It is a cool, overcast day in late September. John is on the north bank of the Humber, at Hessle. To the right, the world’s largest single-span suspension bridge stretches across a greyish-brown expanse of water. Behind is a new industrial estate, and a mile opposite, on the south bank, a flame licks about the top of a chimney at Killing Holme oil refinery. Hardly an idyllic setting but this spot is one of John’s favourites.
The ebbing tide reveals a steep, man-made, creamy-pebbled beach. This provides a firm, clean base from which to fish. A submerged rocky spit to the right acts like a groyne, interrupting the flow and making a sheltered bay. To the left there’s a disused sewer pipe – a natural eel attrac-tor. John makes the point that you don’t need to cast far here; the flounder and eels are to be found about 20m (22yds) from the bank.
Eel magic – John shows the correct way to restrain two Humber wrigglers. A lot of people seem to have trouble stopping eels from escaping back into the water but if you grip them in the way that John is doing – firmly trapped under the second finger -they shouldn’t give you too much trouble. The Humber provides a rich supply of bait – peelers, lugworm, ragworm and harbour rag (‘maddies’) – all collected from the estuary. John uses the scissors to cut up the peelers. A typical Humber flounder. The average size is smaller than it should be but they still provide good sport. How to get there
By car From the M18 join the M62 at junction 35 and continue on to the A63 at junction 38 (North Cave). From the Bridge on, take The Clive Sullivan Way (A63) and exit on the slip road marked ‘Hessle’. A respectable catch of eels and flounder from one of John’s favourite spots. All the fish were returned. John never eats them – he does it for the sport. John puts a good deal of his success down to his home made rigs. Three hook paternoster In most of the matches that John fishes three hooks are permitted. This means that he is able to try three different baits at the same time. This greatly improves his chances of finding the right bait for the day. Clip-down Pennell rig The two hooks on this rig prevent big baits from flying off on the cast and increase the chances of hooking a fish which just nips at either end of the bait. The top hook can slide on the line to vary the distance between the hooks. Wishbone rig Again, this is a rig which allows more than one bait to be fished at a time (in this case side by side). After each session John wipes the hooks on all his rigs with pilchard or cooking oil to keep them clean, rust-free and natural smelling. John uses a piece of rubber inner tube over his thumb to prevent it being burnt by the friction caused by the cast.
Spreading the leader by hand when winding in so that it criss-crosses across the spool helps to give a much better grip with the thumb when casting very long distances.
The compression builds up in John’s rod as he prepares to launch his bait -pendulum style – into the North Sea. John’s brolly protects his tackle from the wind. Lug and rag tipped with maddies – one of John’s top baits. A study in concentration – John waits for a bite, while a tanker moves through. It’s deep here – there’s about 30m (100ft) within casting range even at low tide. A small Humber whiting that took a fancy to John’s Pennell-rigged lugworm bait. In the winter this becomes a top cod mark as the fish move in from the North Sea.
John’s going to set up two rods with a three-hook rig on each.
Ready-tied rigs It takes John just a few minutes to tackle up because he makes up his rigs at home. These are kept in packets without the hooks so they don’t tangle. All he needs to do is clip the rig on to the leader and tie hooks on.
His rigs are worth looking at. Some are quite complex, with several paternosters coming off the main boom, but John uses crimps, plastic tubing, telephone wire and haberdashery beads to stop them from tangling. Standard components bought over a tackle shop counter would do a similar job, but by doing it himself John is constantly thinking about how his rigs work — something that gives him the edge over other match anglers.
Hooks If John is fishing solely for flounders he uses a size 1 fine wire Aberdeen – such as the Mustad 3262. If he is expecting a lot of eels then he’ll go for a slightly stronger hook — like a Maruto no.l – so that he can get them in quicker.
Umbrella John uses a coarse fishing umbrella with flaps to protect himself and his tackle from the elements. In a match he’d dig himself out a ‘nest’ to sit in, but there’s only a gentle breeze today so he’s not too fussy.
Using six hooks simultaneously requires plenty of bait but John is well prepared. His tubs contain frozen peelers, king rag, blow lug and harbour rag (’maddies’ as match men call them) – all of which have been collected from the Humber. Gunge ‘In summer, peeler is out and out the top bait and in matches fresh crab is best,’ says John. But today, he is using frozen crab – a good alternative.
He cuts a peeler in half with scissors to release its yellow, gungy innards (fish love this). The crab goes on the bottom hook – at a level where fish would expect to find a crab. John thinks that fish prefer a cocktail bait for the same reason that we garnish our food – sheer greed. So he tips it with about a dozen maddies. Worms It doesn’t matter much whether the lug goes on the middle hook and the rag on the top. The idea is to experiment with dif- ferent combinations in an effort to find out what the fish want. John likes to tip a large worm with a bunch of maddies.
John effortlessly flicks his baits out and lays both rods in the home-made tripod. Double patting Instead of patiently watching the rod tops for a bite, John busies himself baiting up another trace ready for the next cast. He hangs the completed trace on his tripod so that it doesn’t tangle. Now, when he has to wind in one of the rods to rebait, it is a simple matter of taking the old trace off and clipping on the new one. The method is known as ‘double patting’ – it saves time and in matches this is important. But doesn’t he miss fish if he’s not watching the rods?
Self hooking John says that there is no point in striking. Once the fish has registered, if it hasn’t already hooked itself then that fish has gone. The only exception to this is with eels, where you have to respond a bit quicker.
John doesn’t have to wait long for a bite, the top of one of his rods is already rattling in that unmistakable way that means only one thing – ‘Whiting,’ says John and starts to wind in, ‘Yep, whiting.’ A small, white-bellied flounder comes skimming over water that is the colour of oxtail soup.
John’s soon slipping another flounder into the bucket. In matches, size limits operate and even an unwitting attempt to weigh anything less than 10in (25cm) long means disqualification. So John has calibrated one of the legs of his tripod so he can do a quick size check. But what will he do with the fish he catches today – eat them? The suggestion meets with something approaching incredulity. ‘Everything goes back – it’s purely for sport,’ says John, but there’s more to it than this.
Stunted According to John, the stamp of fish from this estuary compares poorly with other estuaries. A 0.34-0.45kg flounder is a good fish (similarly with eels) — obviously, all’s not well with the Humber. Take in the south bank’s panorama of refineries and petrochemical plants huddled shoulder to shoulder at the water’s edge and it’s not hard to see why – it’s filthy. Not suprising therefore, that John doesn’t fancy a flounder supper.
The bucket’s filling up – John’s just popped another eel in. He recommends you take plenty of towels if you are expecting eels. They’re useful for holding the eel when unhooking it and for getting the slime off your hands afterwards. John practises a special ‘eel grip’ which he uses for subduing these lively wrigglers, and demonstrates by clamping the eel across its body, under his second finger. It seems to work – well at least for a while, anyway – but the eel’s soon on the move and John’s having to juggle.
The tide is well down and slackening off. John says that he could have continued to catch – even when there is only a half a metre of water, but he knows another spot where there is about 30m (100ft) of water within casting range at low tide: So he packs up and returns a respectable mixed catch of flounders and eels.
The road to the point follows a thin peninsula that juts into the estuary mouth. The headland here is so narrow that the locals are perennially surprised to see it still there after the winter storms.
John’s chosen spot actually faces the North Sea. To the left is an exposed sand bank – The Binks. ‘Another good spot,’ says John, ‘but notorious for cutting people off.’ Deep water The exceptional depth allows oil tankers to anchor up, waiting for the tide to turn before moving lip the estuary. Cod In winter, this spot is an excellent cod venue as the North Sea storms push the fish in, but it is too early yet and today all that John expects are a few whiting.
In spite of the depth it is still necessary to cast farther and John needs the 50lb (22.7kg) shock leader.
Clip-down He is going to use clip-down versions of the Pennell and Wishbone rigs. Clipping-down is an effective way of preventing bait from flying off the hook when casting. It is done by securing the lowest baited hook to a clip that is fixed to the line just above the lead. (John makes his clips by nipping the point off a size 1 eyed hook, threading it on to the line and securing it with plastic tubing.) The baited hook is released from the clip when the lead hits the bottom. Hooks Even though John’s not expecting to catch cod, he is still using a stronger, larger codding hook (Cox and Rawle, Viking type, size 2/0) just in case.
John pendulum-casts the Pennell-rigged lugworm bait a good 100m (110yd), puts the rod in the rest arid starts making up another trace. A chilly wind blows loose sand in continuous streams across the beach. In fact, for such a desolate place, it is suprising to see so many die-hards down with their rods, especially since there’s nothing to do apart from wait.
The tide is turning – the massive tankers have begun to swing on their moorings. In an hour they’ll have turned completely.
John winds in to find a little whiting has grabbed the lug. He rather sheepishly unhooks it and returns it quickly, shielding it from the other anglers.
John uses an interesting comparison to explain why young fish tend to go for worm and adults prefer peeler. ‘Put a plate full of steak and chips in front of a child and the chances are he will go for the chips,’ says John. ‘That’s because he knows what they are and likes them, whereas he doesn’t know much about steaks. Put the same dinner in front of a grown-up and he will probably start on the steak. That’s because he’s met a steak before – been educated to them. In the same way, bigger fish know what peelers are and prefer them.’ It is a strange fact about anglers – they quite often ignore their own advice: one can’t help wondering why John had a worm on in the first place.
After a fairly lengthy wait John has only another two small whiting to show for it -the bigger fish just don’t want to know. Now the tankers have almost completed their turn and it is time to think about going.
John is extremely free with his match-winning tips and reels off a few more while packing up. ‘In a match, vary the casting distance and wherever possible use a light lead so that it rolls into the hollows. Never reel in on the first bite – give the fish time. Make it easy for them, too — I like to use a fairly long snood but in a heavy sea this causes the bait to wash about, so I shorten it,’ says John.
The morning’s fishing has proved to be more successful than the afternoon’s but then, if angling were a sport in which it was possible to predict what you’d catch, nobody would bother to do it.