I haven’t fished a match, as such, for more than a decade but a competition that did grab my attention was the UK Angling Masters Championships. What an event this was and how sad that it didn’t become a permanent fixture in the angling calendar.
David Marle launched the concept at his Great Linford Lakes complex in a fanfare of publicity. The aim was to elevate the status of angling by pitching the best of each discipline against each other, competing for a huge prize and broadcasting the event on TV. He invited anglers who had either performed outstandingly the previous season or were angling ‘legends’ whose skills and achievements over many years had made them household names.
The invitees included the winner of each of the National Championship matches (there were five divisions back then), the Matchman Of The Year winner, the King of Clubs Champion, the John Smiths, Fish’O’Mania and P&O Classic winers, the Thames and Trent Champions, the Drennan Cup Winner, the three guys who caught the biggest bream of the season, the three who caught the biggest tench, common carp, mirror carp, barbel, chub, roach, pike and so on, in other words the most successful anglers in the sport.
They would be go head-to-head on a 250 acre estate containing 10 lakes and 2.5 miles of the Upper Great Ouse. The competition was divided into two stages:
1. A 38-hour roving competition commencing at 6pm on Friday evening running through till 8am on Sunday morning during which time you had to score points by catching big fish in nine different categories.
2. A 4-hour pegged down match.
Contestants could rove anywhere on the site providing they walked and carried their own equipment. Whoever caught the largest tench during the roving competition would be awarded 25 points, the next biggest got 24 points and so on down to one point. You could only score once in each category although you could increase your points in that category by catching a bigger fish to move up the leader board.
Points could be scored in 9 species categories and with something like 40-odd anglers competing your fish had to be one of the heaviest 25 caught to score anything at all. The heartbreaking part of it all was you could catch a decent fish early on in the competition and you’d sit high on the leader board in that category. Logically you would then move on and target another species.
Unfortunately the points you thought you had in the bag would be whittled away as your fish was overtaken by bigger fish. One minute you would be up and flying, the next your points would go into free fall, especially if you got bogged down in trying, say, to catch a decent chub. While you struggled 40 other anglers would be nibbling away the points you already had in the bag.
The nature of the site meant that the best chance to catch a barbel would be a mile or more away from the best chance of catching a common carp and you could easily hike up to the barbel pegs and find all the best ones occupied.
I’ve never done anything else in fishing that played with my head in the quite same way. It was a physical and emotional nightmare that combined fitness with fishing ability and sheer mental tenacity.
After slogging through the first 38 hours the field was cut. Only the top 25 anglers would go on to fish the match which had 25 further points (down to 1, or nil if you blanked) awarded depending on where you finished.
Whoever had the highest combined points total at the end of the match was crowned the UK Masters Champion
And did I mention that Sky TV cameras were everywhere, day and night filming your every high and low for a one hour special?
1996 – It’s Hats Off To Paul
Paul Garner won the inaugural event in 1996 and as he lifted the Waterford Crystal trophy in front of a cheering crowd and the Sky cameras it crashed to the floor and broke. Poor Paul, for a while I honestly thought the emotion was going to get to him and he would literally break down in tears. Talk about an embarrassing moment though I bet he wishes he had a pound for each time the clip has been shown on the crazy outtake TV shows since.
It was great performance by Paul who proved that it would be a tough job to catch anyone who caught a barbel in the competition. I set off like a house on fire, achieving my game plan of knocking up points with regularity in the first four hours to put pressure on the others. Alas it all went wrong overnight as I plummeted from running second overall to being nowhere.
But I clawed it back, netting 25 points for the biggest roach caught, good scores in several other species and I won the pegged-down match at a canter but it wasn’t enough.
But I learned a lot and that was the key.
1997 – I’m Back For More
In 1997 I was back and raring to go. I knew that scoring consistency was the key and I took a bold gamble by ignoring two categories, barbel and river carp.
Things went really well in the first 24 hours during which I put massive points on the board with 24 for roach, 24 for common carp and 22 for perch with respectable mid-order scores for tench, chub and bream, but I was struggling big time to catch a mirror carp having been plagued by commons. As the hours ticked away I knew I was in trouble.
When you’re leading the TV cameras follow you everywhere, but suddenly I was on my own. They’d decided my chance had gone.
With little more than a couple of hours left I lay on my unhooking mat feeling absolutely exhausted, on the verge of throwing in the towel. I knew that my best chance of catching a mirror carp was the better part of a mile away on Park Farm. One side of my brain said, ‘Give it up, Bob’. The other was screaming, ‘Get off your arse man, you can still win this!’
So I wearily packed my gear and set off walking. In my befuddled state I hadn’t considered how many anglers would be fishing the lake. Space was at a premium and I had to walk to the very far side to find anywhere to fish. Out went the rods with the minimum disturbance and I collapsed back onto the unhooking mat. You don’t carry a chair in an event like this when every extra ounce matters.
As the time ticked away my heart was in my boots. I had been so near yet so far. After leading for so long I had crashed and burned, again. And then, it happened. With only a matter of minutes left the alarm screamed and I was bent into a good carp and I could see in the clear water that it was a mirror. There’s no point in trying to describe the relief I felt when a perfect linear weighing 14lb 5oz hit the landing net. It was worth a massive 21 points and suddenly I was buzzing. The tiredness vanished as adrenalin kicked in and that fish meant I was back on top of the leader board. The destination of the Masters was now in my own hands.
I didn’t even have time to recast.
Destiny In My Hands
The match was a nerve wracking experience because I had it all to lose. A quick tot-up of the points revealed seven competitors were still in contention, the other 18 weren’t, even if they won the match and I blanked, but they could come between me and the other contenders, affecting the points gap if I caught.
The match kicked off on Park Farm Two in blistering conditions, the sky was clear and the temperature soaring. From memory I think Dave Harman drew next to me and he mixed up a load of groundbait in his wheelbarrow fully intent on attacking the place.
He wasn’t alone.
On the opening whistle a volley of cannon balls bombarded the lake which played right into my hands. My best hope was that the carp would get really spooky and not feed.
As 24 method feeders crashed into the water around me I flicked out a dozen maggots and cast a waggler. Careful and accurate feeding was vital as I presented a single maggot on the lightest tackle I felt I could get away with. Twenty minutes in, the float dipped and I struck gently. It’s no exaggeration when I say my knees were knocking as I put the net under a small perch. Game on!
No point in catching any more of them as I reckoned that one perch would be worth at least 15 points and I didn’t want to encourage anyone else to switch to bit bashing. My mind was now in overdrive. How many anglers could possibly catch a carp in these conditions? If they stayed on the method feeder their chances wouldn’t be great because the carp would be cruising in mid water. I didn’t dare gamble on feeding floaters because that would encourage others to do the same and that would see far more carp caught so I stuck to a method feeder myself on the basis that I stood exactly the same chance of fluking a bonus carp as anyone else.
As the match wore on I was surrounded by Sky’s cameras. Keith Arthur was by my side, microphone in hand asking questions like, “How do you feel right now, Bob?”
Paranoid would just about sum it up, I guess. It would have been so easy to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, something that would haunt me forever.
The minutes ticked by in slow motion but as the final whistle got nearer and a few lumps were caught I at least knew exactly what I needed. Providing three more anglers didn’t catch in the remaining 15 minutes I would be crowned UK Masters Champion and pocket £5,000 for my trouble.
The rest, as they say, is history.
1998 – A Worthy Champion
A Year on I was back to defend my title and no matter what or where I tried I simply couldn’t catch a decent bream. I wasted far too much time on one species and picked up just two points for my efforts trouble! To rub salt in my wounds and in complete contrast to the previous season I couldn’t catch a common carp to save my life. Eventually I copped one on a floater and picked up paltry six points for my 1lb 10oz monster. No barbel, no river carp and I still finished 6th overall in the roaming leg thanks to big scores in the perch, roach, chub and mirror carp categories.
At that stage Carl Garratt had a double figure river carp to thank for pushing him to the head of the leader board. Interestingly in any other year he could have expected a fish like that to deliver maximum points but he was topped by both Terry Hearn and Dave Lane. Keith Jenkins took the only other river carp caught. You have to think that trio had done their homework!
But all credit to Carl, he went into the match leading the field and then set about demolishing it, putting over 70lb on the scales to win the match in great style and become a worthy champion.
1999 – Going To The Dogs
And then the competition went to the dogs.
From talk of staging similar events across Europe, of huge purses and international prestige, it simply imploded. The competition had been championed by the Anglers Mail in 1996 and 1997, by the Angling Times in 1998, with Sky on board for the TV rights throughout and suddenly it died on its backside. For some reason the media walked away.
In 1999 the competition went ahead without a newspaper on board to champion the run-up and there would be no TV coverage. Presumably David Marle’s interest waned and the organisation was left to Tim Hodges and Jason Cann. From a field featuring 40 of the best anglers in the land a year previous we ended up with just 15 anglers including myself and the two organisers. The rules had changed, too, allowing each angler a caddy which kind of dilutes the whole physical aspect.
If that wasn’t bad enough rumours were circulating that huge prebaiting programmes had been undertaken by certain individuals who also blitzed the venue’s carp on floaters in the two weeks preceding the competition making catching any carp off the top a tricky prospect.
If that sounds bad enough worse was to follow.
Each competitor was issued with a radio transmitter to call into the control centre on channel one whenever they caught a fish so a steward could be despatched to weigh and witness it. Half way through the roving event I twiddled the tuning knob on the radio and discovered voices on channel four and I could barely believe my ears when I heard one of the organising team informing a fellow competitor of exactly where a high scoring fish had just been caught and that he ought to get over there because the swim would be vacant.
By a strange coincidence that same guy, wh had beenrunning last, suddenly began climbing the field…
I collared David Marle and went absolutely bonkers, threatening to walk off the site there and then. The competition was rapidly turning into a sham.
That night the guy who was being fed the inside information hooked a barbel on the river. When it became weeded his caddy waded chest deep into the river and netted the fish for him. I repeat, chest deep, in total darkness, in front of witnesses and in complete contravention to the clearly defined rules that stated no wading under any circumstances. Yet of course, the fish still counted. You can guess where this is all leading to.
Against my better judgement I stuck around for the sake of my caddy, Nigel Brown, who had driven up from Bristol. I’d already caught the biggest chub of the competition which was worth a top of the range Normark float rod and that I had already promised to give him. And there was the business of the match to follow – a match I might add that was worth a thousand pounds to the winner.
How fitting then that I should draw next peg to the guy who had been cheating. I cannot begin to describe how it felt to fish next door to someone who, in my eyes, shouldn’t have even been in an event like this after the under hand shenanigans that had taken place. Talk about being psyched up!
Well at least I can take solace from the fact that I won the match hands down with a record weight and scooped the cash, but I knew that when I drove off the site that day the event was finished – forever. It’s a shame really. The Masters was the most challenging competition I have ever been involved with and it rewarded those with skill, knowledge, watercraft and stamina on a pretty much level playing field. To this day it is still a fantastic fishery and one I’ll probably return to, just for old time’s sake.
But will we ever see another Masters event that attracts the best of the best? I doubt it. And that’s a shame. You can’t help but wonder, what if? What if it had really taken off? It could easily have become the ultimate UK angling TV event and there’s no reason why it couldn’t have gone global.
Oh well, I gues I’ll just have to remember it like this:
If you enjoyed this article more extracts from Tales Of The Riverbank can be found here