Bits and Pieces from the old sod - by Arthur Sutton
In the Anguilla magazine a mention was made of the fact that members who had been in the eel angling scene for some time could possibly relate some of their experiences so as to supply an article for our magazine.
Well, I have been angling for eels for over sixty years now, and I think that I can rustle up a few things to tell you. Some of them may have been told in the old and original magazine, the Bulletin and I hope to be excused for that.
I start with an experience I had when fishing for baits, mainly gudgeon, ready for a night eel fishing. It was the latter part of the war and we were been treated to a barrage of Doodlebugs or VI flying bombs. The wide bank behind me was extremely steep, with a great big hole made by a bomb a few days earlier. A lady pushing a pram was approaching the hole although she would have had to come close to me in order to get past the hole. Then we heard it, the somewhat terrifying sound made by a doodlebug. We were both standing still, looking skyward to try to see where the beastie was. As we spotted it its rocket engine stopped and it was fairly obvious that it was coming down close to where we were. There were only seconds before it would hit the ground so I pushed the lady into the fairly deep hole and we both lay faced down on the ground.
The bomb hit the ground quite close to us but, surprisingly, did not explode. However, the lady’s pram had started down the steep slope and had reached the edge of a roughly ploughed area. I gave chase and the pram came to a halt within yards of where the new bomb had landed. I reached for it as smoke started to issue from the bomb but instead of heading back to the canal and the steep slope I went in the opposite direction as it was easier. I did not think that the lady might be upset, thinking that I had run off with her baby. However, when I stopped I signalled to her to come over to where I was, but keeping well away from the bomb. As she came towards me I could hear her sobbing. She first looked at the baby then, finding it perfectly ok she turned to me and hugged me tight, still crying. It was some time before she could speak and when she could we put more distance between ourselves and the flying bomb. I stayed with her and the baby until I was sure she was herself once more. She was so happy to think that I had risked my life in order to save the little one and insisted that I take some money, which I politely refused. So, after a while we shook hands and parted. Back at the canal I packed up my tackle for I could not carry on. Stuffing bits and pieces in the pocket of my ex army combat jacket I found four £1 notes. She had put them in my pocket when she hugged me.
So, my tackle dealer was pleased when I handed him the 4 £1 notes in exchange for hooks, a plummet, some gut substitute (there was no nylon in those days) and a range of floats, several of which I still have and which I will never use. The bomb did explode later that day.
In my early years I was fishing the Lea Navigation Canal when a man wearing a straw hat sat down beside me on the bank. He seemed a kindly man and when he offered a few hints I gladly altered my tackle to follow his suggestion. What followed was some of the best fishing I ever had. The man who I came to know as the man with the straw hat was none other than Edward Ensom. He had published a book on fishing the tributaries of the River Lea with a dry fly for the roach and dace. He wrote under the name of Faddist and was very well known in Hertfordshire and well respected. We had many a fine day fishing together and he taught me how to cast a fly. I went on to catch many fine dace from the River Lea and Beane. Edward took me to a stretch of the Lea Navigation which held very good perch which we fished for with live minnows or stone loach. He showed me his method of catching these little baits and he put his faith in the stone loach for taking the larger perch, The minnows were fished at mid water, whereas the loach were fished right at the bottom. Between the two of us we took many fine perch and the larger fish scaled almost 4lbs. Of course we fished other waters and a favourite venue was the River Stort, itself a tributary of the River Lea. On a given day we could see several roach to two pounds or more. The best fish that I remember was taken by Edward a fine roach of three and a half pounds. All of these fish were taken on bread crust and he had his own secret way of preparing the crust. He never did divulge his method to me. When one recalls that our bottom tackle was of gut substitute, really thick and not very supple with some of our hooks tied to horse hair, it seems a small wonder that we caught anything at all. We certainly would be unable to do it nowadays. Another fine and reliable venue was the Lea at ~Rye House. The swims adjacent to the famous watercress beds were certainly the best and were fought over by anglers fishing the Lea benevolent match run by the London Anglers’ Association. Sadly, by 1970 onwards the fishing was so poor that the Lea Benevolent Match was moved to the Thames. The fishing has I am glad to say, recovered, and with the improvement in water quality Rye House has again become a fine fishery. I should have mentioned that the stretch from which we took that fine perch was St Margaret’s, upstream of Rye House and that little piece of info takes me nicely to my next piece and my introduction to large eels.
It was a fine day rather warm and with storms threatening. I had a good supply of stone loach plus a few Bull heads, and I was after the big perch. The swim I had chosen was under a large hornbeam tree where I could get some relief from the sun and I reckon that the shade of the tree on the water might give be a better result, as the fishing was rather slow otherwise. A terrific storm broke out and, leaving my baited tackle in the water I put some distance between myself and the tree. I lay flat on the ground and covered myself with my waterproof cycling gear. It was at least one hour before the storm moved away and the rain eased. I hurried back to my swim under the tree and found that my rod was bent down with the top well down in the water. Before continuing I will describe my rod. It was eleven feet in length, three piece with the butt and middle of whole cane. The top joint was of greenheart which had to be straightened after each trip. I loved that rod and it probably accounted for more fish than any other rod I have used. It was fitted with a star back centre pin reel. The first fixed spool or thread line reel had yet to become available. I tightened up and immediately thought I was snagged on the bottom until it started to move. I held on but had to yield line as the fish moved to my right. Then it stopped for a few seconds before coming past me and continuing to my left hand side. Then it stopped. I waited for it to move again but eventually had to walk towards it. With all the energy I could muster I heaved and heaved with little finesse and it very slowly came away from the bottom. I thought this must be one of the big pike we occasionally connected with, but never landed, when fishing for the perch. Then I saw it! An eel the like of which I never believed to exist. I held it there, writhing and thrashing about on the surface and I cannot say how long that lasted but the eel held its own, never coming any nearer to me. The whole cane sections of my rod creaked and groaned in protest and suddenly it was all over, with the inevitable result the eel slowly sank out of sight and a stream of bubbles indicated where it was going. I was so dismayed that I packed what little tackle I had and went home. After a few gudgeon fishing trips to my local canal at Tottenham I got to thinking about that eel and of how I could start fishing for eels. I realised that it could not be done using that same rod, but I had no money and very few shirt buttons. All the same I went along to my tackle dealer to learn how much I would have to save to get a rod capable of dealing with eels. My tackle dealer was a kindly old man who had worked with my father in the building trade in the past. He listened to my tale of woe and chuckled for he himself had lost many a big eel. Said he, here’s what I can do for you. I have a stout rod intended for pike fishing. I can let you have that for three pence a week, and you may take it now. I was overjoyed and hurried home to plan my first eel fishing trip, with St Margaret’s in mind. I was to be very disappointed, for all I caught was some of the large perch and a couple of smallish pike. After several day trips with the same result I turned again to roach fishing. I had a couple more trips with my friend Edward when he was taken ill and died after a few days. It was a great loss. I attended his funeral and was able to place a few pieces of tackle in the grave. I will always remember him the man with the straw hat. Right, I know you are busting to learn more of my eel fishing, but first I will tell you of the Lady of the Lake.
As a young man I never did believe in ghosts, but the following made me change my mind. I was, at the time, a member of Kingsmoor Anglers and one of their waters was called Bury Hill Lake. Not the famous water of that name but so called because it was adjacent to a small lane of that name. I did fish there a quite a lot and because it was a difficult water few fished it. I mostly fished there in mid week and did have some good sport. There were no eels, or at least I never contacted any. On this occasion I was fishing for tench, of which the lake held some good specimens. My swim was one which I often fished and was at the narrow end of the lake and only 60 yards from the busy Staines Road. There was no road noise as the surrounding land was very thickly wooded. Behind me and to my left was a huge stone grotto through which a little stream trickled and fed the lake. The night was very still and unusually quiet from a fishing point of view. Normally the action would start as soon as it got properly dark. There was a moon but it shone behind a very high vale of wispy cloud. I sat there hoping that I might see the vixen with her cubs when suddenly my heart started to pump very fast. There, in the half light was a lady in white. Unbelievably she stepped off the bank and into or, rather, on to the water. She came nearer and I could see her quite clearly now. Heavily veiled and with all the trimmings of a bride to be. As she came close I got to my feet not knowing whether to stay and greet her or run like hell. I may have taken a step forward (or perhaps backwards) when suddenly she was gone. I sat in my chair all night thinking I may see her again. (Not for what you think, you over sexed lot) although, I don’t know though, but heck I was too scared at the time. No further sightings and the day dawned clear with a promise of sunshine later. I went over to the pub on the opposite side of the road where it was agreed that club members could park their cars. As I was getting some more food and bits from the boot, the pub landlord came over and asked had I done any good and was I staying all night. When I said that I was staying he invited me in for a cuppa and a bacon sandwich. As we got chatting, I mentioned what I had seen during the night. I looked for the look of surprise or even disbelief in his face. There was neither. He just said excuse me for a moment and went up the wooden staircase. He came down holding a great wad of newspaper cuttings in his hand. These he said will show you that you are not alone in seeing the lady of the lake. We read through the cuttings and with very little variation they all told of how the lady had been seen since the year 1880. They were all accounts by persons who had no prior knowledge of what had happened. Apparently the lady was a bride on horseback just outside the lake. On her way to church at the top of Bury Hill, she was dressed as one can imagine a bride would be in those days. Suddenly from the trees dashed an animal, believed to be a fox right in the path of the horse. The frightened horse reared up and threw the lady. When others reached her she was dead, or dying, from a broken neck. She has been seen, dressed as she was on that awful day, at roughly every 10 years and on the anniversary of her death. There you have it, my truthful and accurate account of my seeing the lady of the lake. Two of the club members had seen exactly what I saw, and vowed never to fish there again.
Now I relate something which happened while I was actually eel fishing. I do know that this will appeal to you, being the over sexed lot that you are. I was fishing at St Margaret’s (what again) and had taken three good eels. I had to keep a careful ear open for footsteps on the gravel path as it was strictly no night fishing and the area was prone to being patrolled by members of the L.A.A. I was on a winner there because I used to attend every monthly meeting and so found out when a raid would take place. But I was taken completely by surprise when a young lady appeared only feet away from me. She was dressed in ----- nothing at all! She asked if I could spare a cigarette, I found my packet and gave her one (a cigarette you sexy lot). She thanked me and went off up the footpath to the bridge from which they were diving. I had hardly recovered from that when her friend appeared. “Sorry to trouble you but have you got a light?” While fumbling for my lighter I asked if she too would like a cigarette and I prepared my lighter to give her a light. The lighter was one of those where you can adjust the flame and of course I turned it to full. The flame lit up the night sky and clearly showed everything. And I do mean everything. She thanked me and trotted off giggling. I never saw them again although that was not the reason why I kept going back there. Just for the sake of you lot yeas they were big girls. I don’t know who I fancied more, the lady of the lake or the two girls at St Margaret’s. Well I do, but I’m not telling you.
I do not do a lot of winter fishing, but I went to Kingsmead for a spot of roach fishing. On the few occasions when I have fished there in winter I have taken some really good roach, but I can never find them in summer. However, it was one week before Christmas 1971 I wanted to end the year with a fish or two. It was really cold. If I had been a brass monkey I would have been in trouble. The wind was very strong and I thought to myself those people sailing in the weather must be as barmy as I am. I was fishing just round the end of the peninsular at the entrance to the boat channel. The bank was very steep but at least I could get a bit of shelter there. A single yacht came round the point and as it hit the wind over it went. I watched with amusement at first as the young lady tried to right it. It was but a few feet from the bank. The lady called out to me to say that the mast was stuck in the bottom and could I please help her out of the water. I tried in vain to grasp her hand but could not reach her because of the high bank. Yet I had to do something. I had with me one of those extendable carp net poles, favoured so much by carp anglers. I set the pole up and was able to reach the lady and with a lot of luck I managed to get her up the bank. She was frozen and shivering like mad. So I got her to sit in my bivvy with a blanket around her while I made some strong coffee. I had already boiled my kettle just before the incident so the coffee was soon made. We chattered while the coffee was consumed and I offered her half a bar of chocolate which she accepted readily. Now the Yacht Club building was round the far side of the lake and as it was almost as far to my car I suggested that she take a steady jog without stopping back to the Yacht Club building. I said that I would go with her to make sure that she was OK. This we did and when we got there she was looking a lot better. She thanked me and invited me into the club but I declined, as I had already had tackle stolen by youngsters at Kingsmead and hurried back to my swim. Back at the bivvy I made another coffee and sat there for I don’t know how long. Suddenly I heard footsteps on the gravel and I looked out to see a well built and well dressed gent in plus fours. He asked if I was the person who had helped his daughter from the water. I confirmed that I was as I got to my feet. He took my hand and put his arm round my shoulder. Apparently, he was the commodore of the club and the young lady was his daughter and secretary. I would like you to accept this gift from us all at the yacht club he said, and handed me a shallow parcel neatly wrapped in Christmas paper. Thanking me again and wishing me happy Christmas he went on his way. On getting home I found the parcel to contain 20 of the biggest cigars I have seen and 4 packets of good quality cigarettes. On the rear of the parcel was his title and the club telephone number. I rang the number and his secretary answered. I asked if I could speak to the commodore and thanked him very much for the gift. He replied that it was all they could do a short notice and asked me if I would do him the honour of attending the club Christmas dinner and dance. He would not take no for an answer and so I went along. It was a splendid affair and after a really excellent dinner he addressed the club members present (nearly one hundred of them). After giving the members some late news he went on to introduce me and described in detail how I had saved his daughter and possibly saved her life. They made me an associate member and promised to help me at anytime. So one good turn deserves another so they say. I will relate more little incidents next time.
Meanwhile tight lines.