A warm mid-August day finds Auldley scrambling down to a peg on one of his favourite match venues – the Pound Length of the Witham at Kirkstead Bridge in Lincolnshire. It’s not a particularly attractive stretch of river. The rather dubious-looking, dirty green water is held in by steeply engineered banks. On the nearside a tangle of coarse grass, dock leaves, brambles and nettles slopes down to the water, and on the far side a thin band of bleached-white rocks fringes the river’s edge.
Auldley likes it, though – he’s won quite a bit of money here – and today he is going to demonstrate his methods for catching the Witham’s small roach and eels.
On our side there’s a narrow ledge where the water averages about lm (3ft) deep. Little roach and a sprinkling of skimmers and perch can be caught on top of it. ‘I’ve been worried in the past about pegs not having a weed fringe,’ says Auldley ‘Taut it doesn’t seem to matter. A little bit of extra colour helps, though.’
Beyond the ledge the muddy bottom drops steeply away to a depth of around 2.7m (9ft) at 11m (36ft) and this is where the eels live. Auldley’s plan is to catch roach while waiting for the eels to move in. Normally he sets up a 2.5m and a 3m whip, but today he is only going to use a 3m whip – having given away his 2.5m rig to a competitor in the Junior National.
For the eels he sets up two, virtually identical, Olivette rigs – a lg rig and a slightly heavier 1.5g rig. ‘It’s all about keeping your options open,’ says Auldley. ‘You don’t need a rake of bait for a session,’ says Auldley. ‘Two pints of bloodworm is more than enough.’ He makes a 4:1 mix of Van den Eynde World Champion’ and brown crumb. He thinks that some groundbaits contain salt and that this kills the bloodworm. So, rather than adding the worm to the groundbait all at once, he adds it a bit at a time – as required. When you consider that he was up at six in the morning scraping it, it’s not surprising that he wants to keep it in tip-top condition.
Auldley starts by carefully plumbing up the inside line: ‘I like to drag the plummet around to make sure that there’s no weed where I’m going to fish.’ The idea is to avoid dropping all your feed on top of a weed bed and so having to start feeding again in a new place.
Having found a clear spot and adjusted the float until the hook is just touching the bottom, he puts a palmful of bloodworm into his groundbait tray, squeezes together three walnut-sized balls of bait and throws them on to his whip line. Now he turns his attention to the eel line.
Although you don’t need a ‘rake’ of bait for the average Witham match, you do need a pint of casters and a pint of maggots in addition to bloodworm. These are for the eels. Auldley plumbs the depth at 11m (36ft) with his 1.5g rig, sets the float so that there is about 15cm (6in) of line resting on the bottom and then feeds three pouches of casters and a pouchful of maggots. ‘Casters tend to keep eels on the bottom and I get the impression that they attract bigger fish,’ he says. ‘Right! I’ll see if I can catch a few on the whip.’
A positive overarm flick sends his homemade waggler on to the whip line. ‘The float might look too big but anything smaller makes it hard work.’ Auldley dips the tip of his whip in the water and sinks the line. The string of no. 8s settles the peacock stem to within 1mm of the bristle and as the no. 10 tell-tale registers, the orange wire bristle all but sinks out of sight. ‘I think it’s just the paint holding it up,’ says Auldley. A second later the bristle does sink and a smart upward strike brings a small skimmer flickering from the water. Auldley unhooks it, pops it in the net, recasts and throws in another small ‘nut’ of feed to keep the fish interested. This time the bristle doesn’t settle when it ought and Auldley strikes but misses the bite: ‘You often start by missing bites because the fish are up in the water. Even though the groundbait is squeezed hard so that it goes straight down, bits still break off- so you get bites on the drop.’
Soon a succession of small roach is coming to the net as Auldley gets into his stride. ‘In a match I’d be counting. You are aiming for 150 plus – you need about 270 for 10-lllb (4.5-5kg). These fish are quite small compared with the stamp we have been catching in recent matches.’
According to Auldley feeding is often more important than bait presentation. ‘You can get carried away with catching these and forget to feed the outside line,’ says Auldley as he swings in another small skimmer. ‘You have to compel yourself to feed – and it’s not at all easy.’
He’s right! It isn’t easy. It’s like mental juggling – keeping the three ideas in mind at the same time: feed your whip line, feed your eel line and catch fish! What makes it even harder is that you have to keep a check on the amount of feed – especially on the whip line. ‘With everybody fishing this method now, you can overfeed if you’re not careful,’ says Auldley. ‘I’m probably not feeding the eel line as regularly as I should – but you do have to catch some fish!’ This time it’s a solid little perch that comes to hand -’They’re a bonus,’ says Auldley.
A brace of Tornado fighter jets roar across the clear blue Lincolnshire sky. Auldley puts another little fish in his net. Head down and working hard, he’s concentrating all the time on building his weight. ‘I could have caught at 2.5m (8ft) today – you can catch that little bit quicker. Sometimes you catch slightly better fish closer in – don’t ask me why.’
With a few more in the bag it’s time to have a look on the eel line.
Auldley baits the hook on his 1.5g rig with a single bronze maggot and pushes it out over the gentle ripples. The float’s black bristle remains there impertinently – refusing to go under – and Auldley’s about to remove it when it vanishes. He whacks the pole smartly upwards, causing a fair bit of white elastic to appear – but only momentarily — it’s no eel this. It turns out to be a hybrid of about 4-5oz (113-142g). Auldley is surprised, but when he rebaits, drops back in again and catches another silver fish he’s stunned: ‘I can’t believe it. We’re after eels. It’s totally different during mid-week – you wouldn’t see one of those in the weekend matches.’
A few little skimmers later, Auldley has just missed a sharp bite and he inspects the bait. ‘Look at that,’ he says, holding up the maggot. ‘That was an eel.’ The maggot looks completely intact – not bladdered, sucked, burst or even nipped. In fact there is only one thing wrong with it — it’s stone dead! According to Auldley, this is the result of an eel crushing the bait between its powerful jaws – killing it.
Auldley admits that he’s a bit baffled. A few goes on the lighter pole rig still haven’t produced an eel yet – although he has just bumped one off: ‘that’s the problem when you’ve got eels and skimmers mixed together – you don’t know how hard to strike.’ He shallows off by lm (3ft) – and misses an eel.
It’s time for something completely different. Having replaced the Olivette rig with a small 4×12 Styl rig, Auldley baits up and drops in again. First cast produces a small roach, then a foul-hooked eel follows. Auldley keeps feeding a pouchful of maggots. Then the float goes and Auldley wallops into an eel. ‘That elastic is really tight,’ he says, as a good 45cm (18in) of elastic appears. He bullies the fish towards his waiting landing net. ‘You have to drag them in quick to stop them from balling-up and snapping the line.’
The day has been an odd one – plenty of fish caught – but, according to Auldley, not representative of how the stretch usually performs. Fishing 1.2m (4ft) deep in 2.7m (9ft) of water with a light Styl rig, Auldley is now catching eels one a cast. He admits that it has been a real eye-opener for him – which just goes to show that even the top anglers never stop learning.