Dateline: October 18, 2011 – Ewell, England
On my fishing adventures, I have been fortunate enough to relive some of my younger years. On this trip to England, however, I got the privilege of taking a journey through someone else’s childhood.
The River Thames west of London is one of my most treasured fishing spots in the world – someplace I would seriously consider going if I only had one more day to fish. Although my new species possibilities here are limited, I still love it so much that I go back every time I can – casting spoons for Pike, float fishing for Roach and Dace, staring interminably at the rod tip waiting for a Gudgeon bite. The man who has made this all happen for me is one Roger Barnes, British fishing guide extraordinaire, blues musician, local historian, and talented artist. Many years ago, Roger crossed that line from guide to fishing buddy to great friend, and his selfless dedication to my species hunt has been extraordinary. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/countdown-to-1000-the-compleat-angler/ )
He has put in untold hours of overtime chasing the area’s lesser-known creatures, or standing out in awful weather with ALMOST no chance of catching a fish because that was the one day I was in town. But this time, we truly hit a new low. The events I am about to recount tell me that Roger doesn’t just share my passion, he also shares my pathology.
Things started normally enough, with a day of Pike angling on my beloved Thames weirs.
Roger Barnes navigates us through some classic British fog. That’s Bisham Abbey in the background – it has been around for over 1000 years, even longer than the socks in my hockey bag.
Steve and a typical Thames Northern Pike. They (the Pike) congregate in the tailrace, waiting for the current to sweep down dazed minnows and small children.
We got some nice Pike, and as we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon on the river, talk inevitably turned to the only species I have not caught in the area – The Three Spined Stickleback.
Sticklebacks are a family of (very small) fish that can be found in Europe and North America. They are told apart by the number of spines they have – in this case, the target was a Three-Spined Stickleback, but they come in denominations as high as nine. This is one of those fish that folks claim are everywhere, but after 10 years of fishing with Roger, I had never seen one, so it was time to go and deliberately find it.
Roger sighed. “I expected you would raise this topic. Inquiries have been made, and I will pick you up at 8am tomorrow.” I was giddy with excitement.
The following morning, he picked me up and said “We are going to Ewell – I lived there as a child. Settle in – it’s a fair bit of a drive.” I asked him to explain. As the only persons who actually target this creature are children, Roger had to revert back to his own childhood to find one. As it turns out, his mother still lives fairly close to Ewell, and so, while visiting her a couple of weeks before I showed up, he went and checked on the millpond where he and his friends used to catch Sticklebacks more than 50 years ago. He recalled names and faces he hadn’t seen in generations, wondering aloud what had ever become of them. Interestingly, at least to me and Roger, the body of water is called the Hogsmill River, not River Hogsmill as it would generally be in the UK. No one knows why.
Most of our drive there was accomplished on major motorways, where the British drive in heavy traffic on the wrong side of the road. It took a long time, but 2 hours went by fairly quickly listening to Roger reminisce about his childhood fishing expeditions. “The Sticklebacks can be all over the area, but they tend to congregate in a small culvert in the upper pond. The first fish I ever caught was a Stickleback right in that culvert.” I had always pictured Roger’s first fish as a 30 pound Pike or a 15 pound Barbel. Who knew.
We motored through some larger towns, the southern suburbs of London. Quite quickly, the scenery went from urban to countryside, and then we came upon the village of Ewell, where the locals stared at us.
This was understandable. The villagers were not used to seeing adults with fishing gear near the shallow Hogsmill, as Three Spined Sticklebacks are not a typical angling target. The British may be the most polite people in the universe, so no one actually said anything. They said hello and smiled awkwardly, but we could tell that we looked clearly out of place.
I took a light rod and nosed around the lower millpond for a few minutes, but I saw no activity. Fish aren’t necessarily easy to catch when they’re this small. The rigging for this sort of fishing is highly specialized, and requires near-microscopic knot-tying. Roger must have spent quite a bit of time lashing together 1 pound leader and spade-ended #32 hooks.
The weapon of choice. Note that the hook does not have an eyelet, so the line is actually whipped around a spade end.
So I took a handline and walked across the road. Roger called after me – “Check the culvert – they should be in there.” Again, there were no fish in the pond, but then I looked in Roger’s culvert. It was positively lousy with Three-Spined Sticklebacks.
Roger’s magic culvert. It was a bit awkward standing there with fishing equipment at the side of a busy road, but shame and I are strangers.
I dropped my line in and the little beasts swarmed the bait. After a moment, one of the larger ones managed to get its mouth around the hook and I hauled it up. Yes! I walked over to Roger, who was still preparing a tiny float rod. He looked up. I smiled. He said “You’ve caught one, haven’t you?” I kept smiling. “Well, that was quick.” But oh, so very fulfilling, I thought. I had conquered another one of the mythical fish that, like the Gudgeon, were supposedly easily caught by British children, but I am not British, although I am often accused of being a child.
It’s right there in the middle of the picture – no requests for circles and arrows, please. No one likes a smartass.
The magnificent beastie of Ewell.
As we sat there, basking in the afterglow of pointless accomplishment, Roger reminisced about that first Stickleback, all those years ago. “I brought it home in a jam jar.” he said. “I was quite proud of myself.” I couldn’t help but think of my own childhood adventures with the Creek Chubs. (https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/a-mourning-on-the-water/)
We had driven something like 75 miles and I had taken all the fun out of things by catching the fish immediately. What were we supposed to do now? The answer – race back to Marlow for more Pike fishing! But for the return journey, we would take the back roads – a sunny, gorgeous trip through the English countryside, and quite a ride through Roger’s childhood memories.
The place names here are funny. (To any 11 year-old boy.)
Roger showed me the River Mole, where he and a friend – Russel Davis, who was for some reason also known as Tosh – used to ride their bikes and fish. This is more death-defying than it sounds – most British country roads are narrow, winding, and have no shoulder. They would cast for trout until their arms were sore, and they always stopped for fish and chips on the way home, or just chips if money was tight.
The River Mole – one of Mr. Barnes’ childhood haunts. The river got that name because it literally disappears underground in dry years.
We drove by Epsom Downs, a track where Britain’s richest horse race, the Epsom Derby, is held. A sad episode occurred here in 1913, when a radical suffragette, Emily Davison, threw herself in front of a racehorse owned by King George V and was fatally injured.
Epsom Downs. I wonder if this is where the salts come from.
As we were leaving the racecourse, I heard a deep, wobbling rumble above us. At the same time I said “C-47,” Roger said “Dakota.” We were both correct – it was a DC-3, a WWII transport plane that did the bulk of the heavy lifting for the Allied armies, which was known as a C-47 in American service and a Dakota in the British. It was painted in “invasion stripes” meant to identify friendly aircraft during the Normandy landings.
These aircraft carried the paratroopers that dropped into France to lead off D-Day. My Uncle Ted, now 87 years old and still good-looking, was there, and remembers hearing hundreds of the “Goony Birds” fly over the channel that night.
That would be Uncle Ted on the right. He’s the one with more hair.
A day later, when I was getting ready to fly home, I had one last crack at the Pike, walking the lawn of The Compleat Angler and throwing big spoons up in to the weirpool.
The Compleat Angler Hotel, viewed from the Marlow bridge.
After working the lower pool, I walked up to the spillway. I had two quick hits in the same seam, and on the third cast – boom. An 11 pounder right out of the weir on a Toby spoon. The crowd eating breakfast in the restaurant clapped politely when I landed it.
I can never get good photos with the timer, but check out my new fishing sweater!
I put down my rod and called it a morning – I do not push my luck with the Fish Gods. That left me with a great last cast to savor on the long flight home, to remind me of this magical place, content in the knowledge that if it were my last day of fishing, it had been a great one – but really, aren’t they all?