It seems that ever since man became a hunter-gatherer, the desire to land more fish seems to have been with us. With John Essex, we look back at the writing of a man considered to be years ahead of time in his knowledge of how to put more fish in the net.
Joining the ranks of the experts
Once again, the wheel has turned full circle and takes us back to Frank Oates, writer of that 1957 'Match Fishing' classic, 'How to Join the Ranks of the Experts'. I've another small booklet by Frank, put on one side as it were, for a rainy day. It is 'Match Winning Secrets' (subtitled 24 pages of hints and tips), given to me by Bill Herbert, a stalwart of the Leicester AS side in the fifties and sixties.
The cover is typical of Franks 'quaint' style showing an outstretched hand-throwing maggots into the air. The contents are a snapshot of match fishing in the mid fifties, though to be absolutely accurate, I cannot be sure of the publication date.
Speed and efficiency
Frank touches on 'speed' at the waterside and he has this to say on the subject. 'Speed, however, is not just falling over oneself trying to do every operation like lightning. It is the least number of operations left yourself to do after the starting whistle has sounded that makes a matchman fast, giving him much more time to concentrate on catching fish.' This was also echoed in his book but what it boils down to is this.
Pre-match preparation is a 'key' factor in becoming a successful match angler. To some extent the re-emergence of pole fishing has taken us further down this road with the absolute necessity of pre-shotted pole rigs on winders. Even in Frank's Day, though tackle winders were in limited use, an angler in those days might have had two or even three float tackles available to him. At that time, the rules prevented any spare rods being set up.
Don't skimp on the groundbait!
Whilst most of us these days mix up groundbait on the bank, in Frank's day it was not uncommon to use a stone, i.e. 14lbs or 6 kilograms, of dry crumb and half a gallon of feeder maggots in every match. Frank's theory was that if you put in a walnut sized piece every minute the angler would need 300 balls of groundbait for each fishing match. What a time saver if each lump was pre-moulded, ready to hand for each match. That meant no mixing, no clogged groundbait on your hands, each ball the same size leading to better accuracy and feeding etc.
With that in mind Frank recommended pre-mixing the night before or even on the morning of the match. Can't say I would be very keen on carrying 300 walnut sized lumps of groundbait to a match and certainly not if I had to walk to my peg. There again they travelled light in those days. Some even had their own personal batmen, e.g. Coventry's Billy Lane to carry their kit.
Making balls of it
Franks methodology utilised a small ice-cream server for moulding and compacting the two halves of a groundbait ball. These two halves could then be stuck together using a thick flour and water paste. Feed could be introduced by making a small hole in each half section and the appropriate feeders is the shape of squats, pinkies, specials, worms or 'chrysalids' added.
As Frank stated ' This method is an ideal way of getting your feeders down onto the river bed, and especially for taking down chrysalids when fishing a really deep swim, for in very hot weather they are most deadly and will be taken by roach and bream when all other baits have failed.'
Practice makes perfect
To maintain accuracy, Frank suggested practising at home using imitation balls of groundbait, pretending to pitch them into a bowl or bucket. Ten minutes a day, day after day, week after week. That's how great anglers were shaped in those days. I remember doing exactly the same thing with cricket and small rubber balls in the mid sixties.
Frank was a few years ahead of his time, with his novel idea of a groundbait dispenser. To quote from the booklet 'the day is not to far distant when an angler will be able to groundbait his swim automatically with a small lightweight gadget that can be operated with the foot.' No, not a catapult as we know it, more like a mini Roman Ballista.
A collapsible hardwood frame, twelve by six inches, four metal spikes to secure it firmly to the ground and, can you believe it, a metal cup on a fulcrum tensioned with strong 'catapult' elastic held in tension by springs, released by a foot pedal. Talk about a one-man 'groundbaiting' band! Pull on the arm, lock in the tension, load the groundbait in the cup and 'fire'.
We have to remember that matches then, including opens run by all associations (except in the London area), were fished to NFA rules, which stated that all bait must be introduced 'by hand'. Many of us can still remember the old days when 'cricketing' match anglers, especially bowlers, outshone us on the wide rivers like the Witham, Welland and Relief Channel.
White crumb rules the roost
In those days of yesteryear, groundbait was often made from old stale loaves crushed and finely ground through a meat mincer. Frank was an advocate of this even going to the trouble of cutting off the crusts to give a perfect white finish (no brown crumb in those days). But he had one more trick, and one that is still used today, and that was to run it through the finest if 'sieves' so as to remove any large pieces. The result was the finest pure white non-feeding groundbait that you could obtain anywhere.
To quote ' the use of coarse groundbait is one of the worst mistakes you can make, for your fish are being fed far too quickly and will go off feed much sooner that they ought to.' He suggested the use of semolina as a binder for throwing and for getting the bait down in deep water plus the addition of milk to give 'a marvellous clouding effect which is a great attraction to fish and helps hide your movement in extremely clear water.'
I do sometimes wonder what Frank would make of our modern range of groundbait.
Last Edited: 19 April 2022
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