My childhood fishing memories

It's just that the longer I fish, the more I long for simplification and lightness ... Tom Sutcliff

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Dad and Mum



Fishing's my passion. It's in the genes.

For as long as I can remember I've loved to fish. That'll be over fifty-five years now, not counting the first ten years of my childhood (I just don't seem to have any memories before the age of ten).

My earliest fishing memories are of being with my Dad and Granddad on a small river in England. It was nineteen fifty one and I was eleven years old, still wearing all-season wool shorts held up by a three striped elasticized belt with a gold snake buckle.

My Mum had contracted tuberculosis and we'd moved out of London and were living in the country.

Granddad was my Mum's father. He and my Aunt Ethel (his sister) would drive down from Bow Road, London, on the weekends. There weren't too many cars back in those days. It seemed to me people mostly rode bicycles or the buses. How he managed to buy a car I'll never know. I can't say as I knew what he did for a living, I always thought he was a carpenter. He sure did a good job building the shed and the chicken coop at the bottom of our garden. The shed was one of my favourite places, full of mysterious tools, and drawers that were like treasure chests. It was where we kept our fishing gear, and where I would hide out and read my comics.

Granddad was a tall upright man with a silvery mustache. He waxed the ends into a slight curl. He always buttoned his shirt to the top and wore a cloth cap and a dark suit with a waistcoat. No tie. Although he came from a lower class area of London, he and my Aunt Ethel took great pride in their appearance. I think most working class people did back then.

Every Sunday, when the weather was good and my Dad didn't have chores, we would load up Granddad's old Ford Prefect with the split cane rods, a large thermos of tea, cheese sandwiches, folding chairs, and the morning newspapers. And the bait. The bait was either maggots or bread. I was fascinated by the maggots and loved to hold them in my hand and watch them wiggle their way in between the cracks at the bottom of my fingers. They had a cool, smooth tickling feel to them. Sometimes they'd get left in a rusty Old Holborn tobacco tin in the shed for a couple of weeks. If I lifted the tin to my ear I could hear the buzzing of hatched bluebottles.

The river was a half hour from our house. The roads were narrow with hedges and trees on either side. It was farm country. Lots of cows and oats and barley. Our bungalow backed onto a farm. It had a pond where I'd fish for newts with a worm tied to a piece of string.

Gasoline had been rationed during the war. Granddad must have thought it was still wartime. At the top of every hill he would slip the car into neutral, turn off the ignition, and allow it to coast. This way, in his mind, he was saving fuel and doing his bit for the war. He also used to straighten out bent nails, 'waste not want not' as he'd say. He was very much into recycling things. The brakes on the old Ford weren't all that good and the steering was loose and it used to wander and sway a lot, like a boat. At the bottom of one big hill was a crossroads with a pub on one corner. Watching Granddad fight the wheel when we hit the bottom was a thrill for me. Like being in a bumper car. I don't think it was for my Dad though, from my back seat I could see his legs stiffen as he worked an imaginary brake.

The parking spot by the river was at the side of the road, just before the bridge, and had enough room for three cars. Sometimes there were gypsies, in a horse-drawn wagon, camped there. The rounded roof looked just like the drawings I had seen of circus wagons. The children would beg for money. I remember how dirty and worn their clothes were.

Steve and Grandad

The river was a typical slow moving English river, thirty feet wide, with reeds lining the banks and footpaths on either side. We would walk down the right-hand footpath until we came to a small brook that ran into the main river and there we would set up our gear. Tiny chairs would be unfolded, rod rests with keepnets stuck in the bank. Rods were assembled and a handful of maggots and squished wet bread would get thrown in the river. 'Chumming' we call it here in Nova Scotia.

We were coarse fishing for roach, perch, and bream, all inedible fish. Lead shot was used to balance the quill float, with one or two maggots, or bread paste attached to the hook. Granddad used to make the kind of bread paste that stayed on the hook for a long time. It was a secret recipe. The maggots had to be put on by their stubby rear ends so that their heads could wiggle. We'd throw out our lines, put our rods in the rodrests, sit in our chairs and pour a cup of tea. Dad and Granddad would then open their newspapers. Before long my Dad's newspaper would be over his head and he would fall fast asleep. Dad worked a five and a half day week and this was his day of rest.

Uncle Len (Dad asleep on the ground)

On the other hand, Granddad and I were really serious fishermen. Our eyes never left the float, in fact we would watch each others and comment on the sure signs of a nibble. A quarter inch dip in the float would indicate a tiny fish sucking on the bait. In between watching my float I would daydream about catching a big pike I imagined lurked in the weeds on the other side. Granddad had said that was the kind of place you would find one. Later on in life I would travel further upriver and managed to catch a pair of big bream, too big to fit in the keepnet, but I never did see that pike.

After a while the banks would fill with more fishermen and then the Water Bailiff would come ambling along. No river in England, that I know of, is fished for free. My Dad and Granddad weren't too pleased about lining a river owners pockets. However, the Bailiff was dressed very much like my Granddad and they were always pleasant and would discuss the weather and the fishing.

A two shilling ticket issued on the eighth of July 1956 (I was one month shy of sixteen)

The morning would pass all too quickly and I would excitedly, and skillfully I might add, catch my share of five inchers. Then the time would come to wake my Dad, empty the keepnets, pack-up the gear and head home to our traditional Sunday roast-beef, baked potatoes and brussel sprouts dinner (with rhubarb and custard for desert).

I have continued to fish, wherever and whenever, always carrying with me the memories of those times and my family.

Addendum ...
Often times when I am alone on the river I feel like my father is watching over my shoulder. It is only his head and neck that I see, the rest of him fades into the background of woods and water. He does not say anything, but he seems to be enjoying himself. I like to think he values our time together and is at peace. He looks relaxed. There is a little smile on his face. I can tell he approves of what I am doing. He encourages me to wade slowly and to absorb my surroundings. I am not dodging bullets like he did during the war, and I am in no hurry to leave the river. Sometimes he looks upwards, at an osprey or simply to let his mind wander through the clouds. I look with him. We think alike. I know how lucky I am and I know he knows it too. He is not envious, but simply pleased with what I am doing and where I am at in life. On these occasions, I fish for him.

Tales Casting contest I Tangier River I Boyhood memories I Newfie salmon I Muddler's memories I Does a bear? I First ever salmon I The Tickmobile
U-Fish I 4 a.m. I Lyin seasun I Anecdotes I Fishgirl salmon I A natural fly I Main Event I Honeymoon I Vernon I Leslie I Coyote? I Newfie trout I Fantasy

Pat Donoghue, Canada, ©1997