(Long read:) At the last South East FAAP meeting the Northampton Nene delegates concluded catches of small and medium sized roach were on the up south of Stoke Bruerne. They weren’t so sure about their northern reaches. Needing a roach bagging machine to test the waters, who better to ask than the squatt wizard himself, Graham Smith...
...who I caught up with one late autumn afternoon on the Grand Union Canal at Bugbrooke.
Until recently, I’d never had anything other than a passing acquaintance with ‘Smiffy’. With a reputation for a sharp tongue with anyone acting remotely incompetently, I thought it best for my self-esteem to steer well clear. Out of the blue, Graham turned up at the Three Locks Let’s Fish event back in June 2018 donating gifts aplenty to the Trust. This included well over a hundred quality canal floats, winders and numerous other accessories which have been now been put to good use. One such recipient was young Joel, whose mum was interviewed and who weighed in over a kilo in the junior canal championship. It was that generosity coupled with his appreciation of the fine detail of the coaching activity that made me begin to reassess whether there was more to the man that just his legendary wit and fishing ability.
Someone once informed me that Graham was a true cockney born near Bow Locks. That turned out to be untrue as Graham was born in the posh sounding city of Verulamium, known these days as St Albans.
Whereas the five-year-old Paul Turner snared a gudgeon on his first outing, it took Graham 10 visits at a local St Albans pit to break his catching duck. Oh, for Let’s Fish back then. Eventually after watching a fellow angler successfully landing numerous specimens, the young Graham finally tempted a greedy perch to swallow the bait and was hooked for life. After joining Verulam Angling Club he won the junior points cup with a record score and did likewise in the adult section not long after graduating to senior level.
In search of a sustainable source of pocket money to fund his fishing, he ventured forth to a hairdresser/tackle shop by the name of Leslie’s of St Albans and landed his first job. Owned by Leslie Crawley, they later expended, opening a second shop, Leslie’s of Luton, which was one of the largest tackle retailers in the UK for some number of years before, alas, finally closing for business in 2015.
Wishing to improve his fishing knowledge, Graham ventured out onto the open circuit. His first big win came in a 150 pegger on the Grand Union Canal at West Drayton recording around 6 lbs comprising a bonus three-pound tench to add to 3lbs of small roach. Sometimes he would choose to just watch the great anglers of that era, the likes of Billy Allen, Denis Dixon, Terry Freeman and Micky Burrell, advice that still holds true today for any aspiring youngster.
In 1984, he received a surprise phone call from Brian Gladden inviting him to represent the London Anglers Association in the Division Two National to be held on the London Canals. In the line-up were Dave Coster, Derek Young, Peter Vasey and Micky Thill, the latter being runner up to Kevin Ashurst in the 1982 World Championships and a member of the Essex County world club championship winning team the same year. Northern raiders Southport won that 1984 match ahead of ABC, who took revenge the following summer. Graham’s LAA team took a respectable fifth spot.
Quick to spot a quality angler, Dave Coster soon signed up Graham to the Tottenham Angling Centre squad and he was quick to acknowledge that he learnt more from Dave that any other angler to date. After three years, Smithy moved to join the Image Black Horse squad, apparently named after the Leighton Buzzard Pub. Fishing alongside the likes of Pollard brothers (Mark and Chris) Mark Bird, Paul Coombes and Rob Hewison; these were the squatt fishing years. The Image Blackhorse team dominated the canal circuit where they attacked venues with small wagglers and heavy feeding of cloud groundbait, hemp and up to 3 pints of squatts per match and winning nearly everything they entered until the rod and line was superseded when they developed a ‘more finesse style’ of squatt fishing on the pole.
When he joined in squad in the early 1990s, Graham quickly realised that alongside Mark Downes Starlets team and the Highfield team with the likes of Vinnie Smith, Mark Addy and a young Stu Conroy in their ranks, he had joined the best bloodworm and joker team in the country. Derek Young, John Weeden, Pete Vasey, Dave and Mick Vincent, Graham Dack, Dean Field, Bob Watt, Tony Marti to name but part of the squad; what a talented and dedicated bunch of match anglers they were. It was in this period after huge success on the Midland and South East canals that Graham acquired the nickname ‘The Squatt Wizard!' Smithy was winning everywhere with what was at that time a very fashionable bait smashing venue records at Berkhamsted with 27lb and 31lb of skimmers, weights up to 20lb of roach on the London canal system, double figure weights of gudgeon.
In the early part of the new millennium, a mixture of ex Trev’s and Essex County anglers formed Team Image. In the first two years they won Super league final at Gold Valley, the Angling Times Winter league semi on Kennet and Avon and silver medal on the Shropshire Union National. In 2009 Blackhorse re-formed, again becoming the dominant force in the area; winning nationals, winter leagues, winter league final medals and local leagues. It seems now that Graham is enjoying his fishing more than ever.
Nobody could accuse Graham of sticking to just one venue as is the trend for some anglers these days. He’s no mug on rivers or stillwaters either and has triumphed on Fenland drains, the Rother, Wallers Haven, Witham, Stanborough Lakes, Willow park not forgetting the Kennet & Avon, Trent & Mersey and Staffordshire & Worcestershire canals.
Canal fishing remain his first love and over the years Smithy has travelled far and wide. He competes as often as he can on the fiercely competitive and banterful West Midlands canal circuit. He rates Paul Turner as currently the best match organiser around. Despite the occasional witty quip regarding the capability or otherwise of a couple of qualifying heat organisers, Graham has been a staunch supporter of the canal pairs championships finishing third with partner Lee Newson on the 2017 Erewash final, a lost tench denying a possible victory. A section win followed in the final of the 2018 event, alas Lee drew an average peg and just couldn’t find the bonus fish or two they would have needed to make the frame.
Lack of space precludes a complete list but here’s a selection. Graham’s five most enjoyable wins were (in no particular order) the inaugural Terry Freeman memorial match, the Black Country canal championships with a 51lb bag of beam to break the canal record, a winter league semi-final victory on the Grand Union at Milton Keynes, the Ian Gregory memorial on the Grand Union around Northampton and the Towcester open, which used to attract huge entries by today’s standards. He also won a 150 pegger on the Aylesbury Arm with a catch that included a 10 lb carp caught on single joker on a whip and size 24 hook.
Wining individual leagues is a sign if match fishing consistency and Graham has won the Watford League, Luton league, Wigston winter league series, West Middlesex winter league, the Southern canal league, both the Northants summer and winter league with his all-time favourite being the back to back wins on the Great Raveley Drain Xmas series
We asked Graham to produce two lists, one of the best 10 anglers who are currently competing seriously on the match circuit plus a legends team which could comprise those still competing and those no longer active. The lists were tweaked on more than one occasion, a reflection of either Graham’s attention to detail or the stick he might get from those left out.
Top ten current competing anglers (in no particular order)
Top ten legends
‘You can’t, be serious’ opined Smithy when I suggested I could give him some tactical advice as to why he had failed to catch a single roach at the Bugbrooke practice session for the upcoming Northants County Cup match.
After discussing some of the science behind Phil Smiths zander research, I advised that his best chance of success was to make sure to start drawing pegs with good heads of fish in them. Graham has taken notice for he can now add the Northants County individual title to his lengthy list of match fishing triumphs, following this up by winning his 55-peg section win at the Dynamite Bait Canal Pairs final. Who would bet against Graham and Lee Newson winning this event in 2019, providing they qualify for the final of course. If you fancy taking on Graham and Lee in the final, here’s a list of the qualifying heat venues and how to book on them.
Last date edited: 25 March 2019
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.See more blogs from this author