With the new coarse fishing season about to open on 16 June the members of one of the more unusual angling clubs in the UK will have been busy preparing their craft so that they are 100% waterproof for the big opening day.
For the Francis Francis Angling Cub is the last punt fishing club on the Thames and their members carry out their fishing from punts moored in traditional style across the river.
Francis Francis (1822 to 1886) was a prolific angling author. He was angling editor of the Field magazine for more than a quarter of a century. He established the Thames Rights Defence Association which had as its objective the farming of fish for reintroduction into the wild. He also played a role in the introduction of trout to various other countries where they did not naturally exist.
The club was founded in 1906; based in the Barmy Arms at Twickenham, Middlesex. From its very beginnings it was a punt fishing club. Outings took place exclusively on the tidal Thames between Richmond and Teddington every Sunday during the coarse fishing season. Originally members hired the punts they fished from but over a period of time the club built up their own small fleet of 8 punts. Typically these punts were 24 feet long and 4 feet wide.
Members fish the Thames from the drop half weir at Richmond upstream to Teddington, which is semi tidal water. The fishing rights here, like in all legally tidal waters, actually belong to the Crown. An Environment Agency rod licence is still needed for coarse fishing though. The half weir operates only at low tide to keep a sufficient depth of water in the section.
As the tide rises, the gates are lifted up out of the water and remain in the up position until such times as the tide falls to the height of the gates, when they are lowered back in position again. Thus the fishery experiences the full tide but, as the water is held back by the half weir, does not experience the full low tide conditions.
Originally club members had to reside in Twickenham or very close to it. They used to meet up regularly during the week in the Barmy Arms Public House for drinks and this fine hostelry remains their base today. I first came into contact with the club in 1958 and knew a good percentage of the members.
However I was too young to legally venture into the pub and could not join as then, just as now, you needed to be aged at least 18 years old in order to join the club. At that time all the members were local, which was very handy as most were tradesmen. During the river close season period, you would regularly see members walking down the road with tools to repair their punts.
Stories of the club from the Second World War are legendary and include an incident when the pub in Church Road had been hit by fire bombs and was on fire just 100 yards away from the punts whilst the club was holding a meeting. The chairman asked if they would like to move to the air raid shelter, but the members turned him down as a member known only as Sid had just bought a round of drinks.
Then there was the case of air raids happening during a club match. It was agreed that members would fish on regardless. They were not going to let the Germans ruin their leisure time. The scales-man had to check that all fish weighed in were alive and not killed by any bomb.
In the club archives there are records of members gaining various medals, some for firefighting in the blitz. At one particular meeting several members’ wives turned up to complain that the menfolk were taking all the family bread rations for fishing. This led to a temporary ban on the use of bread as bait.
Back in 1958, I remember watching Joe Stevens, who was a legend in the club, known for his outstanding bags of big roach. I was fishing off the bank when he moored downstream and further out than I could fish.
I could clearly see what he was doing and the fish he was catching. As soon as his punt was moored, he placed a couple of big balls of mashed bread ground bait, weighted down by big stones, behind where he was going to fish, so that it was breaking up on the bottom directly in front of where he was going to fish.
He used a short rod which was possibly nine feet in length or even shorter. The reel was a centre pin and an old fashioned cork on cane float with the bulk shot close to the bottom.
After plumbing up, he started to trot the swim with wet bread crust and was catching good roach from the off. Most of the time the float would travel less than four feet before diving under. I then realised why the rod was so short, as the fish were taken very close to the punt. It was roach after roach for less than four hours and they had all to be over eight inches to be eligible to be weighed in.
He had left Twickenham Embankment, along with all the other club punts, and poled the punt upstream to Radnor Garden where he moored it. I recall it was about 8.30 am before he boarded his punt and he had to stop fishing by 12 noon, which gave him only around three hours fishing time. He weighed in an all-roach catch of over 50 lbs that morning with the best fish of over 1 lb 8 oz. I was so impressed that this started a 57 year career punt fishing on the Thames with hopefully plenty more to come.
This blog is brought to you by Bill Rushmer. Look out for part two of the story of the Francis Francis Angling Club, coming up shortly
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 The fisheries & angling team