By R.M. Redfern
Dad was the Gudgeon King
My Dad was a fisherman. Well, not strictly speaking I suppose, since he earned his living in a large engineering plant in the Midlands, but one of his “interests” (my Dad never had “hobbies” like ordinary mortals, but moved with a total commitment between “interests”), was fishing. The fishing club was perhaps his longest surviving interest. He was a quiet, gentle, unassuming man of slight stature whom everyone liked and even perhaps looked out for where it was in their power to do so. This is an interesting tale set in a time when there was still rationing in Brittian following on from WWII. Most people didn’t have much money to spend. The title of this piece “The Gudgeon King”, will become clear in due course. Perhaps surprisingly the gudgeon is a surprisingly small freshwater fish.
By force of circumstances, he was educated to a level far below his capabilities, for which he was to suffer later in life. However he was a perfectionist of no small merit; everything he did, he did to the best of his abilities, within his somewhat limited resources of material goods but with his quite exceptional intelligence. Fishing, with rod and line, was to prove a most elusive challenge and, I suspect, therein lay the source of his interest.
We sons, he had four, I being the eldest, or at least the elder ones (for I never remember the two youngest going fishing) were taken on his fishing expeditions from an early age. Woe betides us if we wanted to walk about and explore, for we would frighten the fish. We had to sit still, talk in muted tones or go away but not go too close to any other fishermen. Whenever it was possible we would be encouraged to fish also.
At first, we would share a “pitch” (a spot where one could stand on the bank that gave access to the water for rod and line). Naturally, we always wanted to fish exactly where Dad was fishing and he would get quite exasperated if we cast over his line so that we tangled and both had to pull in to extricate the two lines and therefore waste fishing time.
My Dad never wasted anything. Fishing was an activity that was carried out at weekends and holidays and was precious recreation time that ordinary working people had had little of during the war and therefore was especially valued afterwards.
Only the wealthy fished for game fish
This true story is set in the “Old Country” about 1946 or 1947. Mostly, he would fish the rivers, lakes, ponds and canals that were available, buy a licence and a day ticket, and be able to be reached by bus or train. Catching something fishy (coarse fish naturally, only the wealthy fished for game fish and we were brought up to believe in the dire consequences that were sure to follow if we dared to land a trout or salmon) was important as it provided the “sport,” but always the drive to catch something bigger was there. If the “big-un” was not possible, then catching anything would be better than nothing. If he caught nothing then at least he had had a day in the countryside and he would be frustrated yet philosophical about it.
Catch and Release
Always the fish were gently handled and returned to the water, sometimes not immediately as it was well known that to release (or even worse to lose a hooked fish without landing it) resulted in scaring all the others away. So usually the catch was kept in a “keep net” on the edge of the water until it was time to go home.
Dad tackled the sport in an entirely characteristic way. He imagined the ﬁsh, where they lay, how big they were and knew in his soul that they would always respond to something. What? and how? were the questions that kept him entranced. He meticulously studied the ways by which the fish might be tempted into biting his bait. A number of baits were used, from the humble earthworm that all boys (and a few girls) have used as fish bait since the beginning of time to bread paste and even on occasion hempseed (horror, but we did not know it was hallucinogenic and anyone could buy it by the pound in any seedsman’s shop) but mostly maggots.
Maggots (known as “gentles” in more northerly locations of the British Isles), the larva of the bluebottle fly, were the bait that most fish seemed to like and (better still) could be attached to the hook whilst still alive and wriggling, would “stay on” during casting and were freely available from fishing tackle shops by the pint – neat! They were measured in a pint glass and were not expected to contain bran or other additives used to keep them dry and clean, hence “neat.”
Everyone knew that the fish carefully selected only the biggest and liveliest maggot so the night before the fishing expedition was used to select, after much study, the biggest and best into a separate tin for hook bait. The remainder was used to scatter into the water wherever one could fish, to attract the shoals.
Sometimes, it was believed, differently coloured maggots were more attractive than others and so selected ones were placed in dyes a day or so beforehand; green, red, orange and yellow were common but other more subtle shades might also be used. Inevitably some of the maggots would pupate and these chrysalides were also occasionally used as bait. A single maggot on a small hook is one of the best baits for the diminutive gudgeon.
Worms even came in forms that seemed more or less attractive to fish, little red wriggly ones being favoured over the more usual fat, sluggish, pink-coloured earthworm. Praised above all were “brandlings,” a smallish worm with bright-red and orange-coloured rings. Dad found them in a waste leather dump associated with a tannery factory fairly close to hand.
Bread-paste” was simply the centre from a few slices of new “white” bread (the “British Standard Loaf”) moistened with a little more water and then kneaded to render it plastic. Too much water meant it was sticky; too little and it did not form the soft, water-resistant but adhesive quality of a good paste. Small pieces of bread crust were used occasionally but did not “stay on” well.
Hempseed was boiled until the seedcase split and a small white rootlet emerged. It was used in this form.
The piece-de-resistance amongst one’s armoury of weapons to catch fish was the “ground bait.” Many secret formulas were carefully manufactured for the material that one scattered into the water in order to attract shoals of fish. In essence, they consisted of bread scraps but might also contain wheat or barley (grain or pearl), bran, blood, fish scraps, chrysalis, chopped-up worm, maggots (added at the point of throwing-in) and many other magical ingredients guaranteed to give one an unfair advantage over the fish or other competitors.
All were wetted and mixed to give a mixture that would hold together for the purposes of throwing to the “swim” that you fished, and of a consistency designed to scatter in the water at the designated depth. Little cups formed from the ground bait would be filled with maggots and firmed into a ball before being throwing in. I remember that at one time an ingredient called “aesofotidia” was added but it remains to be a complete mystery and I saw no marked advantage in its use.
As well as private fishing expeditions, Dad belonged to a club, a branch of the works social club at Reynolds Light Alloys Limited. Clubs generally arranged “contests” about once a month during the fishing season with prizes of money or more usually goods in kind obtained via “contacts” at wholesalers. This might on occasions be items of household utility that would otherwise have required “coupons” (the rationing system in force during the war period and for some time afterwards) before one could legitimately purchase such items as bed linen.
The last contest before Christmas was always a “Fur and Feather” with prizes of turkeys, geese, chickens, rabbits etc., although wine and spirits were also included. At this contest, everyone won a prize, even if it was only a spirit miniature.
Some thirty or forty enthusiasts, together with a few wives and children in fine weather, would travel by coach to fishing places, further from home than could normally be reached, in order to hold a contest. Starting before dawn on possibly a cold and wet day was the first challenge, but only a few would not turn up. Dad would be up in the early hours preparing sandwiches and flasks of tea before waking us to get ready. Dressed in many layers of clothes and topped, if required, with a “mac” (waterproof clothing; a “Macintosh,” a “Mackintosh” or maybe a “McIntosh”) and “Wellingtons” (rubber boots) we would struggle with loaded creels (or “baskets”) to the public bus and hence to the coach pick-up point.
Arriving at the River Severn, Avon, Hampshire Avon or a remote canal, we would de-coach and possibly have to walk a further half mile or so to reach the “Water.”
At one place I especially remember we all had to cross the River Severn on a ﬂat-decked ferry, crossing tethered to a wire stretched across the river with the aid of a running block and powered by the flow of the river against the steering paddle. The Public House (called I think “The Ferry Inn”) on the near side was an ancient structure that still functioned as an inn and served delicious, aromatic, bacon sandwiches with hot tea.
Prior to the arrival of the coach party, a few people would have arrived separately, by car, and they would already have “pegged” the river. Each site was marked with a numbered peg which was placed on all accessible spots where one could climb down the occasionally steep, slippery banks to fish into the river. Sometimes hindered by bushes and trees, sometimes by mudbanks or reedbeds. They were spaced so that each person could fish unhindered by other people for some five yards upstream and 20 yards down.
Occasionally there were sites that were deliberately not pegged as it was felt that they would provide an unfair advantage such as where a field drain joined the river and which became known as “the stinkhole” but frequently a gathering spot for fish or disadvantage, such as shallow stretches of water. Everyone would then pick a numbered ticket from a hat and after a time to allow setting up in your selected spot a whistle would signal the start of the contest.
After the chosen three or four hours duration of the contest, the whistle would sound again and everyone would shout “all-out” and cease fishing.
The weighing committee would then come to each peg and weigh the catch on a spring balance, after which the catch would be returned (relatively) unharmed to the water. No fish were allowed to be retained. Generally, the total catch weight was taken as the measure of success but sometimes there would be special prizes such as “the biggest roach,” “the heaviest fish,” “the longest fish” etc.
The fly in the ointment was “Big Mac.” “Big Mac” Harvey (not his real name but the correct nickname) was the best fisherman in the club, far and away the best, and he almost always won the contests. A bull of a man, well built and taller than most and having a strong physique. Powerful features were capped with a close-cropped head on a thick, almost invisible neck. A “man’s man,” he was at home as the leader in every environment, whether in the “pub,” surrounded by cronies and hangers-on, downing beer in quantities that would have felled a lesser mortal whilst he never appeared any the worse for it.
Carrying the biggest creel, seemingly without effort, and organising the “draw” on the river bank prior to the start of a contest. A loud voice and the power of his personality got through the essential business quickly. He was the closest approach to a professional freshwater fisherman; a member of several clubs, he fished a contest virtually every Saturday and Sunday. In fairness, he was also on the Committee of almost all the clubs and frequently he was the Secretary. With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to credit him with this behaviour in order that he could arrange contest dates to avoid clashes and, since the secretary always booked the coaches, it may be that he was able to benefit “on the side” also.
Perhaps I do him an injustice, but he was not beyond a little “gamesmanship” from time to time if he could benefit (financially) from this. At each contest, he would run a “Book.” Probably illegal, but no one really minded, he would offer odds on the chance of people winning the contest – before the “draw” and clearly based on his assessment of the ability of the person being backed.
Every club had no-hopers that really only came along for the day out and they would either sleep or even pop along to the nearest pub, if there was one, after fishing for only a short time. These might be given odds of 33:1 or more. So if they backed themselves for a pound then they stood to win 33 pounds (plus the stake) if they won. It could happen if they fluked a big one but, in reality, a highly unlikely event.
Better fishermen might get 10:1 or 5:1. Dad would be at the low-end of the range as he was not infrequently in the prizes (there would normally be at least ten). Big Mac smiled and paid out if he had to, he was never a piker and he always carried a roll of notes in his back pocket to payout. I would bet that he smiled all the way to the bank since he almost always won the contest himself.
This habit of his to always win became a bit of a downer for all the other members and eventually, this showed itself at an Annual General Meeting and the member’s votes with a rare show of unanimity, against Big Mac, to change the contest rules so as to impose “size-limit” regulations at all the contests.
Bigger fish tended to be loners and the chance of catching more than one was much decreased. So it was that others in the club stood a better chance of winning against the masters of this contest art. Each fish species had set size limits, for example, roach (8 inches), dace (6 inches), chub (9 inches), perch (8 inches), bream (8 inches) and the diminutive bottom scavengers, gudgeon (4 inches) and daddy-ruff (4 inches) etc.
For each fish species the Water Board – a public body charged with the care of all aspects of water control in their area – had fixed a size below which it was illegal to take, remove and kill ﬁsh from the water. In size-limit contests, only fish over these sizes could be weighed in. This worked against the best fishermen as they depended for their success on rapid capture, removal, re-bait and cast techniques. But with most shoaling ﬁsh below the size limits, set deliberately high to protect the fish stocks, this skill was much less advantageous.
I vividly remember the contest when Dad hit on the winning combination. It was in a stretch of the River Avon a few miles above Stratford-on-Avon that the club leased from the landowner. A good fishing stretch of the river with lots of roach and a good mixture of other species, the pitches reasonably accessible but with old willows and a few bushes and rushes to provide cover – and snags for errant lines. Dad was situated a few pitches from “Big Mac” and quite quickly “Mac” was into a good shoal of roach. The air became slightly blue as “Mac” bemoaned the size-limit rule as most of his roach were slightly below size.
Dad caught a few roach when fishing a swim a fair distance across the river, also undersize. On one occasion after he had unhooked a ﬁsh and was putting it into the keep-net his hook, which still had some maggot on it, dropped into the water at his feet and when he recovered it he had caught a gudgeon. A fat little roly-poly of a gudgeon, not large, but above the size limit.
A switch of tactics to target gudgeon
Dad switched tactics and went for gudgeon as fast as he knew how. As luck would have it the water close to him was full of both gudgeon and daddy-ruff.
Even the ruff, with a diminutive body, had a big head. For the best part of four hours, Dad fished like a madman for these gudgeon babies. Bait the hook, lower in (casting was unnecessary), add a small knob of ground bait close to the float, strike (to set the hook into the fish), lift out, remove and repeat. He stopped for nothing, not even a quick swig of cold tea that was the usual refreshment on these occasions.
Came the ﬁnal whistle and there was the usual wait for the weighing team. I walked down the river to watch the weighing in progress as Dad was always keen to know what the opposition had. It was the usual mixed bag of fish but relatively few were able to be counted due to size. Typically the total bag might have been several pounds but by the time the undersize were weeded out the final catch was around a pound or so. Eventually, they reached “Big Mac” who had a huge bag of roach.
Unfortunately for Mac most were undersized and his temperature soared as more and more were rejected. He bad-tempered insisted that several that had been rejected were in fact “in” and insisted on re-measurement. The fish was laid on a rule with the mouth pressed against the upturned end of the rule and the tail stroked to the mark, the tip being the measure. Mac tried re-measuring with, I observed, a lot more pressure on the fish and a few had to be accepted on his measurement.
Whilst attention was on the spring balance Mac even tried stretching a few fish that had been rejected, but he desisted when he noticed that he was being observed. The final weight was several pounds (I cannot remember the detail), far and away the heaviest catch so far and everyone resigned themselves to another “Big Mac” win.
Dad was almost last to be weighed and by now most of the other men were following the progress of the weighing (it was illegal to leave your peg until you had weighed in). I remember the shouts of the men as Dad was next “come on ‘arry, wot you got.”
There was a laugh as he lifted his keep net clear of the water to reveal a bulging, wriggling mass of gudgeon. Of course, almost all of them were over the size limit and could be weighed. If I remember correctly there were over 8 pounds of gudgeon and daddy-ruff, more than twice as heavy as Big Mac’s catch.
The Gudgeon King
Everyone was delighted, even Mac was apparently pleased that if he had to be beaten then Harry was the nicest guy to do it – and in this fashion. He clapped Dad on the back and congratulated “The Gudgeon King.” Dad grew several feet in stature, smiled delightedly and was the happiest man there. I think he even had a drink with Mac during the compulsory stop at the pub on the way home (we boys were not allowed into the licensed premises and usually sat out the stop, on the coach, with a soft drink brought out to us), something he almost never did, preferring to stay with us and drink his cold tea.
I cannot remember what the prize was, perhaps it was the bedsheets that we have a picture of him holding with evident pride. The story was re-told over the years and Dad always laughed with his quiet little chuckle of self-satisfaction that he had put one over “Big Mac” and was truly “The Gudgeon King.”