Roy James on the Ribble

7 fishing the ribble

The minimum of tackle on his back, Roy negotiates the steep, rocky bank with the aid of a Zimmer frame. On bad days he parks his wheelchair at the top and slides down on his backside. Is he mad?

Not at all — he’s just determined not to let a little thing like multiple sclerosis come between him and his fishing. ‘It’s only sheer bloody-mindedness that gets him out of bed in the morning,’ says wife Kate, looking for a comfortable boulder to sit on. ‘Fishing’s the love of his life.’

It wasn’t always like this. ‘I started falling down in the early seventies,’ Roy recalls. ‘Everyone thought I was drunk.’ In fact it was MS – an incurable disease. For three years he was bedridden, followed by six years in a wheelchair. But the prospect of going into permanent care and not fishing again made him determined not to let MS beat him. ‘Fishing saved my life – that and Kate. I couldn’t manage on my own.’

Now he fills his time writing, public speaking and presenting a popular program called At the water’s edge, on BBC Radio Lancashire. All proceeds from writing and speaking go to the MS Society, The Ribble Valley Crossroads Care Attendant Scheme and the Anglers’ Co-operative Association (ACA) – in 1989 he was made an ACA life member and presented with an illuminated scroll by ACA chairman Lord Mason of Barnsley for his tireless work for this pollution fighting body. And of course he goes fishing- as often as he can.

Kate does the driving, dropping him off and picking him up again. Sometimes she has a dabble herself. ‘But mostly I just like watching him, if I stay,’ she says. ‘And I always take my binoculars. You see so much wildlife.’ Roy agrees: ‘We saw a roe deer here the other day. That sort of thing’s just as important as catching fish.’

It’s certainly a lovely spot, and you could never tire of the chuckling sound the wide but shallow river makes as it tumbles over the rocks. Roy has it all to himself. ‘Many people simply don’t realize how many chub there are here,’ he says. ‘Others fish it wrong and don’t come back.’

The river is at normal November level, according to Roy, though he expects it to rise later in the day, because it rained heavily overnight. A few hundred yards upstream there’s barely 30cm (1ft) of water where it fords, but here it averages 90cm (3ft) deep. The water is so clear you can almost see the bottom. It’s easy to understand why many dismiss it at a glance.

The first thing Roy does is get out a digital thermometer, throw the end of the flex into the water and set the box so he can easily see the display. It will give both water and air temperature throughout the day. ‘It’s a bit old hat with most people,’ he says, ‘but I reckon it’s the most important piece of kit I’ve got.’ It shows an air temperature of 62°F (17°C) and a water temperature of 50°F (10°C). ‘The water’s gone up four degrees [Fahrenheit] since yesterday,’ says Roy. ‘It was a warm night. That tells me they should take a big bait today.’ ‘You won’t see anything fancy today,’ says Roy, assembling a beautiful lift 4in (3.4m), T/Jb TC, split cane rod. ‘You can’t beat the feel of cane,’ he adds, giving it a good waggle. On goes a fixed-spool reel loaded with 4lb (1.8kg) line, which he ties direct to a forged, barbless, eyed, size 10 hook (he never uses barbed hooks — or keep-nets, for that matter). Three swan shot go on 15cm (6in) above the hook – and that’s it. ‘People make the mistake of fishing here with feeders and maggots,’ says Roy. ‘They lose feeder after feeder and the chub can’t find the maggots among the rocks.’

Bread crust is best when the river is clear, he explains, as the chub can see it so easily. He has brought three tinned loaves with him today, and soaks one of them in his landing net for mash. He has also brought some lobworms and luncheon meat just in case but, along with cheesepaste, these baits work better when the water is coloured and the chub feed more by smell. ‘The most important thing,’ says Roy, ‘is balancing the rig – matching the number of swan shot to bait and flow. It wants to hold bottom, but only just. Then the chub feel virtually nothing when they bite, and you can move the bait just by lifting the rod. ‘Another thing – don’t pinch the shot on too tight, or you weaken the line. You just want to nip them on gently. If they fall off occasionally, you’ve got it right.’ out. ‘Good,’ he says, ‘that means it’s settled just where we want it and isn’t stuck fast in the rocks.’

Hardly has he spoken when there are a couple of quick taps on the rod tip, then almost immediately it is wrenched round. Whoosh! Roy sweeps the rod upstream and slams into a chub. By the handsome bend it’s putting in the rod and the way it’s taking line against the clutch, it’s a big one. Then it shows itself under the rod tip -about l’/db (0.6kg). ‘They don’t half fight in this current, even the little ones,’ says Roy, drawing the fish into the side and scooping it out with his hand. ‘Who needs a quivertip, eh?’

Alongside the bank about 20m (22yd) downstream is what counts for a ‘slack’ on this part of the Ribble – a slightly deeper, slower, steadier band of water. Roy lobs a few small balls of mash out into the river immediately in front of him and the current sweeps them away — but the flow is slow enough in the target area for the particles to find the bottom, where some lodge in the rocks while others carry on downstream in an enticing trail. He chucks in a few lobworms and chunks of luncheon meat for good measure.

On to the hook goes a square piece of crust not much smaller than a matchbox. Roy casts it out and downstream, then props the rod in the rest. The tip of the rod stays bent as the bait swings round in the current, then suddenly straightens right

Roy carries on fishing, feeding mash regularly. ‘The chub go to six pound here – possibly,’ he says, checking the hook after briefly snagging a rock. ‘My biggest’s just under five, so five’s my target. Today I’m hoping for a four-pounder.’

Again his rod tip is rattled and dragged round, and another hard-fighting chub succumbs — about 2lb (0.9kg) this time. Roy explains that, whenever possible, he likes to land fish by hand rather than net them — this way he can often unhook and return the fish without taking them from the water (unless they merit weighing and photographing, of course).

A couple of casts later he’s in again -another two-pounder (0.9kg). Its mouth is stuffed with mash. ‘The water is warm and the chub are chasing around for food,’ says Roy. ‘If the water was colder than about 45 degrees, it would be a different story altogether. I’d be looking for one or two fish with a small piece of crust -nailed to the bottom, with the swan shot only a couple of inches from the hook.’

After a quiet hour with only a few missed bites to report, Roy decides to try a lump of luncheon meat on the hook, but after half an hour without so much as a nibble he goes back on crust. Straight away he latches into a battling three-pounder (1.4kg). ‘They’re getting bigger,’ he says.

After releasing it, he feeds some more mash and casts out a fresh piece of crust. Then he leans back and watches the rod tip, his right hand hovering near the reel. The tip doesn’t move. He moves the bait a fraction. ‘Sometimes it gets hidden in a crevice, and you never know, if you move it and a chub sees it, the chub might just think ‘I’ll have that’. It’s surprising how often it works.’ Not this time, though.

Roy sends the next cast some 10m (11yd) farther downstream. ‘Sometimes the disturbance ofplaying a fish pushes the others down,’ he explains. But half an hour later he’s still waiting for another bite.

Then a salmon leaps in the swim. ‘That could be why they’ve gone off – they don’t like it at all when a salmon moves in.’

The salmon must have carried on upstream, because Roy has caught three more chub on crust — beautifully marked fish around the 1/4lb (0.7kg) mark. The bread has gone a bit soft, so he is folding the crust over double before putting it on the hook now. ‘This way it acts as a spring, and holds itself on,’ he explains. ‘The light’s going, and so are my arms and legs,’ says Roy—but he shows no signs of wanting to pack up. The air temperature has fallen steadily throughout the day – it’s now down to 53°F (12°C) and the wind is numbingly cold. Conversely, the water temperature has risen one degree. The river is also rising rapidly now. To cope with the extra flow, Roy puts a stone in each ball of mash and adds one more swan shot to his line. ‘I’m not casting so far down, now,’ he says. ‘It’s getting dark, so they might be prepared to come higher up the swim. Come on Mister four pound chub.’ At a quarter to five something does a smash and grab raid on Roy’s crust and the battle is joined. ‘The current’s really making a difference now,’ he says, as the fish turns its flank side-on to the flow, bending the rod to the butt. ‘It’s not a bad fish, either — another three-pounder.’ ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t catch you a four-pounder,’ says Roy, packing up a little while later. But we’re not complaining -eight chub to 3lb (1.4kg) is excellent by any standards. Says Kate: ‘I don’t think he’s ever been down here and not caught.’