An interest awakened - by Neil Lindsey-Taylor
As a 15 year old in 1975, the summer holiday break was something of an event, which took on a momentous status in the year. A shadow of someone passing the front window and the following knock on the door signalled the arrival of Macky. Two years my junior at 13, he had become my best friend since our move to Blackpool 2 years ago. “Do you want to come fishing?” he exploded excitedly, “Dads taking me to Larbreck and has said that you could come too”.
The word “Yes” had barely left my lips before Macky quickly reeled off the time of departure, my tackle and bait requirements and then left. Getting ready to go must have taken less than 20 minutes, with the Lemon Curd sandwiches and flask of milk coffee prepared by my mum taking the longest.
I was changed and my tackle ready in less than 5 minutes. The current riches of tackle available to the youth of today, would see most 15 year olds requiring a full on tackle trolley to get out of the door. Even by the standards of the day, my tackle was poor. Consisting of an Intrepid Boyo reel, the budget of all reels, an 8’ solid glass pier rod, which weighed a tonne, especially for me who at 15 was only 4’ 10” tall, weighing 4½ stone wet through. A basic tackle box and folding stool completed my equipment. The stool was a very recent addition to my tackle and had meant that I had now joined the ranks of those who really went fishing.
A scoop of maggots from the nearby hardware store saw me quickly making my way to Macky’s barely 300 yards down the road. On arrival at the front door, I was greeted by Bernard McWilliams. ‘Mr Mac’ was grey haired, tall, lean and muscular with a weather beaten look from years of window cleaning in the seaside air. At 15 and 13, respectively he seemed to us a complete ogre, but today, he was the cause of our excitement and nothing could dampen our spirits.
Having quickly dug some worms from Mr Mac’s well-kept back garden, we were loaded into the Triumph Dolomite. Both inside and out it was spotless including the boot. And those locks!! We both knew that the doors and boot must be clicked shut. NOT pushed! And definitely under pain of death as we saw it, NEVER slammed!
Mr Mac did not really talk to us, rather at us, to let us know what to do or more often what not to do. “What’s Larbreck like?” I asked eagerly. “There’s 3 pits, one full of bashers (small rudd or roach), one we’ve never fished and the other full of good rudd and eel’s” Macky explained, “Eels!” I exclaimed. I had never even seen an eel except in Macky’s fishing book. A book whose every page, word, and picture we had caressed and savoured. It was full of real tales of the capture of fish like Jack Hilton’s 40lb carp from Redmire on slug and the tale of how the record great white shark had been caught. On its well-thumbed cover was a picture of a pleasure angler lifting a 1lb eel out of the water. This is what I was going to catch; I had caught rudd before, a new species was not to be missed.
“How do you catch the eels?” I asked. Unexpectedly Mr Mac entered the discussion “You have to fish on or near the bottom on worm or 3 maggots, but you must let the float run.” Advice from Mr Mac was as good as direct from Mr Crabtree. From the perspective of these eager novice anglers Mr Mac had caught monsters, so he was listened to with the same attention as when the Head Master taught the class for the day. He must be right!
Larbreck I was to discover could only be fished with the kind consent of Mr Deason the farmer. Whilst Mr Mac and Mr Deason passed the time of day, Macky explained that his dad had known Mr Deason for a long time and that only Mr Mac was allowed to fish his ponds. By now, it was 10:30am and the summer sun was shining down through a clear blue sky. In reality with my now greater knowledge, the worst weather I could think of to capture my chosen quarry my first eel. However, in our naivety, we were totally oblivious to this fact, the pit contained eels, and we were going to catch them.
On arrival at the first pit, one which we would later call the Eel pit (obviously), Mr Mac who clearly did not want to spend his relaxing day sharing a swim with two excited boys said he was going to fish the basher pit.
The pit we were to fish was tree lined, although with access that was open. The east bank was flat and shallow, used by the cattle in the field to access the drinking water the pit provided. One ‘proper’ swim existed in the southwest corner. A ‘proper’ swim by definition was one where you could get setup at the water’s edge with a bank of a minimum of 4’ in height behind you, sheltering you from the summer prevailing wind, which on the Northwest coast was always West or Southwest.
Spring picture of the Larbreck Eel pit showing ‘the swim’
The water quickly dropped to 6’-7’, with a hawthorn tree to the right and a large ash to the left, which hung over the deepest area of the pit. The water had a greenish yellow hue, which we jokingly put down to cow muck and pee.
Being left-handed, I was always on the left with Macky on the right. There was no practical reason behind this arrangement, because my rod was setup exactly the same as Macky’s, and we sat with one front rest immediately in front of us and the rod butt resting on the crossover of our folding chairs between our legs.
Macky picked the spot to fish, 25’ out towards the tree on the left; he had had rudd and eels (2) from there before. We threw in several handfuls of maggots and some bits of bread, just in case the eels were not interested. Next up went the rods, my beanpole and Macky’s ‘floppy’. No this was not a medical condition, just the affectionate name given to Macky’s float rod, one that had the softest action I have ever seen. Striking with this rod was very much a knack or luck depending on your point of view. Both of us opted for a large quill attached to our 3lb line with a size 12 hook so that we could fish with either worm or three maggots as instructed. Having never fished worm before I opted for three maggots and Macky followed suit. Shortly we were both cast out.
Our conversation turned again to eels; Macky explained that when he’d had his two eels before, both he and his dad had caught after fine bubbles had started to appear in the swim. The pit only contained rudd and eels, so this had to be eels feeding in the swim. We both sat back and relaxed anticipating the sport to follow.
During the first 20 minutes six rudd were caught up to 6oz, quite large for pit rudd, but no eels. Having discussed the relative merits of worms over maggots in the pursuit of eels, Macky showed me how to bait up with small garden worms. No big lobs here. My first cast saw immediate results, the smallest rudd of the session. Not being easily deterred I rebaited with worm and recast. All the rudd bites, including the one on worm, had been very typical quick bobs, followed by a quick disappearance of the float, this was soon to change.
Macky whispered, “Look can you see the bubbles?” and yes, he was right! In the area that we had been feeding with maggots and bread were three independent sets of bubbles and as we studied them, they were clearly moving through the swim. This was similar to carp and tench, not that we knew anything about either, our experience of carp was of the crucian variety, and not many pits which we had access to contained tench to our knowledge.
Macky was the first to experience a bite, his float bobbed very slowly a couple of times, lifted ½” and then slowly started on a run submerging like a slow moving U-boat. Macky waited until the float was fully submerged before he struck. Very quickly, his capture was out of the water, within seconds a 10” eel became a ball of eel, line and snot. Macky’s solution was to bite the line, let the Eel untangle itself then unhook it with his trusty disgorger. I took hold of the slimy thing and put it in to the keepnet. Yes, in those days we kept even fish of that size in our 6’ minnow-mesh net, which was unfortunately not knotless.The image of this knot tying eel had not matched my idyllic view of capturing an eel that ‘the book’ had allowed me to create, I felt let down.
With the sun high in the sky, I quickly found my next down side to eels. My hands set. Where there had been slimy snot was now a crusty film. I spent the next 15 minutes dipping my hands in the water and rubbing them on the grass, before I was satisfied they were clean enough for me to pick up one of my lemon curd butties. Whilst I was resolving my snot problem, Macky who had deliberately let me carry the eel to the keepnet, apart from laughing continuously, explained that this type of eel was called a bootlace, because it was long, thin and could tie itself in knots. After a bootlace came a ‘snig’, which would weigh 12oz to 1½lb, although no rationale was forthcoming as to why such a name was given. Above 1½lb’s it was an eel, this at that time seemed very logical and could not be challenged.
It took a further 40 minutes for the next bite to materialise and that fell to my rod. The vision of that bite, although identical in every way to that experienced by Macky and thousands afterwards is still with me today. The excitement I felt that first time, which would match a screaming run of a big eel heard via an Optonic on a known big eel water was every bit as heart racing.
I struck, now up to that point my biggest fish had been an 8oz crucian carp, so in the context of my fishing experience to date, the fight that followed felt fantastic even on the solid glass pier rod. The fish made movements I had never seen or felt before. Macky shouted, “Don’t let it get near the hawthorn tree. It’ll wrap its tail around a branch and you will lose it.”In reality, all I had to do was to reel in slowly and the conclusion would not have been in doubt. However, the seizure that excitement can cause at hooking what was obviously my biggest fish and a new species as well almost took me. The fish was led into the shallows in front of me and lifted from the water. At 14oz, a weight, which was taken from a set of little Samson spring scales, so it could have been anything from 10oz to 1lb 2oz, a new PB, had been set.
This eel was much simpler to unhook, although to our inexperienced hands still a two-boy job. With me holding the eel as straight as possible, yes stupid again getting snotted up and Macky unhooking. Unfortunately, it was deep hooked so Macky bit the line. Later trips to Larbreck would educate us to strike much earlier avoiding deep hooking and yes, we took a towel for the snot (eel slime).The eel in the keepnet, I eagerly reset my tackle and cast out. With the sun now shining down directly onto the area, being fished no more bites were had on this session. At 3pm, Mr Mac returned from the basher pit and told us to pack up. We released our prizes, which quickly disappeared in to the coloured water and contentedly broke down our tackle.
All the way home all I could think about was, when can I return to Larbreck to catch some more eels and where else could I catch them. This experience was I suppose like many others I have experienced when catching a new species, however for some strange reason I had become addicted.
Unlike the carp or catfish angler, where the size and power of the quarry are obvious factors in justifying a dedication to their capture- especially specimens- the eel has had me ever since. Yes, I would argue that pound for pound, they are better opponents, and to me they are the most fascinating and beautiful of fish, but to the masses, it must seem a strange addiction. The fact that all the ‘specialist’ groups that have come into being relating to eels, the eel Study Group, National Anguilla Club and the British Eel Anglers Association have been small in membership are testimony that eels are different. Moreover, so by my own confession am I.