Scratching the Surface
I first met Paul in 1996 at Great Linford Lakes, ironically the same place I had been introduced to Matt Hayes a several years previously. Paul was competing against me in the inaugural UK Masters Angling Championship and fair play to the guy, in a televised multi-discipline event where some of the biggest names in angling competed head-to-head, Paul triumphed. His only blemish on an otherwise incredible weekend was dropping the Waterford Crystal trophy during the presentation ceremony! Many of you will have seen it aired on ‘It’ll Be Alright On The Night’…
A year later I was crowned Masters Champion and just a few days later an envelope arrived in the post. Inside was a card containing a message from Paul congratulating me on my win. That simple act says everything about Paul and it goes without saying I’ve held him in high regard ever since.
Paul was then in his early twenties. Roll forward and at 43 he’s done alright for himself, in his prime. A job in the tackle trade, a column in Angling Times and just about to launch his second book, Scratching The Surface. During the intervening years he’s published upwards of a million words, gained a reputation as a great angler and a terrific photographer.
This book pulls all those talents together and delivers 43 chapters of inspirational tales. It is more than a fishing story, Scratching the Surface brings to life the eventful career so far of a writer, consultant and angler, Doctor Paul Garner There’s something for everyone as he tackles everything from roach and perch, to pike and zander, with big carp, specimen tench and bream along the way. It’s a unique insight into the methods and thinking behind the pursuit of big fish, of experiences and lessons learnt whilst fishing some of the most famous big fish venues in the land.
Paul has been kind enough to share an extract from Scratching the Surface:
CHAPTER 26 – SOUTHERN RAIDER
For many years a really big grayling had been high on my list of target fish. Despite this desire to catch a 3lb-plus specimen, I have never really had the rub of the green. For the most part it has to be said that my lack of success has been down to following the crowd and fishing productive venues a year after they have peaked. Grayling are very short-lived fish, especially in the southern chalk streams, one year the river can be producing monsters, the next they are all gone.
My long-standing PB of 2lb 7oz probably came under serious threat whilst fishing the River Itchen several years ago, as a succession of 2lb-plus fish were landed, but I was so blinded by the fact that the river had previously been producing threes to just about anyone who fished it that I returned them all without weighing. Such is the curse of the specimen angler at times, it is easy to become obsessed by what are after all artificial yard-sticks.
More years passed and the ‘river of the moment’ became the Test. The grayling population was suddenly on the radar of several specialist anglers based in the south, as well as myself. With fish to over three and a half pounds being landed I just had to try to get down there the following winter, despite the horrendous journey and expensive syndicate price. More by luck than management my name came up for the following winter syndicate and so the long winter drives to Hampshire began.
With the syndicate beginning in November each year, the river would certainly fill a useful gap in my winter calendar. Plans were made to fish as often as possible, which as it turned out amounted to a couple of sessions each month. Very often these were just single days, beginning before dawn with the drive from the West Midlands to Hampshire – on a good run about two and a half hours. Arriving on the cold riverbank just before dawn, I would be ready to begin trotting as the weak sun began to rise. The day would be spent trudging the banks fishing any likely-looking water right up until last-light. The gear would then be chucked back in the car and it would be time to head for home, often a much longer journey than in the morning, thanks to the commuter traffic. Six hours driving for not much more than that on the bank. I certainly put the miles in after those grayling.
Still, there was no way that I was going to catch those fish sat at home, so I would religiously make my the long journey south. On one trip the forecast was for heavy snow to fall around mid-morning. A sensible soul would have cancelled the trip, but I was determined to go and packed some extra food and clothing, reasoning that if the snow was really bad I could shelter in the fishing hut for as long as it took me to dig the car out! On another trip the power steering on the car started to play up. Every so often the steering would go really heavy and then the pump would kick-in again, catching me by surprise. Not a pleasant experience, but rather than park up and call the recovery truck I reasoned that I would get down to the river and then call them in the evening when I had at least spent the day fishing.
Our syndicate stretch of the Test is a wonderful haven set amongst the grounds of a massive country estate. For most of the year it is a very exclusive salmon and brown trout fishery, but the enlightened fishery manager had opened the winter fishing to a small syndicate, mainly local anglers, who were allowed to fish pretty much however they wanted for the coarse fish. Most of the locals were interested in the small shoals of specimen roach that were present, with three-pounders having been caught not so long ago and two’s caught every season. Whilst the roach would have been an interesting diversion, it was the big grayling that I had really come for and I was determined not to become distracted, not until my target had been achieved that is!
My good friend Adrian Eves had also gained a place on the syndicate that winter, so we decided to combine our efforts and share information. This would hopefully give us a bit of a head-start and would definitely be a big help to me, as I could avoid wasted trips when the water was too high or coloured to make grayling fishing worthwhile. Most of the time, in fact almost all of the time, we would be trotting. I have no great aversion to legering for grayling, if the rigs are designed to avoid deep-hooking, but my tactical decision was both practical and pragmatic. Firstly, there was often a lot of leaves and small pieces of weed coming down the river and this would make holding position with a leger difficult. Secondly, I prefer float fishing, especially during the really cold weather. I can get lost watching a float, shutting out the outside world completely, and that was just as important to me as catching that mythical ‘three’.
My first trip was a great success. Numerous grayling came to the net, including lots of two-pounders. My PB was pushed up a couple of ounces to lend even more encouragement. Tactics were simple. Much of the river was actually quite deep, often six to eight feet, so Avon floats were the order of the day with a bulk olivette weight anchored about two-feet above the size 14 hook. The bait was normally a bunch of maggots or grain of sweetcorn set to trip along just on full-depth. Normally this would bring bites straight away if any grayling were at home, but as each fish was extracted the fishing would get a little more difficult. Fishing slightly over-depth and slowly winding the float downstream at a snail’s pace would often extract a few more fish before it was time to move on.
Our second session was a real humdinger. We now had an idea of the holding features in about three-quarters of a mile of river and so spent the day revisiting each swim and extracting as many fish as possible. Eventually with less than two hours of daylight remaining we settled into swims above and below a long shallow riffle. My swim was on a slight sweeping bend with 12 feet of water towards the far bank shelving up steeply to just five feet on the inside of the bend where I was stood. This was ideal as I could gradually work the float across and down the river, holding it perfectly on line. Adrian’s swim was more difficult, consisting of a wide pool with a mixture of different flows and depths that made float control quite tricky.
As is usually the case with grayling, it only took a couple of runs through the swim to get the first positive bite, resulting in another mint two-pounder. More followed, before a shoal of chub took up residence and the next three fish were dusky bronze four-pounders that bulldozed their way around the swim. Each chub was hooked further down the swim than the last as the shoal backed away from the disturbance. When the float dipped for a fourth time, right at the end of the swim, the rod arched round in that typical dogged way that signals a chub. The fight was on, and keeping the rod top low I bullied the fish upstream, trying to extract it with the minimum amount of fuss. As the line cut through the water, now almost level with my position, I lifted the rod applying upward pressure that combined with the flow would catch the fish off-guard and bring it to the surface. This worked a treat and within seconds a massive grayling was laying calmly on the surface waiting to be scooped up. If I had thought that the fish was a big grayling I am sure that I would have played it differently, and perhaps lost it. Catching those three chub had calmed me down, and here I was now staring at a fish well over my current PB.
On the scales she went 2lb 13oz, tantalizingly close to my self-imposed target. I was in some ways glad that she didn’t make the grade, as that would probably have been the end of my serious fishing on the river. A few days later Adrian achieved the magic figure with a fish from his swim on the big pool. The capture of my fish and Adrian proving that the three’s were still there only served to fire me up even more, and now there was no way that I would let up on my hunt until I had either achieved my target or the season ended.
Most trips that winter were in the company of good friends, and it was a pleasure to share so much good fishing. One of the coldest winters on record, much of the country was under a sheet of snow and ice that lasted for many weeks. Grayling and chub were just about the only species that kept feeding right through that winter and we caught both in abundance. Amazingly, every person that I took as a guest on the river that winter caught a grayling of more than two pounds. It really was fantastic fishing and I would often spend most of the day ghillying for friends, trying to put them on the fish, rather than fishing earnestly for myself.
As the winter passed that three-pounder seemed as far away as ever. Adrian had now banked a couple of fish just over the magic figure, but I was resolutely stuck and felt that the chance of a really big fish had perhaps passed as the season neared its end. My last trip of the campaign coincided with some much better weather and for the first time in a few weeks the river looked in fine fettle. Carrying a touch of water, but without the drifting detritus that often made running the float slowly and methodically down the swim difficult.
My friend Alan Blair was with me on that trip and we fished our way down the stretch covering most of the known lies, along with trying a few new areas that produced the odd fish or two. The river was proving to be very dynamic, and over the winter new holes had been excavated by the flow, often where weedbeds had been ripped out by the current, and these were soon inhabited by grayling.
The week before I had managed to snap the tip ring off my beloved 13-foot trotting rod and whilst it was in the shop being fixed I had brought along a 15-footer for this trip. The extra length was nice, but the rod was a little heavier and less familiar than the ’13’ that I had designed specifically for the job and I found myself bumping the odd fish off by not striking hard enough.
As the day neared its end I decided to fish a particularly fast flowing run along the near-bank. Here virtually the whole of the river’s water was forced along the inside third, creating water running at a fast walking pace and a constant six feet deep until it rose sharply at the end of the run into a shallow riffle. I had fished this spot many times before, but each time it had failed to produce a grayling, just the odd rogue brownie. This was somewhat mystifying as it absolutely screamed grayling to me.
I let the float trundle downstream, leaving it unchecked on the first run to check the depth. For the second run I set the float a foot higher and this time held back quite hard, letting the bait run through at more like the speed close to the bottom. As the float kissed the broken water at the end of the run it laid over and sank from sight, just as it had a hundred times before as the hook had caught on the riverbed. Often though these ‘lazy bites’ can also signal that a big grayling has picked up the bait and held position, so I always strike hard just in case. The long rod hooped over and after a moment of holding the pressure I felt the rythmic thump of a good grayling holding in the current.
I now had a problem, as I was obviously attached to a decent fish that was holding firm in a current so strong that I doubted whether I could bring the fish all the way back upstream. As I thought about my next move the fish took the initiative and dived under the bank, lodging solid in some unseen snag. I now had little choice but to follow the fish downstream, dragging the landing net behind me until I was directly over the grayling, which could have been no more than a few inches from the bank where I was now stood.
There was nothing to do except bury the rod tip deep underwater and apply as much pressure as possible. The seconds passed, and on the verge of breaking the 3lb hooklength, I felt movement and the fish was quickly making its way back out into the full force of the current. I now had the upper hand and simply waited for the pressure from the rod directly above the fish and the strong current to go to work. Guiding the fish upstream, I readied the net tight to the margin. The flow of the water was so strong that I would literally have to snatch the fish from the surface as it was whisked past me. Up he came, a truly magnificent grayling, and as the fish drifted downstream I raised the rod to keep the fish on the surface, only to get the tip stuck in the branches of an overhanging tree!
The pressure eased for a moment and the fish righted itself and sank out of sight. I dragged the net back onto the bank before it was pulled out of my hand and in a haze of panic managed to pull the line free from the errant branch. Somehow, despite having had two great chances to make good its escape, the grayling was still on, and I now knew that if I could just repeat the same manoeuvre again the fish would be mine. I slowly coaxed it upstream and into position, lifted and up he came again. However this time he knew the drill and sensing the net below him launched upwards clear of the water. I instinctively dropped the rod tip but it was all too late; the magnificent fish landed on the hooklength, which instantly parted. My chance had gone.
How big was that grayling? I hate to put a weight on it, but it was easily the biggest I had ever seen, longer and significantly deeper than my PB. That loss haunted me all year. I am lucky enough that I can count the number of really big fish that I’ve lost on the fingers of one hand, but that fish had shown its true size to me twice and I knew it was a monster. Worst of all, its loss was my fault.
The following winter came around and I fully intended to make amends. The fishing now was much harder. It had been a hot summer with low river levels and I am sure a fair percentage of the bigger grayling had died. Where multiple catches of two-pounders had been the norm, now a couple per day was to be expected. Also, a lot of the fish had changed their habits and where the edges of slack water, especially creases, had once been the spots to look for, now the fish were found in completely slack water. This was brought home to me one evening when a friend was fishing in what I thought was a hopeless spot, right in the middle of a big slack, yet he managed to extract several fish around the two pound mark as dusk approached.
The whole syndicate was struggling to catch bigger grayling. In the fishing hut the big fish board, normally headed by a fish over 3lb, was someway below this. Still though the memory of that lost fish and the hope that one or two of the giants still remained in the river drove us all on.
This time around it was the penultimate trip of the season when it happened. I had been fishing a new swim right at the end of the stretch where the way downstream was blocked by a large fallen tree. Any fish that decided to head downriver would probably be lost. The swim was a strange one. It was the top of a pool, directly below a shallow riffle that divided the flow along both sides of the river. The centre, although equally deep, was static, and although difficult to hold the float in position, it was here that I reasoned the grayling would be holed-up. It took a few casts to get it right, but within seconds my perseverance was rewarded and the float ripped under with an audible ‘plop’. My strike met the dogged resistance of a substantial fish that almost immediately rose to the surface revealing a big dorsal fin before sinking out of sight. I had only managed a fleeting glimpse of the fish, with the sun in my eyes meaning that it was more of an impression than a good look, but I felt instantly that it was another whopper. Of course this was where things once again started to go wrong!
At first the fish came in steadily and my only thought was to avoid a hook-pull, so I played the fish perhaps a tad gingerly. As it met the fast water under my feet the fish took off downstream and, even applying as much pressure as possible, I couldn’t stop it from using the current to its advantage. As I forlornly watched the angle of the line changing and the clutch singing in my ears the fish headed five, 10, then 20 yards downstream and was soon being whisked over the next set of shallows and past the fallen tree.
It was shit-or-bust, and with no other option I opened the bail-arm on the reel and carefully threaded it through as many of the tree branches as possible, leaving the rod wedged precariously on a bow. Running around the tree I mistimed a leap over a branch in my chest waders and landed face down in the soft silty earth. Cursing under my breath I picked myself up, fished the rod from the tree and gingerly wound down. Miraculously the fish was still on! Only now it was 50 metres downstream and had swum around a tree stump that had become lodged in mid-river.
The water looked ominously deep, but I could just about make out the bottom, so opening the bail arm again I lowered myself into the water and carefully made my way down river towards the massive snag. Fortunately the line was simply running around a root and pinged off as I reached the obstruction. I was now back in direct contact with the grayling, that was now cartwheeling on the surface way downstream. I had to get back to the bank to be in with any chance of catching up with the fish, but as I made my way back across the river I suddenly lost my footing and fell head-first into the freezing river. Fortunately it was only waist deep so I was able to regain my footing. A potentially very serious turn of events had luckily been avoided.
I scrambled ashore, wet, muddy and covered in scratches, but still with the rod bent into the fish. Now I had the upperhand as the fish was exhausted and for the first time I was in direct contact and able to jog down the bank to overtake the fish. Seconds later, and more than 100 metres from where we had first met, I guided him into the margins and with no net simply dropped the rod and scooped him up in my hands.
We were both completely breathless and so without further ceremony I removed the hook from the corner of the mouth and held the fish until it regained its composure and swam off. There was no need to check the weight. The giant that I had first glimpsed had metamorphosed into a mid two-pounder, a fitting end to my southern raids.
To Purchase A Copy
Copies of Scratching the Surface are available from Paul’s website, from ebay and from specialist angling book sellers. Published in a limited print run of just 800 hard back copies it costs £30 plus £5 postage and packaging. A very special edition of just 12 highly desirable leather-bound copies produced by the world-renowned Ludlow Bookbinders costing £200 plus £10 postage.