Here in The Shed, our favourite bit about learning to be an angler is the indoor preparation. Our fingers are warm. Our cigars will not go out on a muddy tree stump or disappear into the grass.
The project over the past week has been to sort through several boxes full of assorted fishing junk and put a general purpose bag together for the coming summer.
This time, we want bait standbys for all occasions. No doubt fresh and real is always best and a proper fisherman can always rustle up a grub or a limpet when required, but there are times when you just want to be able to find something which might trick a stupid fish.
For a long time, we favoured bacon rind – looks a bit wormy, smells a bit by the time you are using it and stays on the hook all day. Mind you, first you have to get it on the hook, which is not easy, and second, it doesn’t very often catch fish, although The Shed does have some misty childhood memories in evidence that you can occasionally strike lucky.
Paste is a good idea in theory. Get it right and you can freeze it in chunks, take one out when required and have a cat in hell’s chance with quite a lot of fish, including trout. But The Shed has never been able to make one which sticks around the hook well enough. We have got some untried tips on file …
And there are some in The Shed who wonder if there is meaning in the old West Country chant:
‘alf a pound of flour and rice
makes a lovely clagger
just enough for you and me
caw bugger jagger
There are versions which say flour and marge, which makes more sense, as it has something to do with making pasties. Worth trying both, maybe.
Meanwhile, one of the junk boxes includes a selection of boilies, the little coloured balls of cooked paste favoured by carp fishers. Again, serious men would make their own and you can find a thousand recipes. The Shed’s stocks are old and probably cheap and we have never been able to get one on a hook in a hurry, without breaking them up. However, a minute in the microwave makes it possible to twist a needle through and thread a few on a line, giving us a sporting chance of getting a hook through them later. The carp men would hair rig them – meaning tying the bait to the eye of the hook so it floats a little bit clear of the hook. Idea is that the fish is already swallowing when the hook arrives and you have a millisecond to strike before it can spit. It is a bit of a labour but a good game if you have Shed Time to spend and the statistics say it is worth the effort. And boilies can interest all sorts of fish.
We need a few spinners, of course, for those occasions when you have no idea what you are after but there is room to draw something twinkly through the water and see what happens.
But the classic answer to demand for a durable lure you can try anywhere is, of course, the fly.
Late in life, The Shed has begun to see the point of fly fishing. With a rod, a line and half a dozen flies, you can wander all day – in between extricating the flies from bushes, trees and your hat.
First problem is having some idea about which fly on which kind of line. The Shed can only tell you the obvious – try a floating line to a dry fly when the fish are rising and a sinking line with a fly designed for underwater allure when they are just swimming.
A famous fisherman around this way is Robert Mountjoy, who has said that a Dartmoor trout will chase anything but he favours deer-hair flies for staying afloat in tumbling water; weighted nymphs when he is after the larger brownies. That’s the sort of simple rule The Shed is looking for.
We have passed a little time looking for the quick and dirty DIY fly. We quite like a little range made out of half a hazelnut shell, drilled with a hot needle so the hook shank can be pulled tight inside. Most of ours have the nut glued back inside afterwards but some are left hollow, to be filled with paste when we have a good one. Idea is that the fish either recognises an opened nut or sees something which might be a beetle. We have a similar line made out of bits of cinnamon stick, on the notion that we could float one to imitate a boatman fly or glue in a bit of shot to make it a sinker with a larva look. No idea if any of them will work but we can’t wait to try.
A neighbouring shed has given us a bag of partridge feathers – containing some beautiful colours – and we have produced a few butterfly-style flies by covering the shanks of the hooks with plastic maggot and sticking a couple of slivers of feather under the plastic at the eye end. They are not fine but they would just about give us a ticket in the lottery, we thought. But our technical adviser says we have left in too much quill. The fish would feel the spikiness and let go. We have to learn to peel the feather away from the quill, taking just enough tendon to hold the piece together.
With tenderness as your aim, you end up with a lot of much smaller pieces. It is no good starting with a feather. You start by cutting and peeling feathers and work from what you end up with. So far, we find it hard to get thinner than half a quill but we manage to make some moderately soft flies. They are probably too big, but we are reluctant to cut a nice piece and anyway we want a big fish with a big bite. They don’t look like any flies we can name but they look like something that might have flown. Is that what the fly men call a booby?
Eventually, on a fine Good Friday, we set out to try some of them on a nice little pair of farm ponds with a good mix of fish. An old feller our age, and his grandson, are taking a few roach on maggots.
We give a Hazelnut Special a go around the edge of some reeds. It casts nicely, on its own at the end of some old monofilament on a spinning reel, but doesn’t float for long. However, it sinks quite slowly, which might be useful.
We take it off and try another tack. We have some little pieces of bamboo, cored out ready. Run the line through one of them to a little swivel and jam most of the swivel inside the bamboo, with a twig or a bit of Blutak. Then tie on a fly with a couple of feet of fluorocarbon. Idea is that the float and swivel give enough weight for a cast but end up looking like standard surface debris. There is not much room to use fly line here and all we want to do is flick the hook out a few yards. Strict fly clubs frown on any sort of float or weight, we are told, but in the Shed, we cannot see any moral or sporting difference between our rig and a weighted line.
The system works, up to a point. The flies float well, at least for a while, and one we have sprayed with shoe polish lasts brilliantly for its session. Trouble is, as we suspect our adviser would point out, they float because they’m made like effing shuttlecocks. There is a point, on a bright afternoon, where we can just make out the shapes of fish taking a look but turning away.
What we need is big greedy buggers and we make our way down to the second lake. Whoah! There are huge shapes cruising around a reed bed. Carp.
We are using the remains of a broken cane fly rod, bodged together to make a short whip. We are not really ready to fight a big carp. But we cannot resist a little try.
The fly spooks them but eventually we manage to get it lodged in a reasonable position in the school’s swim and withdraw to the bushes to watch it. But the fish outwait us. We try all round both lakes and get back to the car intending to try a sinking lure, made from a hook wrapped with the gold wire off a posh wine bottle. But by this time, we have discovered that the old line on our best reel is basically pants and needs replacing and the stronger line on the spare reel has probably not been used for 20 years and sticks badly enough to stop a cast. It needs a complete unwind and rewind, at least.
Time to go back to The Shed.