Fishing in 2021

As the year draws to a close 2021 will be remembered more for the Covid pandemic than anything else but it was also a pretty good year for fishing. More people took up our sport and a good number of previously lapsed anglers rediscovered the joys of time spent by the water. This was replicated in rises in both Rod Licence sales and membership of angling clubs. So much so that some have closed their memberships and are operating a waiting list for the first time in many years.

Some great fish were landed in first few months including a 4lb 11oz crucian that equalled the British Record, then a 4lb 12oz fish that set a new benchmark and Alan Storey’s 4lb 2oz river roach which was just 2ozs shy of entering the history books. The UK’s biggest carp was landed at a staggering, if slightly grotesque, weight of 73lbs and several 20lb plus barbel came out of the Thames. The Wye and the Trent continued to provide amazing barbel fishing and the roach revival has continued on the Hampshire Avon.

In match fishing England’s Veterans led by the irrepressible Mark Downes won both the individual and team gold medals in the World Championship. Dave Harrell’s Riverfest was another outstanding success with John Lock taking the honours in a fabulous contest on the fish filled Trent at Burton Joyce.

With lockdown seeing more people watching more telly than ever angling didn’t miss out thanks to the outstanding popularity of the BBC’s Gone Fishing series featuring Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer. This charming production captured both the essence of angling and the lifelong friendships to be made beside the water. It appealed to anglers and non anglers alike and was just what we needed.

Here at the Angling Trust we were busy in the first few months of the year keeping ahead of the curve and ensuring that fishing, in some form or other, was able to continue throughout the second and third lockdowns. This built on the success of our ‘When We Fish Again’ campaign the previous year which saw angling opened up in May at a time when most other sports remained prohibited by the Coronavirus regulations. I can’t begin to explain just how much work went into keeping us fishing in through the national lockdowns and the host of local restrictions and confusing and sometimes contradictory government guidance. Our CEO Jamie Cook played a blinder with Sport England and pretty soon angling became the envy of other sports like golf who remained restricted. 

On top of all this we had major campaigns to run including successfully overturning an angling ban by Kent Wildlife Trust at Sevenoaks and challenging Natural England’s crazy plans to install fish barriers in the North Norfolk Broads to restrict access to prime spawning habitat. More recently we’ve been busy tackling the scandal of sewage pollution as partners in the EndSewage coalition, working alongside The Rivers Trust, Surfers Against Sewage and Salmon & Trout Conservation. We forced a partial government U Turn in October and I have no doubt that water companies will now be under significant pressure to reduce sewage spills in future. However, this will require huge investment in the UK’s ‘creaking and leaking’ wastewater infrastructure – something which, until now, the government and the water regulator OFWAT have resisted. 

It was good to see the work of the Angling Trust in keeping us fishing acknowledged this year’s Angling Times awards

Award

It was nice to see our work acknowledged in this year’s Angling Times Awards in the ‘Outstanding Contribution to Angling’ category. While I was genuinely surprised and grateful to be given this personally I prefer to see this as an acknowledgement of the great work of everyone at the Angling Trust who went the extra mile to keep the nation fishing through these difficult times. My job was to lead that campaign and ensure that a strong, effective and professional case for angling was heard in the corridors of power. 

Business is Booming

While the pandemic took its toll on businesses and the economy this was certainly not the case for the tackle trade. The rise in angling participation world wide saw tackle sales going through the roof as manufacturers struggled to keep up with demand. 2021 will see most tackle companies posting record sales figures after years of decline.

My friends at Daiwa tell me they have massively expanded both their their global and Scottish manufacturing output and still can’t meet demand. In the UK they are predicting a 26% increase on turnover on last year. Other companies are saying the same with both Shimano and Angling Direct up by similar amounts.

My Fishing Year

The longer you’ve been fishing, and in my case it’s over half a century, the more difficult it is to improve on those PBs that some of us anglers have as our targets. And the Covid travel restrictions at the start of the year didn’t exactly make it easy to get to those venues where the sought after specimens might be found. However, living in Reading means that being forced to spend the backend of the river season on local stretches of the Thames, Kennet and Loddon was not exactly a hardship and left me in with a shout of landing something a bit special.

I was well pleased with this new PB chub from my beloved River Thames

Chub

I love my chubbing on the Thames but with the river in flood for much of January and February opportunities were limited. I had a few nice fish when the levels dropped but nothing spectacular – until one memorable afternoon in March. To be honest I was more hopeful of a big perch on this particular stretch so was on finer tackle with lobworms and a light quiver tip set up. Not a twitch occurred for two hours then out of the blue I had a savage line bite which convinced me to stay put. A bit more chopped worm and caster went into the swim and ten minutes later my tip sailed round and I was attached to what I thought was a record perch as it took drag and charged into the middle of a rather wide bit of Old Father Thames. After a while I realised this was no perch and with only four pound line I had to be careful. Eventually she surfaced and this brute of a chub, the largest I’ve ever seen never mind caught, slid over the net. At 7lb 8ozs it smashed my personal best out of sight and was a great way to end the river season.

Angling Trust boss Jamie Cook shared a great day’s bass fishing with me this summer

Bass

I don’t do a lot of sea fishing but I do like catching bass. They look great and pull hard and best of all you can catch them on lures. My best was an Irish fish of around five pounds so there was room for improvement and I fancied I could achieve this closer to home in the reefs and tide races around the Isle of Wight. Heading out from Lymington with Jamie and skipper Rob Thompson aboard the fantastic sportfishing boat SouthxSouthWest we were greeted with perfect conditions – a flat calm sea and a good tide. Jigging 90 gram Fiiish Minnows in the warm sunshine over reefs and sandbars with the famous Needles in the background we soon came across a pod of bigger than average fish. In the space of a couple of hours my best bass improved twice with fish of six and then eight and and half pounds. And with Jamie doing the same, plus plenty of back up fish, it was champagne fishing to be sure.

Another ‘Crock of Gold’ and another personal best for one of my favourite fishes

Crucian

My friend and fellow crucian campaigner Chris Turnbull had been busy over Lockdown compiling a fabulous new book of the same name celebrating the ‘Crucian Renaissance’ that we have all been working hard to achieve. I promised Chris that I would write a blog promoting his work and for a picture to go with it I’d try and catch a decent crucian. Now my PB crucian was a healthy 3lb 6ozs and to be honest I wasn’t setting out to improve on that despite having access to the famous ‘Surrey Lake’ that makes headlines every year.

Even with an early start the lake was busy so I opted to fish in a quieter area which was benefitting from a facing wind. I primed the spot with half dozen payloads of caster, pellet and corn in sweet fishmeal groundbait via a large cage feeder. After letting things settle down I pinged out a mini method feeder every ten minutes or so alternating the hooks baits between rubber casters, artificial corn and small brightly coloured dumbbells, all hairigged on band on a 16 hook. Using ‘natural baits’ would mean getting constantly hammered by rudd so I was happy to sit it out and wait for the quiver tip to signal the arrival of the target species.

After four hours I was beginning to fear the worst when out of the blue my tip twitched and pulled round. Bending into a heavy fish I knew immediately it wasn’t a tench as there was no belting run, just a dogged resistance and a bit of kiting on the way in. Inevitably it surfaced out of reach of the landing net causing a few ‘squeaky bum’ moments but the excellent Guru QM1 hook held fast and she was safely landed. I knew immediately that this was something special and called across to a neighbouring angler to lend a hand with the weighing and photos. The dial went round to 3lbs 8ozs giving me a new personal best crucian and the best possible cover shot for my article.

My chub fishing mate Sean Geer is well pleased with this six pounder from the Avon on a day when we both caught well

A Mixed Bag

It’s fair to say that the rest of the year as been something of a mixed bag. My spring tench campaign was my worst for a long time with only one fish over 7lbs landed and numerous blanks on waters where I had previously done well. At times the conditions were poor, or even horrendous in the case of my annual pilgrimage to Horseshoe Lake in a gale, but too many times I simply failed to catch for reasons I’m yet to fathom. The perch fishing has been fine but not as productive on the Thames and Kennet as previous years and I’m still awaiting that first four pounder.

Trips to Wye in the company of my good friend Sean Geer were great fun with large numbers of chub and barbel landed. Most pleasingly we caught a lot of our fish on the float which reminded me of the glory days of the Kennet in the 70’s and 80’s. Of concern however, was the lack of ranunculus weed in the river and the amount of algae covering gravel. The campaign we are running with others for measures to tackle phosphate pollution from the poultry industry further up the Wye Valley is of vital importance if this magnificent river is to avoid the declines seen elsewhere.

Late autumn and winter is when I start to target chub in earnest and whilst the Thames has been out of sorts recently, with either too much or too little flow, I did manage a day on the Hampshire Avon when the conditions were sock on. A gentle south west breeze over my right shoulder meant that a favourite swim on the west bank would be perfect for far bank float presentation. And so it proved with ten chub landed included a good number over five pounds. Sean did even better with a brace of sixes. Such days keep us going through tougher times.

Even a modest GT will give you battle you won’t forget

Magical Maldives

As I’ve said before I retired from the House of Commons to ‘spend more time with my fish’ and there were simply too many fishing adventures that I needed to have while I was still fit and healthy. During my sabbatical in Australia in 2010 I experienced some wonderful fishing which has only fuelled my wanderlust since returning to the UK. However, Covid travel restrictions saw a halt in these annual expeditions throughout 2020 and for much of this year. Having not been away for two years I jumped at the chance to combine a winter beach holiday with my wife in the Maldives with some stellar sport fishing for GTs and tuna. These things pull like trains and at 67 years old I wasn’t sure how many of these brutes my body could handle but I was willing to try.

I heard about the place through UK fishing adventurers Stu Walker and Colin Belton. They had teamed up with the experienced Belgian big fish angler Maarten de Roeper who runs the impressive MAC-Strike charters out of Laamu Atoll in the Maldives and Tenerife in the Atlantic. Although I’ve never fished with Stu and Colin, we have visited the same locations in India, Colombia and Ireland – sometimes only weeks apart. So when I learned about the superb sport they were having with MAC-Strike towards the end of October, I quickly contacted Maarten to see if he had any vacancies. Selling a trip to the beautiful Maldives to my wife Natalie was not hard. This remote location is accessible only by light aircraft from the capital Male followed by a 30-minute boat ride. It had everything we both wanted – silver sand, stunning vistas, plenty of food and drink and four days world-class game fishing on a well-appointed 33-foot centre console with a crew who knew their stuff. Best of all, there were absolutely no other anglers around. As Captain Attho said: “We have the whole garden to ourselves!”

And what a garden it is. Laamu is at the southern end of the chain of atolls and 1,200 islands that comprise the Maldives. It’s surrounded by reef with five channels giving access to the open ocean, and it is on these edges and reef dropoffs where the best fishing is to be had. Wind can be – and was – an issue but being just 18 miles wide and containing 82 islands, most of which are uninhabited, there is usually somewhere to find a bit of shelter. And if all else fails the water inside the lagoon is almost always fishable, with plenty of reefs to target.

I’m pleased to report that despite my lack of fitness the ageing body just about survived the experience and five hard fighting GTs were landed along with some powerful yellow fin tuna, wahoo and red snapper. It was a fabulous trip and just what we both needed. I should have caught more and will definitely return should I get the opportunity.

Yellowfin Tuna – the sheer power of these things has to be experienced

Prospects for 2022

It’s a bold person that makes too many predictions in these troubled and uncertain times. However, I’m pretty confident that angling will continue to be a popular and successful sport and that the Angling Trust will go from strength to strength under Jamie’s leadership. For me personally I hope this means I can scale back the days spent working and spend more time fishing, catching up with old friends and doing voluntary work for Reading & District Angling Association and in my local community.

Whatever this next year brings I wish you all the very best and hope your fishy dreams come true!

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