Benny and the Arlesey Bomb

The great matchman, Billy Makin, shares some of his memories with us. In part 2, he recalls his introduction to ledgering and lessons learnt from the great Benny Ashurst.

Billy Makin (left) winning trophies again Billy Makin (left) winning trophies again

Visit to Carr Mill Dam

The swim was good, the weather not so. I was around 16 years old, drawn on the deep drop at Carr Mill Dam, St Helens. Following a sharp overnight frost, there was a thin skim of ice around the margins. The occasion was the weekly Sunday match, always a 100 peg sell out. It was obvious that little more than ounces would be needed to frame. Drawn next to me was dad and unknowingly we were sat in what became two of the most famous swims in Lancashire.

Carr Mil dam still a popular fishing venue Carr Mil dam, still a popular fishing venue

New fangled device

1957 Jack Clayton inventor of the swing tip

Four days earlier, as was my normal Thursday routine, I got up early to read the Angling Times as soon as it was shoved through our letterbox. Something caught my eye. There was an article about some new-fangled device, invented by Jack Clayton, called a swingtip. It had been responsible for some mighty catches of bream in the Fens during the previous summer.

Pondering it’s uses

My fertile mind kicked into gear, "Why just bream?" I pondered. There were many occasions when the tow on the local canals was too great to allow our newly invented wagglers to operate properly. Dragging a caster along the bottom too quickly simply wasn't an option. What if I could create a swing tip that was so sensitive that even the notoriously canny Bridgewater canal roach bites could be detected?

Innovation

Advert for the Clayton Swingtip

I doodled all day long, drawing up many options from a variety of ideas. Eventually I fixed on not just the tip itself, but a method of attaching it to my rod. That evening, mum noticed that one of her knitting needles had disappeared, and dad noticed that I was doing a bit of work on his semi redundant tank aerial pike rod. I moved back the end ring one inch, slipped on a two-inch length of bicycle valve rubber into which the newly painted nine inch length of knitting needle was inserted, complete with end ring. I was ready to rumble.

young Billy Makin nets a surprise canal carp Young Billy Makin nets a surprise canal carp

Match day

Dad looked on in amazement as I set up my newly created swing tip and his stiff tank aerial pike rod, before bursting out laughing. Anglers from either side also laughed as they examined what they originally thought was a broken rod. I had been having a good run of results all season on the dam, so why would I want to fish with a pike rod that seemingly had the end broken off and re-attached?

Casting challenges

The whistle sounded and out flew my gear. It didn't fly very far, landing with an almighty splash at my feet. My swing tip attached to dad's pike rod had a design fault. It had a home- made fuse wire ring at one end and no ring at the other end, the end where it was attached to the rod by the valve rubber. Several attempts later, the half-ounce bullet lead finally found its mark as I learned to adapt to the casting problem.

Groundbaiting challenge

There were no groundbait catapults in those days, all bait had to be thrown in by hand as per NFA rules. Fortunately, I’d a pretty good throwing arm. Out flew half a dozen tightly squeezed tennis ball size balls of white crumb containing as many squatts as I could pack in without the balls disintegrating in mid-air.

Crushed maggots

After a couple of hours fishing, no one around me had caught. I’d reeled in numerous times, each time finding my single maggot had been crushed without any form of registration on the swingtip. Later that week, as dad and I sat around Benny’s kitchen table, I discovered why and how to correct it. My terminal tackle was a half-ounce bullet lead, through which the line was directly threaded and stopped by a BB shot. As the lake only contained small roach, nothing registered.

Bites at last

Around the three hour mark, the tip finally showed a little life, straightening out, slowly, ever so slowly. I struck like a lunatic; the resulting breakage being inevitable. "What tha' do that for Billy?" said dad, now stood behind me, also trying to figure out why none of the bites had been registering.

I re-tackled using the exact same terminal rig and cast out again. Staring glumly at the motionless swingtip, I knew I’d blown my chances. Suddenly, after a couple of twitches, slowly, it once again straightened. This time I was under control and gently lifted the rod.

Expectant crowd

"Fast don't bottom Billy?" said dad, who was still stood behind me. "Yea." I replied." But it definitely was a bite." The rod suddenly came alive and the Intrepid Envoy reel began to backwind. "It's a fish dad," I said, "I'm running out of line, my reel's almost empty." In the still, icy, Carr Mill Dam air, my excited voice echoed and reverberated around the lake. Ears pricked up. No-one back winded at Carr Mill, there was nothing big enough to take line. Nobody within 100 yards either side of me had caught and so an excited gallery began to form behind me.

Handling the pressure

With no more than a couple of yards of line left on the reel, the fish turned, reluctantly gave ground, shaking its head, each thump speeding up my already racing heartbeat. I can remember suddenly feeling very cold – trembling. I felt uncomfortable with so many people behind me. What if I lost it? Bit by bit I gained line, half, maybe one turn of the handle at a time. This was taking forever. I began wishing that I had stayed at home that morning. There was a collective gasp from behind me, some 30 plus anglers were stood on the high bank observing me. They could see what I couldn't - the sun was in my eyes. That is why the swims have forever been called the Sunnies. I froze.

Dustbin lid

Lying meekly in submission in front of me was the biggest dustbin lid sized slab in the world. I grabbed my landing net. "Ooowed on a bit Billy." said dad. "Thas not gooin to get that thing in theeeer." He dashed back to his swim next door, grabbed his much bigger landing net and brought it over. Virtually every one of the 100 anglers gathered behind me for the weigh in that day. No-one had ever seen a bream of this size before for there were none in Lancashire. The resulting publicity in the Lancashire press was unprecedented. How big was the biggest bream in the world that I had just landed? Well, no-one really knows, nor will they ever do. It was too big to fit in the aluminium scales pan and as the highest weight in the match was 6 ounces, it didn't really matter. No-one had ever witnessed a bream bigger than a couple of pounds, so estimates varied from 6 pound up to double figures. Nobody had a camera, we didn't even get a photo.

Crushed maggot conundrum

How had I managed 30 unseen bites when few people in the match had even had one? Why weren't there 30 fish in my net or at least 20? I checked out the local tackle shop and found a cracking 8ft fibre glass light spinning rod that was perfect for the job, spending the rest of the money on a Mitchell 301. I then shortened the home-made swing tip by a couple of inches whipping on another ring to stop the tangles during casting. Everything this end was now perfect, it was the business end that troubled me, something was drastically wrong.

Weekly maggot collection

"Ey, young Billy, come int kitchen and get waaarm, I want a word wi thi."
We were at Benny Ashurst's house collecting our bait for the weekend. I was now sat in his kitchen having a cup of tea and explaining how I had caught the biggest bream in the world.

The papers had made a meal of it, their focus being that it had been too big for the scales; one of them had called me the boy with the golden arm. The name stuck for the rest of the time that I fished up North, fortunately it didn't travel down to the Midlands with me.

Words of wisdom

Benny was more interested in the bites that I hadn't seen than the bream. "Show me thy set-up Billy," he said, passing over a piece of paper and a pencil.

Benny shook his head, smiled and spoke. "Thas dooin it all wrong young un, this is how tha does it." He then drew up a simple paternoster rig, explaining how the length of the tail had to be varied, depending on the bites. "Tha doesn't want a bullet lead either Billy, tha needs an Arlesey bomb. He went on to explain feeding patterns. My head was spinning. Dad and I thanked Benny for the cup of tea, me clutching a couple of precious items from Benny's tackle box, my schoolboy brain now filled with enough ledgering knowledge to take on the world.

More Benny wisdom

Benny Ashurst could talk for hours about fishing and I was quite happy to spend hours listening "Don't use that white groundbait, it clags, and can sit on't bottom like a ball of dough." He then gave me a bag of brown crumb. "Only feed once when it's coowd (cold), never top up and when thi bomb hits bottom, count to five and then pull it toward thi, that way thell have a straight line from't lead to bait. If tha's roach fishin, tha doesn't want thi maggot sittin on top of thi lead, tha'll never see a bite that way."

Just for the record, even today, how many anglers know this, and do in fact straighten out their terminal tackle?

Back to Carr Mill

Next Sunday morning I climbed off dad's scooter to be met by "Ey up, it's little Billy golden arm." I hadn't been the only one to have read the article and when my acclaimed drawing hand pulled out the same peg as the previous weekend, you can imagine the comments that followed. As the starting whistle sounded, 99 anglers cast out their floats, I cast out one of Benny's Arlesey bombs. The method worked. Either dad and I both won the next matches in the series. Four weeks later, 80 anglers cast out their floats; 20 anglers cast out various leads, coupled with swing tips and a mixed collection of ledgering rods that had been cobbled together. Week eight was the last day before the close season and more than half the field were on the swingtip. Nothing stays a secret for long in fishing. It was to be more than decade before I received another fishing lesson for the greatest bream angler of them all.

Benny and learning to fish on canals

Benny once wrote that if you learnt to catch fish on a canal then you could catch them anywhere and Ivan Marks said something similar a few years later. They were both spot on and it’s interesting to note that half a century later, Benny’s wise words appear as part of the Canal & River Trust Let’s Fish philosophies. You can find out more about the Trusts Let’s Fish campaign here.

Last date edited: 16 May 2019

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The team undertake a diverse range of work including looking after the Trust's £40 million worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people, especially youngsters, take up angling on the canal. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.

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