Wednesday 25 September 2013

Confessions of an Olde School Specimen Hunter: The Prologue and Rant.

This post is part zero of "Confessions...", and will serve as a prologue to an occasional series of such articles.  Their ultimate aim is to tell, and preserve, if only for myself, a number of amusing incidents  that occurred.  But first, an introduction, and some history.  (This post should have appeared last year, but I forgot all about it, and it has remained in the draft folder, gathering dust.)
So: "The Prologue and Rant".   Hmmm....that would make a pretty good pub name. Along with "The Frog and Bucket", "Elephant and Castle" and other odd names. So, if any publican currently residing in a boring old "Red Bull" or "White Horse" would like to rename their public house with a rather more memorable name, then please make contact, and for a small(-ish) fee I shall, on  a franchise basis, license you the name.

My early fishing, from age eleven into my teens was largely split into three parts:  a small club pond, match fishing and lastly the Macclesfield Canal.
The club pond held delightful crucians, the odd tench, and a few carp, supposedly growing to 20 pounds.  It was where I fished for pleasure, and I did quite well there, poking a rod out just past the rushes, with bread fished lift method. The pond has disappeared now, run over by the Manchester M60 ring road motorway. Match fishing was usually the weekend coach trip, to the Trent, the Witham, or to many other distant waters. Occasionally the local clubs held  Club Federation matches mid week on a nearby canal.  I did well in all these matches, very well, enough such that some seniors actually objected to juniors being allowed to enter the sweepstakes, and even to compete for the overall club championships.   They were outvoted. They lost in two ways. ;-)   It was not difficult in those days to win: most seniors, and practically all juniors, had absolutely no idea how to fish, and certainly were clueless as to how to fish to win.  And there is a huge difference between fishing, and fishing to win. There were none of the myriad of modern aids to learning that exist today. So on those matches, 90% of anglers were just cannon fodder, and they were all standing immediately in front of the muzzle with their eyes closed. One that was not was Ian Heaps, who went on to become a world champion.  On the Federation matches, I used to beat him about as often as he beat me. But I quickly grew bored of match angling whereas he did not. 

It was fishing the Macclesfield Canal that gave me the skills to win.  I taught myself how to fish there from about 12 years old. In those days the canal was usually gin clear, and the fish very difficult to tempt.  In three feet of water you could watch your free offerings all be snaffled on the drop by roach and perch, whilst your baited hook was repeatedly ignored. It was a training ground of great excellence, bar none.  At the time it was bailiffed by one Albert Oldfield, who, sometimes assisted by the ancient Mr. Grindley, riding an even more ancient bike, used to sell day tickets on the bank.  Albert was famous in the angling press for catching numerous 2 and 3 pound roach from the canal.  But none of the canal regulars seemed to have ever seen him fishing, we saw no photographs, either in the press or elsewhere, and despite years of fishing the canal, with all sorts of baits and methods, including copying those techniques supposedly used by Albert, none of us ever had a roach bigger than a very nice fish of  1-6 that I managed to  hook into one day.  A fish of a pound would have been a season's best...and I probably only caught two or three fish over that magical one pound weight. We were all certain that the Albert fish reports were merely a method of increasing Albert's ticket sales. Had two and three pound roach existed in the numbers Albert claimed, we would have had at least the occasional big fish ourselves. We may have been mistaken about Mr Oldfield, but it seems unlikely. I would welcome any genuine photos of him with big fish from the canal, at which point I will publish my apology.

A 2 pound plus Macclesfield Canal Perch that I caught recently.
One day, high excitement: a guy I spoke to said that he had a two pound roach in his net.  He showed it to me....a beautiful fish, yet 12 oz was my highest guess for its true weight, however I said nothing to dampen his joy.  A number of us had formed the "Macclesfield Canal Roach Specialists (MCRS)", who were determined to get that good fish out, despite none of us really believing they ever existed. We never succeeded, and the fish of 1-6 remained the best any of us ever saw.  It was to be some years later that my first 2 pound roach came to the net, and that was not a canal fish.   The canal is very different now, the boat traffic has multiplied by a factor of at least twenty, with moorings occupying most of the deep water stretch that I loved, and the water is therefore constantly coloured, even in Winter.  Most of the edging of rushes and reeds has gone, replaced by awful metal shuttering to prevent erosion, consequently the water voles have all gone, and it is no longer such a pleasure to fish from the towpath.  Oddly it does now produce some good fish, and two pound plus perch have become quite common.

Specimen groups were beginning to appear in the mid 60's, and I leapt at the chance to join the Manchester Specimen Group when it was first formed.   There were probably still no more than 500 anglers in the UK who called themselves Specimen Hunters, and most of those were so only in their own heads.  I felt I did not deserve the title myself at that time, although  I was soon to become ridiculously dedicated to the task, always aiming at that even bigger, better, higher, faster fish. I even became records officer for the NASG, whilst Eric Hodson was in the secretarial chair.

Richard Walker and friends were probably the first group of anglers who might have been referred to as "specimen hunters". Walker's book "Stillwater Angling" was certainly responsible for an upsurge in the "big fish" interest that followed.  The MCRS slowly evaporated and was no more, and the MSG was to fold sometime later, although I am still in occasional contact with three of its members, who have remained anglers ever since.   I had formed a partnership, with Chris, who founded the MCRS, and we were to fish together very intensely over a number of years.  In those days, the late 60's and 70's, being successful as a big fish angler meant finding waters where few others fished, which were not heavily stocked with fish (and therefore were seen as difficult to fish), putting in the hard work, and most of all, being confident that you could catch those big fish. ( Nowadays, catching big fish seems to be mainly dependent upon visiting waters that are fished very often, and therefore those which have masses of bait fed to the short go fishing in fish farms, for obese overweight unhealthy fish). I gained that big fish confidence quite early, Chris taking much much longer before he got his fair share of the fish.  I can only put my successes then down to that confidence: nothing else could explain it, illogical though it may seem.  In due course we both became very successful, big bream, tench, carp, roach, rudd etc etc.  Chris and I were largely responsible for showing Alan Wilson how to catch big fish. John Watson occasionally joined the party, and much later became a well known pike specialist.  Alan later also became very famous, breaking the tench record. Shared a lot of superb breakfasts with Alan, cooked in his old grey Austin van. He was a great guy, and could occupy a swim more completely than any other angler I knew. Not an innovator, but so incredibly patient.

But my own dedication was not to last,  and after about 12 very successful years, I had convinced myself that big fish were not so hard to catch after all ( and I had annoyed a fair few other people by saying they were actually quite easy. The reality was that some "specimen hunters" regarded themselves as being very special, and here was I saying "Bo.......ks! ). For me, the challenge had gone, and I also realised that fishing some 60+ hours a week, whilst working, was leaving me shattered, and with no social life at all.  So one June 16th, first day of the coarse season, after landing a personal best tench, I consigned the rods to the attic, where they were to remain for over 30 years.

So, 32 years later, following a combination of starting to hate the work I had loved, and my wife getting cancer  ( she is looking good now, 6 years later, following tumour removal and chemotherapy, cross fingers), I decided to dig the rods out of the dust, having seen some small chub in the River Mersey.  Last time I had held a rod, all those years ago, even the shopping trolleys could not survive in the Mersey.  No plant life, no insects, no fish, just a bottom covered with dead bricks.   So the chub both shocked and pleased  me.  However I promised myself that, when I restarted my fishing,  I would fish for pure enjoyment. If a big fish came along, fine, but they would not be my be-all and end-all targets.   As luck would have it, over those 30 years fishing has changed, Oh my God! How it has changed.  Big fish have become even easier to catch!       ;-(  or maybe  ;-)

The fish of today are far bigger, thanks to modern bait technology, and there are so many more of them, catching a big fish is so very much easier that everyone does it now, almost routinely, not just those few isolated specimen hunters as in the 60's.  Tackle is so much better, no need to build your own alarms and specialist rods.  Tuition comes in so many forms: DVDs, the internet, the TV, paid professional guides, facebook, websites, forums. Books and magazines have proliferated. I used to be the only person I knew who had caught a double figure barbel, nowadays it is hard to find an experienced anger who has not done so.  Bream record up from 13-12 to about 22 pounds.  Everyone knows what size fish a water holds, how many there are, and even their names!   People fish for a specific fish, and all the speculation, all the watercraft needed to work out if a lake was worth the time of day (or night) has gone. What happened to the wonderment, the mystery?   Fishing now works straight out of the box.  New, young anglers, who don't know one end of a hook from the other, target big carp on their first angling trip. And many succeed there and then... because carp have become so very commonplace. Would they be able to recognise a gudgeon? Even the match anglers go after carp these days.  Unheard of in the past. I heard a rumour that F1s were introduced so that match anglers could land them, without risking getting their poles and tackle smashed up by real carp. I have no idea why we needed to introduce ide, F1 hybrids, golden orfe and tench, koi carp, blue trout, sturgeon and various other exotics  into UK angling.   And it is no surprise to me that they have all propagated into areas where they should not be.   Even the Wels, which used to be confined to about two waters, Claydon lakes and somewhere else "dahn Sarth", ( Woburn Abbey I think),  is now such a widespread species that anyone can target them fairly locally.  Don't anyone dare mention goldfish!  Poncing around with their fancy fins and having unprotected sex with all our beautiful crucians! Grrrrr!  Commercial fisheries have appeared and proliferated, and together with irresistible baits, these vastly overstocked waters guarantee a good catch.   The fish have to feed on anglers' baits, there is far too little natural food for the total fish biomass present in these waters. And I suspect that, to a large extent, fish that would normally NOT feed during the winter now do so because they have to, they are unable to build up enough fat reserves over the Summer, due to heavy competition for food, and to their frequent exercise workouts when they are hooked again and again.

It would not be incorrect to say I rue most of these changes.  Angling has changed from being an art to being a science.  Mechanistic.  Of course, all this comes at a price: an expensive price. Angling has become so commercialised.  Tackle shops are brim full to overflowing with all sorts of gizmos and gadgets, whose purposes frequently elude me.  But is there any subject, other than angling about which so much utter rubbish is talked and believed?  I doubt it.  Not even football. Reading about modern angling these days gives me many a secret grin. So much science and so much nonscience...perhaps that word should be spelled n.o.n.s.e.n.s.e?   Unfortunately we will never go back to basics.    Too many anglers accept the dumbed down approach, and the big fish it nevertheless can give them.  And then they tout their catches around as being evidence of their great skill.

So there you have it, some history, some introductory stuff, and tired fingers.  Some moans and the odd rant or ten.  Taken me so long to write and publish this that I almost feel the epilogue coming on.


  1. This shows an uncanny parallel with my angling past, and current views, albeit without the resounding former success! I can't really disagree with anything in there

  2. Thanks George, I put this post out there rather reluctantly, expecting to get a veritable torrent of abuse from all corners, and being prepared to duck and dive as the blows came in. To get a comment agreeing with much that I wrote is quite gratifying.

  3. Possibly the best bit of blogging I’ve read, made even better by the fact that it all happened local(ish) to me as well, albeit at a time when I was much too young to go fishing!