Dateline: April 26, 2015 – Pangbourne, England
I have caught thousands of trout, but this was the most beautiful. It wasn’t the largest brown I’d ever gotten – not even close. But by its very existence, it proved something wonderful … and brought back the memory of a dear old friend.
But before we get to the trout, we’re going to need to cover a lot of ground, involving a crucian carp, a Royal Air Force sweater, a wedding, a brutal day at sea, and some conveniently esoteric British fishing regulations.
So, obviously, I found myself in England again. My last two trips here had not been for the happiest of occasions, (details HERE and HERE,) so I was due for a good time, and a wedding generally qualifies as such. And this wasn’t just any wedding – this was for Katy Barnes, Roger’s daughter. I had fished with Roger 11 years and never met Katy in person, but we got to know each other quickly through the sad summer of 2014, and she and Sam are now as much family as Roger was.
Of course, I was going to do some fishing. No, not during the actual wedding, although it was held painfully close to a river, but even I know that running off during the vows to hook a barbel might be considered rude. (Or so Marta tells me, but what if it was a really big barbel?)
On my first day on the other side of the pond, John Buckingham took me out for a day of float fishing. I love using the centerpin and delicate float gear, even if I haven’t completely figured out how to use all the accouterments. Of course, it was no trouble to catch crucian carp – now that the pressure was off, I got four or five. It was an education, as always, to watch John land big carp on 3 pound line when I never even saw the bite.
I would have done anything to catch this fish last May.
I stayed at the Compleat Angler in Marlow, so the Thames was right there, but I couldn’t bring myself to cast the weir just yet.
Looking out from the hotel bar toward Marlow. There are a lot of fish in that river.
I went and looked at the boat, and I knew that fishing the Thames was never going to be the same without Roger, but I also knew I couldn’t NOT fish the Thames.
The bow of Roger’s old boat.
It is too special of a place with too many memories and too many fish yet to catch. One of the fishermen I met at Roger’s memorial was one Steve Roberts, a tweed-clad gentleman who had been a great friend of Mr. Barnes. Steve was just opening his own guide service on the Thames – indeed, he ended up buying Roger’s boat. (River Days Guiding – you can find him on www.facebook.com/riverdaysuk or http://www.riverdays.co.uk/.)
Because I am every guide’s worst nightmare, I decided to give Mr. Roberts a severe test for his first Wozniak excursion. Rather than the pike and perch he knows so well in his home waters near Pangbourne, I asked him to find me a flounder. (“A what?” I could hear him thinking.) He was game, although this would require a long drive to a part of greater London that would be described, in local parlance, as “dodgy.”
Tilbury is supposed to have excellent flounder fishing the right time of year, but the place is like Cleveland without the charm. We set up on a long stretch of seawall and prayed we wouldn’t get mugged. It was rather chilly, but luckily, I had brought my Royal Air Force sweater.
I had always wanted an RAF sweater – one of those heavy white turtlenecks the aircrews wore in World War II. After I pestered Marta for years, she finally found one online and bought it for me. Then came the really difficult question – where the heck was I going to wear the thing? Sure, it would look appropriate if I was blowing up the Mohne dam, but otherwise, I was lost. But I was going to England, where it is generally cold and rainy, and I decided that this was the appropriate place to get some use out this “jumper,” as they call them here.
Lovely Tilbury. If I had caught a flounder, it would have all been worth it.
The first photograph of Steve and Steve. The big white thing holding back my stomach is the aforementioned RAF sweater. And yes, I think it’s totally cool.
There was little drama to the day, apart from the brawl that broke out at a nearby pub. There were no flounder – Steve did his best, but they just weren’t there. But in just a few days, we would try the Thames together in his home weir, and I expected this would be a different experience altogether.
Then there was the matter of a wedding to attend.
After careful consideration, I decided not to wear the RAF sweater at Kate and Sam’s wedding. I wore something more suit-like, and tried to stay out of the way as much as possible, except when there was food. Katie looked lovely, Sam looked not completely terrified, and I have to call that a win. Marta was locked up in some venture capital event for the week, so my date was John Buckingham, a wonderful person to be sure, but perhaps a touch less attractive than Marta. Of course, that’s just my opinion.
The only photo of me and John at the wedding. The lovely woman in the foreground is Dee, Roger’s girlfriend of many years.
The event was held at the Henley rowing museum, which, although Kate and Sam will protest otherwise, was quite posh. Henley is a town upriver of Marlow, best known for its annual regatta. (Where the wealthy and powerful of Britain watch rowing competitions, wear outlandish school blazers, drink expensive French chardonnays, and get sick in the hedge.)
Outlandish school blazers.
Looking down the Thames from outside the museum.
The ceremony itself was lovely, blessed by weather that had unexpectedly gone from a predicted storm to perfect.
To the right after Sam and Katy are Dee, Pippa (Katy’s Mom,) and Roger’s Mom.
To my great delight, the wedding featured some classic British wedding millinery. As a fan of Downton Abbey, I was hoping I would see these at least once in person, and now my wish is fulfilled.
Authentic British wedding headgear. Awesome.
There was also authentic British wedding hair. Also awesome.
The cake was a quiet tribute to Roger.
This represents Sam’s first fishing trip with Roger, on which Sam caught a pike in the 20 pound range. It took me a lot of years to catch a pike that big.
My favorite picture of Katy.
Yes, Sam really is that tall.
Two days after the wedding, I had optimistically arranged a day of sea fishing on the south coast. There are quite a few rays and flatfish there I haven’t caught yet, but the constant challenge is vile weather. My last trip in this area, with Roger in 2010, was a windswept debacle that saw the reappearance of more than one breakfast. (Details HERE.)
The connection to this trip started with Roger, then to Steve Collier, owner of our favorite pub in Twyford, and then to a friend of his named Nigel, who Steve mentioned is one of the most intense and skilled sea fishermen he has ever met. Needless to say, Nigel and I hit it off well. He organized for me to go out with a group of his friends, but warned me that the entire venture was completely weather-dependent and that the weather in April was typically rotten.
Nigel called me the night before and I expected the worst. He said “Great news – it’s only blowing 25.” It is clear that the British standards of acceptable weather differ somewhat from our own, but the point was that we were going. He drove me down to Langstone the next morning – the same area near Portsmouth where I had fished in 2010. We passed the hour-long drive talking about Nigel’s trips in the area, and I lost count of the species I could add.
We boarded the Valkyrie, a sturdy power catamaran, and Nigel introduced me to skipper Glen Cairns. Glen has fished this area his entire life and knew every hole and reef. This did not mean, of course, that he could control the weather.
From left to right, Nigel, Glen, and Steve. We apparently share the same hairstylist.
The weather was not so awful that we couldn’t go out, but it was rough enough to keep us from reaching some of the prime ray spots. Glen anchored up and gave it his best, but it was all kinds of sloppy. Molnar would have gone rail bunny in five minutes.
A lovely day on the water, at least by British standards.
It was quickly obvious that Nigel knew what he was doing. Before I had my first bite, he landed both ray species I wanted desperately to catch – the blonde and the undulate.
Nigel at work.
Nigel’s 17 pound blonde. At this stage, I figured I had to get one.
Then Nigel’s friend Ray got one.
I figured I had to be due any second. But it didn’t happen. Nigel still got a few fish, while I got nothing. I was reconsidering our friendship when I finally had a small bite. I hauled up a pouting, a cod relative locally held in low esteem, but when I weighed it, I was thrilled. Low esteem or not, I had tied the world record on this fish. Of course, this is because no one else bothers to turn them in – everyone on the boat had caught a larger one at some time in the past, and they were stunned – and lightly amused – that the record was only two pounds.
Steve gets on the board with a record. I had caught the species before, but obviously not this big.
We stuck it out for hours at the ray spot, but the bite dried up completely, and we finally moved to a harder bottom where Glen knew we would at least get some action with sharks. We all got a smoothound or two, and then I got an odd bite and odder fight. It was not a shark, and when I got it to the net, I was thrilled – I thought I had gotten my blonde ray. But I hadn’t.
The spotted ray.
To Glen and Nigel’s astonishment, I had gotten a spotted ray – a relatively rare creature that occasionally wanders into the area. Not only was it a new species, but it was also a record. Despite a bit of a pounding from the rough water, the day had been more than worth it.
If you find yourself in London, look up Glen – Langstone is a short drive away and great fishing on the right days.
I then turned my attention toward reacquainting myself with an old friend – the River Thames.
Back in the day, the Thames was a famous trout fishery. Because of this, and because the British love to leave esoteric laws on the books well after they are pertinent (e.g. it is illegal for women to eat chocolate on public transportation in London,) there are quite a few trout regulations on the books for the Thames, even though the pollution killed off most of them years ago.
One of these regulations had to do with the closed season. For “coarse fish” – which include the pike and perch I love catch – the Thames season is closed from March 15 to June 15. But the “trout” season remains open in that period, even though the trout fishery was almost non-existent for many years. In recent years, stocking programs and vastly improved water quality, both of which Roger helped work for, have helped the trout start to come back, and once in a while, Roger would mention that he caught a Thames trout.
This loophole is used by some to continue fishing in the off season, although Roger would always make a game effort at fishing for trout, having me use smaller lures and fish more likely areas. We never did get one, although I saw one once above the Temple lock.
So it was that Steve Roberts and I set out to give it an effort after this elusive creature. It was a beautiful place, but a typical English spring day – blustery and cold. Luckily, I had the RAF sweater.
Steve picked me up at Marlow and took me out to Pangbourne – a lovely 40 minute drive through some classic English countryside. We arrived at a boat ramp, and I could tell this would be another amazing fishery. I readied my trout gear while Steve went to get the boat.
The boat ramp at Pangbourne, so called because the River Pang meets the Thames here.
Steve walked off onto the path, carrying a pair of oars, which I presumed were for an emergency. I fished the bank a bit, and kept waiting for the sound of an engine starting. It was then I saw Steve and the boat. The oars were not for an emergency. They would be our primary method of propulsion, thus earning Steve the nickname “The hardest working man in row business.”
Dude, you have to be kidding me. But we managed nicely in the small punt, although it was difficult to get far enough apart to get decent photos.
We first tried the weirpool. It was cold and getting colder, but after a couple of hours of casting a small spinner, I got a big hit and landed a nice chub.
A European chub – always fun on lures, but not a trout.
I also ended up with two pike later in the day – it always amazes me how small of a lure they will take.
But they weren’t trout.
The day was winding down, and the gloomy light was slowly fading into a gloomier light. We were working our way back to the ramp, but Steve spotted one more spot to try – a perfectly trouty-looking confluence where the River Pang joined the Thames. I cast it twice without result, then got a sharp strike on the third try. I reeled in a frisky fish, which I presumed was a perch, and I had flipped it into the boat before I realized that it was a trout.
An authentic Thames trout.
Reserved and British though he is, Steve whooped in celebration, and so did I. It didn’t need to be said that we were both thinking of Roger. This fish became perhaps the most photographed trout in the history of trout, and Steve learned about both selfies and photobombing in the same moment.
So it certainly wasn’t a big trout at all, but it was the most beautiful one I have ever seen. It was a link to the past and a dear friend, and it was a link to a better future for the Thames. I let it go, and it swam off into the riffle, unaware that it had nearly made two grown men cry.
Pangbourne at dusk.