two as I bend in harder to make sure the hooks are planted.

I sharpened the trebles two or three swims earlier, so they're well sharp. I start wondering if they're planted in a twenty's gob, as a big fish swirls under the rod top. I'm convinced it is as TLC nets it, I unclip the trace and we haul her up to the mat.

When I turn her over, she's already shed the hooks. Doubts as to her twenty-ness are also creeping in but I've got the sling handy so we give her a bounce on the Avons just in case. Long enough, but not quite there in the weight department. According to Mr Avon, she's 18lbs 10oz.

There's a good reason I look like a total knob in this picture, by the way. In case you haven't noticed.

As TLC's pondering the workings of the camera, f/5.6 at aperture priority, matrix metering, ISO 200, image setting FINE; one of his floats does a disappearing act. I notice this and I'm telling him so as he takes the snap.

TLC drops the camera and picks his rod up as the fish drops the bait. I feel bad about this, but que sera. As I'm cutting the hooks out of the net, I work out the fish was 17lbs 12oz minus the sling.

I reckon 17-pounders must be quite unusual, as I can't remember the last 17-pounder I caught, I tell TLC. "Yuh-huh, I've noticed that," he nods. "They all seem to be 16s or 18-something."

I enjoyed today, despite the fact it threw up just one half-decent double. It was a 17-pounder, after all. And they're really rare, according to TLC.

 ***Look at the markings on this fish.

Check out the hook-shaped mark on her tail-wrist. I can't remember ever seeing a similar mark on a pike.

Clearly a highly-recognisable individual, if she turns up in later seasons. Hope I bump into her again when she's a twenty.

Friday, January 27, 2012

We're in business, thinking tactically

The float wobbles and falls down a hole in the lake. We're in business, as I heave into a pondrous weight on the end that feels ponderously like a twenty. 

Bubbles fizz across the surface, as I pump it in towards the bank. Bits of weed float to the top as the weight on the end gets lighter. I glimpse a pike that looks like Bob Marley, until it shakes off the dreadlocks of pondweed and sulks under the rod top.

TLC stretches out to net it, expecting something slightly bigger than the six pounder glaring up at us as he sweeps it in over the top of the rushes. Must have been six pounds of pike and 15lbs of weed on the end, I shrug apologetically.

Beautifully-marked fish all the same, says TLC - taking a picture with his thumb partly obscuring the lens, leaving a black smudge across half the frame. Good job it wasn't a twenty after all, I say looking at the picture.

We were going to move, but the first run of the day cures the itchy feet. After half an hour, we wonder if it's the only pike in just about the only bit of this particular water we're technically allowed to fish.

After another conflab, we move to a banker swim on another water down the road. Fired up by Mick Brown's excellent talk at last night's King's Lynn PAC bash, we think tactically and spread the rods to cover shallows and a deep hole, close in and as far as I can heave a popped-up bluey and a three ounce lead.

The shadows are lengthening, as I heave a popped up bluey as far as I can heave a popped up bluey and a three-ounce lead. The bait popper and the bluey part company as they fly through the heavens.

I tighten up to find it's landed in some far flung weedbed. We sit silently, watching the bait popper slowly drift back towards us as the sun goes down behind the trees in a barrage of bird song.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

That's nice dear. Did you remember the milk..?

I am in a meeting about office furniture with some men from head office. 

In Europe, they have decreed we must have a minimum gap of 90cms between our work stations. I am pondering this and other interesting aspects of the EU with the men from head office when my phone beeps.

Got a new PB mate, says the text from Rob. I look at the picture and wish I was beside the river instead of discussing office layouts. The meeting goes on around me.

We'll need more chairs, says one of the men from head office as he makes a note on his clipboard. I'm going fishing tomorrow, I volunteer helpfully.

The men from head office look at the pictures of pike on the wall behind my desk. We can see you're quite into fishing, one says. Do you eat them or throw them back, asks another. 

I look at the picture again when the men from head office have gone. I can't believe it's a week since I last got my string pulled. There are times when I couldn't bear the thought of seven days away from the water. There are others when a break rekindles my enthusiasm.

I look at the picture again when I get home. Beautiful fish mate, I text Rob. Wish I'd caught it. Rob sends me another picture. I know how much effort he puts into his fishing - and just as important, how much he lives for it.

I show the wife. Look at this lump Rob caught today. I'd have probably been down there if I wasn't at work. I'd probably have fished that bank. I might even have...

That's nice, says the wife. Did you remember to get the milk..?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Unexpected item in bagging area

Must be five or six years since I've fished this bit of drain, I enthuse as we clamber up the flood bank. We need to be a bit further down, that used to be the bagging area.

"How far," asks TLC as our breath steams in the cold dawn air. Another mile or so, I shrug. Half an hour later, we're in what used to be the spot. It doesn't look like anyone's been here all season.

This fills me with confidence, for obvious reasons. We agree we'll give it a half hour, then begin the long leap frog back to the car.

I remember one of Digger's pearls of wisdom for some reason. The one where he reckons he's leap frogged a mile of drain or river for every twenty he's caught over the years. Once we've got the rods out, I have a nose around the bank for signs anyone else has beaten us to what used to be a rated area.

Something has. Down in the grass, there are otter spraints. I look around and find a few more, in varying states of decay. Neglected by the likes of us, it seems Tarka has stepped into the void - very nicely, too, judging by the amount of droppings.

I did see an otter, several miles away, on the same drain earlier in the season. We give it half an hour, get itchy feet, and start swim hopping back towards civilisation. 

We find more otter droppings, here and there. But no fish. After half a mile or so, we began seeing signs of other anglers. Otters aren't renowned for their love of Marlboro Lights, with health warnings written in Polish.

We press on, as the sun starts dropping away to the West. TLC wonders when the mile will be up and we'll catch one of Digger's twenties. Looking back down the drain, we must have covered a mile by 3pm, as we cast the baits into the umpteenth swim of the day.

"I'm in," he shouts, as a float finally shows some signs of life. I reel my rods in and walk down with the net. "Don't reckon I'll be needing that," he says, swinging in the smallest pike I've seen all season, which might just go a pound on a good day.

"Come on," says TLC. "We want yer mum - or yer granny..." As dusk creeps in around us, one of his floats plops under the surface again.

He briefly hooks what's obviously a much larger fish, which comes off inexplicably after a couple of head shakes.

Our mile's well and truly up. That might even have been one of Digger's twenties, if you believe his maths. We sit it out the final 20 minutes or so until the sun sets, before we trudge the last few hundred yards back to the car.

Did we find the only two pike in that entire stretch of drain - or did they just switch on briefly as the light levels dropped. There must be a reason the otters like it so much around there either way. Definitely worth another look.

Fens skyline changes forever

Today saw one of the best known landmarks in the Fens disappear, as engineers used explosive charges to demolish the Campbell's Tower - the last remaining part of the soup factory being knocked down to make way for a new Tesco.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Guns 'n Rivers

Fished the Middle Level lately..? The police have been having a dabble too, pulling an impressive armoury of firearms out of a stretch better-known for doing the odd pike and zander.

Here's what the boys and girls in blue are saying about their haul, which included a loaded semi-automatic Beretta and rifles with telescopic sights:

Police searching a river in West Norfolk have found a haul of weapons.

Officers from Norfolk Constabulary were given information that suggested a shot-gun had been thrown into the Middle Level Drain in the St John’s Fen End area of Marshland at some point in the past.

Lincolnshire Diving Squad were called in for an operation on Tuesday, January 10 and found four firearms and a sword close to Rungays Bridge, Black Drove.

The weapons are now being investigated and checked to see if they can be linked to any historic crimes.
The weapons and ammunition are:
  • A loaded Beretta semi-automatic 12 bore shotgun
  • A 12 bore double barrelled over-under shotgun
  • A loaded .22 rim-fire rifle with telescopic sight and silencer
  • A loaded .22-250, very high velocity hunting rifle with telescopic sight and silencer
  • A reproduction short sword (similar to those used by Viking/Saxon battle re-enactors).
  • Over 300 12 bore shotgun cartridges.
Anyone who may be able to provide any information on any of the weapons or their histories is asked to contact PC Mallett at Downham Market Police Station on 101 or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Welcome to pike fishing, in 2012

Just two months left of the season. Sorting my gear out to renew the attack over the next few weeks, I can't believe how quickly it's gone.

Maybe it's a getting older thing. Maybe it's because I've actually enjoyed the fishing a lot more than last season, even if - one or two decent fish aside - I've gone through several spells of not catching very much.

Talking to some other anglers on the bank the other day, the conversation turned to people we knew - including one or two who either aren't fishing any more or seldom go.

There's no getting away from the fact that pike fishing has got harder in recent years, regardless of differing views regarding why exactly this is.

In better winters over the last decade or so, I've caught more fish in a month than I've managed all season so far.

A mate texted me the other day to say he'd caught a 14lbs pike. Not the sort of fish that would usually have anyone swinging from the chandeliers - but in his case, it was the first he'd caught in 10 trips. That's some blank spell - even when you fish as often as we do.

Then there's the cost of it. With diesel hovering around the £1.40 a litre mark, I know a lot of people are fishing local rather than making the trip to the Broads, trout reservoirs or more glamorous desinations.

So it's harder than I can remember, plus more expensive than it's ever been to catch pike as we make our first few trips of 2012 and wonder if the fishing's going to improve by the end of the season. Happy New Year...

Best laid plans and all that

Right, here's the plan. Yeah, sure, shrugs TLC as I outline my thoughts on strategy. 

I think I know where we'll catch a  few. Conditions are perfect yet again for the Saving Private Ryan swim.

Minimum kit, all in one rucker. One net. One set of unhooking tools. One set of scales, sling, camera etc.

Two anglers. One vision, as Freddie Mercury might well have sung, had he not shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the Choir Invisible before discovering the joys of pike fishing.

A mile yomp later and someone's beaten us to it. A familiar character from years gone by is tucked away with four rods bang on the money. We look up the drain and don't fancy the rest of it, so another mile later we're back in the motor.

Two other swims catch our eye on another stretch of the same water. But they're 30 yards apart and we only have one of everything, so we cram into one alternating the rods.

Along comes the Chipper Bailiff. "Bloke further up had one right when I was standing behind him," he says. "Double figure zander."

One of my blobs disappears as we're chatting and I Chipper Bailiff reckons he's brought me luck too as I chin out an eight pounder that turns out to be the only fish of the day.

TLC gets a run, hops down the bank and picks the wrong rod up. By the time he's picked up the right rod, the fish has dropped it.

No sooner have I stopped laughing about this, I get a twitchy run, pick the rod up and miss it.

Where you going next week..? Asks TLC as we reel in to pack up. Not here again mate, I say. 

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Korum rucksack reviewed

I was well impressed when Rob bought one of these last season. Noticing it was still going strong a year later, I decided if it could survive a winter fishing with Rob, it would probably last me as well.

The first thing you notice is how much gear it swallows. More than enough room for all the kit I'm likely to need in a day, with side pockets for unhooking tools and mesh outer-pockets I can stick forceps, pliers, cutters etc in when I get there so they're all to hand when needed.

One feature I like is the top compartment, which takes the bits box and another box of odds and ends, meaning I've got everything handy if I need to change a rig.

It also has a zipped clear pocket ideal for keeping things like sharpening stone, trace blades, tape measure etc - the things I used to keep in my pockets, then find them missing when I needed them because I'd left the coat in the car.

It stands up on its base, so you can work out of the top compartment when you're tackling up. It's also lined and made of a more durable material than a lot of luggage, including some items by household names.

Korum haven't really made their mark on pike fishing yet, but one or two more well-designed items like this might change that. They make a sexy two-rod quiver too.

Postscript.... I can still remember the day Rob showed me his new rucksack.

We were on some pits and I had the dog with me. The dog looked quite impressed when Rob took me through its various features, before he got his rods set up.

As he was tightening the first one down and setting his drop-off, the dog ambled up to the rucker, gave it a sniff by way of a once-over and christened it in the way that only dogs can.

I gingerly turned it around, so the wet patch was facing Rob's van - hoping he wouldn't notice.

"They say they're waterproof too," I said, as the dog dodged the Skeetex boot aimed squarely at his hairy butt.

"Yeah mate," said Rob. "It's got a built-in rain cover too."

Click here for a bit more on some of the other gear I use.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

All is quiet on New Year's Day

NB Not the Saving Private Ryan swim...

Out not long after sun-up, no other cars in the nearest place you can park to the Saving Private Ryan swim. Looking good as I strap on the walking boots, sling the noticeably-lighter ruck sack on my back, followed by the quiver and set off across the fields.

When I get there with a song to spare on the Marillion album, I can still feel my arms as I start putting the rods together. I'm checking the hooks when I see a big disturbance 20 yards up the drain. So I decide to start there, keeping my eyes skinned in case I spot anyone else heading for the Saving Private Ryan swim.

Floats out either side of it, I can't fish tight against the head-wind because the leads are too small. No worries, I have a couple of spares in my pruned-down kit. On they go and I can tighten up to the floats and stop the wind blowing the line all over the shop.

Looking up and down, I see a big swirl in the margins a few yards further up. A few yards further than I can cast to in this wind, so I up sticks for another move.

The floats are sock-on again, just over the near shelf where the fish swirled. If I made notes of depths, drew maps and all that sort of thing, I'd be noting the depth's pretty uniform along this bit of drain.

I see a car in the distance, so I reel the rods in, pack my kit away and head back for the Saving Private Ryan swim. It's still barely 10am. It looks the mutt's nuts.

When the float on the left hand rod slides away 10 minutes later, I pull into what feels like a good fish that comes adrift after a couple of violent thumps. So the first pike of 2012 makes good its escape.

The picture's not the Saving Private Ryan swim, or anywhere near it. I snapped it off a bridge the other day, while I was out for a wander.

Take less, move more

My New Year's Resolution is take less, move more. Simple as that. As in a rucker and a couple of rods' worth unless I'm off to somewhere you can use the car to move swims or it's worth plotting up near the motor.

I don't know if you've ever taken stock of how much kit you lug about, as opposed to how much of it you're actually likely to need on any given day, but it's quite an interesting exercise.

I'd gotten into the habit of carrying a box of trace making materials. This started as a small box, with a spool of wire, a couple of packets of hooks, swivels and twiddling stick. It morphed into a bigger box, with more wire, a lighter to heat the wire, and more hooks. Times needed this season..? Zero.

I used to carry a box of floats. Big floats, small floats. Blobs, pencils, through-the-middle sliders. Then there were the leads. Big leads, small leads. Bombs, bullets, leads you can attach to your trace, some locking leads someone brought me back from a holiday in the States years ago. Times needed..?

Get shot of that lot, and that's nearly half the weight in the rucksack gone. All I'm likely to need are the rigs already on the rods, plus a couple of spare floats, a couple of larger leads plus enough to re-tackle on the off-chance I tree one or snag. Chances of that happening where I'm fishing at the moment..? Not much.

Then there are the rods. I'm done with carrying four on a walk. I'll just take two rigged up for where I'm going. That's the weight of the quiver halved in one fell swoop.

Landing net, unhooking gear, mat, two rod rests - no need for bite alarms, drop-offs or rear rests if you're float fishing  - and that's it apart from weigh sling and scales.

Baits in the rucksack in a cool bag, along with drink, grub and baccy - job sorted for a yomp to the Saving Private Ryan swim.

Walk on by

That's a right old walk to the Saving Private Ryan swim. If you've ever seen the film, you'd spot the similarities straight away when you get there. 

Obviously, there aren't thousands of young Americans swarming ashore to liberate Europe from the iron heel of the Nazi jackboot, under a hail of machine gun fire. But there's a feature which is a bit like a feature in the film. Well, sort of.

When I got to it just after dawn, there was someone already setting up right next to it. Worse than that, he looked like he knew what he was doing. Worse still, he had a decent fish out as I got my rods sorted for a leap-frogging mission up the rest of the drain.

I kicked myself for the extra hour in bed, resisting the urge to go down and ask him how big it was. I tried half a dozen swims without a pull. Then I broke the rods down and crossed the field to another nearby drain and gave that an hour, missing what turned out to be the only take of the day.

Spying someone I knew on the way out, I stopped for a chat on the off-chance he had a brew on.

"That you walking across the field then," he says. Yep, guilty your worship. "That's a walk that is. That looks like a long old walk."

In a bizarre way, I've got the walking bug. When I get home, I decide to prune the gear down even more - not so much so I can shave a few minutes off the first side of the Marillion album it took me to walk there (according to my iPod), but so I still have some feeling left in my arms when I rock up.