While My Float’s Still Cocked – An Extract
Every now and then an opportunity comes your way that you cannot possibly turn down. This is one of them. Maurice J Pledger, ‘Mole’ to his friends, is on the verge of publishing a new book, ‘While My Float’s Still Cocked’ and I’m proud to announce that he’s allowing me a chance to publish a sample chapter here on the web site. I’ve no doubt that it will give you a feel for what promises to be a magnificent book.
But don’t take my word for it, this is what Chris Yates said in the book’s preface:
The stories from Maurice’s boyhood fizz with enthusiasm and there’s no doubt that his early experiences and observations were the inspiration for his artistic life. However, what marks this book out as something special is the remarkable series of fish paintings, fish with so much natural beauty and grace that they almost swim off the page.
The illustrations you see here are all by Mole, although they were selected by me to illustrate the text rather than replicate what you will see on each page of the book. The book itself may contain all of these paintings, it may not. But rest assured what you get in the book will leap off the page and be totally mesmerising.
Mole has illustrated dozens of books that have sold millions of copies worldwide. Not many anglers can begin to lay claim to something like that and I doubt he himself would shout about it, either. Anyway, I’m going to stop waffling and let you read the sample chapter.
Hooked On Pike – by MJ Pledger
While I write, I can see the mists forming in front of me, whitening everything out, and I can feel the morning cooling as it swirls quietly before me. As the mist soundlessly begins to clear I can make out these two same hands, my hands, as I press my line into the slit in the small red-tipped Fishing Gazette float.
There was something quite magical in the lead up to the first cast of a day spent searching for pike when I was thirteen. Arriving at the gravel pit at Admiral’s Walk, and invariably walking up to that first little reedy corner; getting the five foot, white spinning rod out of the bag; setting up the Mitchell 314; threading the line through the rings and tying on the trace with the one size 8 treble. But the moment that held all those moments together was the putting on of that float – the putting on of that float with the special slit in the side, and pressing the peg in to secure it at the right depth: four feet, since this was the deepest I could comfortably set it to cast.
Two feet was too shallow. One foot was ridiculous. Three feet was so-so, but I was never happy with it, and I could never imagine any pike worth its spots swimming so near to the surface. And anyway, I wasn’t happy if I could see my sprat dangling and glittering underneath the float. The fishing would have no mystery to it if I could see the bait. Five feet and I couldn’t cast properly. I tried several times and managed on most of them to fling off my sprats, which invariably landed in the water rather than on the bank, where at least I could have retrieved them. So four feet it was then – a good, manageable fishing depth. I could cast reasonably well with the float plugged at that depth, and I couldn’t see the sprat when it settled. Perfect. All subsequent pike caught by Mr. Pledger, ace pike-catcher supreme of Hoddesdon, would accordingly have to be swimming at four feet depth – by law.
Pete and I would fish away in the same spots and we never tired of or changed our methods. A pound-and-a-half of sprats bought from Brewster’s (the fishmonger in Hoddesdon), a few pike traces, a couple of spare floats, a landing net – and that was it. Some days we caught pike, some days we didn’t. We caught nothing larger than my fabled beauty of 5lb 8oz – a fish whose capture was so often, and so imaginatively, re-told – which in turn superseded the one of 4lb 8oz which had remained my heaviest for so long that I thought I would be sporting a beard to rival Darwin’s before I bettered it.
And so the mists roll in, and then start to clear. And as they clear once again, I find it’s September 20th, 1970 – a day that gave my limping interest in pike a little nudge in the back. I’d gone back to re-visit Admiral’s Walk with a couple of schoolmates one afternoon, and using the same rod and reel I always used, cast out a dead three-inch roach a few yards along from my favourite corner. I remember I was using a sliding porcupine quill, and fished the bait on a single hook straight through to 7lb line with no trace, tight on the bottom. I placed the bait against an overhanging willow bush, which was growing on a spit of land surrounded by reeds.
It was a twenty-yard cast, made directly in front of me. Within a few minutes the float slowly cocked, twitched a few times and glided under to the right. Glancing back to my line I could see a bow, as if caused by a right-to-left breeze, gently being taken out as I opened the bail arm. I let the pike take a couple of yards, closed the bail arm and pulled into the fish, which immediately suggested to me it was neither 4lb 8oz, 5lb 8oz, or anywhere near wanting to come over to say hello. For several minutes it did whatever it wanted, with me just hanging on in disbelief. Finally, I must have done everything exactly right, and it did come over to say hello. It was the largest pike I had ever seen. Weighed at 13lb 8oz, its capture was to become my often, really very very often-repeated pike story for quite some time, and I think even I may have tired of repeating the tale to myself before I finally came to catch a pike which bettered it.
Pike seemed to become increasingly difficult to catch the more I began to think about it. As I mentioned before, on more trips than I care to remember, all I ever did was suspend my sprat four feet down in the vicinity of some nice reeds. My thinking never went beyond this and the pike seemed quite happy with this default tactic. Then I began to read books on pike fishing, and my young mind was awash with countless diagrams of rigs and methods, descriptions of optimum feeding times, best places to fish, water temperatures, clarity and depth of water, flow in rivers, best baits in autumn, even better baits in winter, and so on… and so on…
This had the effect that if I sat there for more than thirty minutes with nothing happening then my mind would go into overdrive as I tried to puzzle out what I was doing wrong. Previously, my only thought on the matter would have been that my lack of success was simply because there were no pike present. Post-pike-reading, however, and my mind would now be in a turmoil. Was the water, or the day, too cold or too hot? Was it too windy – or not windy enough? Was the bait fishing too deep or too shallow? Was the flow too fast or not fast enough? And if and but and maybe and maybe not – in the end I’d just get the fidgets – I’d read too many books.
What became my ‘normal’ method would generally be to free-line a sprat or half a herring on the bottom of the lake or river, with as little lead on the line as I thought necessary – this usually being nothing more than a swanshot or two about two feet up the line from the trace. Once the bait and weight had been lightly flicked out, I’d place a plastic wine bottle top over the line in front of the Mitchell 410, with the bail arm left open.
I loved to watch the first indications of the bottle top as it twitched and slowly inched up, the line trickling off the spool as the bow from the rod tip pulled out and disappeared into the surface film. Sometimes, on a hesitant take, the line would stop, whereupon the pike could be induced to take again by gently pulling on the line and feeling for a reaction the other end.
An otherwise half-interested pike could usually be cajoled into grabbing a sprat he’d previously dropped after having second thoughts. Once the line started to feed out from the rod tip again, in what was so often a more positive manner, it was a mere formality to close the bail arm, wait for the line to tighten and pull the rod sideways so that the pike, which was by now running off with the bait, was firmly hooked.
By the time pike had become annoying, given their habit of throwing me more questions than answers, I’d progressed beyond my little white spinning rod to a superb 10 foot hollow glass Dick Walker Mk IV Avon, sold to me by Mr. Ross in the tackle shop in Hoddesdon. I remember the day he quietly took me to one side, looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Maurice… have I got a rod for you…’ And by golly, he had.
Usually he’d try to sell Scotty, Vince and myself anything he felt like – something that had no connection whatsoever with what we’d intended to buy that day. On paying for a pint of maggots, for example, we’d be offered a set of mackerel feathers. If we’d just bought half a dozen floats, some line and hooks, Mr. Ross would follow up the sale by asking if we’d like a bag of freshly caught ragworm.
On this occasion though, Mr. Ross, even if on one of his eccentric benders, had it absolutely spot on. I wasn’t really in need of a rod that particular morning, and my eyes were still wandering around the shelves and cabinets as Mr. Ross untied the rod bag. Imagining it to be yet another beachcaster he wanted to show me, in the mistaken idea that I was having afternoon tea with Leslie Moncrieff, my gaze soon fixed, in a kind of rapt adoration, on what I was going to be shortly walking out of the door with.
The more that Vince, Chad and myself fished for pike, the more it became obvious that the larger fish kept away from us. More often than we cared to admit the blank days outnumbered the good ones, and the good ones only yielded pike in small numbers and of a small average size. Then one day, for no reason at all, the clouds parted and the sun shone through.
We three found ourselves in Nazeing, at Heartbreak Pit which had been so-named because its fish weren’t altogether keen to be caught by anybody, least of all by any of us. My two rods were set up at the bottom of a high, steeply sloping bank near the water’s edge. Vince and Chad were fishing a little further along. We were all perched precariously on the top of this high bank, watching the indicators below. I noticed one of mine creep up and I very carefully inched my way down to deal with it, which I did in admirable fashion, and duly landed a lovely pike of 8lb 8oz.
After I’d netted it I made my way to the top of the bank, unhooked and photographed the fish… and it was at this point it all came undone. On stepping back onto the slope with the pike in my arms, my legs gave way and I very neatly slid down the entire bank on my back, cradling the fish, watching the lake looming. I could do nothing to stop my flight downwards. Both pike and I hit the lake as one, the pike being the happier of the two of us, and after a minute or so of floundering and flannelling I crawled back out, utterly soaked through. I went home for a change of clothes, returned, baited up and cast out.
Unbelievably, the indicator rose again to a second run. This time my descent was as careful as I could make it. On pulling into the fish it immediately became obvious that this was one of Heartbreak’s heart breakers, and it had no intention at all of coming anywhere near me. For what seemed like an eternity we went through the formalities that suggested to my unbelieving mates on the bank above that The Wet One had hooked into something rather special. As she rose in the water we began to make out a large crocodile-like shape looming towards us. After a few unstoppable surges into the bay in front of me she reluctantly turned, came back and I netted her.
Fish and I made it to the top and back down again without repeating the earlier mishap. At 17lb 12oz she remained my heaviest pike for a long while – which is how it should be, because it gives you time enough to appreciate such special fish when they do show up on these rarest of rare occasions, and spurs you on to keep fishing through all the blank days which invariably outnumber the bountiful ones.
I’ve gone through periods of fishing a great deal with Vince, Scott and Chad, but also with another great friend of mine, Steve Tibble from Welwyn; Steve of the Great Turnip Saga. Steve, who is about a year older than me, was one of the lads who worked for my dad at the printing works and was introduced to me by Dad when he learnt that here was as besotted a fisherman as me.
It was a foregone conclusion that we two, with Dad as the catalyst, would become the greatest of friends and we spent many seasons fishing together. From those earliest meetings our friendship augured well. Steve’s sense of humour was as warped as mine, so it looked as though more fishing trips could and would be crammed in on top of all my usual ones. We both particularly liked chub and carp fishing, pike too.
For many seasons we haunted the gravel pits around the Slipe Lane area in Turnford, particularly the large lake sitting alongside King’s Weir, the Railway Pit at the end of Slipe Lane, and the large gravel pit a little further along, a place we simply called the Big Turnford Pit. We centred most of our activities on these three gravel pits during the autumn and winter during the late seventies and early eighties.
These three pits generated many trips and many memories. How many early autumn and winter pre-dawn starts we made I wouldn’t care to guess – nor how many sprats, herrings and mackerel we hurled out, nor how many hours we sat behind the rods, waiting for the white plastic indicators to creep up.
For me, the one delicious moment in deadbaiting for pike must surely be that first instance when the indicator twitches. You know with absolute and delicious certainty that a pike is sniffing around the bait, but at that moment you have no way of knowing whether it’s a small jack or a pike you could put a saddle on.
There! Just a twitch, nothing more, but the line is now alive and your senses are at their keenest… now the indicator hanging lifeless, wet and dripping, suspended a few inches above the muddy bank. The raindrops knock it gently, but then it twitches up half an inch. Against the rain, against the larger, heavier drops from the trees, another twitch… then it slowly creeps up towards the butt ring. In the games of sit and wait, there really is nothing like it.
I was now looking at my finger: the third finger in, counting from the thumb on my right hand. It had a size 8 treble-hook buried to the bend in the top of it. I was sitting, soaking wet, in the doctor’s crowded waiting room on a bitterly cold, dismal winter’s evening, with hail and sleet slashing into the windows. Forty people were looking directly at me. It was all I could do to get my boots off in the car, and because I couldn’t get my shoes on (have you ever tried to pull on a pair of shoes with a treble embedded in a finger?), I’d walked through all the puddles in the car-park to the reception still in my socks, which were now sodden.
My finger had stopped bleeding a while ago, but now was dreadfully swollen, with the prong of the hook still disappearing into the flesh. I wondered how on earth the doctor would go about sorting it out. I’d entered Reception, tried in vain to sign my name in the book using an arm that had no feeling from the elbow down, and gingerly shouldered the door open into a room that looked like rush hour on the underground.
An hour previously I was in the middle of nowhere, on the Big Turnford Pit, trying to persuade a three-pound pike not to leap around like a frog in a frying pan. That was when the hook went into my finger. I’d been wobbling sprats on the bleakest of winter afternoons. I was soaked and frozen to the insides of my Barbour, which had decided to give up trying to protect me from the weather, when the pike took.
Trying to calm down a three-pound jumping firecracker with the loose prong of a treble jammed to the hilt in my finger wasn’t proving easy. I couldn’t see anything because of the mud I was skidding around in, and the sleet stung my face. In any case, I was crying. It took me at least five minutes to slither back to the tackle-box where I kept the scissors. Still hooked to the pike, I finally made it back to the scissors, when it became obvious I couldn’t cut the trace using my left hand. Ten minutes later – a full fifteen minutes after the hook went in – I managed it, and returned the pike. Then there was a half-mile walk, leaning into sleet, back to the car, more leaning, then driving into sleet…
Back in the waiting room and I’m still staring at my finger.
‘I’d imagine it’s not going to be easy working, with that stuck in your finger.’
My eyes slowly lifted to an elderly lady sitting opposite, who was trying to strike up some kind of conversation. I was in no mood, but out of politeness went along with it.
‘Funnily enough, you’re right,’ I said. ‘I actually paint pictures of birds and animals, so this will probably hold me up a bit.’
Her face brightened.
‘Oh, that’s interesting. I know of an artist, a young gentleman. I’ve followed his work for many years. I collect his greeting cards. He paints the most marvellous birds and animals, too. His father’s English and his mother’s Italian.’
She immediately got to her feet, walked over, grabbed my left arm with onehand and shoved her other one into my hand – the one with the hook in it.
‘Well, I never! I want to shake your hand.’
At that point she sat back down, most pleased with things, and for a few seconds I went back to looking at my finger, trying not to cry again.
One of the receptionists, who hadn’t seen me come in, and who hadn’t been able to understand my attempted scrawl in the patients’ book on arrival, put her head round the door to call the next patient through.
In a silent room, in a loud clear voice:
At which I got up and walked to the door, followed by forty pairs of raised eyebrows.
Unfortunately this little episode was replicated a year later (almost to the day, funnily enough), when I found myself walking through the same doctor’s surgery door, on an equally cold wet and miserable evening, with yet another treble stuck firmly in the tip of the same finger. Almost unbelievably, the accident had happened in exactly the same way. On opening the outer door, and standing there, dripping, at the reception desk, I meekly held up my finger with the hook buried in it, looked at the nice lady at reception, and said:
‘Remember me? Maureen…’
* * *
While my Float’s Still Cocked will be launched at the CLA Game Fair 22nd July 2011. The standard edition is a high-quality paperback with flaps – Price £19.95. There will also be very special Collector’s and De Luxe editions. ‘Mole’ will be there for all three days, available to sign books and to demonstrate how he goes about his painting.
If You’re not going to the Game Fair then copies can be ordered from Coch-y-Bonddu Books (Phone: 01654 702837) or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org Further information can be found on the Coch-y-Bonddu web site.
To learn more about Mole, please visit his agent Bernard Thornton’s web site. The pair are inseparable friends – no behave, not like that! Although Mole has suggested I might want to put that ‘I’m supremely handsome and gorgeous in my pork pie…….ha ha ha.’
Give over! So, no more excuses, go on, treat yourself.
Advance orders are being taken straight away.