In the Bleak Midwinter by Andy O’Shaughnessy


The previous days shift was hard, volume well over estimate, the need to do overtime rearing its ugly head once more. Breakfast today was leisurely, quality time with the paper and loads of fresh ground coffee.

Late morning saw me outside giving the cars a wash down; at this time of year the roads and lanes are filthy. The shortest trip being enough to coat the cars with a dirty black coating.

It was the last day of term and soon, Mums would be making their way to school to collect their loved ones at the start of the Christmas Holiday.

My ears tuned in to a sound I had almost forgotten, not heard since my daughter attended primary school. It was the sound of a recorder playing, and yes I knew the tune. Two sisters that live further up the close were making their way home. The youngest struggling to carry the mass of “art material” produced through the year. You know the sort of things, Cereal packets, toilet tubes and plastic bottles all glued together and coated in thick coats of poster paint.

I had to smile as they passed; I remember my own children doing just the same. Some of their work is still up in the loft, green dragons and bright blue boats, pictures of people, everyone having happy smiling faces, priceless memories of their young schooldays.

As the eldest sister played, her sister sang:

In the bleak midwinter
frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone:
snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
long ago.

A classic Christmas carol, one, which I'm sure, we all know from our own childhood. As I recited the verse, my memory recalled a time in my youth where these words were foremost in my mind.….

I was an apprentice Baker, and worked alongside a chap who was a keen Fisherman. Colin, and his mate Tony, would go every week on a Sunday morning regardless of weather and season. I had no transport in those days, so when Colin invited me along, I accepted without hesitation.

The evening prior saw me inspecting my wicker baskets contents, every bit of tackle, rods, reel, spools, hooks, and floats were checked. Split shot was sorted back into sizes and each one opened up with a penknife. Later in bed I consulted Mr Crabtree's “Fishing in all waters” and memorised the comic strips on how to fish a river in flood.

Later on it became apparent that Colin would not be following the same attention to detail as myself. He had one rod, one reel that had 10lb line on it, and “knew everything about fishing”, so he didn't need to read any publications at all.

Earth stood hard as Iron

Tony's approach was much different; He would often be the first to catch, often before I had even cast in. I admired Tony's ways, and took all his advice that he gave. On Sunday after a bitterly cold week which saw a light dusting of snow, earth stood hard as Iron.

We walked along the swollen river, bank high and the colour of coffee, our boots crunching on the hard frosted grass. Boy was it cold. I should be alright, I had two of everything on, and in each pocket, had one of those charcoal sticks inside a little velvet case, you know, hand warmers.

Tony suggested as we reached the boat cut, we should fish there, away from the main river, Colin wanted the main river, so we dropped our tackle down, hot from the walk, our breath hung and lingered in the still frozen air.

Further along the cut I could see what was a summer cattle drink, now a perfect eddy of slack water, just out of the pages of Mr Crabtree, and decided to fish that. Tony and I sat facing the eddy; Colin was just back on the main river.

Tony was soon into a chub, I remained bite less and Colin was heard to say, “Tony was just lucky“.

My sweaty underclothes were now feeling much cooler as I sat on my basket, Boy it was so cold, the temperature had failed to raise, even slightly, and no breeze stirred.

After a while, out of the blue Colin shouted, “Got one”! I couldn't believe it, but welcoming the chance to get up and get my legs moving. I made my way to his swim and arrived just in time to see him swing a Gudgeon to his waiting, gloved hand. “I take it your ledgering”? Colin I asked, “yeah he replied, I need three coffin leads just to hold bottom” I looked at his terminal tackle, he had indeed three coffin leads strung on his line, held in place with a swan shot at each end. It looked like a rock stars necklace.

“Much of a bite”? I asked, tongue in cheek, “no, didn't know it was on”, came the reply. I was starting to see the real picture here. “I might use it for pike bait” Colin added. Tony and I persuaded him not to try due to the high coloured water and fast low. Phew!, that was close.

Back at the eddy, Tony gave me the tail of a lobworm, ”fish can smell that easier than your bread paste”, he explained, and suggested I give it a go.

Within a short time my rod knocked rhythmically and I was attached to a bream of about z. Despite the fish, which warmed my soul for a short while, the cold was relentless and I was very glad when Colin announced that we should pack up and go home. The thought of home, warmth, and a huge Sunday Roast was very appealing.

The following week was again bitter cold, and as the weekend came, Colin said that we should ignore the river, and go to a gravel pit in search of Pike. My father had quite a collection of plugs, spoons and spinners. This together with his solid glass ABU spinning rod would be all that I needed. Again, the afternoon before saw me inspecting each treble for rust, the points honed sharp, and my Mitchell spool changed for the large capacity one loaded with 12lb mono.

The Sunday was relatively mild by comparison, and my mobile approach would help to keep me much warmer, compared with the previous outing. Tony would fish sink and draw, using herrings, while Colin chose to mount a sprat under a Gazette bung, cocked with his favourite coffin lead. He set the depth at around three feet and mounted the sprat so it hung head down.

The pit was large, just under twenty acres, with many bays and islands. The banks varied from shallow margins to steep verticals, suggesting different depths. The shallower end, although showing a ripple in the gentle, mild breeze, hid surface ice just beneath. Something I found out as I cast into the horizon.

A strange hollow “ping” sound, followed by the plug skating out of control across the surface. I later saw some Canadian geese, fooled as I was, crashing like tenpins as they attempted to land, on the deadly slippery surface.

I tried every spot around the pit, casting a “fan” pattern and altering the speed of the retrieve. I had a fish follow once, a dull silvery, pale flash of underbelly, followed by a vortex on the surface, as Dads jointed wooden lure came into view.

Meeting up with the others, Colin had no interest shown in his tail suspended sprat, Tony had one pike follow his herring, but that was all.

Changing to a copper spoon, I had more success, the brightly polished spoon attracting the attention of a pike, which, once was in the shallow reed fringed bay, suddenly woke up and began tail walking and making fast runs just below surface. Just the behaviour to attract Colin, I thought.

Tony came round first and netted the fish. “Well done Andy,” he said his forceps already in his hand, “ let me show you how to hold and unhook a pike properly”. I watched and learnt as he swiftly and carefully removed the single treble from the pikes lower jaw, “easy when you know how, isn't it” he added.

My large ego was abruptly deflated as Colin arrived. “Just right, that one, well done! Titch”. Titch indeed, I was over six-foot even then! “What do you mean?” I asked. “ For the pot” he added scanning the ground for a suitable “tool” to perform “the honours”.

Water like a stone

“No way” I screamed, as I grabbed the pike from the net, running blindly through the frozen reed stems by the waters edge. The frozen solid shallows suddenly cracked, the sound unmistakable as I went through the ice, half way up my thighs in water. Bending down I released the pike, safe, for another day at least.

Tony passed me the landing net handle for support as I prised myself out, only to reach in once more to grab one of my Wellington boots that remained under the ice. Colin returned to his basket, lit a cigarette, obviously not happy.

Tony said he had some hot tea in his basket and we made our way to his swim. I was silent for a while, but I did point out to Tony that I had seen a very pikey looking swim that was not easy to work a plug through. “Lets go and have a look then, are you sure you're O.K.” “I'm fine, apart from my wet legs” we both laughed, and the case was closed.

“This is the spot, Tony,” I said. It was the narrow opening to a weedy bay, the entrance was only about three rods wide, but one bank was high and nearly vertical. “I think its deep over there” I said as we looked across. “It does look a perfect pike ambush point,” added Tony as we made our way round.

Looking at the swim closer, it was difficult to fish with any method, certainly not one for the lure angler. There was no room to cast, and the remains of a fallen, half submerged branch didn't help either. “We need a float fished dead bait,” suggested Tony, “ If there is a pike there, we need to keep it away from that sunken branch”.

Surely it's too deep for a float?” I added. Tony produced a gazette float which he had glued a biro tube though the middle, where the dowel peg would have gone. He also had a couple of shirt buttons in one of his many matchboxes, used for storage. Showing me how to tie a “stop-knot” he made up a sliding float rig using the button as we would use a bead today.

His Jardine snap-tackle held a herring. This, he had pricked all over with the point of a treble to let the juices escape, and help attract a pike. “Now lower the bait in”, he advised, “Just under the rod tip.”

I allowed the bait to sink slowly, enticingly, aided by just two swan shot. Tony noticed that we were fishing too shallow, so the stop knot was slid up the mainline by a couple of feet and the herring allowed to return down to the depths once more.

Shortly, no more than about 15minutes, the line above the float started to twitch, “Look” I said, “is that a bite?” We both watched as the line started to move, something was pulling the line down through the float. The button became locked by the stop-knot, causing the float to bob rhythmically, before slowly moving away to our left.

“Wind down, until the rod top starts to bend, then hit him” instructed Tony, his voice growing in volume with anticipation. I did as he said, the resulting lunge almost toppled me over, such was the power and speed. “ Hold him hard, don't let him take any line” Tony was now excited as I was.

I could see I was playing the fish through the float, it following every move from the fish, making it easy to apply side strain, as and when required. It was a real tug of war fight; I thought the line would break at any moment. The rod curved alarmingly as I hung on hard. Soon we saw the occasional flash of silvery, yellowy, green as the pike came closer to the surface.

Finally with gills flaring, he rolled on the surface, showing his huge white underbelly. “It's a good fish, Andy” Tony added as he scoped him into the net first time. “It might go twenty” Tony's voice had a tremble to it, I was unable to reply, I was shaking from head to foot, partly from my soaked trousers and partly from excitement.

On the “little Samson” she went 19lb 12oz! “ Fish of this size are normally females” added Tony, as we took it in turns to hold this magnificent creature. Being from a gravel pit, she lacked that gorgeous green and yellow mottling that river fish possess, she was more silvery but she had fine shape, very wide, with a huge bony skull, and in great winter condition.

Without putting myself at risk again, I slipped her back. Expelling air though her gills as she went, slowly moving away, aided only by her huge pectoral fins, back to the depths from where she came. Colin never knew about this capture, To this day, Its Tony's and my secret.

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Andy O'Shaughnessy

re-generated Feb 2007