At the end of the summer season last year, young anglers from around the country gathered on the Shropshire Union Canal, near Market Drayton for a national fishing participation event like no other. The National Celebration of Young People and Fishing is the UK’s largest annual junior event. Many of the youngsters have spent the last few weeks or months developing their skills as part of our Let’s Fish! programme. Waterfront took a walk along the towpath to meet competitors.
We joined the second day of the event, which saw 120 juniors, aged 11-15 taking part. But the day before, another 80 cadets aged 7-10 enjoyed their own participation event, alongside another 19 youth anglers aged 16-20.
Young anglers and their mums, dads, and Let's Fish! technical coaches arrived from as far away as Sussex and Cornwall and Lincolnshire and Lancashire to join in. A very early morning start for many, but by midday everyone was set 20 yards apart along two miles of towpath, ready for the event to kick off.
As Peter Henery, our angling development manager explained, the rules are simple. “Just catch as many fish as you can over four hours. Perch, gudgeon, roach, bream. It doesn't matter what you catch, they all count and the biggest weight of fish at the end of the afternoon wins.”
He was keen to point out this was much more a celebration of fishing than a serious competition. “We've got a lot of technical coaches who are very experienced match anglers on the bank helping out. Mixing bait, setting up rigs, giving young people advice and demonstrations. But ultimately, it's an inclusive event for young anglers with a range of skills, experience and ability. Our aim is to make it fun, in a very friendly and supportive environment.
Everybody leaves with a certificate, a medal and some vouchers for fishing tackle, thanks to our sponsors. If you landed a gudgeon you even won a gudgeon mug. Plus, there's a range of individual and team prizes for the winners, five runners up prizes and awards for the most improved anglers."
We are always on the lookout for talent especially so in preparation for the United by Birmingham Commonwealth Games this year as we're scouting for teams to represent communities from the home nations and overseas commonwealth communities. Many of the young people taking part have come through our Let's Fish! Programme making it a good training ground! Peter added:
“I would say 75% of the young people taking part have come through our ‘Let's Fish!' programme at some point. But we changed the format of Let's Fish! a little to add a development programme for people who were showing a keen interest and wanted to develop their fishing skills further.
While Let's Fish! begins with free introductory sessions open to everyone, the development programme is by invitation only. It's a way of preparing promising enthusiastic young anglers for an event like this, giving them the confidence to participate alongside others when some are still in their early fishing days.”
With the scene set by Peter, we walked up the towpath to meet some of the young anglers taking part. As the rain began to fall, we met young Jenson Whitmore and his friend Woody Williams from the Bitterwell Lake Fishing Team near Bristol.
Only Jenson was competing but having come 7th in the Cadet competition the day before, Woody was keen to support Jenson.
Jenson's mum told me: “He had a few coaching sessions and now he's out every weekend fishing. He just loves it, it's this little niche he's found. It's lovely to see them out enjoying themselves in the fresh air.”
Woody's mum agrees. “It's great that they are working together because you can just see it all going in. Everything the coach was telling Woody to do yesterday he's taking on and encouraging Jenson to do likewise today."
Under the next bridge we met one of many female participants, 15 year old Jodie Deacon, coached by her Dad Jonathan. Rumour had it that Jodie was possibly in with a chance of taking away the big prize that day. And she was certainly a study in concentration as her dad chatted to us.
“She's up and coming,” said Jonathan trying to play things down “I never thought she'd last this long to be fair. I thought she'd be off with her mates or boyfriends by now, but it seems her passion for fishing is in the blood. She's competitive in everything she does and that's not me pushing her, that's just the way she is. It's not just fishing it's everything."
And she obviously made an impression as she was subsequently selected to be the captain of the English Girl's Gold Team and in the spring of 2022 participated in the Angling Trust England ladies trials which is used to select the international team for the ladies world championships. She's also recently qualified as a level one coach.
Around the next bend Arjun was just as happy, even if his net wasn't quite so full. He only started fishing that summer but has been attending Let's Fish! events every week near his home in Northamptonshire.
He proudly showed me his worms, his maggots and his sweetcorn bait.
“Sweetcorn sometimes catches big fish, but different types of maggots, pinkies and squatts. I've caught six or seven so far…”, Arjun told us. Big fish or tiddlers? we asked. Arjun breaks out into a big smile, stretching his arms in and out to demonstrate. “Well, when I say big … I mean quite small.”
There's always a tall tale to tell on the canal bank.
Finally, after a long walk we reached peg 119. Ben and his coach Sue were second to last in line. With only minutes to go before the end of the match Ben was determined to catch one more, before the weigh-in started. Sue explained that they met when she was already coaching Ben's brother, Sam who has autism.
“I'm a lead coach for Northampton Nene Angling Club and I run fishing sessions for children with special and additional needs. It's very calming and therapeutic. In 2021 I had over 100 people involved, people who had been suffering with isolation after Covid.
I also run other sessions for people from black and minority ethnic groups. It got quite competitive. At one stage we had a match going on between some families from Kenya and Zimbabwe.
I learned to fish growing up in Zimbabwe myself. My dad took me from the age of three, down to the river. It's not like fishing here. You can't lay ground bait like you do in a canal. You have to learn your watercraft, looking out for fish making a nest by rocks or under a fallen tree. So I think my watercraft skills are quite advanced.”
At that point whistles blew along the canal bank. Time was up and the big weigh-in began. Everyone was eager to weigh the fish that had been kept alive and well in holding nets on the edge of water. As soon as the all-important weigh-in was done, every fish was returned safely back to the canal.
All that remained was for all 120 young anglers and their parents and coaches to gather at a local Cheswardine village hall for the prize-giving, with cans of pop and a burger to celebrate a wonderful day out by the water.
Sadly, Jodie and the others we spoke didn't bag top prize this time. Huge congratulations to Sam Moulton though, who won the individual cup with 6.32kg of fish and the Sensas Smithys Black who scooped the top team prize in the Junior Category on the Sunday.
But this was a weekend with no winners or losers. Everyone who took part, left with memories to treasure. And a determination to come back in summer 2022 to catch the one that got away.