Dateline: July 26, 2015 – Pangbourne, England
Stefan Molnar and I are close friends, but there are limits to exactly how close, and these limits became abundantly clear on a chilly evening last summer.
Since my April trip to England (Details HERE) had not gotten me the two species of ray I wanted, I had naturally been fretting and plotting and losing a lot of sleep. I pride myself on being more stubborn than the fish – much more stubborn, and at least marginally smarter. So I knew I needed to plan a rematch. To give myself some slight chance of getting decent conditions, I settled on late July, where the rain and wind might give it a miss for a few hours. After all, we are talking about England here, a place no one moves for the weather.
Stefan had a few days off and wasn’t busy arranging art lessons for his daughter (explanation HERE,) so he decided to come over to the UK and join me for the saltwater redux and a couple of days of pike fishing. Stefan, as you veteran 1000fish readers will know, is a German co-worker and fishing buddy, who is quite a skilled angler but will go down in history of inventor of the fabled “Five Gram Rule.” (Search it on my blog. It explains a lot about Germany.)
Surprisingly, the weather was beautiful on my first morning in England. I solemnly acknowledged the long odds of there being two such days in a given British month, and set out to enjoy some traditional British float fishing with John Buckingham. This zen-like process, so ill-suited for my abilities, gets me out onto some beautiful streams in the English countryside, and it was great to catch up with an old friend.
The Loddon on a perfect summer day. Roger Barnes guided me here dozens of times – it was the site of my first barbel back in 2005.
The Loddon didn’t produce anything massive this time, but we still got loads of bleak and dace, and the stray roach. One of the bleak was my 1000th fish caught for 2015, a milestone important to me, and, well, me.
Fish (not species) #1000 of 2015. The good-looking guy is John Buckingham, float fisherman extraordinaire.
That afternoon, Stefan flew in from Germany and met me over at the Compleat Angler Hotel. This is one of my favorite hotels anywhere, because the back lawn features ridiculously good pike fishing.
Looking upriver from the front door of the hotel. That’s the only suspension bridge on the non-tidal Thames. (Local fun fact courtesy of Roger Barnes.)
Before we headed south, Stefan and I fished a few hours in Marlow weir. It was a beautiful day, and we managed to get a few fish. This place will always have great memories of Roger, and I couldn’t help but feel he was watching over us, especially when we caught stuff.
Molnar and a nice pike.
Molnar goes Zoolander while I try to take a serious fish picture.
Another northern from the weir. It’s the same fish in Molnar’s photo above – I caught it a few minutes after he released it.
Toward evening, we headed south to the coast and Langstone Harbour, where we would be based for two days of sea fishing with skipper Glen Cairns on the Valkyrie. We dined in our hotel, which featured traditional British fare made by a traditional British prison chef. Nursing troubled stomachs, we turned in early, anticipating a morning that would likely feature some sort of ugly weather.
Dawn broke clear, sunny, and almost windless. (If you don’t count Stefan.) I couldn’t believe it. A relatively nice day in British waters – surely a sign of climate change, or the Fish Gods taking a day off – but I wasn’t going to argue. We were joined by good friend Nigel, who had set up the whole trip, and his buddy Ray. We motored out about 15 miles and anchored up where Glen had wanted to go in April. I expected immediate rewards.
Steaming out of Langstone on a perfect summer day.
Unfortunately, things looked a lot like the April trip for a while. Nigel caught a blonde ray. Molnar caught a blonde ray. Then Molnar dared to catch an undulate ray, for God’s sake. Everyone seemed to be catching rare and wonderful species except for me, which must be what hell is like, except that Miley Cyrus would be singing in the background if this was really hell.
I managed to fake a smile for Molnar’s blonde.
But an undulate? This is Jaime Hamamoto-type behavior.
Molnar even caught crabs.
Of course, because I am in no way competitive, I retained a cheerful and positive attitude, except when I petulantly refused to photograph Molnar’s fish and threw food at anyone who spoke to me. But then, about an hour in to the program, my Shimano spinning rod went down. It was a heavy fish, straight pull with no head shaking, so I guessed ray – but which one? When Nigel finally reached down with the net, I was thrilled to see a blonde ray on my hook.
A blonde for a blonde. Oh, for those of who who have never seen a picture of me without a hat, or a picture of my back, I have blonde hair.
Glen kept us moving around and trying different bottom types and depths. We got plenty of action – more blonde rays, dogfish, and smoothounds. Nigel, as always, put on quite a show and caught more fish than any two of us – the guy is a machine.
Nigel at work. Again.
The day closed out with only the one new species for me, but it was the species that had avoided me in April. And we still had a full day in front of us.
That evening, Molnar and I wasted a couple of hours trying to get a flounder in the harbor. As hunger set in, we decided that the hotel restaurant had been so very memorable that we ate at Burger King. The wind was picking up ominously.
By morning, the weather had returned to standard British summer – cold and wet. It wasn’t awful enough to cancel, but it was going to be as bumpy as the April trip – still, I was grateful that we were going, and there was the added bonus that Molnar would probably puke. We were joined by John Cheyne, an old fishing buddy who works for the Angling Trust and has been very generous with his time, setting up several freshwater trips for me over the years.
We covered quite a few spots that day, searching desperately for my undulate ray, but they didn’t seem to be on the bite. Late in the morning, however, I did jig up a new species – the sand lance.
Something else I had missed in April, and yes, I was thrilled to catch it.
Action was still steady, even if the footing wasn’t. We got loads of small sharks, including the starry below.
My personal best starry smoothhound, just before it started really raining.
Look up Glen if you’re in the London area. The guy does an excellent job.
As we poked around structure closer to shore, I began fishing a smaller rod with a worm bait, and stumbled into a couple of interesting fish, including a new species – the turbot.
It’s not a plaice (Marta just loves THIS STORY) but it’s a neat new fish.
We also got a batch of very nice seabream, which kept me distracted while I hoped one of the big baits would get an undulate ray. Two new species on the day was nothing to sneeze at, but I couldn’t help staring balefully at those rod tips. It got later in the day, not that we could tell from the sun, because the sun was gone and would likely not reappear here until next spring, and only briefly then.
A black seabream. They tell me they get much bigger than this.
Glen pulled us up on to one final reef. He let us know that we would be able to fish about 30 more minutes, but that he had caught undulates here previously. I remained optimistic. We put down a mix of mackerel and squid baits and got out of the rain, peering at the rigs from inside the cabin. I hadn’t sat down yet when Glen’s rod started pumping. He told me “Go take it. Looks like the right one.” I didn’t argue with him.
I fought the ray for about 10 minutes, and as it surfaced, my other bottom rig started peeling off line. Glen lunged into the water with net to get my fish – an undulate! – and I was already on to the other rig. About five minutes later, Glen netted me another undulate – we had found them. I sat on the deck and just admired the rays – rich shades of brown broken up with dark, wandering lines.
My pair of undulate rays.
Stefan and John also hooked up, and the deck was complete mayhem for about 30 minutes. What bad weather?
The boys battle their own rays.
Everybody got one. The mission had been accomplished.
Steve, Stefan, John, and some nice undulates.
While Glen was cleaning up, I snuck down another slab bait and was rewarded with my personal best conger eel. Months later, this species would be at the root of an unintentional but sobering dose of perspective for me.
A decent conger eel.
Just before this blog was published, Nigel, by coincidence, and with no malice in his heart, sent me a photo of HIS personal best conger.
95 pounds of perspective. I wouldn’t have stayed on the boat with that thing.
To close out the weekend, Stefan and I had set two days of pike fishing in the River Thames with Steve Roberts, the tweed-clad guide from Pangbourne also known as “The hardest working man in row business.”
There was one rather awkward moment to start the weekend. The Compleat Angler, a magnificent hotel by any standard, made a minor mistake on my booking. I had asked for a room with two beds, as Molnar and I are good friends but let’s get real.
The “Honeymoon Suite” sign on the door was an especially bad portent. As you can imagine, we entered the room to see what WAS technically two beds, but which were bolted together, shared a single bedspread, and were indistinguishable from a regular king. There was a single red rose on the bedspread. While this brings a faint smile to my face now, at the moment, we were both aghast. (How about those Bears?)
The Compleat Angler staff is amazingly efficient, and they managed to unromanticize the room in less than 10 minutes. But I was still bothered by this all weekend, and I would guess Molnar was as well, but of course we didn’t discuss it because we are men and we do not share our feelings, unless they involve large fish or Kate Upton.
The next morning, we drove up to Pangbourne. To my great relief, we were not trying to squeeze into the tiny pram Steve and I used in April, as three large adults in that floating hot tub could only end in tragedy. Steve had actually purchased Roger’s old boat, and it would have a new life just a few miles up the river. It felt comfortable to step in the “Compleat Angler” again; so full of memories, and deserving of a second career on the water it knew so well.
We had decent weather on Saturday – breezy and chilly but at least dry – so we made the run up the river to Goring Weir.
Heading up the Thames. The rail bridge has been there since the 19th century.
The pike fishing was magical as always. I pathologically buy pike lures everywhere I travel, and it is deeply if neurotically rewarding to finally be able to use them. We did well – 10 fish or so – and yes, I did get the majority of the fish because I had the awesome British flag hat.
My best pike of the day with my worst hat ever. And how do I make that face?
Another fish on – photo courtesy of Steve Roberts.
Molnar with his first pike of the day. Note the windbreakers were coming on and off – and this was JULY.
On our way home, Steve mentioned that we would pass quite a historical boat. He took us by a gorgeous old cabin cruiser, and nothing seemed noteworthy until I saw the name – “MB 278.” That designation was for motorboats that tended Royal Navy warships, and as we drifted past, I noticed a small plaque on the wheelhouse – “Dunkirk 1940.” This had been one of the thousands of “small boats” that made the perilous trip across the channel to effect the improbable rescue of 300,000 British army troops trapped in that French port as the Germans conquered France. I was in awe.
MB 278. The civilian owner had to repair bullet holes across the bow.
The next morning featured more typical July weather, which might mean anything from rain to mist to drizzle. But it’s July, you say. But it’s England, I say. But whatever you say, Molnar had forgotten his rain pants and was in for a crummy morning. I recall a trout trip in 1998 when Spellman forgot his rain gear and toughed it out (to a limit of massive rainbows.) Stefan showed similar mettle, and perhaps even made a bit of fashion history.
Molnar’s outfit – sartorial disaster or fashion-forward? Only time will tell.
Still, we had a solid day, and Stefan did especially well throwing drop-shot rigs. He got several perch that would have been line-class records on lighter gear, but of course, he did this while wearing a hefty bag altered into an impromptu skirt.
Stefan, a big perch, and the hefty-bag skirt.
Stefan, a nice pike, and Steve Roberts.
Bigger pike at top, hefty bag skirt at bottom.
I will confess that Stefan had a marginally better day than I did, but at least I remembered my rain pants. Of course, if he ends up setting the next big fashion trend in Germany, won’t I feel silly.
A Postcript from Roger Barnes – I miss him a great deal, but this had to bring a smile to my face. Katy, Roger’s daughter, found the item below in a notebook of his. “Rarest fish and most isolated in the world – The golden catfish. Only found in one underground lake beneath the Kalahari desert in Africa. The fish is blind and the only food available is debris that falls onto the surface before sinking. Here’s a challenge for Steve Wozniak!”