Manny Blakeston and the early season tench

11 fishing River Swale

At three in the morning the car park by Sywell Reservoir in Northamptonshire is already half full. And Manny Blakeston, specimen tench hunter, thought he was going to have his pick ofswim! Perhaps that was a trifle optimistic, given that Sywell is well-known for its massive tench.

In the dark, it’s impossible to tell which parts of the bank are occupied until you’ve actually bumped into another angler or had his headlamp in your eyes. Because of this, Manny doesn’t think it’s worth walking all the way round to the other bank. All the decent areas may be occupied by the time he gets there.

Instead, he opts for a fairly productive area about 50m (55yd) from the dam wall. It’s close to the car park and it’s empty, making it altogether too tempting. The first task is to mix up plenty of crumb groundbait, adding a fair few maggots to help it break up on the bottom.

Next Manny demonstrates long range baiting up by catapult. ‘There’s no point fishing an area that’s less than 30-40m (33-44yd) from the bank — where you’ve got about 3-4m (10-13ft) of water.’

After a fairly intense barrage, Manny tackles up in the darkness. He doesn’t seem to find threading 5lb (2.3kg) line through the rings of his two (0.6kg) TC carp rods at all difficult in the gloom. Manny can use such comparatively fine line because the bed of the reservoir has just a light covering of weed this early in the season.

Later on, in a hot summer, there can be so much weed that you need 12lb (5.4kg) line to have even an equal chance of landing a determined tench. Not that Manny does this. ‘I enjoy tench fishing, but dragging a fish through the weeds on heavy carp gear isn’t my idea of fun,’ he says.

As the first hint of the pre-dawn light begins to show in the sky, wisps of mist drift over the water. There’s a breeze in Manny’s face and the hazy cloud promises a fine day once the sun has burnt it away.

The first cast lands in the middle of the baited up area, followed shortly by the second. Manny places the rods on the bite alarms, sets up the monkey climbers and sits back to wait for a run. With dawn on the way, it shouldn’t be too long.

Manny retrieves his tackle and pulls off a few strands of Canadian pondweed. He rebaits with a bunch of maggots, and fills his open-end feeder with more of the same. As soon as he’s cast, he brings in the other set and repeats the process.

After recasting the second rod, he catapults another few balls of groundbait out to his feed area. On top of regularly casting the feeders, he likes to keep balls of feed going in – tench can polish off a bed of crumb in no time.

He lays down the catty and almost straight away there’s a bleep from the bite alarm on the first rod. He ignores it – one bleep doesn’t make a run. But more follow and his climber slowly starts climbing.

He ignores it no longer, and strikes. At long range this involves picking up the slack line first by winding down, but in Manny’s hands it’s one smooth movement.

Eureka! Manny’s in and a swashbuckling tench goes off on a series of short, jagged runs. In typical tench fashion, it’s dogged and hard to budge, but budge it he does, and soon its dorsal fm is waving in the shallows. But there’s a bit of a surprise – it weighs only about 31/2 lb (1.6kg).

In many other waters, that’s a nice fish, but in Sywell a fish this size is rare. The usual size is around 5lb (2.3kg), with quite a few much bigger. Ah well, a surprise is ari interesting start.

The bite alarms aren’t giving Manny much time to relax – there’s a bleep or two every few minutes. After a few of these bleeps, Manny retrieves one set of tackle. ‘I thought so,’ he says. ‘There are lots of roach in here and some small ones are at the bait.’ As proof he offers the maggots – they have been extensively chewed.

The bleeping continues, making it very difficult to spot a real run. It’s also hard to know when to strike. After missing a couple of runs, Manny changes down from size 8 to size 12 hooks, to give the fish more confidence.

He also changes his strike pattern. ‘With finicky fish you’ve got to vary the strike until you start connecting.’ Having tried waiting for runs to develop, Manny decides to hit the bites on the second or third bleep -to see whether some of these twitches are caused by tench.

Minutes later the monkey climber jumps, the alarm bleeps once, and Manny strikes. Almost to his own surprise, the rod assumes a fighting curve. This fish makes little effort to escape so Manny hurries it through the shallows. And guess what? It’s smaller than the last one – about 254lb (1.1kg). This is not what’s supposed to happen at Sywell Reservoir.

Ten minutes later, there’s another of those shy ‘Is it, isn’t it?’ bites – Manny strikes and connects. Like the other two, it came on maggot – and like them it’s a male. It’s between the other two size-wise, weighing around 3lb (1.4kg).

Manny’s given sweetcorn, bread and lobworm a turn but all the bites so far have come on maggot. Obviously this has to change – and Manny has two runs in quick succession on lobworm. He’s so surprised at this development, that he misses both.

The sun ought to be quite warm by now but that early morning haze has turned nasty, grey and thick. The wind which might have blown it away has dropped -making for a cold, dour opening morning.

Manny’s getting plenty of exercise to warm his chilly muscles. A couple of slow taps turn into a full-blooded run, which he hits right away. Have you ever heard of tail-walking tench? Probably not, but this female is so overjoyed to be caught that she leaps from the water several times.

Once she’s in the net it’s obvious that she too is a three-pounder (1.4kg). Manny is puzzled. ‘I’ve never heard of anyone catching four tench this small here. Still, it’s good really – it means there’s plenty of small fish to make the next generation.’

After a bleak and blank hour and a half, it suddenly starts to happen again. That’s what tench fishing on a reservoir is often like. Long periods of nothing followed by a short burst of action as a group of tench moves on to your bed of feed.

In quick succession Manny makes the most of two runs, bringing in two larger males. At 41/2 lb (2kg) and 5/2lb (2.5kg) they are, at last, ‘average’ Sywell tench!

By half past nine the sun at last makes an effort to shift the blanket of cloud, and smiles weakly down on the first day of the season. By eleven it’s almost pleasant and it’s easy to slip into that ‘fishing since very early’ stupor as the sun’s warmth penetrates your third windcheater.

It’s not so easy to stay stupefied when the tench are about, though. Suddenly, the monkey climber shoots off the top of the spike and the reel handle starts spinning.

The result is a really solid-looking curve in the Valh (0.6kg) TC rod. Having had the whole of the close season to forget about being caught, the fish takes a while to wake up. But when it does, it takes off for London. Fortunately, this early on, there isn’t too much weed, so Manny can afford to give line – letting the fish tire itself in the deep water. ½

After a series of kiting runs, the tench finds itself in the shallows and from there it is soon splashing its way over the rim of the net. Up on the scales, this is the one Manny’s been waiting for – a 6lb 9oz (3kg) specimen. On top of six other tench to 5½ lb (2.5kg), one of the more respectably-sized residents of Sywell makes a fine start to the season.