Memories of the Sowerbutts roach pole

March 5, 2015 at 8:16 pm

Sitting having a pint the other night, I was tapped on the shoulder by a stranger, who enquired about my long lost youth. Had I lived in a certain place  and been a member of the village fishing club? Taken aback, I stared hard at the craggy face opposite, before agreeing that I had, but not recognizing his name, when offered and feeling ashamed, when he knew mine. Unfazed, Ray went on to recall long forgotten members of the club and trips that we had been on in hired coaches, Eddie playing his mouth organ as we travelled, a few humming along to the tunes, while puffing on Old Holborn roll-ups. It was when he mentioned the stopping point on our way back from these early matches, the Five Horse Shoes pub on Remenham Hill, that the memories returned, of piping hot home made pasties, games of darts and being allowed an under aged half pint of brown ale, that the scales fell from my eyes, Ray being revealed as a skinny ginger kid, one of my rivals for the Junior Cup. That red mop was now bald, my black hair grey, but for ten minutes we were lads again.

We joined the village fishing club, chaired by a wheezy trade unionist, Bob, who ran a tight ship, whom even the senior members were afraid of, but who was probably the club’s best angler. Meetings were a serious affair and we juniors were expected to keep our opinions to ourselves, until “Any other Business?” was declared and then only when Bob gave us the nod. The club was affiliated to the London Anglers Association, which was also run along trade union lines, but being democratic, gave even the smallest group a crack at some of the best waters along the Thames, including the many gravel pits. It was on one of these pits, that Bob demonstrated his Sowerbutts 16 foot, 8 section, cane roach pole, which had a split cane top joint, to which was whipped a metal crook, with a knicker elastic shock absorber attached. This was a heavy bit of kit, with polished brass ferrules, which he rested sideways across his lap, the bottom section being about 2 inches in diameter, acting as a counter balance. Bob was fishing squares of bread crust in about 8 feet of water, with a crow quill float. As if they had been trained, once the float settled, the roach would steadily make off with the bait. Bob would thump the end of the pole over his lap, setting off a spring reaction, that carried along the pole to the tip, hooking the roach, the elastic stretching down into the water. He would then bring the pole back, unshipping the quick release sections as he did, until he could net the fish. A master of a lost art. He invariably won the matches, roach on bread, or hemp being his speciality. Matches in those days were size limit, which meant all those roach weighed in, had to be a minimum 8 inches long.

roach pole

This was Bob’s treasured possession, being kept in a velvet bag, the brass fittings wiped with tallow to allow the joints to slide freely. We   shared a punt with him, moored across the Thames weir stream at Windsor, Ray at one end and myself at the other, while the maestro sat on his heavily varnished home made box, complete with draws and a padded, lift up lid, where all his secrets were hidden. A continental tackle box before the name was invented. We sat on our canvas covered Efgeeco boxes, me with my ultra modern 12 foot Appollo Taperflash, tubular steel rod and Ray with his 12 foot Richard Walker split cane float rod, both of us using Aerial centrepin reels. Bob carefully withdrew each section of his Sowerbutts from it’s bag and placed them in order, resting on a towel against the gunwale of the punt, like a surgeon preparing for an operation. We were all a rush, banging about on the wooden boards, being restrained in our enthusiasm by a drawn out “Shuussh!” and a chesty cough from Bob.

Float rigs kept on winders were the norm then and we were soon ready to fish, once our mentor had plumbed the depth, giving us the nod of approval. Following by example, we dropped a handful of hemp each over the back of the punt to drift down in to the swim, scattering a few seeds in front to draw fish up. Ray and I trotted down and were soon missing bites from dace, while with a wide brimmed sun hat concentrating his gaze, Bob hunched over his pole waiting for a movement. Occasionally Bob dropped another handful of hemp behind the boat, silently ignoring our youthful chatter, as we swung in small dace, sitting like a heron poised for action. Thump! The pole bent over as the elastic bounced and he shipped back, swinging in a 6 oz roach, acknowledging the fact with a wry smile. Relighting his roll-up for a few puffs, then hitting into another roach, his bait resting just on the bottom, where a shoal of his target fish, roach, were beginning to gather in numbers.

The event was the club’s annual punt match, with members in five punts and I’m sure the old timer was not happy with the draw, having to share with us two whippersnappers, but he was now putting some sizeable fish in his net, most of our dace not meeting the required seven inches. Being nearest to the bank, I had slower water in front of me and set my float over depth, resting the rod across the punt to eat a sandwich. The float bobbed and sank, my first roach soon to be hustled aboard. The measuring stick said nine inches, well within the size limit and it joined the few dace in my net. When roach get the smell of hemp seed, the bites become unmissable and as more began to fill the net, respect for my elders diminished, Bob was still pulling them in, while I was getting more, trotting my float further down the flow, holding back the cork Avon float. Excited I began to feed out in front of me, taking the fish further down out of reach of the Sowerbutts, while I could inch the float towards them. Bob cursed me, blaming me for ruining his swim. He was right of course, fed correctly there were roach for all, but I got carried away with my success, did it all wrong and won the match, more by luck than judgement. As Bob knew, fishing over depth with a near stationary bait was the answer, I needed to eat a sandwich to realise it.

What a host of memories Ray brought back, he had joined the Navy and left the area, returning to his roots many years later. He still has that rod in the loft, as I do the Taperflash. I got it down a few years ago, giving it a wave about and wondered how I ever managed to catch anything with it. Ray would like to take up fishing again, email addresses have been exchanged, so watch this space.