A few years ago I took a long walk next to the Grand Union Canal near Ware in Hertfordshire. It reminded me of my fishing days in the 1960s and I wondered if fishing could still feel the same. It occurred to me to try and write about the 1960s, and I decided to try writing about fishing. Each post will be entitled Memories of the 1960s and followed by the issue number. Here is the first:
Fishing in the 1960s
Don’t get me wrong; I couldn’t fish now, because I have long since become vegetarian (eventually I became a pescetarian – see note at end of article), and I could not possibly hurt a fish by tempting it to take a hook into its mouth. But the nostalgia for those almost-lost hazy summer days of my youth is a powerful intoxicant.
I cannot possibly hope to equal the success or effect of Mr Crabtree and his stories. For those unfamiliar with him, Mr Crabtree was the wonderfully avuncular central figure in a series of cartoon strips for one of the daily papers (Mail, Mirror or something like that, I can’t remember). In it, he taught a young boy to fish, and these stories were wonderfully and evocatively illustrated. You could almost smell the ground bait and ginger biscuits. But here we go:
I first came to angling, or course fishing as freshwater fishing is called, through my father. I think I had tried sea-fishing, in Sidmouth, and didn’t like it. But I knew my father was taught freshwater fishing by his father, so I wanted to try.
One Christmas, the usual toy car presents were supplemented by a very long and thin package. It turned out to be a solid fibreglass rod, about six feet and six inches long, longer than me!
It came with a small reel – I think it was a tiny Daiwa 7270 open-faced reel – some line, a few hooks, some lead shot weights and some floats. That weekend, my father took me on my first trip. I can’t remember where we went, but I soon discovered that the three brothers next door all fished, and they took me to Rickmansworth Aquadrome, a large lake and one of a string along a valley.
The lake was well known for its high yield of fish, and I was soon catching some. I quickly found that I needed other equipment; a rod rest, for holding the rod to free your hands, a bait tin, a landing net and a folding seat, to mention a few. These were soon joined by more floats and ledger weights (flat or cylindrical lead weights).
A typical fishing trip would go like this:
Woken by alarm at 3 am (that’s right!) on Sunday morning. Make breakfast quietly, get maggots out of fridge, quietly, and pack bag. At 5.15, watch Gone Fishin’ on BBC1 for 20 minutes and then get ready to leave. Walk 5 miles to Nearest tube station. Catch ‘milk train’ to Rickmansworth. Walk a mile to Aquadrome. Climb around locked gate (locked until 9 am) on bridge with all your tackle and shimmy along large pipe under bridge until you could climb back onto bridge and reach the lake. Walk fast (sometimes run if it was a nice day and there were lots of other anglers on first train) to best swim. Fish until you started catching or moved to another place. Drink lots of soup, tea or orange squash and ginger beer. At midday, with hot sun blasting away all thoughts of school on Monday, eat cheese and tomato or chicken sandwiches. Fish until about 5pm when light starts to fade. Father or whole family arrived and eat a picnic while you tell them about, or show them, if you had a keep net, what fish you caught. Taken home in style, in the back of an Austin Maxi, complete with hydro-elastic suspension. Have bath, watch TV until you go to bed, very content.
In fact, I never had a blank day, a day with no fish, at the Aquadrome, even though once, I was only saved by a lucky miller’s thumb, a spikey-looking small fish, only one up from a stickleback. It was a highly competitive place, every angler competed in an unofficial match. The bailiff, who didn’t seem overly bothered about making you pay the 50p ticket, would walk around telling you:
“Such and such has caught five tench two swims down!”
A swim was the area of water adjoining the bank, which you had chosen to fish.
My own particular record was 122 fish, all in, and that remained a record for about six months, I seem to remember. I kept a log book and measured the depth of every part of the lake using a plumb on a line. I mapped the lake meticulously and became adept at ‘thinking like a fish.’
The only bait in town then was maggots. Hemp and sweetcorn hadn’t really been discovered. Of course, all the fishing books told you to use bread; bread was a time-honoured bait, used in the earlier part of the century by everyone, but by the 1960s, fish had encountered maggots, and they were addicted!
I used to breed my own maggots. I well remember leaving a breast of chicken in a shed on some nearby wasteland (sorry Mr Thame, if you are still alive – you must be 122!) while we went on a two-week holiday. Maggots will normally grow from birth to full size and form chrysalises by this time, so it was a stupid oversight on my part. By the time I came home and checked the box, the stench was terrific and the maggots were the size of prawns! As usual, I washed them, which entailed washing them in a bucket of soapy water, drying them by rolling in a towel, washing them a second time and placing them in a tin or plastic container of clean, dry sawdust and then put them in the fridge! My mum went ape! Later she calmed down, and said that they actually smelled okay. They were in a tightly sealed box, so there was no risk of their escaping. In those days you bought sawdust by the sack load from the nearest timber merchant for about 50p per sack.
I made my own ground bait; the mixture of bread crumbs and other stuff you throw in the water to conceal yourself and attract fish. I would practice lobbing it into a plastic hoop at ranges up to 60 feet in the back garden. Later on, I bought a maggapult; a catapult designed to hold maggots or ground bait. With that, I practiced hitting the target right across a field -perhaps 2-300 feet away. It was all pretty technical stuff.
At the end of my stint at the Aquadrome, I had progressed to a 12’6″, orange, fibreglass fishing rod and an Intrepid Black Prince reel. I was using Bayer fishing line, which was ultra-thin and strong (I remember mine was 1lb or 1.5lb breaking strain). Somebody offered me a Billy Lane Match Rod, which was old, but still fibreglass, and had two alternative tops, one for float fishing and one for ledgering, and two alternative butts. My landing net was a collapsible thing with very course mesh, handy for travelling but a bit abrasive for the fish. Technology had moved on, Micromesh was in, and I had a keep net about 12 feet long, big enough to hold the large number of fish I was catching.
I had many amazing and weird experiences at the Aquadrome. An ancient willow, of about a metre in diameter, fell into the water right next to me. I was soaked but glad to still be alive. I remember several times sitting so still that water voles actually sat on my feet to wash themselves. Another time I was concentrating very hard on fishing when I felt a twig fall off the tree above me. Nothing unusual about that, but then it started to move! I cautiously put my hand on my head and picked off… a five-inch-long stick insect! I had no idea if they could bite or were poisonous, so I put it on a bush and left it.
Another strange thing which actually happened to me was when I almost pulled off a woman’s skirt. It happened like this: I was fishing on a bridge over the canal, next to the lake for a change, and cast out my float using the 12’6″ rod. Now, that rod had a very whippy action and, combined with the excellent new Mitchell 410 reel I had bought, only one step down from the ultimate Mitchell Match, meant that the float, hook and maggot went much further than I expected, partly because I was 15 feet up on a bridge. The result was that it landed somewhere near a passing narrow boat. I didn’t know quite where, but I soon found out when an old woman, sitting in a chair and sunning herself on the boat’s deck, suddenly started screaming and pulling on her skirt. I could see it was mysteriously lifting off her. I knew I had snagged it. What to do? As the boat moved further away, I simply let out more line until the boat was almost out of sight. Bayer line is very expensive, so there was no way I was going to break the line at my end. Just when the line almost ran out, I decided to yank it hard. I know the hook came out, because it came back to me, bent. I saw the woman standing up and shaking her fist at me, so I presume she still had her skirt on.
The strangest thing happened in the stick-insect swim, which was V-shaped and between a spur of land and the shore. I had been fishing there all day on a Saturday, quite a good day’s fishing as I recall, so I was back there at 6am the following Sunday morning. However, when I reached the spur, it was sealed off by bed sheets, hanging from a clothesline strung between two trees! I saw a policeman poke his head out between the sheets and asked him when I could fish. He said, “Not today. Dead body in the lake.”
As if to balance my karma over the woman on the boat, a car drove over my rod a week later and squashed it, making it useless. It only cost me £12, about 12 weeks’ pocket money then, but I was still very upset. The Aquadrome was getting too busy, and it was time to move on.
About this time, I discovered two things; Ivan Marks and the Boxmoor section of the Grand Union Canal. Ivan Marks was at that time the British Angling Match Champion, a working-class hero if ever there was one. He looked like a toothy John Lennon, complete with flat cap and a big grin. Boxmoor was a narrow valley near Hemel Hempstead. It not only had a lovely, quiet stretch of canal but also a tiny, concealed lake called Pixies Mere (I kid you not!).
Ivan Marks had started a shop called Marks and Marlow with a mate, and their first rod was a black beast, the first carbon fibre fishing rod offered for sale in the country. It was called the Persuader. I had to have one! I saved my pocket money, did two paper rounds and bought one of the first. It came, personally signed by Ivan Marks. It was so light you could swear you were holding only a pencil in your hand if you closed your eyes. It was 13 feet long!
I discovered Boxmoor by accident. I had started going out on my Dawes Dapper, a no-gear bicycle, to find new places to fish. The rods and landing net were tied to the crossbar, a bag was on my back and the seat was slung around my neck! Most good places were south, so I headed north, into unknown territory. I tried the Grand Union Canal near Hemel Hempstead, one wet and miserable day in February. I hadn’t actually started to fish; this stretch of the canal was filled with pianos and rotting, sunken barges. Then I reached a lock, and a boatman offered to take me on board, complete with my bike.
“All you have to do is open the lock gates for me,” he shouted. “Here is the key!”
He passed me a giant piece of iron, bent into a shape like a car jack. I put the bike on board and started to wind down the lock sluice. Once this was done, I could push open the gate by hand. We travelled like this for a few miles before there was trouble. When you wind open a sluice, the weight on the handle seems to get heavier with each turn. When you wind it closed, it goes faster and faster. This time, I must have been tired, because it got away from me and whacked into my elbow, sending me sprawling. For a while I couldn’t feel my arm.
“I better go home I think,” I told him.
He let me off, and I rode along the towpath, one-handed. I had almost reached my turn-off, when, what with all the weight on the bike, I lost my balance and rode straight into the canal!
“Shit!” I thought. “Deep shit!”
My dad had sacrificed a lot to buy me that bike, so there was no way I was going to leave it fifteen feet out in the canal. After hauling myself and my stuff out and peeling off my trousers and shirt, I dived back in and down to the bike. I found it in the silt and dragged it along the bottom until I reached shallow water and could haul it out, all with one hand.
I took all my clothes off and rung them out.
“Are you okay?” called a woman from her back garden.
“Fine!” I replied, because that’s what you did then. You didn’t make a fuss.
I was freezing as I rode home. The wind chill, combined with the wet and my fatigue became too much for me about a mile from home. I had already ridden about 10 miles, but I stopped at a phone box and reversed the charges to get my dad to pick me up. He was very angry with me for some reason.
“You’re always falling in water!” he said.
This was totally untrue. I was pushed into a lake by a nextdoor neighbour once, many years before. Perhaps he was just concerned for me!
A few weeks later, I tried riding the other way, west, and discovered a place where the boats turn. A wide basin, in the middle of nowhere, called Cow Roast, was to prove my Nirvana.
I baited it for a week, riding there each day and throwing in as much ground bait as I could afford. When I began to fish, small fish came out in streams. And then I caught a very large fish. I wondered what it was. It fought like a carp. When it broke surface, I saw the gorgeous brown colour of a Bronze Bream. It was the first I had ever caught. People say bream don’t fight, but these ones fought like devils. It would often take me twenty minutes to land one of these giants, and then I would be surrounded by gawping locals.
“Niver seen nuffin like ‘at!” they would say.
When my parents arrived, they couldn’t believe their eyes. It took both my father and I to haul up the keep net. It weighed about 100 pounds. The biggest of those bream weighed about 5 pounds! Whoppers! I had so many lovely days there. I began to lose interest when other anglers discovered the spot. It became too busy for me.
I tried the King Richard Lake, near Basingstoke, with a friend and between us we caught over 240 tench, another lake record.
But it was Pixies Mere that attracted me most. An older fishing friend had to get me in because it was run by a very private club; you had to be recommended. It also had the biggest tench in the home counties, or so the rumour went! If I may, I would like to extend my memories into the 1970s, because the essential ethos of fishing hadn’t changed yet.
Summer 1976 – the hottest summer on record.
We had 13 weeks of unending sun. I also discovered sweet corn as a bait, and by now I had acquired a proper fishing basket. I must have looked the part the first time I rolled up to fish Pixies Mere. Imagine the scene:
It’s August, 1976, 7pm, dusk. We open the gate in the trees and see a lake with the magical name, Pixies Mere. It is about the length of two football pitches, and the western end, to our right, is divided into two arms. It nestles among the trees which concealed it, mostly willows which hung down to weedy, fertile water. The swim we want is in the fork between the two arms and can only be reached by a perilous scramble along a rough path on the side of the bank and then traversing three planks of wood over boggy ground.
The dragonflies are out in force, nightingales are singing, and there is the occasional ‘plop’ of what we think are large tench. The lake is a mystery, it’s all a glorious mystery.
I try to set up my fishing seat, full of tackle, on a mud flat, barely half an inch out of the water. It begins to sink and so do my feet in my wellington boots. The flies are attracted to my face, but I don’t care. From under my cap, I survey the swim with the experienced eye of a veteran.
“I will go over there,” I suggest, pointing to the left.
“Okay. I will go right,” whispers my accomplice.
Quietly, we rig up and sit down. It’s almost completely dark by the time he gets a bite. We are using large floats, crow-quills we have made ourselves and painted with Humbrol fluorescent pink.
His float whacks under the water and his line sings in the air as the big fish races away from us. He hauls on the rod and it bends over double, looking as if it will break. Soon, the reel is screaming and the battle reaches its climax. Slowly, ever so slowly, he works the fish around some lily pads, past a bed of rushes and close to where I have submerged the waiting landing net.
By the time I lift the net, encircling the tench, it is exhausted and gasping for breath. Tench are very powerful fish. They have thick, olive green bodies with large, rudder-like fins, which can often be red. In the mating season, and in August some still are mating, their bellies are crimson, to match the colour of their red bead eyes.
I marvel at its beauty, and he puts it back. My friend has caught tench before but I haven’t. We fish on. It is now completely dark. The lake is closed up at 10.30, just in time for last orders in the pub at its side. My parents will be arriving to treat me to a pint of cider. I am only 14, but nobody cares about such niceties in this day and age, the summer of 1976.
Finally, my float jabs out of site.
“Steady,” my friend tells me.
I cannot believe the strength of the fish on the end of the line. It is like having my sister C pulling for all she is worth. I swear quite a lot and steer the fish around some of those lily pads and start the perilous haul to the net. Finally, it is safely inside, and my friend drags it onto the mud. I drop my rod and gawp, wide-eyed at the beautiful fish. We weigh it; 4 pounds and 8 ounces. Not a giant but the most amazing fish I had ever caught. A few weeks later, I caught my biggest, a 5-pound four-ounce beauty. We were the first to try sweetcorn at that lake. For a whole summer, we caught the biggest. The tench could not resist us.
When we can finally no longer see in front of our faces, we have to call it a night. By torchlight, we pack our stuff, and then I hear my father’s voice calling across the lake:
“How do I get out there?”
I tell him and fifteen minutes later, he reaches me, feet soaking wet. He doesn’t seem to care.
“Show me then!” he demands, when I tell him we have caught eleven between us. He is as amazed as I am when we see the lovely olive green and crimson fish in the net. I can hardly believe such a beautiful creature swims in English waters.
Wearily, we follow him to the pub, where my sister and mother watch over two pints of gloriously sweet cider.
What a day!
I hope you enjoyed my description of course fishing in the 1960s. What are your memories? Leave a comment.
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Note on Pescetarianism
Pescetarians are vegetarians that also eat fish. They might also eat dairy products but not meat. So why did I become a pescetarian and not remain a vegetarian, my preferred option?
I became a vegetarian while studying Graphics at Salisbury College for ethical reasons, but it was easy for me as my two female flatmates worked in the UK’s first vegetarian burger bar and brought home delicious free meals. I continued to be a strict vegetarian until about ten years later, when the hard physical work of busking full-time proved too much for my diet. I became seriously ill and couldn’t walk. I was living hand to mouth, barely making enough to pay the rent, so had I been unable to work for much longer, I would have not only been hospitalized but out of a job and home as well. I had excruciating pain in my lower back, but a vegan friend of mine had previously told me that one’s lower, three vertebrae store emergency B12, so I quickly guessed that lack of vitamin B12 might be the cause of my illness. It’s notoriously difficult for vegetarians to get enough of this vital vitamin, so I did some research.
I found that fish and dairy products provided a lot of B12, so in the end, I had to compromise and eat fish and eggs. Mercifully, I could walk and work again within a few weeks. Since then I have been a pescetarian. I know this makes me sound like a hypocrite, but I really had little choice, and my philosophy about saving the planet and preserving eco-diversity has always been that everyone should do what they can and no more. In short, my philosophy is live and let live (including animals).
“But why not fish, if you eat fish,” I hear you ask.
I have seen how fish suffer when they follow the hook too deeply. I never caused the death of a fish that way myself, but I have seen other anglers do so, and it’s not a pretty sight. I believe net fishing is more humane than hook-and-line fishing, so I would never fish again, myself.