Neophyte – Fishing with my dad

The Pit – A Childhood Remembered

Nearly all the pits in our neck of the woods were man made to a similar pattern presumably intended as watering holes for livestock but perhaps sometimes as a source of clay and a home for edible fish

When I was a little lad I wanted to do most things that my dad did. I didn’t want to be a policeman but then he didn’t really want to be one either. On the other hand I knew that he had done quite a bit of fishing when he was young so I wanted to go fishing too. No doubt I pestered him until eventually he gave in.

We lived on the Fylde which was peppered with small pits. I think I must have been about eight when we first ventured to fish one of those pits. I cannot remember what tackle I used but it was not until a year or two later that I got my first proper rod. Likewise I do not remember what if anything we caught. Small roach I expect.

When I was 9 or 10 years old my dad bought me the white fibreglass lump of a rod from that big tackle shop at the back of the Derby Baths in Blackpool. I used that rod throughout the rest of my childhood.

It must have been at about the same time that I salvaged a reel from the bottom of the creek at the end of our street. It seemed like years that I had been looking at what appeared to be a reel in the bed of the creek where it could only be seen at low tide. Eventually I plucked up courage to slither down the treacherous mud to lift the prize which turned out to be a wooden starback centrepin in perfect condition when I had cleaned it up. History does not record what my mother had to say about the state of my clothes after I had climbed back up the mud bank on my hands and knees.

My dad did not really enjoy change. He had learnt his skills in the 1920s from a neighbour called Louis Marsh who probably learnt to fish at the end of the 19th century. No wonder we relied mainly on luck. Despite his inherent conservatism my dad elected to use a Mitchell fixed spool reel with his split cane rod- the other way round to me with my glass rod and wooden reel.

When my dad died I sold nearly all his fishing tackle for £20. My rod and reel went as well as a small wooden reel from my dad’s childhood. The last thing I wanted or needed was twenty quid. Wouldn’t have minded my dad back. You go a bit loopy when a parent dies. But I digress.

For a couple of years we fished in local pits where anyone could fish as well as the occasional visit to the canal where the fish were even smaller and further between than in the pits. Only once or twice did we have to take in our tackle in for a passing canal barge. When we did it was to let a trading barge past. They or perhaps it if it was the same one must have been one of the last if not the last of the cargo barges. We did not see a single leisure craft. How times change.

Pit or canal we caught very little other than smallish roach and the occasional perch. Half a pound would be a star fish. Then my dad became friends with a farmer who was the owner of a pig farming empire. I do not know how they met… in the pub I suppose. I first became aware of the farmer when he gave us exclusive access to two pits that no one had fished for years- probably decades.

Nearly all the pits in our neck of the woods were man made to a similar pattern presumably intended as watering holes for livestock but perhaps sometimes as a source of clay and a home for edible fish. Generally they were 60 feet in diameter give or take with a beach in the southern quadrant and a deeper shelf with a reed bed to the north. Often they had a horseshoe of stunted willow and hawthorn where the bank was too steep for cattle. Sometimes they were in a pair linked by a shallow neck of water. For some reason when that was the case usually only one of the pair would be worth fishing.

We must have visited both those pits but I do not remember one of them at all. The other pit followed the common design and was in the middle of a bleak and windswept field on almost marshy land. That is how things are on the Fylde.

It was teeming with roach a bit bigger than we were used to and the odd tench as well. Sometimes we even caught them so it quickly became a favourite. It was from that pit that I caught my first tench- just short of three pounds and by far the biggest fish I had ever caught. To my shame I killed the fish and took it home to show my mother. No doubt my mother feigned a polite interest.

The farmer was a slightly rotund and cheery chap a bit younger than my dad so perhaps in his early forties. We weren’t interested in pig farming and he wasn’t interested in fishing but he always stopped for a friendly chat if he passed when we were fishing. But nothing is perfect.

The farmer’s brother in law was his farm manager. Like Cassius and in contrast to his boss he had a lean and hungry look. He never lost an opportunity to be as unpleasant to us as possible and make clear his hostility to our presence. Not great for his dignity because he was stuck with us and it showed his frustration at his powerlessness and subordinate position. Still to us it was water off a ducks back and we would have a bit of a laugh at his expense when he trudged off.

Perhaps the pig farming empire building project was not quite complete because sometimes cows were present in the field that held our favourite pit. On one occasion I looked up from my float to see the last foot of my rod bag hanging out of a cow’s mouth. I shouted for my dad who shot up and batted the cow on the tip of its nose. He then proceeded to drag the other four feet of bag out the throat of the astonished beast. Another washing job for mother.

After a year or two disaster struck. Our benefactor suffered a heart attack and an untimely death. The brother in law became the kingpin and lost no time informing us of our new status as persona non grata with the lack of grace and charm that came so naturally to him. So it was back to the pits where anyone could fish.

Sea fishing was not really our thing but we did go to sea on one occasion while on holiday in Tenby. It was early in my fishing career. I was nine or perhaps ten at the time. With half a dozen others my dad and I took a boat trip for a couple of hours fishing. We hit the mackerel and as anyone who has been mackerel fishing will know when you hit mackerel you really hit them.

For some reason we were bait fishing (surely mackerel feathers were around in the ’60s?). Towards the end of the trip we ran out of bait. I said ‘dad we’ve no bait tell the man’. The skipper overheard and said ‘don’t worry lad’. He couldn’t be bothered to cut any more bait so he whipped out his packet of Woodbines, took out the silver paper and wrapped it round my hook. I was dubious but experimentally dangled the hook in the water. Immediately it was grabbed by a fish. If anything the silver paper was more effective than the bait and you didn’t need to change it every time. We returned to port with the bilge full of fish. I took a few back to the holiday flat. More work for my long suffering mother.

Some time after the sad loss of our exclusive fishing zone somehow my dad managed to get a key to an area of derelict land which had been fenced off for many years. I think it had held accommodation for airmen and troops from the nearby airbase. It had been abandoned and neglected for twenty or so years following its evacuation after the end of the war. There were four or five pits one or two of which might have ranked as small lakes. The area was so heavily overgrown that access to their perimeter was almost impossible and the pits were clogged with weed. Surely they must have held plenty of fish but we did not see a single one. So before long it was back again to the pits where the farmers did not mind anyone having a go.

Writing & Image Neophyte March 2022