Next up in Jim Baxter's series on the top 12 waggler heroes is the incomparable Ivan Marks.
For his charisma, innovative thinking and all-round star quality, on either float or leger methods, few if any anglers can be compared with the late, great Ivan Marks. It is hard to imagine a more popular UK match angler anywhere, anytime, at his peak in the 1960s and 1970s.
Serving my angling ‘apprenticeship’ as I was in this period, Leicester and England international Ivan, together with Leigh’s Kevin Ashurst were the two stars of the English match circuit, setting the trend with methods we younger anglers tried hard to emulate. Ivan became my angling hero, as he did for many of my peers.
I respected both, but perhaps related more to Ivan because he was chatty and cheeky, and (at 5’ 6’’ or so tall) was more my size than ‘Big Kev’. Kevin, son of famous father, Benny Ashurst, was a champion angler before he reached his mid-teens, being a Trent match record holder on a stick float and future World Champion on a pole, but on the face of it he was a bit more serious.
It is hard to say which of these two highly talented all-rounders had the edge, but their legacy certainly improved the next generation of match anglers that saw out the 20th century and beyond. As match fishing boomed, Ivan wrote a weekly match column in the Angling Times and Kevin wrote one for the rival magazine, Angler's Mail. This period can fairly be called the ‘golden era’ when river championships and other big matches regularly drew 500 competitors, sometimes 1,000-plus.
In the early 1970s, fibreglass match rods were superseded by carbon fibre and just prior to that the ‘waggler’ entered angling parlance as the new name for a bottom-only attached peacock quill float. These two changes generally helped anglers fish a float more efficiently at a greater distance from the bank.
After the 1960s decade of swing-tip legering for bream, the next 10 years would see a float fishing resurgence on our major rivers and beyond. Both Ivan and Kevin, of course, could switch styles back and forth with ease on all manner of venues.
Ivan reigned as ‘the people’s champion’ for many years, and for good reasons. He was never shy at reaching out to others and helping them, either at home in Leicester where he skippered the successful Likely Lads team, or just about anywhere in the country he chose to fish, which made him revered by anglers of all ages. He was acknowledged as a ‘natural’ angler, but one who lived for his sport and worked hard at it.
When I watched him fish the 1973 National Championship at Langrick on the Witham for example, I squeezed in with a few hundred others at the top of the floodbank, such was his popularity. He attracted spectators like a magnet. Ivan laughed and joked his way throughout that match en route to a near 12lb catch for fourth in his 80-peg section, one that included the eventual match winner, Alan Wright with 40lb of bream. But how many other fish did the presence of the large audience stop him catching? It has often been said that spectators cost him many pounds of fish every season due to their sky-lining effect.
This 1973 masterclass was the best angling performance I had ever witnessed, and even to this day I have not seen finer. But it was the way he did it that was so unlike anything I’d seen before. Casual beyond belief, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard would have been proud of his ‘showboating’ that day, chatting to his audience and chain-smoking his way through the five hours (not to be recommended). He only seemed to have half an eye on his float at any one time. Yet he caught small skimmers consistently, and every walnut-sized ball of groundbait thrown to his float landed softly and with impeccable accuracy to the 20’’ or so square target of water around 12 yards range. I may have watched him through ‘rose-tinted specs’ that day, but would say he performed with 95 per cent efficiency despite the theatricals.
The Langrick ‘show’ is partly why Ivan ranks among my waggler heroes, combined with all he told me years later when I was able to meet and chat with the great man. And in a way my respect is as much for his innovation as all his great victories and consistency. Ivan’s bream skills were for a decade almost unbeatable, particularly his winning run in the Great Ouse Championship on the Relief Channel. But at a time when anglers used somewhat cruder tackle than today, Ivan caught bream ‘on the drop’ with a 20 hook to a 6’ long and fine (1.7lb) trace. This won him an unsurpassed three of these prestigious titles in four years with John Essex winning the year Ivan missed out.
But his float skills are just as legendary. He pioneered the zoomer float for catching bream well off the bottom on the weedy Welland, and the ‘pacemaker’, a balsa float for heavy running water with a slender tip to show up shy bites. On the waggler, or an early version of it, he seemed able to catch roach everywhere he turned up to fish, especially on the Fenland rivers.
When Ivan was dominating the Nene and Welland matches he used an ‘antenna’, very similar to a waggler in that it was fished bottom only, but it usually had a balsa body built onto a cane stem. The definitive waggler introduced peacock for the stem and came later. As it turned out one of my own favourite waggler designs, one that first worked very well for me on the River Witham, was something of an antenna/waggler hybrid and not unlike a float Ivan developed for the Warwickshire Avon.
The top three inches of any waggler is the key section in my opinion, the antenna or insert that shows the bite develop. The buoyancy of a 4–5mm peacock insert is perfect for dragging a bait over the bottom with the rig set overdepth, but for fishing off the bottom a thinner insert in another material improves the float tip, and for me it’s slim bamboo cane which helps gentle bites show up better. The only other tweaking required for seeing the cane tip easier where shadows are on the water, is to fatten up the top centimetre or so with red or yellow paint to improve the float’s visibility. (These days we’d likely use a hi-visibility plastic.)
Ivan had worked all this out for himself, of course, though he just used a convenient piece of wood for the insert, a cocktail stick.
If I can borrow an anecdote from Phil Coles in Mark Wintle’s excellent book ‘Ivan Marks and the Likely Lads’ all will become clear. This is what Phil said Ivan taught him just ahead of a Ladbrokes Super League match on the Avon at Evesham in 1977.
"The locals thought groundbait was the kiss of death but we had a different approach. We knew that if we just copied them they had the advantage and, at best, we’d be second. It would be better if we did our own thing. Ivan figured that a waggler with a cocktail stick insert and just ½’’ of peacock quill on the tip would show lift bites really well when the chub held up the small shot down the line, yet resist pulling under once it had settled. It worked a treat. Ivan said feeding small balls of groundbait packed with casters would concentrate the small chub which were mainly 6-10oz and as a bonus the groundbait pushed the tiny dace away. The chub were up in the water. The locals were spraying maggots but this brought in lots of small dace resulting in lots of half-hearted bites that were hard to hit and we figured this would waste a lot of time."
This league, I should add, was packed with top locals who knew the Avon far better than the Leicester anglers. Ivan and Phil finished first and second, with 22lb 15 1/2oz and 22lb 5oz respectively, both helped by the slim antenna. Ivan followed up by winning the final league match on the same method and same stretch. Around the same time he’d gained second in another big sponsored match, the Lawden Masters, again on the Avon at Evesham, also with 20lb+ of small fish. These results not only proved that Ivan’s groundbaiting theory was sound, it speaks volumes for the float design being ideal for the job at hand.
I say a good float for one water is a good one for any similar water, with dragging a bait on the deck of a pacey river the obvious exception for a cane tip. I know there are many good anglers who have never used cane in their wagglers, but for me when trying to catch fish on the drop it is vital.
At one time in the 1970s, though I have no written words to prove it, Ivan probably wrote an article that made me realise that a very slim antenna was key on a waggler for still or slow-moving water. At some point I tried a cane and from there I never looked back. To put it in a nutshell I believe the cane insert has helped me hit many roach bites over the years that I would have missed without one.
Ivan also taught me to use fine line below the float, double the length of the traditional ‘yard bottom’ of finer nylon tied the hook. As described in the book ‘Ivan Marks – the People’s champion’ in any swim of six-foot depth or more he would use twice that length of finer line for the added stretch it gave him. The line stretch assists the cushioning of the rod tip and acts just like elastic in a pole, counteracting the force of the strike and protecting the most fragile of hook-holds on a fish.
Ivan also designed the Daiwa MLB hook, and I used these hooks on the Trent for many years, favouring them to the famous Mustad 90340 for roach. Innovative Ivan, used lots of sugar and other sweeteners in his groundbait for bream when at his peak. I also believe he was using floating maggot long before the others realised what an advantage it could give when trying to catch bream or roach on the drop.
He was supposedly a man of few secrets, but perhaps the zoomer was one ace he kept up his sleeve. It was, after all, almost a licence to print money when only he and the inner circle of the Likely Lads team had the right float in the right conditions on the weedy Welland.
So, there you have it, Ivan, the ultimate thinking angler and waggler hero, he would easily command a place in any 12-man team of mine on any venue you care to mention.
Last date edited: 8 January 2021