Sunday, 11 March 2012

Zander & Pike - The Bury Hill Blues

A two and a half hour journey down some motorway or another is becoming half of my pre-fishing experience nowadays. Coventry, being slap in the middle of the country, is not that far away from anywhere, and though us Coventrians do have plenty of good fishing all around us, all the most exciting prospects for big specimens of just about any coarse fish you care to mention, seem to lay at the extremities of a 100 mile range from the centre of Coventry's angling world, 'Lanes' in London Road.

W H Lane & Son, one of country's most famous tackle shops, was founded by the great British angler, Billy Lane, who became world champion in 1963. Coventry back then was at the centre of British angling, probably because it was cheaper to get to far flung matches than it was for anglers domiciled in other city or place in the kingdom. Almost everywhere a match would be held was within that 100 miles range of the City, though in the 1950's the journey to the extremities and beyond would have taken probably four hours or more by Morris Minor via some rutty green track...

Google Maps may not name Coventry as a place of any significance from 100 miles above the earth, regarding nearby Nuneaton as more important! But it is significant in British Angling. Today we are bound 100 miles South-East of the City to the yellow dot near Crawley, Surrey.

In the latter half of the 20th century (sounds so historic put like that!) the Coventry Specimen Group was formed, a group of all-species big-fish enthusiasts including Phil Smith, Merv Wilkinson, Tony Miles and Trefor West, who were to exert a profound influence upon the course of British angling, part of a national movement of such groups forging what we now know as 'specimen angling'. None of the other specimen groups were ever quite as famous though (at age thirteen, even I was aware of the CSG!) and I think that was all due to the fact that the Coventry anglers could reach further than the others ever could, a 100 mile radius of any other city comprising partly, or in many cases, mostly, of sea...

Nowadays we have the phenomena of the 'Coventry Bloggers'. No other place in the country has so many bloggers blogging about coarse fishing, travelling about, generally having a good time, and writing up the day's exploits, blanks, red letter days and all else included, and offering it up freely for public consumption. Once again that 100 mile reach comes into play, Coventry having the best of all the fishing available in this country within reasonable distance. What can't we get to? You name it, and we can. Trout, grayling (and salmon)  roach, carp, barbel, pike & perch, and all in specimen sizes? No problem. As a consequence, the blogs out of the City and the towns nearby cover all possible coarse fish and coarse fishing styles but never can dwell too long on any in particular, there being so many pretty trinkets and baubles to choose from and the anglers of Coventry such a bunch of magpies.

Martin Roberts is not a blogger himself, but he drags me around the country in his capacious wagon, usually waking me up bleary-eyed at ungodly hours of the morning, and attends all the 'club's' socials, so is one by association, and Dave Fowler, who does blog, is the Coventry Bloggers, Man-in-the-South, hailing, as he does, from a little hamlet off the southern outskirts of the City, Banbury. Both were my company (or me theirs?) for a day out fishing for big zander at Bury Hill in Surrey, once again, a fishery offering specimen-sized fish. but at the very extremity of the 100 mile range.

Bury Hill is the place where I caught my best ever zander, a fish of just under twelve pounds, in February of last year. It was a memorable day when Martin and I converting twelve or so runs between us into seven fish, six of them pike of various, but unremarkable size, but with the big zed to top things out. Not surprisingly my idea of the place is that of a 'runs water', a venue where fish can be expected to bite freely, and where a good fish is a certainty.

Study in pencil of the head of the big zed caught last February

I was after only one thing though. The chance of an even larger zander than before. With little chance of a pike anywhere near the same specimen bracket offered by the venue's zander, though reputed to contain some very large pike, the best fish actually recorded from Bury Hill being little over twenty pounds, and with so many small pike caught last year by us, and others, the best fish that day only a fourteen pounder out of twenty or more pike caught around the lake, Bury Hill is a zander fishery first and foremost in my mind. It was zander, and a thirteen pounder I was after.

A near tame tufted duck who lurked about waiting for bits
of food. The aggressive mallards always got there first tho...

The morning passed by without a single run to strike, though Martin had a dropped take on his ledger rigs as the bobbin rose to the blank, the fish, almost certainly a zander feeling resistance just as line began to peel off the bait-runner.

Noontime, I became restless in peg 39, my floats having not moved once in four and a half hours and started searching for another swim to try, finding peg 49 to my liking when I saw a few feint signs of a shoal of bream moving around in the shallower water there. The zander last year having been caught off the perimeter of the same, I did not hesitate to try the same tactic as before, and so both baits were cast to the edges of the movements.

Waiting for runs in peg 49
Within twenty minutes in the distance float had disappeared. The strike met nothing. And that was that for peg 49. Two hours later I moved again, but this time I decided to revisit old haunts and give peg 34 a go, the very peg where I'd caught the double-figure zander back in February 2011. On arrival I saw another angler occupying peg 33 so dumped my gear in the next best choice, peg 35, not wanting to be too close to another. Surprisingly this angler turned out to be the very same guy, Keith, who'd fished two pegs down from me last year. We'd both turned up on the same day once again, and were fishing almost the same places a year on, but neither had visited Bury Hill in the meantime.

Dave, Martin and that rarest of creatures, the lesser-spotted EA Bailiff...
Around about this time of the day, a most extraordinary thing happened. A bailiff of the Environment Agency turned up to check out our fishing licenses! This has never happened to me in all the years that have passed since 1981, which was the last time I was ever checked. I got a paltry fine against me and equally paltry costs awarded back to them for not having one, but the mustachioed magistrate gave the plaintiff a right ticking off for instituting the suit against me. Things are not the same nowadays, magistrates are never so reasonable, nor so hirsute, so I produced mine pronto-like!

Dave Fowler on the spin

Two casts were made. One baited with half a small roach cast as near to the island as I could get and the other baited with a strip of rainbow trout, the very bait that snared the 'previous' double, just twenty yards out from the near bank.

I liked both casts very much, they seemed poised on the edge of things-about-to-happen. I believe in good casts that splash down in places, that, for some indefinable reason, seem correct. These did. I expected both to get runs, and soon, and even went so far as to lay a bet with my inner dialogue, that the far flung bait would score first.

The only thing that worried me was the hooks I was using. Bury Hill expressly forbids trebles hooks,  which policy I wholeheartedly agree with hating to use them myself, but then the policy also forbids any single hook over a size six...! That's a tench hook, not a pike or zander hook, and we're fishing away in accordance with the rules with such silly little hooks, but for fish with mouths large enough to eat a good-sized, well-hooked tench, whole...

Put it this way. When we go tope fishing we expect the skipper to supply us with rods made up with a size 6/0 or larger, thick wire hook tied to our traces. We don't expect to be given tench hooks for the purpose! Pike grow to forty pounds or more, tope grow to the same and double that, both are fished for with large fish baits like eel section, both can and do fight as hard as each other, both perform spectacular aerial acrobatics on occasion (my only tope tail-walked twice across a fierce sea driven by a force six gale!) and though both have large mouths, the pike has the bigger one. Not surprisingly I was worried about not being able to use my tried and tested 2/0 Mustad Ultimate Bass hooks for these big predators, the pattern and the hook size that I have found works so well, and stuck using untried and untested 'tench hooks' for the purpose they were not designed, and are therefore, not suited for.

To conclude what is becoming a rant and digression into contentious territory, the jaw bones of a big pike, exceed in thickness the gape of such small hooks. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out why that might be a problem...

Dave & Martin thought this boat angler had died! He didn't move a muscle all day long after casting out his two baits.

As predicted, just as I was reading this week's Angling Times leading piece about the record chub that's just been caught, and thinking how very much I'd like to make another 100 mile trip to the River Lea next river season, I looked up and saw that the far flung float had moved two feet to the right and was twitching nervously in the water as a fish mouthed the bait. I sat up and got to the rod but then the twitching stopped, so I didn't pick it up just yet but just waited patiently for the inevitable. A good two minutes later the float bobbed once again but this time I did pick up the rod, waiting for the float to do something decisive and indicate the fish had the bait and was moving away with it. Suddenly, it vanished.

I swept the rod in a smooth arc over my right shoulder and felt the weight of a fish hooked at the business end. At that range I couldn't say what size it might be but before long the fish was half way to the bank and felt a reasonable fish, but of which of the two species I couldn't say. Three quarters of the way in the fish was clearly a good one as I'd now begun to feel some weight and experience a little power on the shorter line. It hadn't come to the surface and splashed so I was reasonably certain that it was no zander, because they always do that in my experience. By the time the fish was nearing the bank I was not only certain it was a pike but becoming convinced that it was a really good fish.

Big fish often have no idea they are hooked. This one seemed to have no idea that it was but seemed to think it was on a leash, moving about in a distracted manner like a wayward labrador out for a walk and pulling in all directions. Only when I managed to get the fish on a line no longer than the rod itself did it begin to make real demands upon the tackle as it woke up to the reality that faced it. Then, and only then, did it began to make a few serious bids for freedom. I immediately put the reel into backwinding mode as soon as I began to feel such raw power and weight combined because I don't trust to clutches when playing heavy, powerful fish, preferring that paying out line in response to dangerous lunges be my decision, not the reel's.

The rod was now in its full fighting curve and felt light as a feather and as responsive as fighter jet. The rods I use for large fish such as barbel and pike are somewhat heavy and cumbersome in the hand when unloaded, and not great for long casting either as the blanks are a little too soft for that, but they have the priceless quality, like those good old floppy cane carp rods that droop over the rod rests like Dali clocks and that people laugh at nowadays, that when they find themselves under full pressure, bent right around in a great smooth arc, and to their full 2lb test-curve, they spring into vital life.

By now it was clear that the fish was bigger than I had thought. It wasn't that I couldn't cope with its power, I could easily do that because the soft rod under full curve was soaking up whatever power it expended, but simply because, no matter how I tried, I simply could not gets its head up. It was like playing a big ray that sucks itself to the bed under water pressure, but I knew that I couldn't do what a sea angler would have to do and start to pump it up because I simply did not trust the hook hold, one that had managed to keep the fish over fifty or sixty yards of light to medium pressure, but was now under heavy pressure and perhaps would take no more.

Dave had come down to help with the netting and stood ready on the staging for whenever it was that I'd finally manage to force a move on the fish, tire it enough to get it up in the water, and finally deliver what is the knockout blow to all fish no matter how heavy and powerful, that of forcing it to take in a gulp of pure air against its own will, after which the rest is usually a formality. But, after a few minutes stuck in this stalemate of fish matched perfectly, strength for strength, with both tackle and angler, and with me none the wiser how to best conduct to my advantage the rest of the heavyweight punch for punch slogging match that the fight had become, the hook hold finally failed....

The too small hook had found an insecure hold after all, the pressure of the fight with this very heavy fish had taken its toll. We never saw even a glimpse of the pike who'd managed to stay deep down the whole of the time. I doubt if I ever got it up in the water any more than an inch or two at most, despite the reserves of power at my disposal.

Not a smile, not a grimace. Say 'shit' through clenched teeth -- that's what it is !
All I can tell you is this. It truly was the one that got away. And that such fish that do, grow larger in the imagination every day!

But honestly, I would not lie to you. It was very, very heavy indeed, and because I can't remember ever getting into a tug of war with such an intransigent fish before, then perhaps Bury Hill does indeed contain a leviathan pike after all?

We're gonna need a bigger hook!

Just fifteen minutes after this battle had concluded, the trout bait was picked up by a fish, the float tracking an unmistakable zander run across the surface to the left, but though I felt the fish, the hook hold never made proper purchase. On examination, the hook had re-impaled itself and masked the  point in the trout's tough skin. That was that. I never had another run, nor did Martin and Dave who had suffered almost a royal blank between them, save for Martin's early dropped run.

Will I go back for another crack? Well I would if it weren't for the fact that Bury Hill is going to become a syndicate water soon. So I don't suppose that I or any of the Coventry lads will ever make the 100 mile journey to fish for its big specimens ever again. Which is a shame when there's unfinished business outstanding.

Then again there's always an alternative to a Coventry angler. There's another lake containing big zander that's only half way to the perimeter of the 100 mile zone and with the benefit that the day ticket there is relatively cheap. It allows night fishing and doesn't have rules that forbid the use of the angler's own choice of correct hook, so that'll be where I'll be going to fish for that 13 pounder of mine.

So it's bye, bye, to Bury Hill...


  1. Great write up of an interesting day.

  2. A fabulous read, I could almost feel myself playing that fish with you: the dull weight that glides low to the lake bottom, immune to any pressure whilst your imagination does, well, what it does in that situation.

    It made me think of the first pike I hooked – and lost – on a scorching summer day on a small river in mid-Cheshire during the mid-1980s. We'd seen it several times without, of course, ever really seeing it, trying and failing without the right tackle and not knowing what we know now. Out of the keepnet came a small dace, hooked in the lip (from recollection) and cast under-arm about the swim. But then nothing for ten minutes at least until it was my turn to take the rod. On the far side the weedbed grew thickest, gloss green against dark of the deepest glide. The dace landed and began to be worked slowly through the swim. I remember the series of taps and the sense that something was happening, the strike and the surge. The flash of gold-flecked green flank, back-winding the Mitchell, a few seconds of wonderment and then nothing as the hook hold gave and the line went slack.

    What with Brian's Wye Monster lost at the net and now this...

  3. Lovely write up Jeff and most unlucky, I got that heart in mouth feeling just from reading about the unseen monster. Times like that are some of the best, where you're all fired up, adrenaline pumping and mind racing, wondering just what is at the other end of rod and line, followed by that anti climax that can leave you wondering for weeks of what if and what might have been.

  4. Glad you all enjoyed it! It was strange to come away from a blank feeling so buoyant! Sometimes losing a big un' just spurs you on.

    Steve Philips' mate Rob lost two big pike in consecutive casts though, so I can't complain, can I?

  5. just to point out your one mistake Lanes shop was not started by the late great Billy Lane but by bill's father who was also called Bill.The shop was in Much Park St .

  6. I didn't know that Mervyn. Cheers for the correction

  7. Jeff, how about adding the 2 pics I emailed so everyone can see the fight and your dissapointment?

  8. Have done Dave, thanks for taking them and mailing over. I look suitably miffed!