1978/79 Matchman of the Year, Billy Makin, recalls growing up in the Lancashire town of Leigh, home to several maggot breeders and the birthplace of the sinking caster.
It’s encouraging to see the Canal & River Trust's Let’s Fish initiative and I wish them all the luck in the world in reviving the art of canal fishing. Billy Makin on canal fishing
During mid-summer, I occasionally sit in front of the telly watching the final stages of the British Golf Open, usually with a great deal of envy; not because of the money or the fame on offer - no, it's something far more important than that, or at least for me it is. I envy the fact that the result of every British Open ever held is not only recorded for posterity, but every winner, seemingly since time began, has retained his own special place in golf's history. The commentators recall what Tony Jacklin had for breakfast on the final day of his Open winning debut all those years ago.
Today's anglers probably couldn't even name any of England's former world angling champions. We’ve not been short of winners on the world stage from Billy Lane and Robin Harris back in 1960s through to the five victories of Alan Scotthorne and four of Bob Nudd in more recent times.
Despite being a minority sport when I was a lad; a sport with extremely limited access for 90% of the population, golf has developed and retained its own history but angling has largely forgotten its history.
The story begins in the Lancashire coal mining and cotton mill town of Leigh in Lancashire, close to where I grew up, and where I occasionally went to school between fishing days.
Dad was quite a good match angler, but in his late teenage years, not only was tackle primitive, but money and resources were in short supply. Groundbait and maggots were luxuries, usually being replaced by finely sieved black dirt and chopped worms, coupled with whatever maggots could be home bred.
Nothing was wasted in those days. Burnt toast and stale bread was always saved, much of it collected from neighbours, to be ground down into a rough type of groundbait using a metal, mince beef grinder. This gave another bait option of pinched bread on the hook.
This was to change, as Benny, together with three other men, (Pendlebury, Quinney and Mossie) recognised the enormous hole in the market for maggots, and four of the north of England’s five major maggot breeders began to emerge, all but Don’s of Mexborough being based around Leigh.
Early maggot breeding around Leigh was done on the fish heads of cod sourced from Fleetwood, then a major sea fishing port. At the same time, the country's only two squatt breeders set up, again around Leigh, both men's sons attending the same school as I did and were friends. These were Johnsons, whose farm at Hindsford was next to my junior school and Pascalls, located just outside Leigh. Some aspects of squatt breeding remain closely guarded secrets but the Johnsons kept pigs and I’m convinced that they kept them for reasons relating to squatt production.
I now have to enter a little into the realms of folklore, as the emergence of the caster has been claimed by others, however I am pretty sure that the following is correct.
Alf Pendlebury (Pengy) was sat on the banks of the River Severn during a summer heatwave, competing in a big match. Now as Alf was one of the big four4 Leigh maggot breeders. (I worked for him during the school holidays some years later) He had a big container of maggots, which was quite a rarity in those days, as the average angler could barely afford more than a handful, which would set them back a tanner (six old pence).
With the heat, his maggots began to turn, so as an experiment, he slipped a caster on his hook.
Immediately, he was into a big roach. Next cast - same result, and so it continued. Who should come walking down the banking?
You've guessed. Benny Ashurst was more than a little interested. Being one of the big four Leigh breeders himself, he immediately set to working on how to stop the casters floating. He discovered that if riddled soon enough and dropped into water, they would remain sinkers and if the water was constantly changed, they could be kept usable for several days. Benny was on his way to near immortality. Leigh became the birthplace and the home of the caster and with it, began to produce some of the finest anglers in the country.
Throughout the rest of the country, anglers had to rely on the tackle shops for their maggots – although as John Essex recalls mail order was an option until 1956. The maggot king himself, Arthur Bryant was selling maggot by mail order back in the Edwardian era.
Anglers from Leigh simply popped along to the nearest of the four maggot breeders' farms, and collected pints of bait for a fraction of the cost of that charged in the shops.
Firstly though, owing to the primitive tackle on offer, ways had to be developed to capitalise on the fact that wherever they went, the Leigh anglers would be the only ones with quantities of the deadliest bait yet discovered.
I'll cover the early progress of caster fishing in a future article.
Back in the day, it was our fathers who introduced us to the art of canal fishing. So many kids in that era became lifelong anglers. For what they used to say about northern canals is true, ‘if you can catch fish on a tough northern canal, then you can catch them anywhere in the world’. It’s encouraging to see the Canal & River Trust's Let’s Fish initiative and I wish them all the luck in the world in reviving the art of canal fishing.
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