Johnny Rolfe

The landmark year in the emergence of the waggler float was 1971, according to match legend, founder of the Shakespeare Professionals team and top Brummie, Ken Giles.

Last All England National

Despite the River Severn National of that year being largely dominated by small barbel on top and bottom attached floats like sticks, balsas and Avons, with Leicester proving triumphant, in the words of Giles, this was the time when the waggler method really started rivalling the aforementioned floats in terms of success. The Birmingham team practiced with the float even though in the big match it was categorised as a plan ‘B’ method.

Waggler hits the headlines

Nottingham’s Johnny Moult, a modest and understated angling genius, had previously put in some good match results on the streamy Severn at venues like Stourport with a bottom-only float, and the Birmingham anglers were not slow to catch on. Travelling North to the more sedate pace of the River Trent in the same year however, the bottom-only waggler was hitting the headlines consistently for match-winning catches. In September Benny Ashurst finally realised his ambition to win the Trent Championship, and he did so on a waggler with an 18lb catch, with some irony too as he was the great stick float pioneer and he and his pals had been ruling the river for some time with top and bottom style. But one man above all others was dominating the new-found waggler trend: Johnny Rolfe.

Recovering Trent

Waggler hero: John Rolfe

In the 1971-2 season the river at Burton Joyce downstream of Nottingham was returning to its status as a match mecca after the doldrums of the late 60s and the fish losses through the roach disease Columnaris. The roach fishing soon improved so much that several sections here including the ‘road stretch’ combined to gain the tag ‘the golden mile’. But to highlight Mr. Rolfe’s technique we’ll travel a mile or two downstream to Newark and where the A1 crosses the river – Winthorpe Bridge.

Downstream wind

Unlike the ‘BJ’ road stretch where the prevailing Westerly wind would blow from behind - easy conditions that allowed the use of a small to medium sized stick float, at Winthorpe the wind was often downstream and blowing slightly into the angler. This was just the kind of opportunity that Johnny Rolfe would relish. The distinctive smell blown down the river in this area was of sugar beet from the Newark BSC factory, and (similar to Bardney on the Witham) I always associate this with roach caught on caster, the vogue bait at the time. But even though I won a big Newark Open in 1973, I was very much a match rookie in the early 70s and looking up to some of the Trent stars in the match results, trying to improve my methods while taking the odd minor placing. 

Downstream wind

Some of the bigger roach had orange flashes around their lower gills, identical in appearance to the chrysoidine we coloured maggots with, but which we later found out were spawning marks. A stick float could be fished in this area when the wind blew favourably, but distance was limited whenever it was gusting ‘downhill’.

This was when ‘Rolfey’, as his friends called him, would put on one of his ‘swinger’ floats – an early version of a commercially made peacock waggler from Nottingham’s Gerry Woodcock, with a slim balsa body added – and cast it well out into the stream. If he found a decent shoal of roach out there he was in his element; while the stick float men were hampered by the wind, he had the middle of the river or not far short of it almost to himself, and by sinking his reel line from rod tip to float the wind effect was neutralised and he became odds-on favourite to win the match. 

Awesome run of success

One success quickly led to another, and he could not put a foot wrong. In October he notched up a 19-7 winning catch of roach from halfway down the road stretch – fishing caster ‘well out’, then in the same month scored a weekend double win at Burton Joyce, taking 13-5-8 of roach on caster in the Nelson Field to claim the Saturday match, then next day, not far from his previous day’s draw, won with 22-2-8 of roach to 12oz. Clive Brett, weekly angling columnist for the Nottingham Evening Post, wrote: ‘To my knowledge – though anglers whose memories go further back might not agree – no local matchman has ever had such a run of success as John. This is his sixth Fed match success of the season and in opens he’s won eight!’ John would go on to win 10 big opens by the end of the season.

Battles at Pierrepont

Moving forward to early August 1982, I was more experienced and winning matches on the Witham and elsewhere, and this was when I drew next to Rolfey on my first visit to the Holme Pierrepont rowing course, an excellent roach and bream lake before cormorants virtually wiped it out, on a Steve Toone evening match. We had a good battle and at the finish John pipped me to win the match with 18lb 1oz. It gave John five wins in six matches as I recall! Frame scores were: 17-14 (Stef Josko), 17-2 (myself), 17-1 (Wayne Swinscoe). I’d fed plenty of maggots and missed lots of bites, many of them obviously ‘line bites’ coming back with the bait unmarked.

Roach feeding tips

What impressed me about John was his comment at the end when he knew he’d won it: "You’ve fished a good match lad, but cast out too far (I’d gone a rod-length past John), and you have fed too often.’’ I’d got the fish flying about too high in the water. He had fed less often but with a good pouchful of bait and was able to catch four or five fish before feeding again.

Determined to succeed

Match anglers need many qualities and one of them is determination to succeed when things are not going to plan and the fish are less than obliging. The great John Dean, a Notts Fed team-mate, could turn his hand successfully to fly fishing for trout or salmon as did Johnny Rolfe for a change of scene. Deanie recalls a day spent trout fishing with Johnny Rolfe bank fishing at Eyebrook when in Deanie’s words the weather was ‘cold and raining all day and the wind was blowing onshore – horrible.’ They were supposedly pleasure fishing after all, and Deanie gave up, but JR fished on, eventually wading out into the lake to his wader tops and persevering until he got his trout limit. That tells us much about the great Johnny Rolfe. 

Last date edited: 5 February 2019