Well my Angling Trust Semi Final has been and gone and it's been interesting to say the least. So many things have happened. So many things have been said before, during and after it that I don't know where to start!
There were undoubtedly mixed reactions when the Semis were announced. It seemed to take an age for the AT to commit and, when they finally did, for my team's Northern Semis, they chose two venues 30 minutes apart in the Midlands. Now that was always going to be controversial!
Northern teams, quite rightly, felt a bit let down. I certainly don't think both Semis should be in the North (some anglers seem to forget it's just a North/South divide, so teams from the Midlands are involved too!) but one Semi at least as far as Cheshire or South Yorkshire would have been fairer for all concerned. I must add that some of the rumoured venues have since proved they were no better than those chosen, too.
Fishing is sometimes dictated by the minority that can shout (or moan!) the loudest. Don't forget, you'll always get anglers extolling their local venues as being so much better than someone else's further away (I wonder why? ha ha). You also seem to get a few people (who should know better) that look down their noses at venues that don't suit them. For instance, I know some anglers that seem to think narrow canals and snake lakes are Mickey Mouse venues - just because they're not a tidal river, open lake or wider canal. It's sad really, as they are dissing (am I too old to say dissing?) venues that over half the country have access to and probably grew up fishing. I have visited far more venues in the UK than most and I wouldn't want to put one type of water on a pedestal above others. Rant over!
The Northern Semis
So what were the Semis? One was on the Loughborough Canal, a venue that's been chosen loads of times and I've got a good record on, but it sadly seems a shadow of itself in winter these days. It all seems to have coincided with an increase in cormorants and the marina at Pillings Lock being built. I know if I was a roach where I'd spend my winter!
The other Semi was Makins Fishery, just a short drive from my house. It was always going to be my choice and as a largely 'commercial' team our Maver Midlands outfit was always going to opt for this one! Now I grew up fishing this place when Billy Makin was still there and remember the halcyon days when you'd struggle to get a peg anywhere on the complex if you weren't there by 9am on a weekend! Obviously things have changed a bit with more lakes everywhere plus with the terrible cold and wet winter we've had no one has been 'pleasure fishing' anywhere much.
I quite like Makins, though, as it's an unusually testing water – and it's absolutely massive as far as pegs and lakes go. It is also quite a hard water and one that isn't as highly stocked as I am used to – especially when you come from somewhere rammed with F1s like Tunnel Barn Farm. Stocking Makins is like peeing in the ocean, as there is so much water to go at but there are without doubt a few fish in there and I knew it would be interesting, albeit hard at times. Target weights from 20lb to 40lb were more the order of the day – which is still pretty good when you think about it! I grew up scratching for 2lb to 3lb on tough venues so part of me still enjoys tough, winter fishing! I must add that Alan at the fishery has done so much work at Makins that you have to admire the commitment he puts in. I rarely visit the place without seeing him up to his neck in mud and doing some kind of work to the place. It certainly makes a refreshing change to the lazy fishery owners that seem to sit back and just let the day tickets roll in while the litter builds up, the banks get overgrown and the stagings start collapsing!
One gripe I have with the Semis is that after what seemed an age they were finally read out as being mid-February. I am sure it shocked a number of teams and it wrecked the leagues they had already committed to. Traditionally, the Semis I've fished has been the first or second week in March. It's been a kind of ritual for me; fish various winter leagues after Christmas and then a few practice opens before the Semi itself. Then, normally, it's the Sensas Challenge Final at the end of March/beginning of April and that's my 'winter campaign' closed off nicely. A February Semi is also possibly the worst month of the year fishingwise, regardless of venue, with all sorts of weather to contend with. Just a few weeks later and places tend to fish so much better. Oh well, the date was set, it didn't quite suit ME but I had to lump it. In the AT's defence, I know from sorting competition dates myself that it's such a fine line. April and May are arguably too late, as that's when people start thinking about festivals and places like White Acres. It's also a 'winter' league, don't forget. I suppose you're damned if you do and damned if you don't!
People still seem surprised that I left Shakespeare to fish for Maver Midlands. I had offers for other teams but I joined Maver Midlands because they are a forward-thinking, progressive team with a strong leader. If you haven't got that, you haven't got a team. I see more and more squads left to run amok purely because the anglers tell the captain what to do. I know from experience that everyone's time is precious and no one wants to be a captain these days. It's a thankless task and to do it right requires a lot of extra hours and quite often sacrificing your own fishing for the sake of the team.
That's why, when you find someone that has the time and is willing to put their all into it, they have my utmost respect. Wayne Mellings is just that sort of character. He trains police dogs for a living so he isn't going to take any crap from you or me! I go back a long way with Wayne, as he and Neil 'Boss Hog' Russell were always at each others throats in my old Fosters Tipton team meetings. They never saw eye to eye but in both of them you could see leaders and people that really want their team's to be successful.
Wayne wants more than anything to create a powerful Maver Midlands squad that everyone has heard of. Sadly, the match fishing world is so full of teams living on past reputations that new teams don't seem to get a look in – especially with people as long in the tooth as the teams they still hark back to! It's the same with young anglers. They are so far off some people's radar, but the Matt Godfreys, James Dents, Lee Kerrys and Callum Dicks of this world are the present and future of match fishing. The world is modernising but angling is often stuck in the Dark Ages. Perhaps we shouldn't all be "Talking 'bout their generation" any more. It's time to live in the now, step aside and let the youth have their time!
Anyway, I'm just thinking out aloud (as I always do!) and going off on a complete tangent…
Bring It On!
There was always going to be plenty of banter and friendly rivalry leading up to the big day. After all, I work with two Barnsley Blacks, in the shape of Matt Godfrey and Joe Carass, and one Matrix Trentmen, in the shape of Tom 'Tugger' Scholey! Then there's always plenty of text tennis going on, too, as we cannot resist 'bites' of any description!
Only three teams could go through from each Semi. Based on effort and time spent on the bank practising, I didn't see anyone who put more time in than Trentmen, Sensas Mark One and ourselves – so that was quite rightly who I felt deserved to do well.
After that, there was Ultimate Barnsley Blacks who would probably get through on talent alone (Scotthorne, Godfrey, Carass, Lee Kerry, Andy Gledart, James Dent, Lee Harrison to name but a few!) and Chambers Champs, a team of commercial experts brought together purely to slaughter the Tunnel Barn Winter League each year (Neil Machin, Pete Caton, Adam Wakelin, Stu Palser etc). Browning Quaker are no mugs on hard commercials either and had a good mix of youth and experience. The Big One show ruled out a number of key names with each team but it also meant the reigning Match This champion, Les Thompson, was out of our team, too.
I put in plenty of hours at Makins whenever I could, including several midweek visits and Sunday opens. I also kept in touch with Wayne Sharman's winter league fished on Lagoon and Lizard pools, a really friendly league I fished the previous year and could gauge a lot from. I even went to the effort of putting some maps together just so we could get a better picture of what to expect from each lake. In short, I was up for it… and so was the team!
Our team never seemed to stop talking about the venue. We had several lineups and usually a dozen or more anglers there every weekend leading up to the big day. Even while fishing through some of the worst possible weather a pattern was definitely emerging. Things were regularly being tried and ruled out. The usual friendly gossip and rumours were being spread and a few curve balls were regularly being thrown in to keep us all guessing. It didn't matter, as we had a useful meeting in the pub immediately after the last practice weekend, ruled lots of things out and a decent plan of attack was formulated, all depending on where we drew…
The team was picked and that was not without controversy. I couldn't argue with any of the lads picked but when I look back and see quality blokes like Jamie Hughes, Les Thompson, Stu Ballard, Martyn Leck, Dave Lloyd and captain Wayne Mellings all not fishing it makes you appreciate just how good the team now is! It was also a really young team with Jordan Hall, Craig Goldstraw, James Howarth and Craig Ebrell all fishing. In fact, me Sean Barber and Dave Brown were technically the old uns – and I thought it'd be a long time before I said something like that!
What was immediately apparent was that you couldn't possibly hope to win the section off some pegs. Take Thames, for example, as you had pegs 9 and 12 as unbelievable end peg draws that were nigh on impossible to beat, plus Peg 1, a great margin swim if they showed up. Realistically that meant you would be fishing for fourth at best off any other peg. Snake was the same with pegs 5, 9/10 and 15 being standout draws and some right iffy pegs to deal with elsewhere.
What also came to light was that on many pegs the carp AND the silvers were often in the same areas. On other lakes, though, you'd get a shoal of stockies balled up somewhere, a deeper or wider bit in the middle with plenty of silvers and then the older and wiser carp were sulking away in the corners. Feeding even two grains of corn for these spooky creatures was a massive risk. Usually, it just made the bigger carp swim away. Not feeding would play as much of a part as feeding it seemed! Strangely, even with clear water, lots of better carp were found hiding down the edges. Undercuts were also crucial if you could find one. Basically, the fish were trying to hide from us – so it was a bit like playing Battleships!
Then there was the depths. Some lakes plumbed up lovely with 3ft tight across while others were very silty with little more than 2ft everywhere – even down the middle! Water clarity was a big issue too. On some days you could even see occasional ghosties swim past your float – but boy were they difficult to fool! Foul-hooking at this place was also inevitable. Like a few snake-lakes I know, the fish are often scared and hiding, not feeding, so you were always going to prick the odd fish as it swam past, no matter what depth you set your rig.
The fish put up a healthy scrap, so elastic choice was a tough call. My favourite 9 Hollo was great for stockies, chub and skimmers, but most pegs are often only 11 to 13 metres wide so sometimes fish would bolt all over the peg and ruin your swim. Preston 11 Hollo was my usual choice, which was perhaps a tad fierce on some pegs and with finer bottoms but offered far more control if you were on fish. My 11H was also well bedded in so it came out plenty and I never had too much troubled getting foul-hookers in on it.
My main lines were mostly 0.14mm. Hooklengths varied and I settled on 0.10mm for scratching for carp but more usually 0.116mm or 0.128mm, whenever I could get away with more grunt, to size 18 B911 F1 or Gama Pellet hooks. For silvers I would use 0.08mm on Lagoon, Lizard and Paddock, as you could get your head down for roach on these lakes, and 0.09mm or 0.10mm elsewhere, as big skimmers, small chub and odd carp were more likely and not as line shy as the roach. Incidentally, I've been using some prototype Drennan Supplex in lower diameters for 12 months now and cannot fault it.
Floats were a big consideration. I liked my usual Wilkie F1 Slims and Malman Dustys for general work and conventional depths but I also had a really good session with Winter Wires to catch some quality skimmers on a day you needed the rig to be sensitive but still cut through the harsh, biting wind.
I also came straight back from one match on Snake and spent a couple of hours butchering floats (not unusual for me!) as what I was using just wasn't quite right. I later had some specials made for me by floatmaker extraordinaire Mick Wilkinson that are little wire-stemmed jobbies that take just three No11s. They are basically a chopped down MW Steady and are the dogs danglies! I don't know if Wilkie will ever produce more but Phil Ringer has already christened them Diggers (his nickname for me as apparently I look like a mole – well I've been called worse!). Basically, I wanted a stable but light, wire-stemmed float with a reasonable thickness hollow bristle to fish anything from caster to bread.
Baits were really interesting. At this time of year I usually have just two on my side tray – pellets and maggots – plus a few slices of bread for dobbing. At Makins you could need corn, groundbait, pinkies, worms and casters as well. It seemed so strange seeing such an assortment when I tend to be so single-minded in winter!
Pinkies were a get out of jail bait for little roach. Sweet groundbait was important for silvers on Lagoon and Lizard and I also had lots of success feeding tiny amounts of a fishmeal mix for skimmers on Phase Three. I always had bread punch with me, too, as pervious experience told me it can avoid a blank when it's frozen. Bread was a top bait for dobbing and I used anything from 6mm to 8mm to fool some decent carp. Corn skins and two dead maggots were sometimes as effective for this, both on and off the deck. Maggots were a bit unusual as although I caught on them, casters were ten times better. This was a pattern we all found and I must admit it took me a while to get my head around as it goes against everything I believed about winter carping. I don't know why but casters brought me all sorts of fish, including carp, when no other bait would. It's certainly opened my eyes.
Pellets aren't something I caught masses of fish on… but the rest of the team did and it gave us some standout performances on Phase Three in particular. In fact, the more I look back at the venue, despite terrible weather most weeks, it actually got slightly better each time. On the day of the Semi itself I checked out the results of lots of other commercials and Makins had fished well in comparison! I am sure this is because the fish were seeing more bait than they had been used to and were getting less and less spooked by anglers on the bank. I definitely think these fish need to get some bait being thrown in regularly to stop them going into torpid, hibernation mode.
More Practice Before The Semi
A week before the Semi I had an awful few days and just had to get out on the bank to try and sort my head out. I decided to grab a two-hour practice and promptly slipped down a hill while carrying my seat box! It was my own fault but I knew something was wrong as soon as I got up. My ribs were killing me. I'm not sure what exactly happened but I landed so hard that two of the welds on my seatbox frame had been opened up!
I was seriously peed off now but still determined to fish. I had a good session practicewise but netting carp hurt like hell and when I finally packed away it took several painful journeys. The next day I wasn't quite so bad and spent the next few days assuming I'd just badly bruised my ribs. Stupid I know, but with my birthday and the Semi coming up I chose not to go to the doctors as I didn't want anything to ruin my weekend. Plus, I had damaged my ribs before and there's not a lot they can do… other than tell you to rest!
Well, rest I certainly didn't! I fished the very last Thursday practice open. Actually, I never went to my peg as I drew a below average Peg 5 on Thames – a peg I and a couple of my team had already drawn before and knew exactly what to expect. I decided to have a confidence session on a flyer instead, as the last thing I wanted was a below average day just before the Semi. I sat myself down all by myself on 25 on Severn. It's a great peg that would allow me to also chuck a waggler and bomb to get these bits of kit properly sorted. I could also keep an eye on the anglers on Avon and watch the weighing in.
Well, as expected, I caught plenty and managed to reaffirm things I hoped would work and not work. It was a painful day, though, and I was suffering every time I swung my pole round.
The next day was my birthday and I won't go into detail but I definitely did something wrong. My ribs were now clicking(!) and a birthday meal with my very understanding wife was cancelled so I could get myself right for the Semi…
The Big Day
The morning arrived and, rattling with painkillers, I met up with the gang at the HQ. Everyone wanted me to do the draw (I wonder why?) so I pulled out the pegs and we walked off in a huddle to discuss the tactics. It was a real mixed bag. Some great, some average and some very worrying draws that could be feast or famine – particularly Jason Brown, James Howarth and Dave White on Derwent, Avon and Paddock. Still, I felt we had a decent set of pegs overall so it was all down to five hours fishing to seal our fate…
Me, well I was always in for a decent day as I drew permanent Peg 5 on Crater. I felt it was definitely worth top-four on the lake, but I had Steve Barraclough on Peg 8 for Barnsley, a Browning Quaker guy on 10, Trentmen's in-form Iggy Higginbottom on Peg 1 and a Tri-Cast Highfield guy on the infamous undercut Peg 15. I also had the ultra-consistent Stu Palser on the lake for Chambers Champs, but it was those with a good edge or corner that would be the biggest threats on this lake.
My peg had already won a match so I knew it was a good peg. I spoke to the winner that day, though, and he reckoned he only did so well because Peg 8 had fed towards him, pushing all the fish into his unfed margin. I was lucky enough to watch him catch that day and knew what he did and what I had to do. I just hoped the fish were in the same place and the same numbers!
My match was actually pretty simple. I had all carp, caught 50/50 down the edge and across to the island, and mostly at 10 to 11 metres range. I caught on 7mm and 8mm bread, pellet and double dead maggot. Strangely, nothing at all on corn. I was very lucky to get a 2lber that was foul-hooked in the dorsal fin, but I lost two or much bigger foulhookers. One was a proper lad that stuck to a reed stem and came all the way to the top before coming off, just where I'd hooked it!
All the while it felt like nip and tuck between me and Steve. He seemed to have far more bites and indications down his two nice-looking edges while I was actually concerned how few signs I was getting down my one margin swim. My island was helping, though, as I managed a number of fish here to keep me ticking over.
The last hour was awful and that lost fish seemed to kill things (I wonder why!). I remember shaking my head as Steve latched into a big fish that I thought looked like an 8lber when netted (it was actually half that when I watched him weigh in) but he also slowed right up in the dying stages. Meanwhile the Quaker guy on 10 had a mega run of big fish to bolster his weight. All the while, Pegs 1 and 15 were catching every time I looked round and Iggy even managed a good carp that he slipped the net under just after the whistle.
As soon as the match finished the pain in my ribs returned. It's probably because I felt so deflated as my match had slipped away. I felt I would be fourth at best. I was wrong! Despite that last big carp, I pipped Iggy by 140g with my 15.34kg total. Then, I couldn't believe it when Steve weighed 2kg less! I was sure he had more and you could see how disappointed he was. I was also shocked when Peg 10 weighed in, as he scarily only weighed a kilo less than me thanks to that last-hour surge. That left Peg 15 to weigh in and Tri-Cast's Addie Twist plonked a lake-winning 18kg on the scales – all caught just metres from where he was sitting! So, I was second on the lake and a much happier bunny!
I packed away and tried to suck up the pain while several of my teammates helped carry my gear back to the van (I owe you all a drink!). Even before the weigh in had finished, some of the team were grinning from ear to ear thinking we'd done enough. I never believe in counting chickens before they've hatched, but it turned out they were right. No one had finished lower than fourth in section, which was unbelievable on such a temperamental venue!
It's hard to pick out a standout performance. Craig Goldstraw, was one of them as he couldn't come higher than fourth from Peg 21 on Snake. Jordan Hall, another youngster to watch out for, came second off Lagoon 2 with a hard-earned 8kg bag of mostly skimmers. Dave Brown and Dave White both put in solid team displays and James Howarth stared a blank in the face off a tricky peg on Avon to eventually catch some carp for mega points. Scott Doodson could have been in serious trouble on Little Reptile but his dobbing skills really paid off with a section second. I really feared for Jason Brown on Paddock 2 as this peg had been dire in practice (our team had drawn it twice!). There were no silvers here but always a chance of a few carp finally backing off and he patiently bided his time to catch several quality fish for another section second.
One of our best pegs was Craig Ebrell who won Lizard from Peg 27 with well over 21kg. Along with 26, 11 and 12 on this lake, this was always a top-four in section peg and he made no mistakes to win it with a fine bag of colourful carp. Then of course there is Sean Barber, who drew Peg 11 on Severn and made absolutely no mistakes with a pole and bomb approach to win the lake and come second in the match with over 36kg. Sean is a great example of a club angler turned top team angler and this is the second time he's come second in a big Semi Final!
The Top Three
I love hearing the teams read out in reverse order on big days like this. All is quiet and there are the usual sighs and cheers as teams get read out. I felt for both Trentmen and Mark One as they both missed out. I was also gob-smacked to hear Barnsley read out in fourth with 54 points – especially after having three of the top four individual framers, but three poor results definitely cost them. Browning Quaker were a popular third on 57, while Chambers Champs' expertise on commercials earned them runners-up spot with 59 points. We were read out in first place with 77 points from a maximum of 90. It was an amazing feeling. My first Semi with the lads and we'd done it!
What was also encouraging was the amount of other team members there on the day. As well as captain Wayne, Stu Ballard, Alan Rutherford, Martyn Leck and Trev Robinson were all there to support us – and help carry my gear! I was happy but by now I knew I'd seriously overdone it. As soon as the team pic was shot I was off home. I probably shouldn't admit this but I was crying with pain as soon as I got out the van.
My wife took me to A&E and I was seen almost immediately. Half an hour later and I wasn't too surprised to be looking at an X-ray of a cracked rib. No fishing for me for several weeks now, but as I write this I'm already feeling much more better – so you can put down the violins!
Looking back, perhaps we were lucky in the Semi? In hindsight, we had a good draw and the fish swam into the right areas on the day. None of the team blew out and that shows just how confident even the youngsters are on a tough venue. It's no surprise to me, though, that the harder we work as a team, the luckier we seem to get!
Now we have a Final on the Tidal Trent to consider. Some will argue that the Semi was our 'Final' and we certainly treated it like that with so many hours and men on the bank. It did the trick! Who knows if we'll be quite so keen and committed in the Final itself? I know I'm up for it and I know some of our 'young guns' will impress. Already, some big teams are out so we have nothing to lose and everything to prove. If nothing else, it had been a cracking end to the season – in more ways than one!