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Fishing on the river of life


By Christian Barker

An obsession was born.

My love affair with fishing started over three decades ago. I was fortunate to have a father who taught me the basics and a river minutes from our home. My first rod was memorably a garden cane with wire eyes whipped carefully and a reel cobbled together from a spool of line. Our bait supply was garden worms sourced from underneath compost bails or dug from a steaming compost heap. We

would then suspend our mini beasts two foot beneath home-made cork bobber floats – irrespective of the depth of swims

It was some years before I owned my first ‘proper’ rod, a fibre glass blank that when completed (we had to save up for the eyes and reel seat with our pocket money) was matched with my grandfathers Nottingham Starback! This would then be pressed into action catching the numerous perch and eel that inhabited our own private piece of fishing heaven, a mill pool on the Gipping complete with a Mill race!

The sight and sound of water crashing and bubbling still touches the core of my existence. The fire was lit! This watery piece of paradise was to captivate and draw deeply on my soul. From an elevated view, the fish were plainly visible and could be seen sunning themselves on balmy summer days, still and torpid. Occasional monsters would be spotted, the first pike I saw was all gaseous and bloated with death. Pike were viewed with suspicion, their taste for flesh and dark menacing form made our blood run cold.  There were some interesting characters that worked at the Mill; there was Doddy, a proper old Suffolk boy and former Desert Rat who had short shrift for predators. An old garden fork on a rope was the down fall for many a Pike that dared to make its presence known in its watery lair. Out of curiosity, my Brother, Ashley, dropped the fork onto the rotting carcass, only for us to recoil at the foul stench that erupted from the punctured bobbing corpse.

You may have gathered by now, my father was not really a fisherman, well not a fisherman any more. He was born and brought up on the Gipping, literally. His family home overlooked the premises of the Old Paper Mill and Mill pool. In fact, he could actually fish out of his bedroom window when he was a young boy, which to us just sounded ridiculously sublime and caught our imagination! Sadly, I feel the burdens of responsibility and adulthood must have taken its toll. My father took on the running of the family business, which at that time produced animal feeds in a rather antiquated fashion. I feel that taking a struggling family business in a new direction and the pressures and responsibilities that entailed ensured that the once mysterious pool with its occupants suited in stripes and chain-mail drifted from his conscience and became his shackles. To this day I do not believe that fishing exists within the thinking of sane grown-ups. Fishing is a defiant stand against growing old, put a rod in my hand and will show you the boy!

Boys will be boys.

I shared my passion for angling with my brother and we would disappear for hours at a time on a Saturday, or those endless long balmy summer days of the school holiday. For two young boys of twelve and ten, I was the older and therefore responsible, the fishing was secondary! We had experienced unbridled freedom for the first time, an almost twilight zone where time did not follow the normal conventions of lunchtime or tea time at home, and school bells punctuating our incarceration within an apparently irrelevant education system – I wanted to learn fishing! Our love of fishing was only further fueled once we acquired a tatty copy of Fishing with Mr Crabtree in all waters and a Ladybird Book appropriately titled Coarse Fishing. crabtree and ladybird 003 (1)

Armed with this ‘new’ knowledge gleamed from the pages of Crabtree and Ladybird we set forth in our quest to meet the other residents of the river – this time with Gentles (I can still see the bemused look on the tackle shop proprietors face, an obvious problem since our reading was some 20 years out of date!) – I still call maggots’ gentles.  We soon learnt the importance of keeping low to the water and placing our feet carefully so as not to alarm our quarry to the point where it is now a subject of paranoia today.

We were drawn to the weirs, bridges, high banks, and most significantly an old bridge pilling that broke up the course of the Gipping. It was sometime before I appreciated the subtleties of reading a river, we would visually seek out our quarry, an obvious influence from our experiences fishing from the walls above the Mill pool.  I don’t really remember being that successful, bar for a few red letter days when more than one perch or eel were banked held captive in a bucket. But on reflection our learning curve was steep. I remember the first time I saw a tiny perch apparently breathing in, and then out, a worm bait suspended from my brothers bung float – it was actually inhaling and exhaling the thing just like in Crabtree! This was the Eureka moment, it dawned on us that there was so much to be learnt by observing fish within their watery habitat. You could actually see how fish behaved to our crude presentations.

More than once a kindly angler took pity on us and furnished us with some more appropriate tackle, fine tiny hooks to nylon and a float that could be dotted down. We were obviously suspicious, we had seen the size of some of the fish – surely we would be broken if were to catch a fish of monstrous proportions.  Big hooks and strong line were always the order of the day if we wanted to catch giants!  To our surprise, our experiences were transformed; we caught more fish and to our surprise they were bigger than the stunted perch we were used to!!

As time passed we were trusted to make the trip into town to visit the tackle shop on our bicycles. That first trip was made with my brother riding my old Chopper with the non-health and safety gear selector that could tear out your future family potential and me on a Raleigh Arena racing bike. I recall with amazement the racks of rods and reels, but most of all the beautiful reams of floats – onions, loafers, still water wagglers, canals and sticks. We had visited before with our Father , the smell of gentles heaving in sawdust and tobacco smoke that lingered heavily from the old anglers that inhabited this emporium of delights. It was like entering man-hood itself. This is what the adult fishing world smelt like. I didn’t feel I quite fitted in; I was an impostor  a trespasser in the world of real anglers.  But this time it was different! We attended as fisher boys, two young pretenders in our own right and we had pocket money to burn. Picking out items that could quite possibly transform our fishing fortunes, we must have picked up dozens of floats and hooks, returning nearly all of them as we totted up the final reckoning to a final choice of an Onion float (I loved Onion floats at that time), hooks to nylon and a pack of assorted split shot. I still visit the same tackle shop to this day and perform this ritual, though my misplaced affection for onions as a river float has passed.   Birthdays and Christmas saw us acquire more suitable tackle, an Ivan Marks 13 foot glass fibre match rod and Diawa Harrier fixed spool reel. Plastic lever arched tackle boxes, quickly filled with the accouterments we had bought or rescued from trees. I loved the smell of that tackle box that can only be described as a stale fishing musk. It was rarely cleaned, remnants of escaped maggots with their broken casters which had cast forth their flies rattled around.



Drifting apart.

My brother and I had lived an entire childhood in an ethereal world where John Wilson was worshiped almost to the point of being a deity. His program used to be literally air-guitared in as the gentle folk music guitar intro played to introduce his series Go-Fishing. Two boys never read so much, our thirst for knowledge insatiable. I really think schools have underestimated the learning potential locked up in the passions of their students.

But such is the inevitability of life, at around the age of fifteen, something completely un-foreseen, something unthinkable had happened. My compulsion for fishing was replaced by the biological need to seek out partners of the opposite sex. My brother continued to fish with newly acquired fisher boys from the village. But he too soon succumbed to a hectic teenage social life and had to follow the necessary social conventions of a new sub-culture centred round ‘fitting-in’.

Various forms of employment were pursued, followed by an opportunity to re-address my lack of academic achievement at school through redundancy. I had also met the wonderful woman that was to become my wife! As a mature student with time on my hands, I felt a compulsion, no a strong yearning and longing for something else in my life.  Becoming a student in later years is akin to a regression and looked no further than my childhood for inspiration. This is where my passion for fishing came back to the fore, it only required the subtlest reintroduction to reconnect and discover that despite a period of abstinence, there was still a river coursing through my veins. It was almost the re-awakening of the restless spirit within, a moment of piscatorial re-enlightenment.

New deities were acquired and the availability of magazines made information accessible.  There was always an emphasis on the appropriate tackle for the job, new techniques to be learnt and perfected. Tackle reviews swam round my head, dreams of owning the right tackle to help me pursue the pastime that had consumed my youth. Ownership of fishing tackle almost became a parallel sub-passion. My brother was also reconnecting at this time, but constraints of holding down a career meant we only spent a shared session once a year targeting our favourite species which at that time was the Pike. There were additional bank side visits on fishing trips, with my brother sharing a rod whilst wearing an Aquascutum business suit. Due to his hectic works schedule and a desire to escape, these visits were the norm.  You see, my brother and I shared an intimate bond with the river and the swims we made our own. My parents still owned the Mill with its pool providing a visual window into our obsession, but we rarely fished there. It was not the happy place of our childhood, my Father consumed with managing a family business in partnership with his brother and the family politics that followed meant that we didn’t feel the magic anymore.

Sadly, my brother was to die in a road accident shortly after the birth of my first son. Burdened with grief, the only place I could find solace was the river bank of our childhood. Drenched in memories of happier times, I would just fish or sit and observe the fish kidding myself that my brother would appear walking along the bank to share the moment as he often did, suited and booted. This was a period of numbness, a year passed without even passing – I can’t explain it any better than that! I can honestly say that fishing was the therapy that held my own family together during this period. Not obsessive, or driven, just an occasional need to connect with my brother through our river and shared experiences of a happy childhood bond.

My focus moved back onto my beautiful son and patient and supportive wife. Of course, I was determined that fishing would have to play a major role in my son’s future. I looked to my own formative fishing experience for inspiration.little ryan My son was to accompany me on fishing adventure in his buggy, followed a few years later by his first fish, a small Rudd caught from the local park pond in the town where we live. Of course, a fishing trip to the Mill pond had to become a foundation stone in his angling foundations. The Old Paper Mill had now been sold, laid empty awaiting its fate. I guess we were technically trespassing, but this did not matter now. It was my Mill pond and my son’s right to fish this piece of family fishing history.fathers day fishuing 012 It has since been converted to luxury river side apartments and a massive office complex complete with landscaping that saw fit to rip the bank side vegetation along the adjacent river bank. I can’t now face going back. He is now an accomplished angler in his own right and enjoys float fishing with lob worms!

A reconnection.

Taking my son fishing was an important learning experience for me. I was conscience that my angling interests had taken a particularly consumerist slant. The desire to own rods and reels was almost as central to my existence as the fishing itself.  I am now deeply indebted to my son for helping me to redress this balance. It was pure bliss seeing Ryan catching fish on the most simplest of tackle. It was a slow process to break the addiction, but at the core of my fishing existence was always the importance of understanding the changing moods of a river and its inhabitants. I had grown to realise, that as my tackle collection, including buzzers, matching rods etc. grew, it had taken me further from that all important connection nurtured and hardwired into my instincts. I had become a clone, a fishing robot following the advice of polarized sun-glassed fishing heroes, seeking guidance and growing in dissatisfaction at what fish my beloved river could surrender.ryans carp 006

Growing in dissatisfaction, I stripped back my fishing to the basic essentials. This angling re-realisation was to arrive in the form of Hugh Miles beautifully crafted Passion for Angling. I loved the poetry and atmosphere that Chris Yates evoked through his charm and very obvious eccentricities.  A rod is obviously not just a rod; it should become a personal item that helps you achieve your goals. Now fishing with cane rods may be a step too far for some, but for me it was a statement that enabled me to turn my back on a consumer driven packaged fishing experience that left the senses numb. I fish with cane when I feel the need, and obviously appreciate the evident benefits of modern materials when it comes back to rod construction. But it almost feels that my fishing has come full circle, back ironically to the same material I started with – and my fishing is in a better place for it. For me my fishing is centred on those moments of angling purity – the twitch of the line, dip of a float or best of all, watching the fish accept a carefully presented bait! The tackle is just a means to an end. Bliss!ashley 1

In memory of Ashley Barker.

An Anglers prayer.

God grant that I might fish until my dying day

 and when it comes to my last cast

I then most humbly pray

when in the Lords safe landing net

I’m Peacefully asleep that in

His mercy I be judged as good enough to keep

(Author unknown)…

4 Responses to “Fishing on the river of life”

  1. A smashing write that, lovely read.

  2. I fully support Tony’s comments.

    Christian, your method of writing is superb – you really should write a book.

    You are spot on with regards to fishing being a link back to childhood. I have achieved quite a lot from an academic and career perspective; but can very much say, I would have progressed a hell of a lot further if I had not been an angler. My life would have been a lot less richer though!!!

  3. Wonderful read, very moving story!

  4. Very touching and delicate story, brilliant language, beautiful pictures. Looking forward to see the book under the name you already have: “Fishing on the river of life “. You could not say it better…

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