Kai Meads on the Middle Level

37 Neep’s Bridge on the Wisbech bank of the Middle Level Drain

It’s mid June – the second week of the season – and we’re off to meet the legendary Kai Meads. Driving up Sleaford High Street we glance at the passers-by and, failing to spot Big Jim Todd – another legendary slab angler – drive on towards Wisbech and the heart of the Fens.

Kai has chosen a spot upstream of Neep’s Bridge on the Wisbech bank of the Middle Level Drain. Actually, ‘upstream’ is not a particularly apt word to apply to a drain whose waters barely creep towards The Wash. Its banks run straight for mile after mile, traversing the pancake-fiat land with ease. Wheat seems to be the in-crop this year, and in all directions fields which barely make it above sea level stretch out to the unbroken horizon. Welcome to the BBC — Big Bream Country! ‘I haven’t fished this spot for 15 years,’ says Kai, as he tackles up. ‘The last time I did I had about 9lb (4kg) of skimmers. But I had a look yesterday and saw fish rolling.’

Swingtipping is an unfashionable technique. Most anglers prefer to use the quiv-ertip these days. But Kai wouldn’t swop his swingtips for anything. ‘It’s a more sensitive method – you can see every little movement and read the bites better.’

Some of Kai’s swingtips were given to him by their inventor – the late Jack Clayton of Boston, Lincolnshire. ‘My tips are basically the same as Jack’s originals,’ says Kai. ‘They’re made from a piece of nylon – filed down at one end to make the link.’

All the tips are about 35cm (14in) long but the stiffness of the link varies in each case. Choosing the right one is important. Kai explains: ‘The springier – stiffer – the link, the easier it is for a fish to lift it. Today it’s calm, so I’m using a light tip – one with a springier link. But if the water was running a bit harder, or if it was windy, I’d use a tip with a thinner link – so that the weight of the tip came into play more. This prevents the flow from lifting it too much and helps to keep it stable.’

A size 12 hook baited with a worm and two gozzers spins slowly behind Kai’s head and with a steady pull on the rod butt, he sends his bomb soaring out over the drain.

On the far side the merest whisper of a breeze stirs the reeds and brings a little relief from the blazing sun. Kai watches his tip, waiting for the end to lift out of or drop farther into the surface film – signalling a bite. While he waits, he runs through his bait requirements for a match. ‘I’d take two or three pints of casters, the same of squatts, half a pint of bronze maggots, some gozzers, worms and bread for the hook.’

You don’t see many anglers using gozzers these days but Kai believes that when it less. ‘You can usually tell the difference between liners and proper bites – well 70% of the time, anyway. Sometimes a small movement of the tip is caused by a fish brushing the line but we really just call that ‘aggravation’. The real liners are sailaways. What many people don’t realize is that a lot of them are caused by eels.’

The bite fails to develop so Kai winds in, rebaits the hook with a piece of breadflake and recasts. He’s fishing about three-quarters of the way across – where he put three (out of six) balls of groundbait at the beginning of the session. ‘I like to put three fairly close to the reeds and drop the others slightly shorter,’ he says, as he tightens up to the bomb. ‘The thinking is that by not casting too tight across, you leave them somewhere to go if they are spooked. And usually that’s what happens in matches – comes to bream, they make a difference. ‘They are much softer than shop-bought maggots. If you get a bite then you find that the fish have really taken them — eaten them – not just nipped the end.’

His groundbait is worth looking at too. He maintains that a shoal of roving bream is more likely to pick out his patch of bright orange bread crumb lying on the mud than a duller one. Look at his record and you can’t really argue.

The tip jerks out of the water and drops. ‘I think that was a liner,’ says Kai, sitting with his hand poised over the rod neverthe- people walking the banks tend to push the bream into the reeds.’

Still no sign of a bite yet. Kai chops a few worms into about half a pint of groundbait, adds a handful of casters and a sprinkling of squatts and squeezes together two tennis balls of bait. Then, with the elastic on his catapult stretched back to his elbow, he sends them hurtling over the Middle Level. Let’s hope that the bait does the business soon. It’s sweltering and it looks as though Kai’s chances of contacting a bream are getting slimmer. ‘I’d say about 10-1 against,’ says the semi-retired bookmaker!

No joy with bread, so Kai puts a worm and gozzer on. Says Kai: ‘These are Irish worms — they’re much tougher than English ones and last better on the hook. It’s a bit like the difference between an Irish navvy and an English office worker!’

Kai’s bomb zips out over the drain. He feathers the line and leaves the bail off. The bomb falls vertically, pulling the tip out horizontally. When it hits the bottom the tip falls back. Kai engages the bail, tightens up — and waits.

Down on the clay bed of the drain 3.7m (12ft) below, a pair of lips extend, suck in the worm and gozzer and blow them out again. Up top, Kai’s swingtip breaks clear of the surface by about 12mm (Van) and drops again. His hand hovers over the rod.

When waiting for a bite from a bream the angler is assailed by all kinds of doubts. Will I see it in this wind? Will it pull the tip very far? Will it be so quick that I can’t hit it? Perhaps there aren’t any bream here? These are among the commonest. But there is a way in which a swingtip or quivertip moves which says: ‘This is a slab and no mistake.’ It’s like an electric thrill!

Slowly but very positively Kai’s tip rises. An inch, an inch and a half, two inches and suddenly the rod is up and bending. A couple of slow turns of the reel handle and the rod stays bent. Apart from a gentle bump and an occasional nod of the rod top, there’s barely anything else.

They may not fight like barbel, these bream, but you can’t hurry them and as Kai pumps the fish across the Middle Level it seems like miles. Eventually though, the bomb link appears above a great swirl and a bronze patch shows just under the water. A large pectoral fin breaks the surface and Kai holds the rod high to keep the fish’s head up. This prevents it from lolloping over and diving again. Gradually he draws it over the waiting net — right over — lifts the net just enough to keep the fish inside and feeds the net towards him. Kai looks suitably relieved with his 6lb (2.7kg) plus catch.

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