I must confess that I get a little weary of the modern tendency in journalism to reduce everything to a series of top ten, top five or top three killer facts or tips. But I guess it saves space and makes the point in an era where attention spans become ever shorter.
I say this by way of an apology for the top ten list I’m about to espouse but in my defence the inspiration came from a freezing fishing trip I had last week in the company of my good friend and lifelong journalist Keith Elliott. To say the weather conditions were adverse would be something of an understatement. The UK was in the grip of freezing fog with night time temperatures down to minus seven in some parts of the normally temperate South. Unfortunately, and with the sort of timing for which he is famous, Keith had booked five days in a cottage on the banks of the Hampshire Avon at Burgate. This was actually an auction prize in the annual Avon Roach Project fundraiser – a great cause that myself, Keith and the Angling Trust enthusiastically support – so it seemed rude not to take up his offer to join him for part of the time.
I could only really afford one day out of the office so the plan was for me to drive down the evening before and for us to make an early start. As the only species likely to feed would be grayling and since these are now sadly absent from the middle reaches of the Avon we had decided to push on further west to the beautiful Dorset Frome – home of some particularly fine ‘silver ladies’. With driving likely to prove hazardous in the dark I left early and even so I had trouble finding the cottage in the gathering gloom. Dawn barely arrived the next day and as grayling are not lovers of low light levels we had a leisurely breakfast and didn’t arrive at the river until mid morning when conditions had improved slightly.
It was a fair old walk to the bottom of the stretch but we elected to start towards the downstream end and work our way back to the car. This was not a day for sitting still and the exercise would keep our ageing bones working and help fend off hypothermia!
The fishing was hardly hectic but by concentrating on the the deeper pools and glides on the swift flowing chalk stream we were able to winkle out a few nice grayling along on trotted red maggots with a bit of dramatic sea trout action which rarely ended well.
We both had a sprinkling of tasty two pounders with the best weighing in at a very respectable 2lb 6ozs. A few lumpy ones never quite made it as far as the landing net which is par for the course when catching these twisting, muscular grayling in fast flowing water on small hooks.
During a lull in the sport Keith and I mused that we had collectively been fishing for over a hundred years between us and started listing the most significant developments in angling over our fishing lifetimes. So, in no particular order, here’s our top ten.
Ten things that improved our fishing
Back in the time when small to medium sized barbel were prolific enough to be targeted on float tackle this bait delivery system was a crucial innovation and could be the difference between a good and a very average days fishing. We made larger versions out of sieves and lids from tin cans but it’s now possible to buy them in all shapes and sizes. I rarely catch barbel on the float these days but my dropper comes out regularly when fishing chopped worm for perch and even when targeting roach with liquidised bread on deeper stretches of the Thames.
Fluorocarbon and copolymer lines
In the 70s most anglers I knew used Bayer Perlon for float fishing and Maxima for ledgering or when a sinking line was needed on the float. Hook links where usually just a lighter version of the same product. Now we are blessed with lines so thin and supple that I can’t remember the last time I needed to tie on a hook link of less than two pounds and I regularly float fish with four pounds straight through which was almost unheard of in the old days. Less chub trailing around broken hook lengths has to be a good thing!
As a kid I shall never forget the day I watched a guy catching barbel after barbel from the Thames near Staines on a homemade feeder comprising a plastic tube and some plumbers lead. My own fishing was revolutionised as a result and soon after commercial versions of these early prototypes started to appear in the tackle shops. It’s difficult to think of anything that changed coarse fishing as much as the advent of the swimfeeder.
Nowadays I can’t envisage lure fishing with anything other than a braided mainline. This thin, limp, low stretch material makes all the difference in being able to feel the action of the lure, detect the plucks and pulls and to cast distances that were impossible with springy, stretchy and much thicker mono lines. It has also featured heavily in hook links for specimen carp, barbel, bream and tench and has been responsible for many record breaking captures.
Carbon fibre rods and poles
When I look back to the horrible things we used to wave around on the bank, causing arm ache and sometimes worse, many other anglers of my generation say a silent prayer of thanks to the inventors of carbon fibre. The Hardy Matchmaker and the Mark IV Avon might have been the bees knees in their time but I can see no use for them these days other than for growing runner beans. Back then who could have ever imagined that one day we would be holding twenty foot float rods one handed or fishing 16 metres of ramrod straight pole up against the the far bank? By all means collect and revere your cane rods, if that’s your thing, but please don’t try and tell me that they are superior fishing tools!
Knotless mesh and unhooking mats
Not everything in ‘the good old days’ was that good. Fish care certainly wasn’t and I still wince at the memory of the fish scales floating on the surface as net after net of once prime roach and chub were tipped back from their knotted prisons at the end of a competition or when specimen fish were allowed to thrash around on stony ground. Thank goodness we have seen advancements that ensure that our fish can be returned safely and undamaged.
When Lenny Middleton came up with the hair rig he did much more than revolutionise carp fishing. The tench and barbel anglers were quick to catch on and the popularity of pellets and artificial baits saw more and more anglers using this devastatingly effective method. Hair rigs are no longer the preserve of the specialist angler and are now a regular feature in match angling, particularly on commercial venues.
Spods and Spombs
What the bait dropper did for river anglers the Spod (and the much improved Spomb) achieved for those anglers tackling large still waters and needing to get a sizeable bed of bait out to a distant mark. And once again it’s not just a tool for carpers as I personally wouldn’t dream of trying to catch a gravel pit tench without having at least a medium Spomb in the bag for getting my hemp, dead maggots and pellets into those gaps in the weed or onto the gravel bars and gullies that the fish like to patrol.
Quiver tips and Bite Alarms
When was the last time you saw a swing tip or dough bobbin used in earnest? Ok I still have an old Fairy Liquid bottle top bobbin in the box but that’s purely for the sentimental value. Like most keen river anglers I’ve given lots of money to the likes of Messrs Drennan, Fox and Shakespeare to ensure that I’ve got a quiver tip to cover every species and every occasion. My half ounce glass tips will fool the most resistance adverse big perch and the five ounce carbons will handle big feeders for barbel on the Wye or the Severn when in full flow. Whilst I don’t often use buzzers I wouldn’t be without them on large still waters where bites are at a premium or on the rare occasion I fish through the night. More to the point is the fact that they’ve become so popular that there’s a generation of young anglers out there who scarcely know any other form of bite indication!
The Angling Trust and Fish Legal
Perhaps I’m biased but I make no apology for including the formation in 2009 of a single unified national representative body – the Angling Trust – covering all forms of angling. After years of ineffectiveness and internal rivalries at last our sport had a strong and credible voice in the corridors of power. We have been able to successfully fight off threats to angling and attract much needed funding into angling development and extra resources for clubs and fisheries to improve their waters. Our partner organisation Fish Legal (formerly the Anglers’ Conservation Association) was set up by enlightened fishermen over 60 years ago. They were not prepared to see their fishing destroyed with impunity by polluters. Their vision was that through creating a co-operative association they would have an organisation with the expertise and financial strength capable of supporting members to take legal action against those who damage our rivers or waterways.
Fish Legal has successfully fought everyone from rogue farmers to multinational corporations on behalf of its members while in many cases the government and statutory bodies have done little or nothing. Over the six decades of our existence we have built up not only a large fighting fund that allows us to take on the biggest polluters but also a unique expertise and an enviable reputation.
So as well as enjoying the benefits brought by all the advances in fishing tackle over the years why not invest a fraction of the money that we all spend on carbon fibre rods and poles, swimfeeders, bite alarms and all the other paraphernalia that we can’t seem to do without, on an annual subscription to support the work of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal?
It’s way of putting something back into the sport we all love as well as ensuring that together we remain strong enough to be certain that angling will still be here in another 60 years. I’m sure that our fish catching equipment will continue to improve and develop but without clean waters and healthy fish stocks the finest tackle in the universe is absolutely useless.