Today is the start of a new coarse fishing season & every year it is as special as the previous for Martin James MBE

Martin using the prized pole given to him by his Grandfather

‘Wherever your fishing this June 16th and forward into the season, I wish you success and some luck as I’m certain there is some luck needed at times, however the more we go an angling the more luck we will get’

June 16th is very special for me, it was the first time I caught a fish back in 1942, with my favourite uncle Len, of the Royal West Kent Regiment who was sadly killed a few weeks later fighting Rommel’s Afrika Corps. There have also been occasions when I’ve packed up fishing on the first day of the season, having caught fish with milt or eggs coming from the vent. I did not want to fish, so departed for home. Spending the time trout fishing until I thought it was safe to catch fish that were not ready to spawn. 

Today Thursday June 16th I want be on the banks of river Beult, but unfortunately this was not to be this year. The Beult is a designated triple SSI, a wildlife paradise with no public footpath, where members make sure they don’t leave any litter, even a cigarette butt could get you thrown off. Last year on the River Beult just upstream of my swim were several hawthorn bushes in blossom, including one with pink blossom which I can’t ever remember seeing before. Sadly I will also miss seeing Rob, Kevin Terry and his wife also other anglers I have known over many years.

Chub & barbel country

And so instead I’m on the River Soar, my heartfelt thanks must go to Mark Sarul for introducing me to this lovely river. Let’s be honest there is something very special going back to a venue after a three month break, to see how mother nature has healed all those worn bank spots. I find lilies looking resplendent with their yellow, red or white flowers , bulrushes, sedges, water crowfoot often with white flowers, Mare’s tail, Spiked water milfoil and Starwort also water violet to name a few. The trees and bushes are looking resplendent in their new cloaks of various green shades.

I will sit at the water’s edge behind some reeds, or push myself through brambles and head high nettles getting stung in the process to reach a spot where I might catch a chub. I will hear the hum of insects, see dragon and damsel flies of which there are many species, many bites have been missed through watching the flying and hunting displays of the emperor known as hawkers, whereas the smaller dragon flies are known as darters. When it comes to damsel flies they are the delicate ones, they often perch on the top of our float, though I don’t remember getting a bite while this is happening. I will also have bird song, sounding like a well-tuned orchestra, even more so when arriving at dawn. 

The river Soar, is one of those delightful waterways, flowing through some of the most attractive countryside one could wish to spend time in, twisting and turning the river eventually joins the mighty river Trent. I will stop every few yards or so, at another promising spot that demands my attention. Keeping quiet and low I will peep over the bulrushes, often to see a mass of small fry, in the shallows, perhaps some chub, or like I did two seasons ago when I watched a big barbel chasing bullheads, or nymphs in this rich environment.

There must be several miles of bulrushes growing along both sides of the river, often you will find a long stretch of rushes, in places creating a tunnel appearance between the rush beds, that’s where you could find a big chub. Dick Walker writing about fishing such areas in his case the Upper Ouse as “Lugging For Chub” making sure of using strong tackle, it’s a case of hook and hold, then dragging the fish out.

When talking of bulrushes, I don’t mean those reeds with a thick brown furry head which most people call bulrushes, this mistake started when a Victorian painter described them as bulrushes, when in fact they were a species of reedmace which are usually found in still or slow water often with muddy conditions.

Whereas bulrushes are found in gravel sandy conditions often in fast flowing shallow Chrystal clear water much loved by perch, chub and barbel as there will usually be invertebrates. If I’m lucky I may find the white-clawed crayfish a, bronze-coloured crustacean with pale undersides to its claws. Sadly it is under threat from the American signal an invasive and introduced species of crayfish which is causing major problems today on many rivers.

On this river there must be several miles of water lilies, where at some time or another you can expect to find most of our coarse fish species. Below the surface of lily leaves with their varying colour of flowers you will find the cabbages, these are crinkly leaves that resemble the outer leaves of cabbages not sure who came up with the description. I think it was either Dick Walker or Fred J Taylor, it’s an area roach find attractive, come September October when I will be seeking these roach with stewed wheat. 

Having spent some three hours walking the top beat, I was amazed at the large number of damsel and butterflies of various species I spotted, in fact I would describe it as amazing, it just goes to show what a rich environment the river is for the aquatic life but also the amount of insect life that inhabit the riverside environment.

In the closed season I often look back to previous early season sessions, one day that springs to mind was on this very river – the Soar.  After meeting up with Mark, Tam and Paul in the car park we sorted out tackle etc, then made our way to the top beat. I parted company with my friends who had stopped to fish the first field. I was heading further upstream, where I had spent a lot of time walking and looking into all the quiet pools. With crystal clear water flowing over gravel that were full of invertebrates. I often found myself surrounded with bulrushes. In a few hours I felt I’d improved my knowledge of this stretch of river which would be invaluable in the coming months. I have always recommended ‘the reconnaissance’ of venues is time well spent.

After spending some two or three hours exploring the top beat, it was back to the car for a welcome break. I made a brew for Paul and myself and at the same time handed Paul a lunch box. From mine I selected a fresh roll of corn beef and pickle, as I was now feeling hungry after all the exercise, needless to say I devoured both rolls.

With lunch over with I put together an Avon action rod, matched with a fixed spool reel, 10lb braid then tied on a size 4 barbless hook using a Palomar knot, in my small shoulder bag were scales, plastic weigh bag, loaf of bread, cheese paste, luncheon meat, a small box of LG shot along with some hooks. Sadly Paul then had to go off home to deal with a problem that had cropped up.

Off to Hunt The Chub

It was around 3 PM when I started at the bottom of another beat, slowly making my way upstream looking for a fish worth catching, often passing small chub of which there were plenty. I didn’t want to catch a two pound fish, I wanted one or more in the four pound range if possible. I’d probably pushed, sometimes crawled through eight hundred yards of nettles, brambles and under barbed wire in about an hour.

Before my eyes was a chub lying motionless in a fast run between two large beds of bulrushes, immediately it was down on my hands and knees, then a long slow crawl through nettles and thistles, trying to miss the cow pats, as I got closer to the water’s edge it was down on my stomach to slither snake like closer to the water’s edge getting well stung in the process, peering over the bank I could see the fish several yards downstream. Squeezing a bit of bread flake I threw it in the water, it drifted downstream towards the chub, the offering was ignored.

Another piece of squeezed flake was thrown in hopefully this piece would drift closer to the fish, slowly sinking in the gin clear water, this time it was about six inches from my target, when to my surprise the fish edged forward swallowing the bread. Sliding back into the field getting stung again, slowly I made my way back to my tackle thinking I would only get one chance if I was lucky. With rod, landing net, a slice of bread I slowly made my way back to where I’d offered the two free pieces of flake. My problem now was the eight foot drop to the water – the landing net handle wasn’t long enough.

I said to myself, “Should I hook that fish I would get in the water its only about two feet deep over gravel, what harm would it do?” I added an AAA shot a few inches from the size 4 hook, enough weight I thought to slowly sink the bait a foot or so below the surface. Baiting with a bit of crust I quietly dropped it in the water. As it drifted downstream I could see the chub moving upstream then taking the bread with confidence, setting the hook the fight was on. I just fell off the bank landing in the water up to my knees, I felt my body shudder as I hit the river bed with both feet, not something a person should be doing in his 80’s. I can’t describe the fight as a long one, or even exciting, it lasted less than a couple of minutes, before guiding the fish over the net. My problem now was getting up the bank, sliding the hook from the fish, it was put in the keeper ring, I threw the rod up the bank onto the field javelin fashion. I then had to fight my way upstream in the very fast water, looking for a place where I might clamber up the bank, eventually I found a spot that wasn’t so steep, but was covered in nettles, thistles and brambles, it was my only way out. 

Eventually I got to the top of the bank, with a lively fish in the net, running down the bank to my scales my feet felt strange in boots full of water. It weighed all of 5lb 4 ounces I punched the air with delight, my first 5lb fish from the river Soar that season. I watched it swim off strongly into the depths through the bulrushes.

A Brace of chub

Collecting my thoughts and tackle I made my way downstream. Another battle with nettles, brambles and hawthorns, and another barbed wire fence had to be negotiated to get further downstream to where I could start searching for another chub. 

I was now in the big meadow where conditions for walking were much easier, after about half a mile I moved towards the water’s edge, then slowly made my way back upstream looking for a chub. As I pushed my way through the jungle like conditions I could see ahead was a large willow overhanging the water.

Arriving at the spot I noticed a lot of water crowfoot swaying in some six feet of water, standing motionless I watched, then noticed a movement in the weeds, it was a pike around 8lbs.

Fifteen minutes later I was on the move again upstream, ahead I could see bulrushes that spread across the river from bank to bank with two feet between each row. I could see where one section of rushes diverted the flow of water across towards my bank, it looked good for a chub, but looks can be deceptive.Sitting on the bank I fired some bits of floating crust well upstream, also half a dozen bits of meat at the head of the fast run.

Thirty minutes later with no sign of a fish I added two LG shot to the line fifteen inches from the hook, baiting with three bits of meat. I made a cast dropping the offering at the head of the far bank rushes.

As the bait moved towards me and downstream I took in slack line, half way down the run I felt a light pluck, a second or so later a solid pull, setting the hook I was forced to give line, this felt like a good fish, this time it wasn’t over quickly, the fish had some fight in it, which isn’t often seen early in the season.

It was several minutes before I felt confident in landing the fish, if it didn’t find a snag. A minute or so later I had the fish wallowing its way to the waiting net then it was mine.That looks another good five pounder” I said to myself. The scale reading gave me a weight of 6lb 2 ounces.

Mark had recently told me an angler had caught a 6lb fish at the start of the season in this area. This then may have been that fish. Lowering the net in the water I watched the chub swim off to the sanctuary of some reeds. I was more than pleased with the five pounder, when I got that six pounder it was the icing on the cake, another 6lb fish from another river, making it a total of 54 x 6lb fish to date from 14 rivers.

Sadly I had no pictures with Paul having to leave. Mark was too far way and importantly in the very hot weather conditions there was absolutely no way could I ask him to come and take pics. Knowing Paul was going to be with us I left my camera at home, feeling I didn’t need one, in future it will always be in my bag.

Tackle and Bait Selection

Today I will have with a selection of cane and carbon rods, possibly a Millwards Swim Master, also an Abbey Avon, my 14 ft Acolyte and my old chub rod, hopefully I will get the chance of using my 17 ft 6 in cane pole too. The pole is like new, as a youngster I used some 10 inches of silk topping fixed to ring on the end with a loop system, then a cast holding float shot and hook which were made up beforehand. I would use a loop to loop system for joining the cast to the topping. The silk topping was to be replaced by Terylene in the following years. I now use an elastic topping which Tony Booker made up for me in several strengths.

It was my grandfather Thomas who started me on my apprenticeship with the pole. I was around 12 or 13 years old. I remember fishing a junior match one Saturday, Thomas told me I could use his pole. Thomas took both me and my friend Billy in his car to save us catching the train. He also wanted to watch us both. At the end of the match he gave me the pole saying “You will be better than your father with the pole.” Certainly a very true statement, my two grandfathers Lenard and Thomas were great role models.

Learning from some of the great pole anglers

In the 1950’s and 60’s I was very fortunate to see some great pole anglers in action, the likes of Frank Murgett and Freddy French MBE who moved to the Lake District in later life, as did several LAA anglers who had given good service to the Association. I spent hours watching the pole anglers as they fished the LAA Shield matches, another great stalwart was Bill Gardner, Captain LA Parker who was ‘Mine Host’ at the Bull Inn in Downton for some years. He was another fine pole angler and was also author of ‘This Fishing’ one of my most read books. I doubt if a month goes by when I don’t read something from its pages when in need of inspiration. It wasn’t just the Thames and Lea where anglers fished the pole, many took their skills to the Medway, Suffolk Stour, Arun and Avon, even on the Norfolk Broads and Fenland drains you would find a pole angler.

If you are interested in the history of the roach pole then go out and purchase the book Poles Apart The History of the London Roach Pole by Michael Nadell. It’s the first book I have ever seen published, or know of on the subject. 

When I started out every angler of my acquaintance would have their rigs on wooden winders, I had winders that would hold 4 rigs with a small box in the centre holding shot and float caps, sadly all mine were all destroyed in a house fire, even Hitler and his Doodlebugs or V2’s couldn’t destroy my wooden tackle winders, though he did destroy the house we lived in, also my fishing rod. I now have a collection of old winders from the 1920’s through to the 1950’s. It’s thanks to my friend Paul I now have enough wooden winders.

Centre Pin and Fixed Spool Reels

I will take 4 reels, my small Beult centre pin made by Watermole (Leszek Delag) which I feel is the perfect float fishing reel with 3lb line for roach, it’s a joy to use. Another reel is my 1939 Aerial Match without a line guard again made by Watermole, loaded with 6lb line, I will have a couple of fixed spool reels loaded with braid and nylon.

In my leather float tube I have a selection of floats including sliders, these floats are not just for deep water, I often use them in shallow water swims, a slider can make striking better and more efficient with less disturbance.

Ground Bait And Hook Baits

I have a variety of baits including cooked hemp, not flavoured, riddled off gentles into 1 pint bags which had been stored in the freezer, dead gentles do not wriggle away and are a good attracter holding fish in the area.  In my garage there had been a dustbin full of rock hard dry bread, I take a good quantity of this and soak in water for some 24 hours. I then drain off as much water as possible by squeezing the wet bread in a mesh bag. I then spend around 20 – 30 minutes giving the bread a good bashing with a very strong potato masher – if you don’t have a good masher, (don’t even try the plastic type as they are useless).

Do as I did in the past, use a piece of 2”x4” timber. Having broken all the bread into a fine mash I put around 3lbs of the mash into zipped plastic bags then freeze for future use, I also keep a dust bin full of wheat bran in the garage I buy this in 20 kilo sacks. I wouldn’t advise purchasing bran from health food shops, supermarkets or pet stores, go to a corn merchant – you will save a lot of money. I always take some bran with me in case I want to stiffen up the mash depending on the swim I am fishing.

By making your bread mash you will save money on the packaged brands of ground bait, often plain bread mash is as good as any other product, fishing fast water, I often add some mole hill soil, gravel or small pebbles to bread and bran mash.

I also have some loaves of bread, for use as flake and crust both are good baits. One bait I wouldn’t want to be without is a good supply of lobworms, I purchase a tub of 100 lobs, you can keep these in a bait fridge, temperature set at 40 degrees F. This keeps the lobs in good condition for around 10 weeks, often longer, you must make sure the lobs you purchase are really fresh. DO NOT add anything to the worms, just leave them alone.

Some Thoughts & The Five Essentials

Today I thought I would try and put a few ideas on paper to help some of the new and less experienced anglers. At a recent club meeting the only topic of conversation by many members was “What bait are you using this season?”

We all know a good bait can certainly help us catch fish, we also know that a well-made and thought out bait made with quality products will out fish a poor quality bait. But bait isn’t the be all and end all in catching fish. I will say it again as I have for sixty odd years or more, the bait on the hook is only part of the knowledge needed to catch fish. I will repeat what the old master Richard Walker taught me. A fish will eat anything unless its taught not to.

In Richard Walker’s Still-Water Angling published by MacGibbon & Kee in February 1953 you need to read, then re-read the first chapter On Catching Big Fish, what I call the five rules.

The five essentials we should follow, as they were applicable then, so they are today. Get one of these wrong and the best bait in the world will not help you catch fish. Walker wrote “Big fish are not caught by luck. They are caught by deliberately setting out to catch big fish”.

The Five Essentials or Rules

First essential

Locating your quarry, sounds simple but so many anglers expect the first swim they choose will contain a big fish. When they have spent a few hours without a bite the excuse is usually “The fish aren’t biting today” Why did they choose that swim often it’s because a few years ago old Charley Brown caught a good fish or big catch, it could be it’s a nice place to park their backside with no brambles, thistles or nettles. The fish are not interested in your comfort.

Only from experience can you learn where you might find your fish, this experience is gained by spending many hours at the water side, looking for holding areas where the fish might be comfortable. They need security from predators; they need a spot where food can be swept into the area by the water flow. The effect of weather, light and water temperature will also need to be taken into account.

One way of locating fish is by sight, but so many anglers spook the fish before they have seen the quarry. Chub for instance don’t often give themselves away by swirling or creating ripples on the surface as some other fish do when spooked. Chub fade away ghost like. On rivers and streams never go looking for fish in a downstream direction, always move slowly upstream wearing a good pair of Polaroid glasses with a wide brimmed hat to help cut out sunlight from above your glasses.

Every time you visit the river take time out to learn about the aquatic surroundings, don’t just start fishing any spot, walk the banks, talk with other anglers listen to what they have to say, learn where the deeper gravel runs are, find out what the bottom of the pool under an alder or willow tree is composed of, if it’s soft black mud it’s unlikely to hold fish, its sandy silt or gravel it could well be a good spot to fish. That would be a spot where I would introduce half a dozen hook baits over a period of days.

The second essential

Avoid frightening the fish. It’s a simple rule but one that many anglers do directly they arrive at their chosen spot – first they dump their tackle box, chair or bag on the ground with a thump. Then stand often with two or three other anglers looking into the water often waving their arms about. Any self-respecting fish will have disappeared. Remember fish are a wild animal.

The third essential

Use the correct tackle. I have seen people using tackle that is totally unsuitable. Why do you want to use a 4 ounce weight with 20lb line and a broom handle type rod on the Kennet, Loddon, Avon or similar rivers in the summer time as I have seen used, I wouldn’t be using tackle like that in the winter floods.

There are many good books on angling that describe using balanced tackle for various fish and conditions, why not visit your local library and borrow some books and CD’s, don’t just read the book once, read it two or three times and take notice of what the author is writing about. I still read Walkers books several times a year, often picking up some nugget of information every time that may help me catch a fish.

When I suggest you use an item of tackle I do so from experience, I don’t get paid to tell you what tackle to use. Using a 4lb line with a standard barbel rod is daft just as using 12lb line on a rod made for roach. You must choose a balanced outfit that is best suited for the type of fishing you plan to do.  You might think these are extreme examples, you often see people doing just this all the time. Many big fish are lost through inadequate tackle either to light or to strong. Ask yourself before you start fishing, is my gear suitable for the fish, water and style of fishing I plan to do.

The fourth essential

Choose the right time to fish. Fish are not always feeding, and the bigger they are, the less often they feed.

I have said more times than I can remember, fish don’t feed 24 hours a day. I was told this by my grandfather when I was in my early teens, I have never forgotten that simple statement. Let me say now fish might just have a fifteen minute feeding session, perhaps you only have one fish in the swim, this is especially true when targeting a big chub. We all spend many hours fishing the wrong spot at the wrong time. On some waters the fish will often feed during the darkness especially if they are predated on by cormorants, as we have seen on many waters. Fish grow big by eating food, so they have to feed at some time, but not all the time.

If we have a high pressure zone across the country with below zero temperatures pushing the water temperature below 39.5 F with bright sunshine blue sky and heavy overnight frost, then fish catching can often be difficult.  Under the conditions mentioned I often arrive on the river bank an hour before dark, often being told “It’s a waste of time today Martin” I ignore those remarks and make my way along the bank putting a couple of hook baits in several likely looking spots. I then put my gear together and make a brew. After about thirty forty minutes I will cast a bait into my first chosen spot, often within minutes I will get a bite hooking my target fish which are usually chub. The late Mick Holgate, Dave Whyte, and many of my friends will often say “Martin has his pet chub with him today” Catching fish is choosing the right time, with balanced tackle it’s also a lifelong learning experience, the more you go fishing the more you will learn.

The fifth essential

Use the right bait. Our average angler is inclined to put this choice first, and to have a great deal of faith in special baits.

This is where experience plays a big part, I suggest you start off with proven bait that has worked under similar conditions. Many of us realise that sausage sizzle flavoured bait proves attractive to fish in clear and coloured water; we also know bread crust is an attractive bait, put sausage sizzle flavour on bread crust and you will find that your bread crust is even more attractive than usual.

One season on the river Wye I tried an experiment, though I was catching my share of chub on bread crust, I decided to spray the crust with sausage sizzle, my catch rate improved quite considerably. The next day I chose to fish two rods one baited with flavoured crust the other with plain bread crust. In ten casts I had two chub on plain crust five on flavoured bait. The next day I had Sgt Major Tam Miller with me. He started off on plain bread crust, lots of taps and plucks but nothing he could hit. I then changed Tam’s bait over to flavoured crust. Immediately those plucks were turned into good pulls, Tam ended up with his best chub at over 4lbs.

As some will know I have used sausage paste since the late 1940’s  it was a bait that my granddad used, I have caught lots of fish from roach to carp, it’s certainly been a winning bait for me. I often ask myself what makes it such a good bait, well that’s one question I will never know only the fish can answer that question.

I use all type of baits both natural and manufactured, one of my top natural baits without a shadow of a doubt are caddis which I’ve used since I was a kid, today when I want to fish caddis I put a hessian sack in the river for a couple of days then pick off the caddis which I keep in wet moss until needed. If you’re a roach fisher and you’re prepared to spend some time getting your caddis, you couldn’t have a better roach bait. 

Wherever your fishing this June 16th and forward into the season, I wish you success and some luck as I’m certain there is some luck needed at times – however the more we go an angling the more luck we will get.

Martin James MBE – Lancashire – June 2022