Match Fishing – A European Virgin
Andy Neal gives his totally unique, blow by blow, inside line on fishing for Team Wales in the 2012 European Championships in Merida. Just what is it really like to be there, fishing for your country?
You can’t imagine the feeling you get when you take that first phone call asking you to be part of the international set up. If, like me, you would give your all to represent your country it was a shock, but an immensely pleasing call to have.
The venue was to be Merida in Spain, the competition, the European Championship. What a way to break your duck in international fishing, an invite to one of the two major international matches. Not only that but after getting straight on the phone for info on the venue it soon became apparent that the venue was a little bit special. Comments like “It’s the best international venue of them all” came to me on several occasions and with the prospect of great fishing, plenty of fish and a bit of sun I was more than a little excited.
The following weeks were spend pestering friends who had been on the venue (a ‘river’ several hundred meters wide with very little if any flow) for info on the place and what to expect. The more I heard the more I wanted to go as talk of big weights, of hard fighting carp, some catfish and also bleak had me spending hours on preparing my kit in readiness for the trip.
As there was a World Championship on this very stretch a few years back (England won gold there) there was quite a bit known about the venue already, couple that with a certain ace we had up our sleeves and we knew what to expect. This sort of info is gold dust as the amount of tackle you have to take is nothing short of comical. Even as this was seen as a ‘simple’ venue in terms of kit I still managed to assemble a gargantuan amount. Nothing must be left to chance so everything goes with you, even the kitchen sink (and a spare one in case the first one leaks!)
Departure day arrived and I soon had my kit loaded and set off on the 36 hour trip. 24 hours of this was to be on the ferry across to Bilbao so at least this would give me a chance to get well acquainted with the rest of the team.
Team Wales met on the boat - not unsurprisingly in the bar - and me, Lee Edwards, Andy Johnson, Darren Frost, Ian Leach and Clive Winn had a quiet beer whilst chatting about the coming week’s practice. I mentioned earlier that we had an ace up our sleeve, well; a certain Mr Edwards (a Welsh team regular and previous medal winner) had been over to Merida back in March to fish the Merida Masters. This is a three day festival with some of very best anglers Spain, Italy and the surrounding countries have to offer and an individual event that saw a few of the English lads going too.
This event was held on the official match length and, as many of you will already know, Lee actually won the event and 6000 Euros to boot! That meant as I knew nothing of the venue, when he spoke, I listened! Trying to get a mental picture of what we were going to need and come up against was very important and this gave us a great head start. As well as this three of the other team members had also fished it in the World event so we were confident we knew what to expect and, importantly, what to fish for.
Although I was confident about the fishing, I was a little nervous about the regulations as international rules weren’t something I was used to. They have strict limits on bait, pole lengths and timings to name but a few, so as well as the fishing I needed to familiarise myself with this. I was told to expect a vastly different game to the one we are used to here in the UK - and they weren’t wrong!
Arriving in the pretty town of Merida late Saturday night we managed to spend Sunday looking around the venue and getting our kit ready for practice. First glance at the venue and wow! A pristine length with concrete fishing platforms as far as the eye could see and carp, carrassio and bleak showing everywhere. I was beginning to understand what all the hype was about and couldn’t wait to get started.
The following morning we were up at 6am and out of the door promptly to get to the venue for day one of official practice. The first day we were left a little bit on our own just to acclimatise and get used to catching some fish.
It was soon very apparent that there weren’t many, if any, carp to be caught on the pole as Frosty was the only one to catch a carrassio, on the slider at 35 meters. The rest of us were soon bleaking and getting to grips with these huge ‘kipper’ bleak that the river seemed to be full of. Keeping an eye on the other countries practising around us it was soon noted that there were no carp caught along the entire section. As the venue had been closed for a short while in readiness of the event there had been no food on this line to keep them close in and the consensus seemed to be that as the week progressed, and more food went in, the more the pole line would come into effect - and so this proved.
Day two of practice saw us on a different section and several of us fished the slider for the first three hours with the others concentrating on long pole and bleak. It wasn’t long before a confident bite saw me latch into my first Merida carp. I was told that these fish fight harder than anything you will ever hook in the UK; uhhh, yep! That will be about right, the 4lb fish nearly pulled the rod out of my hand and several tense minutes passed before a big sigh when I finally netted my first proper Spanish torpedo. These were going to be fun on the pole! At the end of the three hours we had the chance to fish the final hour (4 hour matches) any way we wanted and I, having caught some carrassio and carp on slider gear came in on the pole for a look. I wanted to get some fish hooked so I could get used the elastics needed and see what lines I could get away with. I had a great last hour as although there were a few bleak pestering the long pole line I did catch a couple of carp and carrassio. This was to give me great confidence going into day three where we were on A Section which we knew held lots of carp.
Day three arrived and we were all looking forward to this as we knew from experience and bank chat that there were plenty of fish to be caught along the entire section. The rest of the length was starting to hot up too because, as expected, the fish had started to find the bait that was going in daily on the pole line.
As we got ready for the daily hooter, with sun blazing, all seemed good. We had a rough plan of attack that was starting to formulate and today was the day we would find out if we had it right.
Bleaking was soon underway and these big kipper bleak were yet again evident; these could play a very important role so we made sure we worked hard this to try and get it right. It wasn’t long before I was on the slider and several catfish, carrassio and carp graced the net proving we were indeed ‘on fish’. Lee was the first to go on the pole and was straight into carp. A few of us soon followed and all were hooking carp regularly.
This was great fun as these mental creatures took a bit of handling. As most swims were around 8-11 feet deep we were using 1g floats and strong lines. 0.17mm – 0.20mm hooklengths meant we could hang on a bit but soft elastic was the key. These fish went off at such a rate they would easily snap 0.20mm on the first run and considering their size of 1-2kg it was shocking to see as you would swear they were foul hooked. With the lighter elastics you could hook them hard and then I found that by throwing my pole straight back to the number five section you could quickly bottom the elastic out and stop the run before it began. This gave you a near 100% land rate.
Looking down at the other countries all with poles in the air I could see there were fish all along. Playing them was to prove vital as not only did many smash their poles doing this but it took a lot longer to land them. Keep the pole low, stop them early and most were going in the net quite quickly. A brilliant session ended all too quickly but the heat was building by the day. We fished 10-2pm and by the end of the session you felt literally cooked! With talk of 40 plus degrees for the match weekend it was going to be a little uncomfortable.
At the weigh in after the session Lee (Merida Master) recorded an awesome 35kg, I managed 2nd with 28kg and Frosty 3rd with another 20kg plus weight. Things were certainly coming together and my confidence was building as I had managed to learn a lot. I must admit you don’t often get the feeling of getting on with venues but I had managed to catch well every day so far and felt very comfortable, it was all starting to ‘click’.
Days four and five of practice saw us on the two remaining sections. This was to be different as barbel would play a part in some of the sections and these had to be fished for and played differently, so it was great to great amongst some of these before the official match. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we spotted there were a few pegs in certain sections that had terribly rocky, uneven bottoms. This was to make presenting a bait and fishing over very difficult as you would get caught up nearly every put in. There was a serious need to avoid these pegs at all cost come match day!
On Thursday night we went to the official parade. It was great to see as all the different countries in their team clothing and paraded on stage and Clive, did a great job carrying the flag for us.
Friday night was soon upon us and we all wondered who out of the six of us would be fishing in the five man team the following day. Although I had caught fish, being one of the new guys I fully expected the experienced lads to take the places and for me to be running the bank; not that I minded as this is all about the team and a vitally important role.
Eric, our manager, soon confirmed I was fishing and a great feeling it was to be named in the starting team. Next thing was to let us know what sections we were in the following day. Although we wouldn’t know our pegs at least this way we could get our kit tailored to the section we were going to. All eyes were on Eric as everyone wanted A Section as not only was it the fairest but also the best as there were fish right along it as the bottom was relatively flat ,there were no dodgy pegs and you had the feeling you could compete from anywhere.
Jokingly Eric said to me “So, do you fancy A?” in a breath I said, “Give it to me I’ll go on that.” Knowing this would probably be the hardest to win and knowing you would need a big weight I was going to do nothing but back myself. All of a sudden it was real and I had drawn the best section on my first trip! No pressure then!!
Morning of the match and with kit ready we set about getting our bait sorted. With everything ready Eric came along to tell us our draws: Andy 4, next to England - Oh happy days, first outing, best section, hardest section to win, next to England AND Italy the other side of them. Not being one to shy away from a challenge I though ‘bring it on!’ I’d caught fish during the week so all I could do was put into practice what I had learnt.
At the peg I was a little nervous due to pole checks and bait checks I hadn’t had much experience of I and was pleased to get that done and out of the way early. The bait check was fine and I didn’t get asked for pole measurements. (I had measured my pole several times but you always doubt yourself). Assembling my kit strangely didn’t take too long either and, conscious of the time, I set about sorting my bait. The ten minute pre-baiting hooter sounded and what a spectacle to see everyone balling hell out of the long pole line; then the slider line got it as 25 balls made their way out next to the slider marker. The next thing was the slop for the bleak line and a steady stream of this was fed in readiness for the starting whistle.
At the all in everyone went straight for bleak and I was amazed to be four fish up on Sean Ashbey next door straight away - only for him to hit his stride and take control of the situation such that 40 minutes in he was winning the section on bleak, closely followed by the Italians, and with not many fish in it, it was a real race. The Serbians were right up there too and showed their class on small fish.
Soon enough the end peg went onto the long pole looking for big fish, two minutes later and 'wallop' he was in! This made everyone stand up and think and soon enough we were all feeding our long pole lines again. 50 minutes in and several people had now switched to pole, I fed mine again and picked up my slider rod. A quick chuck on this was short lived as people were now getting lots of bites on pole. The end peg now had three carp with several others with one or two. I quickly wound in and went long, Sean doing the same. The float settled and buried. A firm strike and a crazy carp powered out of the peg, I shipped back and twang, it was off...
The last thing I needed was to lose a fish so early, I came back to find a scale, foul hooked, it made me feel a little easier that I hadn’t lost one properly hooked but every lost fish is massive in these circumstances. Back out and another bite, on and off in a second, two from two and both lost. With Eric sitting behind me neither I nor he was very impressed. This was a disaster!
It would have been easy at this point to let my head drop but I was there to do a job for the team and I didn’t intend to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing that happen. I settled back having destroyed my swim and, although prompted to go back on the waggler, I knew there were fish on the pole line so wanted to work the feeding out to try and pull back my ever increasing deficit.
Two feeds later and the float buried, at last I was in again and this time it felt completely different, a short battle and my first proper fish was in the net, back out and immediately into another - things were starting to happen.
I had slightly altered my feeding and was now flying as regular bites saw me quickly catch up with the teams around me and a very productive middle part of the match only ended when all of our swims went a little ‘funky’. It was strange as we all had fish there but very few of us managed to catch them.
Before we knew it the hooter sounded for all out; I knew deep down I had done okay and had pulled back and overtaken most of the anglers around me and as far as the team went I had done a job. At the scales my 13 carp and 80 bleak went 18.250kg which was enough for 2nd place but with another 19 to weigh including the Italian two pegs away who I know had beaten me I just had to hope for a decent place. As the runners came back up the section after the weights I was told I was 4th, 22kg had won and there were two 21kg weights. I’ll take that!
Unfortunately the team hadn’t fared so well, two of the rock pegs ended up in our draw which meant two bad results sent us right down the table to halfway. Although happy with my result the team matters more and we were all a little gutted after fancying our chances.
Day two arrived and after my good result I was guaranteed a place for the next day. With advice from the lads that a win might give me an outside chance of an individual medal, I was quite excited! I’d had what seemed to be a dream week so far, it was time to come back down to earth. There was no way I was going to draw A Section again so I reserved my thoughts to grafting and looking for points. That was until my manager handed me A Section again! ‘Do what? Is this a wind up?’ someone was definitely looking down on me that week as once again I headed off to A Section, Still the hardest to win but after day one I was so full of confidence I was sure I could do well.
Yet again I drew next to England, a tough job yet again made harder, and this time I had Steve Gardener for company. I actually relish the thought of drawing next to anglers of his ability and experience as one thing is for sure it focuses you on the job in hand.
Like the day before we got our kit ready for the baiting period, I had a good chat and giggle with Steve which settled me no end. Come the start I was ready for action and as with the day before we reached for our bleak rigs. Something was different though, I couldn’t get a bite - nobody could. Steve showed his class by catching eight in the first ten minutes but this was slow. I or any of the pegs to my right hadn’t had a bite so just ten minutes in I reached for my slider, punched it out and settled to wait. A small lift, a strike and I was into my first catfish. After half an hour I had ten and had caught Steve up who was also now on the slider targeting the cats.
A few long poles stared to go out as early reports of the end pegs catching carp filtered through. My slider swim seemed stronger than Steve’s which prompted him onto the long pole early. A few line bites then resulted in a hooked fish and as he was playing it I moved to feed my pole line whist staying on the slider. He netted that fish and straight out, another bite had me winding sharply and going long on pole. Five minutes later and the float hadn’t moved, Steve was now into his second and, looking around, I could see a lot of people playing fish and striking.
With no runners in my section I had to listen intently to what info the English lads were banding around; a quick change and bang, I was in! This was it, my chance of a comeback. An hour and a half in and word was the end peg had nine carp already. Steve now had four and me, well, I was well down as I had two but the slight feeding change had made a massive difference as my swim now showed signs of fish. Another soon followed and I was back in the game when the next followed shortly after that.
My swim was strengthening all the time as others around me got worse; this was the opening I needed and I made sure to press home the situation by catching consistently well until the last half hour when all of our swims went funky again. Hard to explain why but looking back I think we all needed to stop feeding to make sure the fish went on the hook. Anyway, with 15 minutes left I though another two would secure good points and luckily enough I managed them.
The hooter sounded for all out and it felt like I had been hit by a brick. The temperatures had soared to a massive 45 degrees and it was really hard work trying to concentrate on the fishing and to stay hydrated. Poles were painful to handle and most of us had umbrellas shading our butt sections. When shipping it was literally a race to get to the cooler section just so you could hold it!
The scales took an age to get to me and already people were saying well done and that I was up there near the top of the section; the old heart was beating fast as more people were congratulating me. What a feeling!
As the scales neared I heard 24kg was winning, with loads of 17-19kg weights, that brought me back down to earth as I knew I didn’t have 24kg and assumed I had the same as the day before. Steve weighed 13kg next door as lost fish had cost him dearly. I then put 19.750kg on the scales and was called into 2nd place. The end peg I was sure had smashed me as he seemed to have had fish on every time I glanced down but third would do very nicely for me but people ran up to me after the final weigh to say I’d actually beaten the end peg and was confirmed as 2nd in section: What a result! What a week!
Callum Dicks mentioned that he won his individual Gold Medal with five points and my overall six points could get in the medals. I soon realised this wasn’t going to be the case as the Italians had smashed it to win the day with a mere 16 points. Unreal! This also meant they had individuals with some huge scoring.
Will Raison fished his usual immense match to blitz his section on the waggler with 30kg (oh, and the match that day) and he ended up on the same points as me but had a bigger weight; that left me in 6th overall. I’ll wake up in a minute! What a result.
I have to say a massive thank you to Lee Edwards as without his knowledge and experience I would have been lost. Also to the rest of the team as their experience all helped the new kid a lot! What an experience, possibly the best week’s fishing I have ever had!
The Italians won the event comfortably with England commanding second. What is evident is the sheer professionalism of these sides. To think the Italians all had three runners in each section and the English two! If you don’t have information and eyes behind you at this level you simply can’t compete. Not only are they the best anglers in the world but with the right info at the right time they are quite simply unbeatable! It makes you think when you have three former world champions and a guy known to be the best in the country running the bank for the Italians that their desire to win is frightening and all are dedicated to making sure that happens. You can’t fail but to be impressed.
Hope you enjoyed it? I did!