Some anglers start young and carry on fishing for a lifetime. Others, for many and varied reasons, have periods of their life when they lose the fishing habit. With further change in circumstances, many lapsed anglers do return, for fishing is great for the health and wellbeing of the young and the more mature among us alike. A well-known name from the past have recently got back into fishing is Coventry legend, Pat O’Connor. This is his story.
Born in Dublin, (horse racing commentator Michael O'Hehir is my cousin) I never fished as a kid. My first experience of going fishing was around 1970, when I was persuaded by a group of drinking friends in my local pub, the Haven, to give it a try. I had no tackle so they all lent me bits and pieces ahead of the coach trip to the River Thames one midsummer Sunday morning. There were 40 anglers there that day and despite me spending most of it in tangles, I caught enough fish at my first attempt to finish fourth. Every time that I got a bite my heart was pounding with the excitement and if you pardon the pun, I was hooked.
I fished with a few clubs in those days and did reasonably well, winning quite a lot of matches. I was always intent on learning and improving my craft and if you want to, you can keep learning new things in angling for the whole of your career. As I became more experienced, I decided to have a go on the open match circuit. My first attempt was on the River Wellend where I came fourth in an 800-peg contest. I could have won it but for losing three big bream in weed.
Back in those times I had developed a method on the swim feeder everyone laughed at me for using it and I was called some choice names like Plastic Pat and Pat the Pig. However, I normally had the last laugh as I walked off with their money. I was very successful on the feeder for a good number of years before giving away all my secrets at a Coventry National Squad meeting. You can find out more about the history of the swimfeeder, which dates from the early 1950s, in our interesting article.
I first became involved with the Coventry & District Angling Association by becoming a delegate for some of the clubs that I fished with. Soon afterwards I was elected onto the committee. I have been a leader and organiser all of my life and was quickly elected as the Coventry match secretary. After that, I became the secretary of the Association and the match team manager. Coventry had a great match fishing tradition, led by the great Billy Lane with three All England national wins in 1956, 1958 and 1961. I am sure this will feature with loads of other fascinating history in John Essex' upcoming History of the National Championships book.
Open match organiser
As a match organiser most of my early competitions were on the rivers controlled by the Coventry Association. One of their prime still waters was Thrapston Gravel Pits which could accommodate 262 pegs. I was fortunate enough to win a good number of 200 plus peg competitions and my best result at Thrapston was winning the final of the Rugby Autocar sponsored competition which carried a top prize of £1,000 plus pools. That was a lot of money back then.
Canals to the fore
I was getting some great turn outs on these Coventry run competitions and through fishing a canal winter league in the mid-seventies, I realised the potential of the Oxford Canal as a top venue for the future. In the pre-zander days it held a lot of fish, especially gudgeon and roach and was a reasonably fair venue with good access in most places. I persuaded Coventry and Banbury DAA to put the Oxford Canal forward as a National Championship venue and it was awarded to us for 1981. It was the beginning of a glorious period in the history of canal fishing. I organised further nationals on canals as have many others. I reckon there have been more than 60 canal nationals since that 1981 Division 3 event.
In the early days of fishing on the canal circuit it soon became clear that you needed a different kind of bait to win. People who could get hold of bloodworm & joker were normally in the frame. The Hinckley lads normally had a good supply of this which came down from Wigan and was sold in a shop run by Tony Horton. I managed to get hold of some and was very impressed. I didn't know it at the time, but bloodworm and joker were in use in matches as early as the 1860s in the Wigan area of Lancashire. The area also had some legendary bait collectors, the likes of Billy Sharples and Hughie Allen come to mind. Woe betide anyone who turned up on their patch.
Scraping a living
I was then approached on one of my competitions by a lad from Burton upon Trent called Ken Anderson who wanted to supply me with bloodworm so I gave it a go. He was unable to supply the demand for the product and asked if I would help him out. I duly obliged and that was the start of me collecting the stuff and setting up a network of reliable places for scraping the bait across the country. I made agreements with the owners at every place that we went to and paid them for the privilege. I also had a top-notch team of scrapers. It was hard but enjoyable work.
Characters in fishing
I have fished with and been involved with some wonderful characters over the years, the late Frank Barlow and Ivan Marks spring to mind, may they both rest in peace. Frank would have you rolling around in stitches with his direct and to the point humour. Ivan was more subtle and very dry, both were never without a cigarette. The young Billy Makin was another and his anecdotes used to have everyone in the pub laughing after the competitions and he used to tease his travelling companion Ray Mills mercilessly. Another character I was Micky Thill; we all used to call him Captain America. A truly lovely guy, he was always at the butt of some kind of wind up. I will never forget him turning up to my 5oth birthday party with a bottle of Laphroaig. R.I.P Micky.
Change of career path
My early career had been in the construction industry. Back in the nineties, I decided to knock the bait business on the head to concentrate on construction again. After several years of working for major contractors, I was head hunted by Morrison Construction as a works manager. These were brilliant times as I was in charge of all kinds of work that involved water in one way or another. These included flood defences on the River Wye and Severn and salmon fish pass work. Morrisons were engineering term contractors for British Waterways (now Canal & River Trust).
One major project was at Boddington Reservoir including the installation of the concrete fishing pegs. John Ellis recalls ‘Pat was the eyes and ears of the fisheries team on these kinds of jobs. On one occasion, he spotted fish in distress and picked up the phone immediately. We were able to sort the fish rescue with a resultant happy ending'. Best of all though were the canal jobs where I felt that every day I was going on holiday as I visited scores of places that I had either fished or organised competitions on in the past. My final contract before I retired in 2009 was towpath improvement works between Welton and Long Buckby.
Greatest canal anglers
As is tradition with these articles, John Ellis asked me to name my picks for a dream team to compete in a canal national from my match organisation era. I have to say that picking this canal team from all the top anglers that fished in these competitions was a difficult one. Back then, the team size was 12 so it's only fair that I was allowed to choose a dozen so in no particular order, here goes:
With Peter Plant as first reserve in case anyone dropped out.
To the future
I could have carried on working when Morrison Construction were taken over, but it seemed an opportune moment to call a halt to my working life. I didn't envisage I would ever get back into fishing after my long break away from the sport. But somehow, maybe it's a deep hunter gatherer instinct who knows, the sport has reeled me back in. Except in the coldest of conditions I fish a weekly match with a club called the Tablet Takers and recently helped out as a volunteer at the Trust Let's Fish event in Coventry.
When I recently heard that a team was looking for a couple of anglers in the upcoming Division Two National I couldn't resist the opportunity. I wonder how many old faces I will bump into there? Keep your fingers crossed for me that my peg on the Shropshire Union Canal isn't too far of a walk.
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