The Value of a Good Angling Guide
I suppose, deep down, it was a form of vanity – conceit even – that I didn’t even think of contacting an angling guide before driving 923 miles to my chalet in the forest near Brno in the Czech Republic. Yes, I was on the road for 15 hours with only two brief stops, champing at the bit to do battle with a catfish from Zikhov Castle or from the Slapy Dam on the Vltava River near Trebenice.
With me was my brother, a mountain of gear including a pair of prototype cat-rods I’d been asked to trial and a large cool-boxful of dead-baits I’d painstakingly amassed over the best part of two long days. This was 1994. Whether or not standards have improved since then I don’t know, but our accommodation was, to say the least, austere.
The house was pretty enough and it overlooked one of the hundreds of inter-linked stew-ponds the Czechs empty every few years in order to harvest thousands of tons of carp. This is achieved by emptying the furthermost lake of water – thereby exposing the thick carpet of flapping mirrors for collection - then allowing the water from the adjoining lake to flow into the first lake, leaving another crop of convulsing carp ready for transportation…and so on. This process is far from localized, the system of stew-ponds covering hundreds of square miles with each lake dug at a slightly lower elevation to that which eventually feeds it. We would, then, drop off to sleep each night to the sound of thunder-clapping carp just outside the bedroom window.
But those beds…solid pine bases covered by the thinnest of ‘mattresses’ just six inches off the floor. One bulb with an impossibly low output succeeded only in making the bedroom even gloomier and this was the case even in the living-room where there was no TV, no carpets and NO settee or armchairs! Seating was in the form of unpadded, straight-backed dining-chairs placed in front of a hearth and either side of a rudimentary coffee table. Luxury it wasn’t, but Barry and I forced ourselves into the spirit of things and assumed that all Czechs lived this way.
However, the fridge was something else! Remember, we’re not talking the 50s, the 60s or even the 70s or the 80s here – this was 1994 yet that fridge really had to have been one of the very earliest ever made. Opening the door revealed a completely featureless inner: no shelves, no freezer-box, no egg rack and no salad bin – just a space! But hovering (or so it appeared) in the centre was a ‘cold plate’ with the dimensions of an average kitchen tile – and this was barely chilly, let alone cold. Clearly, the stories we’d been fed for decades about Eastern European hardships had a ring of truth about them; everything was so utterly basic and third rate!
But then…so had been our planning. We really hadn’t done our homework and when it came to fishing the mighty Vltava we didn’t – in all honesty – have a clue: how do you go about fishing water that’s anything between 40 and 120 feet deep an under-arm chuck out? Do catfish live at such depths we asked ourselves? At that time (when cat-fishing was very much a niche activity) our perception of this species was one of a great big water-slug that spent its life wallowing in the mud and the dark as far from daylight as possible – wasn’t that why it’d developed only tiny eyes? So for three days we persevered with two rods apiece, watching and waiting for a Jaws-like ticking of the bait-runners that never came. We did find some shallower water to implement our cunningly devised rigs but, as they say, the fish have to be there in order to catch them and we didn’t have the foggiest!
Now…if we’d had the humility to hire the services of a guide…someone local with an intimate knowledge of this overwhelmingly foreign river, we might just have returned to England – nearly a thousand miles from the scene of our crushing disappointment – with cause to celebrate. He’d very likely have known of somewhere with soft beds and somewhere to sit too!
Later that same year we were in New Zealand, touring both islands in a Mauwi camper-van, fly rods at the ready. Again, we did our own thing, this time on the Tongariro River – and caught nothing. On the Bruce River? Nothing. I did manage a banana-yellow trout of about 3lbs from Lake Mapourika on the South Island’s west coast but, frankly, it was an unconventional catch made by jigging my fly in front of the fish swimming right under my nose.
So here we were 12,000 miles from home and at vast expense catching next to nothing again! As it happens, our exploration of The Land of the Long, White Cloud was never intended to be a dedicated fishing trip so the frustratometer never really budged, but how nice it would be, we said, to get to grips with the fish. When we got to Lake Wanaka (oh, puh-leeeze…) we’d shell out a few dollars on a guide and make sure of success.
There was some excitement though and the source of this still causes me to sit bolt upright in bed when I recall this particular incident on Arthur’s Pass between Christchurch on the east coast and Greymouth on the west. Our little van had taken us through the cold, pelting rain and high into the mountains when, with the most terrifying drop to our left, we were forced to stop. The other side of the road had been pummeled through by a gushing water-bore which then burst out from the mountainside some twenty feet below us to our left - and it could only get worse. Making the stupidest decision of my life, I revved the engine hard, let-up the clutch, clenched my buttocks and roared across that flimsy earth-and-tarmac span! My brother had kittens there and then (though it could have been worse) and desperately urged me to keep going, going, going until we reached lower, more solid ground.
There was a pub there, an old ramshackle place called Brewster’s as I recall. We went in, bought a couple of beers and got chatting with the landlord. After ten minutes or so, he hushed us and cupped an ear toward the radio at the end of the bar…Arthur’s Pass had been closed due to fifty yards of the road collapsing (into the valley some two thousand feet below!)
Young Jeff was our guide on Wanaka. After hand-shakes he watched us eagerly climb aboard his boat, all fluff and fly rods. “You ain’t gonna need them” he told us, “I’ve got everything you need here” and introduced us to his armory with a flourish of his hand. Spinning rods!!
“I’d prefer to fly-fish” I told him, but he fired back quick as a flash “Then you ain’t gonna catch anything!”
I briefly pondered this cocky upstart’s assurance and fiddled about with something or other to buy some thinking time. Thankfully, I made the sensible response and told him “Ok! I’m in your hands!
Completely out of our depth (if you’ll excuse the pun) Barry and I were given our first lesson in down-rigging…y’know…the lead ball, the out-rigger, the elastic band and all that? This, apparently, was trout-fishing and I remember feeling quite outraged at such a method! And when he clipped my LURE onto the down-line and lowered it forty-odd feet as we chuntered around in an effervescing circle I was beside myself with disbelief at such a barbarous method! But you know…we caught fish. Trout of 2-3lbs came over the back of the boat half a dozen times and each time, rather curiously, Jeff remarked on how his pet eel, Freddie, would enjoy their guts later that day. By the end of our 4 hour session, me, Barry and a German guy named Manfred had become somewhat attached to the notion of Jeff’s pet eel wriggling around its tank on the kitchen window-sill and waiting for its tea – but we were in for a shock.
After gutting our fish back on the jetty, Jeff held aloft a great handful of entrails and announced Freddie’s feeding time. “Anyone wanna watch?” Intrigued, we followed him to the edge of the platform and watched as he tossed the gory mass into the water. “Come on, Freddie! Grub up!”
Like some wraith from Night of the Demon a thigh-thick monster slithered out from beneath our feet and engulfed the guts in one! Never had I witnessed such a sight. The eel must have weighed between 30 and 40lbs and it hung mid-water in expectation of more. Jeff didn’t disappoint, scraping together an extra half-handful of entrails for Freddie to wolf-down like some Anguillan showman. And I suppose that’s the added value of a guide: not only will he (or she) put you on the fish but he’ll often have a little extra at no additional cost.
Where there’s limited time and opportunity to explore something or somewhere new, a good guide is invaluable. Why take a chance on, say….driving a thousand miles to cat-fish the Czech Republic and blanking when a modest investment in a fellow angler could see you beaming with a big ‘un?
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