2014 started for me pretty much the same as 2013 ended with my fishing being somewhat s-l-o-w.
With the prolonged periods of heavy rain leaving the river in a more severe state of flood than I think I've ever seen before, and continuously strong winds keeping 'Jupiter' firmly on her mooring, Dave and me sought solace in another unsuccessful attempt at pike fishing on the club lake.
Entertainment for the day was provided in the form of a club 'official' who happened to turn up, check our permits, and proceed to give us the benefit, for half an hour too long, of his divine wisdom.
I won't go into details but, why do so many people in fishing spout utter rubbish? What on earth goes on in some people's minds? We've all met them.
Among many other priceless gems of misery and 'intimate knowledge' that spilled from between his lips was the 'fact' that the stretch of river Dave and me were targeting, and where Dave caught his 'twenty' in November', no longer contained any big pike at all. 'They're all dead'
Being rather congenial sorts, after knowingly glancing at each other,we just politely smiled and proffered nothing but, it was when the 'guru' started spouting off about moon phases that I felt myself glaze over and my mind wander off completely. Anglers are a strange breed.Perhaps I'm just becoming old and cynical.
As a youngster, I regularly fished a beautiful lake set deep in the Surrey Hills at Dorking known as 'Old Bury Hill Lake'. Back in the seventies and early eighties it was a 'day ticket' venue run by a certain Graham Rowles.
Those of you who fished it at the time will no doubt remember this huge bearded character who sewed fear in the minds of any teenager who dared turn up to fish 'his' lake. Step out of line once, like fumbling for your disgorger, and you felt as if you'd committed a heinous crime that would result in a terrible punishment if he caught you with one of 'his' fish out of the water for more than a second!
He ran a tight ship! But 'Ole Bury 'ill' was indeed a very pleasant place to fish , and I remember seeing several celebrity match anglers of the time sitting behind glass fibre 'swing tip' rods bagging up on the lake's superb bream.
I don't think I'd fished there for about thirty five years but, finding the venue mentioned in an article in a stack of coarse angling magazines that Dave had given me, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to pay the place a visit and seek out some of its famous Zander- a specie I'd yet to encounter.
There is no doubt that the fishery has changed somewhat over the decades, and sadly lost just a little of its natural beauty and charm, or perhaps I'm looking back through rose tinted glasses.
The main lake (there are now several) 'Bury Hill' itself was instantly recognisable but has been somewhat 'manicured' and furnished with comfortable wooden fishing platforms evenly spaced around its banks, and a solid pathway on which to push your fully laden tackle trolley.
The ramshackle old boat house and bailiff's hut with half stable door where, if you were lucky, and dared ask, you might be able to buy a stale Mars bar along with your half a pint of maggots,has been replaced by a thoroughly modern café and impressively well stocked tackle shop but, the punts are still present.
I suppose this is the face of modern 'commercial' coarse fishing and in this 'instant' angling world that we find ourselves in, for many, it provides ample benefits and why not.
Having said that it is still a beautiful spot set in very peaceful surroundings and well worth a visit when the sea and rivers are unavailable.
Thankfully, 'Grumpy Graham' has long gone and I'm pleased to say that the staff employed by the new owner to run the fishery,are helpful and enthusiastic. I'd remembered where the deep areas in the lake were in the seventies and, with a bit of questioning, was 'guided' a little on the location of the 'hot' zander swims which indeed turned out to be the very same spots for targeting them at this time of year, and prior to them moving into shallower areas for spawning.
I'm not entirely sure when this strain of zander were introduced, perhaps twenty years ago? Whatever the case,apparently this slow growing fish has reached some very impressive sizes and provides a rare opportunity for the southern based angler to attempt to catch one.
The fishery runs a 'single barbless hook only' rule and I was recommended to try very small sea bait sections for these wily ,mostly nocturnal, feeders. I chose sections of my favourite pike dead bait-sardine.
My first trip to the lake, a bright sunny day in early January resulted in a blank. However, I did see, from a distance, one zander caught, and experienced a flurry of tentative bites and activity on the bite alarms just as the light faded at the end of the day so, not to be beaten, a return trip was very much in order.
The fishery owner, after a bit of gentle persuasion kindly allowed me , a complete stranger, to fish into the evening on my second visit which I greatly appreciated as its not something he would normally permit. I arrived at 3p.m and settled into the same swim chosen on my first visit but, on this occasion, I elected to float leger my baits using small low buoyancy wagglers armed with red 'starlights' to foil these most finicky of fish.
When collecting my ticket , I'd be shown a mounted zander in the fishery office of over 17lb that had been captured from the lake and what struck me most was just how tiny the fish's mouth was in relation to its body size. I've only ever seen one zander in the flesh before caught from a French river and despatched for the dinner plate so I'm not really qualified to comment but, having studied pictures of zander in Mark Barratt's excellent book on the subject, it would appear that the strain stocked in Bury Hill do have rather small mouths.
Nothing happened until darkness fell and, with the fishery gate locked and the few day time anglers and staff long gone, I was left in peace with the whole lake to myself.
I fished two baits, a tail section at distance in about ten feet of water, and a head section in the margin at a similar depth with a few tiny fish sections scattered as free offerings and to enhance the scent in the water.
Straining my eyes to watch the dim 'starlights' reminded me of my youth when I regularly fished on summer nights in the school holidays at a local estate lake just a bike ride from my Surrey home, my quarry being the shy biting crucian carp which were partial to a grain of sweet corn suspended under a battery powered float. I wonder if you can still buy those floats.
The excitement and anticipation that I so clearly remember from that time is definitely still in me. There is nothing quite like night fishing on a still water with its rarefied atmosphere and thankfully, on this particular January night, the sky was shrouded in cloud and the temperature quite comfortable.
In a moment, one of the little red star lights wasn't there any more and before the back up bite alarm was given a chance to do its job, I'd tightened up to my first fish from the lake for over three decades.
The fight, if you could indeed call it that was, to be perfectly honest, uninspiring, but the fish felt heavy and, as I drew it over the landing net and peered into the mesh under the head light, this indeed proved to be the case .
My first ever zander would turn out to be a double figure fish-what luck.
The zed was as fat as butter and in sparking condition- a real credit to possible former captors. Fully intending to preserve her pristine state, I quickly weighed her in the net and snapped off a piccie on the unhooking mat- reluctant to waste time setting up a 'selfie'. After spending a few seconds admiring my prize and immediately noticing that 'tiny' mouth full of fangs, she was carefully slipped back into the darkness none the worse for her experience.
At 10lb 10oz a fine first of specie but that wasn't the end of it.
I had been asked to vacate the premises at 9-00 p.m and ten minutes before 'closing time' the same float , baited with the same bait-sardine head , glided away and I was in again. A similar sized zander was 'on' but unfortunately she slipped the hook right at the net probably because the line had tangled one of the pectoral fins. At least I got a good look her at in the headlight before she secured her escape.
One fish only, but I'd hit the target in style and it was one very 'happy bunny' driving the forty miles home that night and hatching plans of a possible future zander excursion to the acknowledged 'home' of this rather enigmatic, nocturnal immigrant......The Fens.