By Trevor King - 2004
Friday afternoon. Not been a good day. Only nine days of the season left. Bloody cold. No chance of it getting much warmer by all accounts either. Cycling into town, over the Tesco’s roundabout, doing about 25mph, some old buffer in a silver Citroen decided for me that I was turning right instead of going straight on and pulled right out in front of me. Just missed. A few choice words issued from the mouth of A Very Angry Hippy. Old Buffer remained in stalled car, staring straight ahead, lip quivering. A most wise decision.
Got into town in one piece, calmed down, had a coffee, paid in a cheque, bought some bits, went back home. Being Friday, I was expecting a call off Bob Turner to arrange our afternoon’s fishing but instead he told me that he was passing me over in favour of a couple of floozies by the names of Nick and Martin and they were all going down the Teme. Well, there’s a thing. Not only that, but the evening before I’d been fishing with an old pensioner buddy of mine, who was in the most cantankerous, manic mood I’d ever seen him in and though he said he’d call me to arrange to meet up wherever I was going, the telephone stayed silent. As I had a lot of work to do, I decided to leave it like that and later, at four o’clock, I headed off alone to the Kennet.
A funny old trip down. Couldn’t quite place what the exact problem was, but people seemed to be driving straight at each other; speeding up when they ought to be giving way, that sort of thing. Everyone really manic, for some reason; walking too fast, talking too loudly; a kind of tension in the air. Kids being hyperactive. Idiot teenagers with white baseball caps and hoodie tops, all in groups doing that dumb, hunched-over walk ‘lark dey’s livin da harrd larf’, instead of coming from a commuter town in the South.
Finally got to the Kennet, away from people. Happier, now. Quickly assembled the rod and opened bait box. Worms: not had a barbel on worms for a while, now. Bob reckons they work best in low, clear conditions rather than floods – just like today, then: the Kennet was see-through. Couple of casts later, a bow-wave followed the bait in on the retrieve. Jack pike? Big perch? Re-cast. A tap-tap-tap through the line. Nothing else. Reeled in. Tiny perch, engorged on the size two. Hmm… change bait. Getting colder, now.
Secret weapon in the bag - roast chicken skin. My old Dad and I used to catch a lot of good fish on this, and on other things filched from Sunday dinners – beef fat, pork rind, gammon, bacon, and (a real killer this) lamb fat. Chicken skin as a bait came to prominence in the 1970s when a few anglers publicised some catches on the stuff, and it became a bit of an in-vogue thing to use. I publicised a 9.08 back in ’84 which I said I’d caught on ‘this unusual bait’, as Anglers’ Mail put it (even though it was really caught on beef fat – I thought everybody used chicken-skin!), and when Tony Hart later wrote: “…one of the local anglers even makes a practice of catching them on chicken skin,” I naturally thought he was talking about me. Then again, The Main Attraction, who lived a few houses up the bank from me at the time, took it for granted that it was him; had to be – that’s why he’s The Main Attraction; it’s always him. Everyone, it seems, claims to have invented the use of chicken-skin. Imagine the disappointment when Tony finally told me ‘one of the locals’ was an old boy they used to call Stan the Chicken-Skin Man. That’d be Stan Wicks, then? But he wasn’t as old as my old Granddad was, and he used to use it.
Colder, now. Commotion downstream. The miserable old cob-swan was chasing after a Canada goose, and though the latter have been on the Kennet for some years, now, it was the first time I’d ever seen a swan take any more than the most cursory notice of one. In fact, the goose soon took off with a great squawking when the swan actually started to attack it. Everything was angry today, it seemed.
God, it was cold. The water-temperature was about 7 degrees, but there was a horrible chill about the air, despite the fact that there was no wind. I hunkered deeper into my fleece and pulled my hat down over my ears. ‘Not a good day to be a nudist,’ the voice of Willie Rushton said, an echo from somewhere in the past. Massive lump of chicken-skin on the hook, so had to step up the leger from an eighth to a quarter-ounce. Didn’t actually have any ¼ oz leads, so moulded a lump of plasticene round the smaller one. Cast out again, letting a good loop of line come off the ‘pin. Not long to wait for a bite, and a flick of the wrist sent a 1½-pound chub leaping into the air. It actually fought quite hard; lovely little thing. Fed it a lump of meat for its trouble and slipped it back. Cast out an even bigger bit of skin - like using an old envelope as bait.
My God, it was cold. Just gone six o’clock, now, and I was beginning to shiver slightly. Thankfully, the rod was my Daiwa quiver-tip, so no absolute need to touch-leger. This was good, as my fingers were beginning to hurt. I put the check on the reel, fastened up the zips on the bag, and, letting out a bit more slack line, balanced the rod on top of the side-pocket. Good way of minimising resistance to a taking fish, this – the rod is so finely balanced that it can be pulled round by the slightest increase in tension. Doesn’t work in the wind, mind, but on a still evening, it’s just the job. It even works with a carp rod.
My God, it was really cold! I’d even set off one of my hot-gel packs and shoved it down my front, but my jaw was beginning to clamp up all the time. I had my gloves on, my hands were in my pockets, I was wearing four layers and my long-johns, but still it was bloody freezing. Everything had gone quiet, the first stars were shining in the darkening sky and I’d just about had enough.
It really was bloody cold! Six-fifteen. “That’s it - this is stupid!” I said to myself, “If you’re not enjoying it, Trev - go home.” Went to stand up, rod disappeared off sideways. Grabbed it. Struck… and an absolute bloody leviathan swirled on the surface then shot into midstream.
I’ve had some monsters before, but this was the first time I’d ever known right from the outset that I was into a Very Big Barbel Indeed. Very worrying – very nice new reel, a 4” Leeds ‘pin, kindly given to me by its maker, Dave Lewthwaite, but only filled with 6lb Maxima. Wasn’t expecting anything big, see; not on a day like this… Ripped off my gloves with my teeth, managed to get the reel braked with my thumb, held on and hoped for the best. The barbel didn’t seem to care, and just moved off downstream. Rod bent round to the butt, fish slowed, then settled into what has often been described as an ‘immovable sulk’. Really thought it’d managed to get into a snag, but it could be felt, pulsing faintly for a while, then suddenly took off on a couple more runs. Soon on the surface, though, and coming to the net. Shaking, now, tried to get it in. Nearly managed it, but it felt the rim, righted itself and shot off downstream again … leaving the bloody leger-bead stuck in the mesh! Noooo!! Couldn’t free it! Fish taking yards of line! Having visions now of going in, trying to free the lead, stupid visions, line finally parting, a high keening wail on the night air, nobody hearing, nobody caring, as world falls apart, angler loses biggest ever fish…
Managed to calm just enough, pointed rod at net, and carefully, oh so carefully, so… very… slowly, turned the reel. The fish showed clearly at surface, looking more like a small crocodile than a bloody barbel. If there was any convincing left to do, this did it – really had to get this fish in. Care – so much care: turn at a time. Slowly: “Please-o-God-please”. Fish responded to slight pressure, came to Daddy like a bloody dog on a lead. Fish nearing net. Me shaking like a leaf. Rod tip and fish now three feet away from each other, line still caught on net… two feet… one foot… few inches, rod tip nearly touching nose of fish, fish lying alongside net… please… flip net round… can’t be, not after all that? Is it safe?
“Bugger me I’ve netted it!” Tried to lift net. Awesome weight. Dropped rod. Fumbled with hook. Dropped weigh-sling. Couldn’t stop shaking. Had to be huge… very, very big. Net back in water. Coffee – calm down. Finally plucked up courage to weigh it.
“Not done, yet, Mate,” echoes a memory of a conversation with Bob. “There’s a monster coming out of the Kennet, and it’ll be on something really ridiculous, like chicken-skin.” Another memory: Small Man, years ago, protesting: “I don’t know why – it’s just a feeling, that’s all… you’re going to get a thirteen-six…”
Tackle packed, fish safely in margins. Drag my wife Lin out later with the camera. Shopping can wait. What a day! Nearly killed on the road. Manic, angry people. Couldn’t settle down. World full of nutters. Swans attacking everything. Monster fish. Walked away from Kennet. For the first time since nightfall, saw the Eastern sky. Bloody great big, round, smiling, shining white face