A boy goes fishing – Martin James is reminded of his childhood when taking his grandson fishing

A young Samuel – he has always been enthusiastic when it comes to fishing

Suddenly swirls appeared around the bread, Samuel asked “What caused that grandad?” “A carp” I replied. His eyes were fixated on this swirling fish, later a carp clooped down a bit of crust that had drifted under the willow branches. “Can we try and catch one grandad?”

In September 2017 all my family had gathered to celebrate my 80th birthday, three weeks before the actual date, it had to fit in with school holidays, I rented a big house in Herefordshire so we could all be together. Sharon my daughter and family had flown in from  Dubai, while Nigel my son with his family flew from Inverness. During that holiday, I decided to take my 7 year old grandson Samuel to a small pool in Herefordshire, I fixed him up with a short whip, he caught 22 roach and rudd that day.

Until recently the opportunity to take Samuel again had not materialised. In late July, Kate and myself travelled to Brighton for a two week stay with my daughter Sharon. Wednesday 28th July was a memorable day for 10 year old Samuel Heath-Sly who attends Shoreham College, all the previous week, bedtime reading was ‘Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing’, I doubt if there has been a better book for a boy or girl to read. Today he was up early, ready to go fishing with grandad.

Samuel & Mr Crabtree go fishing

Hedgehog Pool

Weather conditions were for strong 30-40 mph winds with heavy showers, but Samuel wasn’t going to be put off, sandwiches were prepared along with other food items to chew on during the day, along with bottles of soft drinks. His basket had been packed the previous day, we also collected half a pint of red gentles from the local tackle shop in Hove, around 10:00 hrs we left home, the Satnav gave an ETA of 1215 hrs, his Mum Sharon was driving after dropping us off at the water, Sharon and Kate were going off to Royal Tunbridge Wells for a day’s shopping.

After a short chat with Garry and Lorraine, I ordered some of their freshly harvested radishes, onions, potatoes, cherries and strawberries to take home, far better than anything from the supermarket, also Garry doesn’t use any chemicals on his land.

A keen angler & a keen eye

Samuel watched his float on our first days fishing very keenly, the only time he took his eyes from it was when a Spitfire flew low over head, I was as excited as Samuel. I was immediately transported back in time to my first days fishing. June 16th 1941. Uncle Len had taken me fishing for the first time; I didn’t’ have a rod, just a ball of red coloured wool, a nut from a bolt as a weight with some penny eel hooks we got from a pram shop. We caught the train to Higham station, then walked along the Higham canal heading for the Alpha cement works close to the river Thames. 

After some time uncle Len hoisted me onto his shoulders, I was too tired to walk any further. The clay pit was very big with a few boats, I caught 7 small rudd,  during that first exciting day. Suddenly uncle Len pointed skywards, pointing to the German bombers flying overhead to bomb London. Then shouted “Come along we have to get the Home Guard” A German bomber was crashing into the Thames estuary, 2 parachutes appeared coming to earth. Uncle Len a Sgt in the Royal West Kent Regiment was home on leave before leaving for the Middle East, I remember to this day saying “You go uncle I want another fish” to which he replied “They are Germans and may be dangerous”, “I have my jack knife” I replied. A black handled knife with a marlin spike and can opener – so ended my first days fishing.

A few days later grandad said “let’s go fishing for eels,” he caught 3, I didn’t catch anything, it was the start of a great friendship between us, he taught me so much about fishing, shooting and the countryside. Sometime later my other grandfather also started taking me fishing. Until the war ended we only went to school in the morning, so the afternoons were free, we spent a lot of time fishing a stream at the bottom of Bakers Meadow, on the hillside was an Ack Ack battery and search light unit, most of fish we caught were minnows, with an odd 5 inch trout, certainly a big prize, we would all gather around the boy who caught it, to admire its spots.

First Fishing Rod

I struck lucky when uncle Eddy a keen angler home on leave from the Parachute Regiment, (who was to later land in Normandy the night before D ’Day) said he had a fishing rod and reel I could have, it was nine foot in length and had three sections. The bottom two of cane and the top of lance wood. The tiny wooden reel was loaded with line as thick as string. That rod and reel became my pride and joy. Often I would take the rod out of its case, and wipe it down with linseed oil splashed onto a cloth, just like grandad used to show me.

In Rochester next to the ‘Majestic Picture Palace’ was a pram shop, where I could buy split shot, floats, hooks, and a cardboard winder holding a length of silk line with a quill float and a hook tied to gut. Various relatives gave me bits and pieces of tackle, slowly my collection built up. But there were no fishing trips. All I could do was talk about fishing and hope that one day someone would take me. The trouble was, everyone was away at the war.

Then disaster struck on a summer’s day in 1944 the air raid siren sounded. Mum shouted, “All into the air raid shelter” I said “No! Get in the house, under the table,”. We crouched under the big farmhouse table, Mum took cover under the stairs. There was a huge bang, the house shook – the roof was falling in, we were covered in dust, plaster and slates where everywhere, along with a thousand shards of glass. I looked up at the gaping hole where the roof should have been. I scrambled around looking for my fishing rod. I found it in a dozen pieces. Tears welled up in my eyes, I can still remember shouting, “The Germans have broken my fishing rod.” Then a soldier appeared who helped us out of the wrecked house and across the road.

Mum was also in tears, being comforted by one of the ARP wardens. I watched as another wall collapsed. We had got out just in time, we lost virtually everything we owned. We never went back.

When the war finally ended I was back at school full time, only having holidays and weekends to fish, for the next couple of years I mainly fished with my grandad and school friends, sometimes an angler now home from the war would take me fishing, grandad gave me a 3 piece cane rod to replace the one I had lost in the bombing raid, a reel and a small basket.

In 1947 I moved to senior school where I was given my first cycle, a passport to freedom. Once at senior school my angling improved in leaps and bounds with the encouragement from both grandads, uncles and many much older anglers specially Harry Rowlands who had a boot shoe repair shop known as the ‘Snobs’, who along with Len Cuckoo and Dennis Trim would take me on many fishing trips to the river Beult, Medway, Military canal, the Thames and a few clay pits.

I was fishing every week on a river, canal or still water around the South East. In my last year at school I was awarded the school book prize for my work and sport, the school secretary told me “I could choose a book to the cost of 1 guinea or £1 & 5 pence in todays money. the book I chose was Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing, my grandson as you will know is reading this book with added interest.

Bernard & Martin became great friends


Hedgehog Pool revisited

Back at Hedgehog pool, we chose to fish a swim between two willow trees on the west bank, there were several patches of water lilies, with Norfolk reeds in the back ground, along the eastern bank it wasn’t possible to fish being a mass of tree branches, lilies and other obstacles, an ideal sanctuary for the fish.

The depth averaged around 4-5 feet, with several patches of soft pond weed. Samuels tackle was a light fibre glass rod, that had been provided by John Harding of Cheshire, he is not ready yet to have one of my cane rods, I showed him how to put on the reel, he then copied me, it was a small fixed spool reel with 4lb line, I then attached a reed float made by Mark Sarul taking 1bb and 1 number 4 shot, bait was gentles.

First cast

First cast a 5-6 inch roach followed by several more of similar size, then the odd rudd of similar size, after about two hours Samuel caught a bream around twelve ounces. It wasn’t size or numbers of fish caught, it was all about Samuel getting used to casting, baiting up etc. At the same time taking in his surroundings, he really pleased me later in the day when he said

“It’s a nice peaceful place grandad, can we go again on Friday?”
I replied.

“Yes of course.”
He then said.

“It’s good to see the moorhen with its young ones.”

Around 1300 hrs a second world war Spitfire flew overhead, just as they did when I was fishing in 1940 and onwards, later in the day Samuel was to see another Spitfire flying quite low this time, followed by a Hurricane.

I then had him bait with stewed wheat which often improves the size of the fish, it worked, he had the odd ‘Goer’ roach first cast, I kept feeding bits of bread to the moorhens who were quickly on the scene with their chicks who were being shown by the parent bird how to feed. Suddenly swirls appeared around the bread, Samuel asked

“What caused that grandad?”

“A carp” I replied.

His eyes were fixated on this swirling fish, later a carp clooped down a bit of crust that had drifted under the willow branches.

“Can we try and catch one grandad?”

“We don’t have any suitable tackle” 

A while later I spotted a carp about two pounds thinking, “He might have a chance with that fish” I stripped down the set up and tied on a size 8 barbless hook, though I didn’t think there was much chance of him hooking a fish even less chance of landing it, but the experience will do him good to feel the power of a bigger fish bending his rod, hopefully it wouldn’t break.

Dreams Can Come True

I then showed Samuel how to bait with crust, and advised “Just lower the crust close to the willow branches then hold on tight to the rod” About half an hour went by, when I heard a light sounding cloop, next second the rod tip was pulled round savagely, as a fish on feeling the hook shot off for freedom. Now comes the hard part, Samuel is a small lad for his age, but I’d decided he would have to do it on his own or lose the fish. I shouted “Stand up Samuel move to your right, keep the rod up, don’t wind in line, that’s it keep the rod bent.” Time didn’t mean anything, he had done the impossible, several minutes it might have been ten or more, Samuel was still determinedly holding on, I thought there might just be a chance of landing this fish.

A well deserved prize

I extended the landing net handle to its full length, then got my first glimpse of a common carp far bigger than I thought. I shouted, “Lower the rod Samuel wind in some line, keep the rod bent – now move back a bit.” A few minutes later, I realised with a degree of luck he might just get this fish. Samuel still had that look of determination on his face, I was now kneeling low down near the water landing net extended, twice the fish come within a foot then dived, several more times the fish would come close then divert on one occasion into the soft weed.

Samuel “Bend the rod more and move back a bit” I shouted. The extra pressure got the fish moving again into the clear water, suddenly it was coming towards the net against all odds the carp was engulfed in the mesh. Shouting to Samuel “You have caught it well done.” He had a grin with two big sparkling eyes, we shook hands, I then had Samuel hold the net in the water, while I set up the scales and weigh bag, soaked the mat in readiness for the carp. The fish weighed 6lbs, then Samuel held the net and fish in the water while his mum got ready to take some pictures. When released the carp swam off strongly.

Immediately Samuel enquired –

“can I go back to float fishing?”

Followed by

“Are you going fishing again?”

“Yes”

“Can I come?” was the next question and of course I replied –

“Yes.”

Today an angler had joined the ranks.

Another Day Another Venue

Saturday’s weather forecast was for light showers, partly cloudy with a moderate breeze. Samuel  was up early sorting out food and drink for his basket, around 09:00 hrs we were off in Sharon’s car for a twenty minute drive to a local fishery that I’d often fished in the past – the water had a good head of roach, rudd, tench, bream with a few carp that have a liking for bread. I feel it’s very important that if you are introducing a newcomer to the sport, young or old, they need to catch, better still see the float bobbing under the water with regularity. It doesn’t matter what size fish are caught, with lots of bites etc, they will soon get used to handling tackle, putting the bait on the hook, and get to know how to unhook and handle a fish. After Samuels day on Wednesday when he caught a 6 lb carp I was concerned he would catch the carp bug, but thankfully not.

Instant Action

Tackle was a ten foot fibre glass rod, small fixed spool reel loaded with 4lb line. The float was a Drennan waggler taking 2 bb and 1 number 4 shot, hook size was a 14 barbless to 3lb line. After plumbing the depth we found around 6 feet of water between two large beds of soft pond weed, to our left was a dense bed of Norfolk reeds. After making up a bowl of soft ground bait containing some grains of corn, we baited a small area some ten feet from the bank.

Samuel seated on his basket made an under hand cast dropping the float in the centre of the ground baited area, two or three minutes later the float lifted a fraction then slowly submerged, the heavy strike had missed the fish, causing the float to tangle around the rod, another learning process, soon I had the tangle sorted. The next cast accounted for a ‘Goer’ rudd with its blood red fins. 

Suddenly from a south westerly direction the wind shook the reeds, heavy rain fell on us both, by the time I’d sorted the umbrella out the squall had passed by, Samuel didn’t seem a bit bothered. Soon he was back baiting with a grain of corn and getting the tackle in the water, five minutes later he had a small six inch roach followed by three more in quick succession. Soon a moorhen with two chicks appeared, what did surprise us both was an Hungarian bull frog trying to eat some bread, I have never seen this happen before, even though I’ve spent a lot of time on the Romney marshes also the Charente River in Western France where there were lots of these amphibians.

Surprise Tench

After a break for a snack, with some pop, Samuel was soon back in action again catching the odd ‘Goer’ roach and rudd, suddenly something different was on the end of the line, there was a more distinct pull on the rod tip, as it curved downwards soon I was netting a small tench, as the day went by three more tench were caught. In and amongst the tench we suffered another squall that thankfully passed us by quickly. 

As I was searching for some worms I heard Samuel call grandad “It’s a big one” turning round I could see the rod well bent, quickly rushing forward to help I watched the rod tip spring back, Samuel described it “As a big deep fish silver in colour”, I suggested “It could be a bream” Soon enough he was catching more roach and rudd ending the session with 36 fish.

Samuels catch

The end of another good day where he had progressed with his casting and learning more about the countryside, there was never a minute when he wasn’t interested in the fishing, in fact I reckon he would have stopped until  it was dark.

Two Days Later We Are Back

We arrived to find we had the water to ourselves, with the choice of a dozen swims. I suggested we should fish the swim we had fished two days previous, explaining to Samuel that we knew tench are in the area along with plenty of roach and rudd. Samuel was more than happy with this and agreed.

Martin & Samuel

Our first job was to mix a bowl of ground bait, explaining how to make a correct mix with no lumps – it has to be firm enough to make into a ball, but not so hard that it wouldn’t break up. I then showed Samuel a ball of ground bait breaking up creating a cloudy effect to attract the fish. We then walked to the next swim where I put a small hard ball of ground bait in the shallows so Samuel could see the difference as the bait lay on the bottom.  

Fifteen minutes later we went back to look at the hard ball of ground bait, it had just started to break up, after explaining why we should not use a hard ball of ground bait in still waters. We then put in a ball that slowly broke up as it descended in the water, he could soon see se result as fish appeared in the swim. Remember if we are going to teach the newcomer, we must do so in a way they understand. Back in our chosen swim I helped Samuel tackle up. 

Today as he is fishing close in I thought it a good idea to show him a Centrepin and how different it was to a fixed spool reel.

Samuel with roach & centrepin

Having put the line through the rod rings I showed him how to use two small pieces of rubber tube to fix the float to the line, and how to tie a loop in the line. I suggested that when we get home we could practise the tying of knots. Taking a hook to nylon from the packet I explained how you have to be careful in sorting out the line and hook so it doesn’t get tangled. After passing one loop through the main line loop Samuel immediately remarked  “That’s in Mr Crabtree’s book!”After plumbing the depth we set the tackle so the bait was about two inches off the bottom. 

Samuel threw in a ball of ground bait about the size of a pigeon egg, it fell a bit short but no problem. Soon he was catching small rudd and roach. After about two hours I suggested we switch to corn in the hope of better size fish, immediately he started to get some ‘Goer’ roach. After a break for lunch and a walk around the water it was back to fishing again catching some more roach and rudd. He did hook a better fish which turned out to be a small tench, I then said “we will place the landing net in the water then you can put your fish in there for a picture. Eventually it was time to go, so his mum took a picture of Samuel with some of his fish in the net. So ended another successful day with 26 roach and rudd also a tench all caught using a centre pin reel.

Writing & images Martin James MBE Summer 2021