Lee Hammond – a South London summer

25 fishing at south London, Danson Lake

Mid afternoon on a parched July day in the middle of London traffic – the idea of some relaxing fishing seems unbearably attractive and yet hideously remote. Then it appears up ahead… an oasis of blue surrounded by green. Among the dual carriageways and urban clearways of Bexleyheath in south London, Danson Lake stands out like a beacon.

It’s a venue noted for good nets of roach and perch and there are always a couple of carp boys set up on the bank. Danson isn’t deep – about 1.2m (4ft), with no deeper holes of any significance.

This ought to mean it fishes equally well all over, but a lot of matches are won from the Danson Road end – Lee reckons it has a fraction more depth. The fish are usually within waggler range and Lee Hammond sets up a 13ft (3.95m) spliced tip match rod.

Feeding half a pouch of hemp and caster about three rod lengths out every few minutes, Lee sets up a waggler rig with a 2AAA float. ‘You need a short, light float to avoid scaring the fish in this shallow water.’

The breeze off our backs is creating a ripple so too fine an insert isn’t a good idea -Lee’s float has a long thickish one. ‘Because the lake’s quite shallow, even a light wind causes problems with drag. I’m going to fish about eighteen inches overdepth to try to hold the bait still.’

The 2/alb (1.1kg) main line and 1lb (0.45kg) hooklength don’t seem right with a big fine-wire size 14 but Lee has a theory. ‘Danson

The float is dotted well down, with its 2AAA capacity at the base, and light shot shirt-button style down the line. ‘The easiest mistake to make is to use heavy shot down the line. Never use more than size 8s.’ roach can be shy. A big hook gives me a better chance of hitting the bites on caster.’ He buries the hook in a crunchy chrysalis, fires in half a pouch of loosefeed (as he will each time) and casts out.

The waggler splashes down 60cm (2ft) beyond the feed area and Lee draws it back, sinking the line away from the wind as he does so. It settles expectantly – and so does Lee. The float bobs on the ripple, promising much for the afternoon.

After a minute or two he gives the reel handle a turn, twitching the bait off the bottom, to fall back again and maybe elicit a bite. He does this four times before retrieving, repeating this overcast/twitch formula with every cast. ‘The first bite tends to come after about twenty minutes,’ he says, concentrating on the bright orange speck riding the waves about 12m (40ft) out.

Time has marched on and Lee hasn’t had the expected bite. ‘It’s been pretty cold this summer until now, so the water hasn’t had time to warm up to July temperatures. Danson hasn’t fished that well lately,’ he says. ‘Even so, it’s a nice day today, so I reckon we’ll do okay.’

Half an hour later, it’s starting to look ominous. No fish, and not even any ‘silly lit- tie bites’ from uncertain fish. Lee begins to look glum. What now?

Three or four fruitless casts later, Lee is thinking about a tactical change, though he’s doubtful if anything will produce. He retrieves and inspects the bait. ‘The caster’s been shelled and the float never moved.’ You’d think a bite after this long would be good news – but no. ‘Some days they’re so finicky you won’t see a bite to hit all day. It’s a bad sign.’

To add insult to injury the fish begin to enjoy themselves in the warm sun. All round there’s the splash and ripple of topping. It’s bad enough when you can’t buy a bite, without the fish taking the mickey.

A few minutes later a sadistic roach repeats the invisible caster shelling trick. ‘Crikey,’ says Lee (or some such colourful expression), ‘it’s as slow as it can get without actually being asleep.’

Only slightly deterred, he shortens the distance between hook and tell-tale shot. The wind has dropped a bit, so the drag and ripple have lessened accordingly. This allows Lee to shallow up slightly giving earlier bite detection. It may put a twitchy fish off, but there’s no point fishing if you can’t see the bites to hit them.

The rig may now detect bites earlier and better, but there ain’t no bites to detect. Lee begins to feed and cast a little farther out, moving his platform out for convenience. This still fails to produce, so an hour after he would have expected the first bite, he tries maggot on a size 20.

He changes his feeding too, alternating the hemp and caster with pouches of maggot. ‘Even if the fish aren’t behaving, keep the feed going in, or you’ll never catch.’ A cast or two later, there’s still no sign of frustration from Lee. He laughs, ‘Trust fishing, eh?’ But he’s still watching the float as intently as he did first cast.

What’s that?! The float dips slightly and Lee strikes in amazement. A second later he curses roundly. ‘That felt like a good fish’ – but it bumped off on the strike.

He recasts rather more hurriedly to the same area — now about 15m (50ft) out from the bank. He twitches the bait. Nothing. He repeats it but the float doesn’t reappear. Lee strikes and this one doesn’t come off.

The first fish may not be a net fish, but it’s welcome none the less. The wait has made the capture of this small roach all the sweeter. Five minutes and a couple of casts later, it’s followed by a small perch. Perhaps the change to maggot has reaped rewards.

With a few fish in the net, Lee casts short to see if there are fish on his original feed line. Nothing. He reverts to caster on a size 14 hook and tries the farther line. The float buries almost as soon as it hits the water and a net roach makes its way in. ‘It looks like they’re farther out today, though I don’t know whether changing to maggot hasn’t encouraged them.’ Fifteen minutes later and Lee is in his stride. From the barren start, it’s almost a bite a chuck.

The fish are bigger too – mostly too big to swing in. After half an hour there’s about 3lb (1.4kg) in the net and when the float buries one more time Lee’ strike meets with more solid resistance.

A dogged jagging fight indicates a perch, and when it comes in, it goes just under the pound (0.45kg). That decides it. ‘Now we’ve got a few, I’ll show you somewhere that can really fish on a warm summer evening.’ So off we go.

Even less likely than our leafy lake in Bexleyheath is a peaceful, fertile stream -but the River Cray is just that. Lee sets up to fish a swim on the stretch between Crayford and Bexley train stations.

It’s not much more than 4m (13ft) across, but the vegetation testifies to the richness of the water. Lee selects a swim surrounded by willows, with about 90cm (3ft) of water and a reed bed on the far bank, and tosses about ten white maggots into the murky brown water.

With low summer levels, the flow is sluggish, and Lee aims to drift a stick float through, with a single maggot on a size 22 just tripping the bottom. Any sort of light rod will do — Lee likes to use a fly rod because it’s fun. He teams it with the traditional trotting tool, a centrepin reel.

It doesn’t take long for things to warm up. The stick settles tight against the reed bed and begins its lazy drift down with the current. Lee flicks in a few maggots – as he does every cast — and feeds line out slowly. The domed top of the float hesitates and vanishes. Lee strikes, but meets little resistance. A greedy minnow has bitten off more than it can chew.

The very next cast the float sails away, and results in a small perch. This is followed in short order by a dace of about 6oz (170g). It’s good this, isn’t it? Almost every cast produces something different, and every time the float settles, you expect it to vanish. ‘You might get a nice roach, followed by a big chub or dace. It’s exciting stuff,’ says a smiling Lee.

The idyll is disturbed only by the barking of dogs in the fragrant evening air. Then one of the barkers plunges into the water. Before he can do anything, it’s doing the doggie paddle through Lee’s swim. Lee mutters something and pulls his tackle out of the way. But does it disturb him? Not a bit. He throws in a few maggots after the dog has passed and tries again.

Amazingly the fish don’t seem bothered. A couple of casts later, the float appears to catch the bottom, bobbing down and then back up again. Then in an instant, it’s gone and Lee is into a better fish altogether. Around 2lb (0.9kg) of fighting muscle battles to make the reeds.

Then after a brief splash on the surface, showing itself to be a chub, the fish switches tack and dives into some near-bank weeds. Nothing Lee can do will persuade the fish out, and eventually the hook gives.

Lee takes his time tying on a new 1lb (0.45kg) hooklength, to rest the swim, then recasts. And the fish oblige. A couple of runs down with the stick and a decent perch tries to make it to the reeds, but fails.

A gudgeon later, the river provides a surprise. The float doesn’t settle properly and Lee strikes, just in case. What appears to be a small chub struggles, but to no avail. On the bank, its anal fin seems the wrong shape – it’s concave. No small chub this, it’s a specimen dace of 12oz (0.34kg).

A couple more determined perch, and the sun sets. As if someone had pressed a switch, the river goes dead. A perfect end to the day – and more proof that you don’t need to leave London for excellent fishing.