Target practice at Arrow Valley Lake

2 Arrow Valley Lake

The River Arrow bolts under the footbridge as the Highfieid parade crosses from the car park and heads for the lake. The overnight October rain has really lifted the river, and as it turns out the lake has also taken in water and coloured up. Chatting and joking, the matchmen string out along the Bluebell Bank, unload and settle in to their pegs. With an important match coming up at the weekend, the top anglers from Highneld AS have descended on Redditch for a trial run on Arrow Valley Lake. Lee Bagman, the youngest member of the team, is particularly keen to see how well the roach are feeding – or whether the lake’s carp population will prove to be the match-winning target.

Canada geese and mallard provide a noisy accompaniment as Lee begins to set up his equipment for the session. It’s a bright morning with a blue sky and a few clouds about. Lee’s peg is on a point facing the end of an island 60m (66yd) out.

He plumbs up with his 12.5m pole and discovers it’s only about 1.5m (5ft) deep. The plan is to target the roach with pole tactics. ‘It’s been a bit frosty so I don’t know whether they’ll have it.’ Lee hopes that the good head of fair-sized carp might also figure in the equation, so his 9ft (2.7m) swingtip rod armed with a fixed-spool reel is the tool for that job.

He opts for a very fine pole rig to suit his bloodworm and joker hookbaits, and chooses a slim-bodied float with a wire tip. ‘I’ve fished here once before. It was hard and the bites were funny. So the wire tip float is sensitive and easier for the fish to pull under.’ He’s using a 0.12mm line to a 0.06mm diameter hooklength and a size 26 fine wire hook. About 90cm (3ft) below his float he bulks six large Styls about 1cm apart, not all in one lump. ‘This way the line is flexible. I’ve put the droppers abovethe hook so it drops slower in that last foot. I use big Styls and cut them in half if there’s too much.’

Lee’s dad Mark arrives to divvy up the bloodworm, joker and casters. Now fully equipped, Lee considers his carp strategy. Mixing up some groundbait in a plastic bowl – half Van den Eynde Collant and half Bob Nudd Hi Pro Specimen – he then works in a bit of grilled hemp and a touch of water. Lee adds a couple of handfuls of casters and hemp, then catapults eight balls about 6-9m (20-30ft) short of the end of the island.

Since this is a Highfield team practice Lee waits until 11:00am to start fishing with everyone else under match conditions. Meanwhile he hopes the carp might begin to take an interest in his groundbait. A few casts with a bomb give him the depth near the island. ‘It’s only about three feet deep out there. As soon as it lands it hits deck.’ ‘All in!’ Vinnie Smith’s starting order heralds a thrusting flourish of poles along the bank as the Highfield team begin their attack on the Arrow Valley roach.

Three times Lee packs his pole cup with joker, pushes out the pole and turns the cup upside down to release the bait. Happy that there’s enough out to be going on with, he sprays the same area with a catty of casters.

In the recent 1992 British Pole Championships held on the Shropshire Union Canal, Lee built up his winning bag largely on bloodworm. Today he starts with a single bloodworm hookbait. After a few minutes he unships the pole and replaces the bloodworm with double joker: ‘When the water is like this you catch more and more on the joker – a very small bait,’ he explains.

The surface of the water ripples in the wind, making it difficult to see his slim float matches every weekend and evenings in summer to keep in top form. His whole operation is slick and finely tuned.

Small roach top now and again near the larger island. Again Lee brings the pole in at speed and slips off the end section. This time though, he spotted a minute float twitch—there’s a roach of about loz (28g) on the end. Quickly he pops it into his keepnet, rebaits the hook with joker and pushes the full length of the pole back out — don’t blink or you’ll miss it!

Lee’s team mate Stuart Conroy, fishing next door, hasn’t had a bite yet, and neither has anyone else nearby. It seems the overnight frost has affected the roach. ‘I think it has put them off,’ says Lee.

On the opposite bank an angler is fishing a private stretch. His open-end swimfeeder has already accounted for three good-sized carp. ‘The roach might be put off but the carp could be feeding up before bedding down for the winter.’ clearly. With startling speed Lee unships the pole and alters his rig. ‘I’ll take the bottom Styl off so more float shows.’

Lee concentrates on his float. Along the bank to his left and right the Highfield anglers do the same. Every few minutes he raises the pole end and deftly flicks the float out to set it down in the target spot.

Lee expertly whips in the pole for a fresh charge of joker with the pole cup. He fishes

After half an hour without a touch Lee raises the float a few inches overdepth. ‘It might make a difference. I was just touching bottom before but now I’ll see if they’re feeding right on the bottom. Sometimes when there’s a bit of wind the bait moves around and the fish won’t take it. I’ll try laying it on, so the hookbait lies fairly still on the bottom like the other bait in the swim.’

The alteration seems to have an effect as Lee is soon into a fish. He quickly realizes

The pole comes in and Lee begins his carp attack. Using a through-action swingtip rod to avoid breaking off on the strike, he casts out to the baited swim. His fixed-spool reel holds 4lb (1.8kg) line attached to a 3Aoz bomb – enough to reach the swim and get the bait down. A 75cm (2!/2ft) tail of 0.1mm hooklength is joined to the main line and a forged size 18 hook. He puts two casters on the hook — one threaded up the shank and the other through the point to hide the hook as much as possible.

A quick but gentle push sends the lot out to the swim. Lee watches the angled swingtip for any signs of a bite. He prefers a swingtip to a quivertip because it offers less resistance to the fish. Once or twice he strikes, but there’s nothing. He rebaits with two fresh casters and chucks out again. They are just line bites. ‘I think I’ll put a few more balls of ground-bait into the carp swim and fish the pole for half an hour or so. Then I’ll go back on the tip rod and have another go. Really I’d like to fish a feeder but it’s a bit far to reach – on this rod anyway.’

Eight more balls of groundbait and casters splash in, attracting a coot and two moorhens.

Before changing to the pole, Lee puts four bloodworm on the hook of the swingtip and casts into the pole swim. ‘I like to have just one chuck with a big bait over the pole swim, just in case there’s a big fish around that might take it. It’s better than hooking it on the pole and snapping off.’

As it turns out there’s no immediate evidence of a big one, so it’s back to the pole. Some of the Highfield anglers nearby have by now dragged out a few grudging roach. But they’re few and far between and the one in Lee’s net remains solitary. it’s a carp. He leans out and lowers the pole under the water to give a bit more to the fish, but it’s futile – he breaks off in seconds. ‘You’ve not much chance of stopping one of them on this,’ he says. He rigs up again, this time using a 0.1mm hooklength to give him a better chance of landing a big carp on the pole.

While he looks for a bit of tackle Lee leans the tip rod on his bag, keeping one eye on it just in case. Bingo! He spots a movement as something on the end tries to pull the whole lot in. Quickly he grabs it, feels the weight of a fish and lifts in to it. ‘I thought it was a duck swimming past,’ says Lee, playing a good carp.

The line slackens and for a moment Lee is concerned that he can’t feel the fish. But the tension is off only briefly as it swims towards him. Then it’s there again, belting off to the right and surfacing. For six, seven, eight minutes the carp resists, forcing the anglers in the next couple of pegs to withdraw tackle. ‘I don’t want to lose it. The fish is big enough,’ says Lee, who’s in no rush at all. After ten minutes the carp flicks its red tail fins for the last time and submits to the landing net. It’s over 4lb (1.8kg) – a lean and lively individual.

Despite Lee’s efforts no more fish showed in his swim. But the intention wasn’t necessarily for Lee to bag up. This was very much a team practice effort and the difficult fishing gave Highfield a valuable foretaste of what to expect in the Team Challenge final. Some of Lee’s team mates had better luck with scarce roach, the odd bream and notably carp. One or two pegs produced a number of good carp and this steered the team towards a final based on carp tactics rather than the roach approach.