Winter leagues: the early years

October heralds the start of the traditional winter league programme, when in times gone by the weather turned to snow and ice, and there were fewer opportunities to fish. Angling historian John Essex explores the history of how winter leagues got started and the personalities who shaped them, on and off the bank.

Team photo of Cofton Hackett - winners of the Angling Times winter league final in 1966 Cofton Hackett - winners of the Angling Times winter league final in 1966

Pioneers of York

Throughout match fishing history, a small number of clubs often ran a winter match programme for members. But for the enthusiastic open match circuit competition angler, the ‘money spinning’ calendar stuttered to a halt come the beginning of November, aside perhaps from the annual fur and feather match held just before Christmas.

Some resilient clubs like York AA ran a number of matches in the depths of the 1945 winter at Kexby. Anglers competing included George Laybourne, later to be the 1946 National Angling Champion; Bill Noakes (pictured), the ‘Mystery Angler’; and Tom Outhwaite, the York captain.

Bill Noakes being presented with a trophy in 1945

Angling Times take control

My first winter match circuit forays took place in the Eastern Region Angling Times Winter League where, at the time, Leicester, later fishing under the Ibstock banner, had significant success. For me it was a sensible and lightweight introduction into the crazy world of winter match fishing, as only the team’s top anglers’ weights counted. This allowed newcomers to do their own thing, learn from their mistakes and at the same time pick up knowledge from better anglers pegged near them.

This new-fangled league was the brainchild of Angling Times General Manager Ken Sutton, who in 1954, dreamt up the idea of the major angling associations competing against each other during the long, lean, cold winter months. After consultation with Harold Ladlow, secretary of Lincoln and District Angling Association, the first Eastern Region League was fished during the winter of that year. They must have been mad. Lined trousers, super warm waterproof coats, fleece-lined neoprene gloves and hot foot boots just didn’t exist yet.

Historic records

Exercise book containing the winter league minutes from 1954 to 1970

I have the original Winter League minute book (pictured), a fantastic legacy from the estate of the late Frank Butler, and my suspicion is that this was once the property of the Lincoln secretary Harold Ladlow. However Frank acquired this little treasure is irrelevant, what is important is that it is still in circulation and the information therein is being used.

The minutes were roughly entered into an imitation red leather ‘University’ exercise book, covering the league from its inception in 1954 up to 1970. Each set of minutes is neatly signed by its chairman, W K (Ken) Sutton.

The first teams to sign up for the new league were Doncaster, Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Sheffield Amalgamated, Notts AA, Lincoln, Leeds, Boston, Grantham, Worksop, Grimsby, Notts Federation of Anglers, and Sheffield and District. At the time, all of these teams were considered great and successful National teams of their day.

Making the news

Ken Sutton had already covered the early Winter League history in his book, ‘Angling in the News’ (pictured), not surprisingly an Angling Times publication. But there was another motive for Ken to support such a challenging and let’s say controversial diversion from the norm.

Ken wrote, “In order to provide some interest for match fisherman in wintertime, and incidentally to provide news for ourselves, I suggested to the late Harold Ladlow, the Lincoln Secretary, that a winter league might be formed in the Midlands and Eastern counties, all the matches to be fished after the big open matches had finished in October.”

A similar approach was made to the Leeds President, Norman Marsh, and the much-respected Leeds officials the Trigg brothers. Angling Times put up the trophy and without more ado some 400 top matchmen began to fight it out in the depths of winter, with each match fished on a different water.

Cover of Angling in the News by Ken Sutton

Two delegates from each of the teams who fancied a crack at this new competition were invited to Lincoln’s Durham Ox Hotel, run by none other than Ken Eastmead, son of Lincoln’s long-serving captain Wally Eastmead, to write up the rules. Anglers from Leeds, Worksop, Grimsby, Lincoln and Nottingham arrived in pairs, almost a parody on Noah’s ark.

Proper-sized teams

At the heart of the matter was the new thinking on team numbers. With the National Angling Championship settled on teams of twelve ‘good men and true’, it would have been easy to adopt the same practice, but this was not to be.

“The rules of the League make it possible for each member team to bring along a coach load of anglers numbering up to a maximum of thirty-five. Only the top twelve weights in each team would count in the team’s final weight. Then if there are twelve teams in the League, the winning team earns twelve points, the second eleven, and so on.”

Coach loads! Yes, that was how it used to be. Very few anglers had their own private transport, so the clubs filled their coaches to the brim.

It's cold out there

The first two years saw very severe winter weather and the grumbles soon started. Angling writer Colin Graham described the winter leagues as the “toughest trial in match angling, the annual series which pits the best all-the-year-round matchmen against each other in competition. And the accent really is on the bitter. For the hardy anglers tough enough to stick with the league regularly face fog, ice, snow, gales, floods and, worst of all, blank days.”

Lost records

Sadly there are no records of the actual matches or the series as a whole in the minute book, and the only source of detailed information that I am aware of is the Woodbine Angling Year Books from 1972/3 compiled by the late Colin Graham. Researching this requires either those two publications or a trawl through old copies of the Angling Times, if you can find them.

Expansion

After the formation of the Eastern League, it wasn’t long before Yorkshire followed suit, and so on until there were enough leagues to let the area-winning teams compete in a national grand final.

The first national final was held in early 1960. This was fished on the River Nene on the coldest of March days, such that only Stan Ayre of Lincoln weighed in, settling the team and individual titles weighing in with just 13 1/4 ounces.

Consequently thoughts became focused on the potential use of other venues further afield that might offer more consistent results, and the first Irish final was held in 1962.

Kevin Ashurst in 1968

The Leicester years

Lincoln won the event in 1959/60 and 1960/61. Doncaster won in 1961/62 and 1962/63. Leicester then won three finals in a row, setting a record-breaking total league series weight of 324-2-4 in 1964/1965, narrowly beating their 323 lbs from the previous year. They did have two match angling greats, Benny Ashurst and son Kevin Ashurst (pictured), ‘guesting’ for them.

Kevin stormed to victory in the 1964 grand final on the River Suck, a major tributary of the River Shannon. He weighed in with 56-9-0 and Leicester romped home in the team event with 145-3-8. Leicester AS also won the 1965 final held on the Blackwater, having the individual winner, Colin Naylor, with 19-2-8.

Cofton Hackett won in 1966/67. How many of their team can you recognise from the photograph at the top of this page?

Last date edited: 1 October 2020

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