For his next top 12 waggler hero, Jim Baxter chooses Steve Gardener., who has been loyal to his local Dorking match team throughout his long career.
I’m no great football fan, but enjoyed reading an article by Matthew Syed in The Times where the former table tennis champ turned sports writer had a go at Jose Mourinho, calling him "crass" and how he was "not fit to tie up the bootstraps of Man U’s former star Paul Scholes". Jose might have a fine managerial record, but not everyone considers him ‘special’ when it comes to sportsmanship.
Scholes thought his own long-term success was helped by sticking with his local club that he had loved since childhood. He became a great team man, admired by Cristiano Ronaldo among other luminaries, and this reminded me of my next choice of angler for my top 12: Steve Gardener.
Steve has similarly been loyal to his local Dorking match team throughout his long career and was pivotal in their rise to fame, becoming arguably the country’s top match team.
The only time I have knowingly fished next to Steve was on my debut in the prestigious Courage Championship on the Warwickshire Avon at Evesham in 1983. I was drawn favourably, one peg below the Isbourne mouth, while Steve was pegged just upstream of the far bank tributary.
I was enjoying a good season and approached the match full of confidence. Fishing waggler and maggot for dace, I came fifth overall, winning my section, but was 1oz shy of the frame with 10-10. Steve won the match with a cool 14lb 15oz of roach on stick float and caster. Two days later I was also left ruing the 4oz I fell short of the frame in the Wychavon Council match, but unlucky or not that is by the by. I was really picking up the crumbs while Steve had seized the moment.
This was a major win well away from his home circuit, at a Midlands match mecca fished by some of the UK’s premier anglers. It could be said it was perfectly timed for Steve to announce he was ready for bigger things, ultimately leading to his England call-up in 1987. Twelve months later (’84) he struck again, winning the Courage team match on the same three-day Bank Holiday festival with 16lb 7oz of dace, roach and chub on the waggler.
Well before Steve had won the Courage he had made his name in the south of England, winning matches on all the main venues and methods. His friend Kenny Collings, a talented float angler himself, told me how good Steve was on the waggler on all the Thames hotspots. "If I weigh 10lb, Steve will often put 12 on the scales, and if I have 12, he’ll (annoyingly) have 13 or 14!’’ he said.
Living over 150 miles apart our match paths hardly ever crossed again, but let me look into why he’s earned the reputation of being England’s most consistent international performer over 27 years from 1987 to 2013.
In 1989 Steve won six out of seven Thames Opens, including five in a row and a magnificent 33lb 7 1/2oz record catch of dace from Molesey. Along with Kenny and his other close friend Steve Sanders, mostly under team captain Andy Love, Steve formed the nucleus of the emerging force that became Daiwa Dorking. Famous for his knack of drawing a good peg (even in his first ever match at a youngster he drew the end peg!) when it matters in big events.
Steve is one of an elite group to win a National individual title, in 2011, but far classier to my mind were his first two Nationals when he scored a 7th and a 3rd overall, before adding an 8th at his fifth try. Here was a guy who could obviously turn average pegs into potential ‘framers’. From the 1970s onwards, his Dorking team colleagues regarded him as an ‘indisposable asset’. With Steve’s help they dominated the Angling Times League finals, winning nine times since their first triumph in 1978.
Apart from his many success on the Thames with a waggler, stick float, feeder or whip, he’s also won on all the main southern rivers with great regularity. He won his first big match, the 200-peg Hardy Cup on the River Arun, with 5lb 15oz. A week later he won his second open on the Arun, and a week later he won a club match on the River Mole before winning two opens on the Mole that same season. He won his debut match on the Sussex Rother near Rye with nearly 20lb of roach on waggler, and the list simply goes on and on.
Getting one’s tackle presentation just right for a given swim is key to fool crafty fish, but Steve said in his recently published book that his style was centred around feeding the swim. He knew that the when, where and how much to feed was vital to get right to win matches, and described a clever feeding technique from a 1981 Angling Times article entitled ‘Divide to Conquer’. This was all about keeping two separate swims ticking over on a river for either a stick float or waggler approach.
He described a main ‘catching area’ close in and a main ‘feeding area’ or sanctuary a rod-length or so further out into the stream. But he would constantly feed both areas, lightly on the inside line where he was trying to catch, and heavier a rod-length or so further out to hold a bigger shoal.
Steve would plunder the inside line first, where fish on the edge of the main shoal could be drawn inside. If he could catch a dozen or more fish here, then the main shoal could gradually be built up undisturbed and hopefully gain confidence. At some stage he might have to risk venturing into the main shoal to continue catching, but the more fish he could peel off it to catch on the inside line the better.
The strategy of trying to pick fish up from two lines, resting them periodically to allow the fish to regroup, will reliably beat a one-swim approach on all kinds of waters. To scatter any shoal of fish by taking too many from one line too quickly is often the route to a blank spell or a dead swim, by shall we call it ‘killing the golden goose’.
I describe a big maggot line and a (nearer) pinkie line for catching Witham roach in my book ‘The Rising Antenna’, and the value of picking fish up from the edges. But I know I had not worked this out as well as Steve had back in 1981. Two years younger than myself perhaps, I’d say in terms of match experience, on more varied waters than the Trent and Witham where I went mainly, Steve was maybe five years ahead of me. He won his section in the Ladbrokes League at Evesham for instance, seven years before I even saw the river. I also believe he’d certainly have used his two-swim feeding tactic to win that Courage title and many others to follow, building up his reputation towards the end of the century and well beyond.
Steve Gardener won a remarkable 11 team gold medals for England, five team silver and two team bronze, plus an individual silver and individual bronze. And so this extraordinary matchman, with a deadly drawing hand to match his skill, is quite simply a must for my waggler team.
Part of this article was gleaned from ‘A life in Match Fishing’ by Steve Gardener and Pat Newman, published by Mpress Media Limited, available from Calm Productions, Kent BR6 6JE. It’s a fantastic read for anyone interested in improving their course fishing and I would thoroughly recommend getting hold of a copy.
Last date edited: 8 January 2021