My first ever fish was caught at Staines on the River Thames. We used to go there on the bus with dad and the whole family; laden with bottles of lemonade, a carrier bag full of doorstep jam sandwiches, the cricket gear and the fishing rods. I was about eight years old and used to sit next to dad while he fished. One day he said he needed to go to the toilet and told me to hold the rod which looked and weighed about the same as a telegraph pole. He said whatever happens don’t pull the rod out of the water just hold it. In those days whatever dads said was law so when the float started disappearing under the water, I daren’t pull it up, certain death would ensue. A chap fishing 20 yards away said “for Christ’s sake son, pull it up”. I replied that dad had said not to whatever happened whereby he came over and pulled it out of the water, a 3 inch roach and I had caught my first fish! – now I was hooked for life.
I badgered dad to get me a fishing rod for months and he said he would for my birthday. My birthday came and went but, no rod. Dad said he had ordered a special one for me and it will come eventually. Two months later he came home from work with a cardboard box with a fishing rod in it. A sort of solid cane thing, not split cane and I now know it was a cheap boy’s rod from Woolworths. Dad was poor in those days and with seven kids and only a bank clerk’s wages coming in, I now know that he couldn’t really afford to buy me a fishing rod, let alone a specially made one. Yet, I love him even more for the deception! I now realise this caused him more pain than me!
Then I started to learn the mysterious world of fishing at least according to my dad. The ritual the night before fishing was making the bread paste. The bread had to be just right and the right age, it had to be mixed with water and kneaded to the right consistency and then wrapped carefully in a damp cloth; this had to be just right as well, not too damp or too dry. Only my dad could make this, it was far too complicated for me to make so, I was never allowed. You know something, I don’t remember ever catching one fish on that paste but, fortunately he always bought a half pint of sweaty, half dead maggots in sawdust, never a pint mind you. That would have been extravagance but, they usually saved the day.
On those family trips Mum would hold the rod for a half hour; she hated fishing but would do this occasionally. The reason being she would just catch fish after fish for a half hour when dad and I had not caught a fish all day. Dad and I would just look at each other in disgust. As soon as she handed the rod back to my dad, nothing. I swear this is true; it always happened, they were only small fish but, that’s what we always caught anyway. Eventually we banned mum from fishing altogether, it was just too embarrassing especially as she used to mock us unmercifully “call yourselves great fishermen” was her usual chant.
One weekend we went to the Hampshire Avon. This had been saved for and planned for a year. In those days such a trip was a big adventure; dad never drove so, he coerced a friend and his son to drive us there and we stayed in a posh hotel in Fordingbridge. Now I do the trip without thinking about it; two hours down the motor way and I’m there but, back then this was really huge. It rained all weekend; we did not have comfortable big brollies back then or comfortable chairs. Just old raincoats and some sort of hat and you just sat in the rain and got wet. Remember this was the generation that had beaten the Nazis; landed on D-day and rolled them up like kippers; brollies to keep a bit of rain off, unthinkable, comfortable chairs, no way. Anyway, we did not catch a fish all weekend except on the first morning my dad’s friend and I got up very early and fished a free stretch in the park opposite the hotel. Had the most wonderful two hours grayling fishing I have ever had. Just trotting down between some weed with the old sweaty maggots and presto; thirty or forty plump grayling and then breakfast; that is heaven. Dad never ever forgave me for that. He had spent a small fortune to get us there and bought expensive day tickets to fish some of the best waters of the Hampshire Avon and the only fish caught were by his friend and me on a free stretch and he never caught one fish all weekend. Never a word about the fact he had spent all night in the bar drinking and couldn’t get up in the morning. He never forgave me for losing him the biggest bream he had ever hooked either but, that’s a story for another time.
As he got older his eyesight started to fade. I had to thread the line between the rod rings for him and order of the day was the biggest float that money could buy. A huge thing with a red top, I never forget it. This was accompanied by about six huge swan shot a bloody big hook and a huge bunch of maggots or his secret bread paste. Then he would march off in search of an eddy. He was very wise and would tell me this was where all the big fish were. I was never allowed to fish his eddy and would have to fish away from him. I now know this was because he had become a lazy fisherman and by fishing these eddies he wouldn’t have to keep pulling the float out of the water; just watch it go round and round. Yet, he nearly always caught one big fish; usually a massive perch or roach, never on the bread paste mind you. Lucky so and so! The bet was always sixpence for the first fish, sixpence for the most fish and sixpence for the biggest fish. He nearly always won the sixpence for the biggest fish and if I owed him money on these bets it was always stopped out of my pocket money. I used to resent this but, I now know he was trying to teach me the downside of gambling.
Of course he’s passed on now and I miss those days despite never catching much. Fishing was not as do or die back then as it sometimes seems now. One thing I will never forget; a few months after he had gone I drove down to the Hampshire Avon. I was fishing in a field on my own on a cold October’s day. I suddenly kept feeling there was someone behind me. You know that feeling; you just sense someone’s behind you or looking at you. This feeling persisted for some time and I kept looking around but, there was nobody there. I started to get quite agitated and annoyed, then all of a sudden I felt this warm glow course through my whole body. I have never been able to describe this warm glow; I had never felt any thing like it before or since and I swear it’s true. All I could think of at the time was my old dad; not that I could see him or actually feel his presence but, he just kept popping into my mind and I just couldn’t shake off this feeling that someone was behind me. Spooky-certainly, psychobabble-most likely, or was it just possible that he was there trying to keep me warm! I like to think so but, he may have been trying to spook the fish!
Mark Gaster (aka MarkG)