Long read: National fisheries and angling manager, John Ellis, revisits his 1960s childhood to consider how UK coarse angling has changed and whether it can still inspire youngsters to enjoy the natural world.
Fishing's been part of my life for 52 years. I first set up a rod on the banks of Llangollen Canal, near my home town of Whitchurch in Shropshire. Maybe it's a sign of the onset of old age, but I think I was fortunate from a fishing point of view to have grown up in the sixties. There have been many changes, but, on balance, fishing was better back then.
Plenty of anglers
Younger readers will scoff and wonder what this old veteran is carping on about. For starters, angling was very popular back then. No need for national angling strategies, coaching initiatives or the latest mobile phone apps. Every boy in my class went fishing, especially at the start of the season. Oh, how we waited in anticipation for that June day – ‘the glorious 16th'. The banks were lined with anglers, but there were no bivvies for shelter. Only the occasional bedraggled tramp spent a whole week in a tent by the waterside. When people fished all night, they stayed awake watching a luminous float.
Read all about it
We didn't crave social media or websites, and tablets were strictly for headaches. Growing up, I owned two fishing bibles. ‘Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing' sold two million copies and Crabtree's young apprentice, Peter, had the luxury of idyllic fish-filled pegs on his doorstep. How I envied him. The other book was ‘Benny Ashurst on Match Fishing'. Crabtree was fictional, for author Bernard Venables referred to venues and fish species we could only dream of. The fishing and methods described in Benny's book were much closer to our reality, and lessons learnt then still hold true today.
We expectantly awaited Thursday, when the weekly angling papers arrived at the newsagents. We could read the latest Dick Walker article and find out the match results and other fishing news from the previous week. Had the great Ivan Marks won another 500-peg match, or was it Billy Lane or Kevin Ashurst's turn?
Champions of the world
Every year we hoped the England team would win at the Coarse Angling World Championships. It helped when selectors started hand-picking the team. Before that, each of the top six club teams in the All England Championships nominated one angler to represent the country. Alas, it would be the likes of Fougeat, van den Eynde or Tesse who took the world honours, with Lane, Harris and Heaps doing us proud individually on occasion.
English team dominance eventually happened when Dick Clegg took over in the mid-1980s, beginning a golden era of international success. Nowadays it seems as if most anglers don't much care if the team has triumphed on European soil or not. People cared about the EU then though. Mr Heath took us in and Mr Wilson sat on the fence about taking us out again, so some things never really change.
Photo: Billy Lane was world angling champion in 1963
Species and venues
I was fortunate to have the Llangollen Canal on my doorstep and full of gudgeon, a species on the decline 50 years later. Someone caught a burbot in the Fens, which was the last one to be seen in the wild in the UK. Roach and perch were recovering after both suffered disease outbreaks. I could walk or cycle to farmers' ponds that contained nothing but stunted crucian carp. A two-ouncer was a specimen.
Common carp were uncommon beasts in our neck of the woods back then. Nobody I knew had ever seen or caught one. They were the stuff of Walker or Crabtree. It never crossed our minds that someone would soon invent high biomass fisheries with daily feeding regimes and aerators running 24/7 to keep the fish alive and healthy. We never imagined matches being won with a quarter of a tonne of fish caught in just five hours and held in half-a-dozen keepnets.
There were five fishing clubs in our town, compared to just one today with only a handful of members. At the start of the fishing season on the glorious 16th at least 300 people, all male with a healthy contingent of juniors, would take part in a match on a Sunday morning on club lakes or the canal. Four or five anglers and their tackle fitted into one car (we needed much less equipment). They were early starts, with 6am draws and fishing from 7am to 11am to beat the boat traffic. At the weigh-in you took your catch to the scales-man. Then a dash to the pub.
Not all pubs opened on a Sunday over the border in Wales in the sixties. Shops hardly opened. It was a traditional day of church-going and fishing. In the early weeks of the season, if you were late arriving for the match there would be no pegs left. Hard luck.
Weights were low, but we didn't complain. Canal matches would be won with maybe 2lb. Catches on the lake were heavier, typically 3 or 4lbs, but there would be far fewer fish caught. I preferred the canal because I wanted the float to go under often. Waiting patiently on our club lake for tench that never seemed to take my bait was purgatory. I was 14 before I finally landed that first tinca. It weighed 2lbs 1oz, almost a specimen in its day.
Mid-season saw a coach outing or two to the Severn or its streamy tributaries. Older anglers talked of crowds of urban anglers alighting at Grindley Brook Holt or Fenn's Bank railway stations on the Cambrian Line for their weekly escape from the industrial grime. Dr Beeching put a stop to that with his 1963 report recommending the closure of 55% of Britain's stations.
The right tackle
Four shops in Whitchurch sold fishing tackle, of variable quality, plus Woolworths of course. Today, best I know, there's no fishing tackle outlet there at all**.** There was no carbon fibre, so glass and split cane rods were the norm. We read that people in the south used poles. We all thought that was strange, especially when we heard about a chap called Ray Mumford using them. But he won plenty and should perhaps have fished for England. We didn't know that Kidderminster had won the 1964 All England Championships on the pole. Poles would never take off, it was said.
Weights were made of lead. We sat on creaky wicker baskets, and used only one rod and reel. We pretended to be tough but almost froze in the cold months, for winter fishing clothing was in its infancy. The keen ones, like me, happily persevered in the Angling Times Shropshire Winter League hoping to avoid a dry net. The Severn flooded then and still floods now. I used to hope the river match would be moved to the canal, where I stood a better chance.
Boilies, pellets, sweetcorn and continental groundbait didn't exist. We had white or brown crumb for groundbait. They didn't sell squatts in Whitchurch. Some weeks I would cycle the 26-mile round trip to Nantwich to Billy Jones' shop to procure my supply. Would many teenage kids do that today? Alas, getting hold of the ‘yellow feed', still the best loose-feed on canals, has got no easier in recent years.
We used worms, bread and an assemblage of different maggots. We hunted out wasps' nests for the grubs and cake for trips to the Severn. Lots of adults bred their own maggots called ‘gozzers'. They were soft and got you extra bites. I took up maggot breeding aged 12, much to Mum's chagrin. Tom Wilkinson, a wonderful, friendly family butcher, would supply me with a pig's heart. It cost 10p if his wife or staff were at the counter; free of charge if Tom was on his own. I shall be eternally grateful.
We'd never heard of big money matches. For us, fishing was a social activity. Winnings were spent on next week's bait, but trophies were valued and the annual dinner and dance was a proper social occasion. People volunteered for committee work. There were even elections to secure your place. The big match of the year was the All England Championship. A man from our town, Charlie Caufield, fished the match in 1946 on the Witham. He slept all night on the bus, for in those austerity years money was too tight for frittering away on accommodation. He represented Shropshire – what an honour that would be.
Alas, it eluded me. Truthfully I wasn't close to being good enough. And not good enough for the renowned Wyche Anglers, who finished second in that roasting hot summer of 1976 to the great Birmingham Anglers. Billy Jones and Harry Moulton were like gods to us kids. An even better local team, Mohmar, emerged. They had their period at the top but like so many such teams, it wasn't to last. The National Angling Championships went from strength to strength, increasing from one division up to six, but 20 years later they were back to just two.
Saving our sport
“No good will come of this fishing lark,” Mum reminded me frequently. “Stick to your studies, my son.” “Education, education, education,” was her mantra. Maybe a young Tony Blair overheard her one day and copied the idea. I disagreed about the fishing part, but it's dangerous to argue with your mum.
The 1974 Junior National Championship attracted over 700 kids, while the same event in 2019 had a mere 48. Will our Let's Fish! events help reverse this trend? I do think they can, because the magic of fishing is still there. You can see it in young people's faces as they wait for their first session.
Teenagers might be a different species from my youth, but younger children are just like I was. They want to be outside, seeing what adventures the world has to offer. We know there is a nature deficit amongst young people and that taking part in outdoor activities offers tremendous health and wellbeing benefits. If the fishing community pull together through the Let's Fish! programme, maybe we can make the difference for the current and future generations by getting them out on the banks.
We'd love to tell you more
Our newsletter is packed full of exciting updates and stories of how our charity keeps canals alive.