This summer has seen my camera by my side more often than not, here I was capturing Paul Cook at his workshop and on the Wensum with one of his hand built fly rods…
On Saturday 2nd April 2016 the Angling Auctions in Chiswick finally drew to a close when the hammer fell and lot 630 – “An unusual American Bamboo trout fishers creel” was sold. Slow applause permeated throughout the hall in appreciation for Neil Freeman who has put the hammer down on 32,000 lots over the last twenty five years offering vintage fishing tackle, taxidermy, books and angling art to a worldwide audience of collectors and angling enthusiasts.
My involvement began in 2011 (I’m considered a relative new boy) when John Andrews of Arcadia asked if I could help out on the rods. Arriving in Chiswick I was soon put to task in the construction of the rod rack, an antique in its own right, but a protector of fine fishing rods. Neil told me that he built the rack in 1991 with a drunk Irishman, a story I must confess I believe looking at the quality of its construction, but in defence of the Anglo-Irish workmanship it still survives with it’s biannual kicks and trips that it has to endure from eager anglers grasping at the wonders it beholds. Five years on I am still putting up the same rod rack, stuffed with even more matches and bound with ever more gaffer tape.
Over the years staff have come and gone but generally there is a core that stay loyal, Neil’s brother has been involved from the start and more recently Neil’s son Sam has worked as a porter. Fresh sandwiches and cakes are made and the all important tea urn is switched on as soon as we arrive on the Friday morning, the tea urn is first off and last on the van, a tradition that has lasted since the beginning. Last Saturday the tea urn was loaded onto the van for the last time in Chiswick and a new beginning for the Angling Auctions has begun down in Romsey, Hampshire. Hopefully I will see you there?
The tackle box to many is a container to hold smaller items of fishing tackle; floats, hooks, weights and so on. But you can tell a lot about an angler by lifting the lid and viewing the contents. The boxes I like have character, a soul, this appeals to me greatly as an insight into the owner and a period of time in the angling past. Over the years I have acquired tackle boxes that I keep as an archive, a curator that considers each box as a piece of art and historical interest, but most importantly a box that has a personality. Sometimes I will edit a box to create a pleasing aesthetic but all the time I am conserving the integrity of each collection. Tackle is not the only thing found, old permits with scribbles on the reverse of notable captures, newspaper cuttings from the angling press, badges, coins and in one example a lucky charm belonging to a superstitious angler. I must also mention the smell of old tackle boxes, a smell that is hard to define but lingers like that of an old british bike or a waxed jacket, a scent of wood, oils, and old cotton.
I have a acquired these boxes from elderly anglers who have taken their last cast, anglers who can no longer tie a hook and rely purely on their memories, but most of all the boxes I have procured come from anglers I never knew, only through detective work I can paint an image of who they were, when they fished and the style of fishing that they pursued, I can step into their shoes, I have become the curator of tackle boxes!
In a moment of late night EBay bidding I found myself driving down to Brighton to pick up a job lot of fishing tackle. It was quite clear that the original owner of this gear was a fanatical match angler including some nice examples of early glass fibre match rods (all painted matt black) hand-made floats and centre pin reels. Overall the gear was well looked after with plenty of improvised DIY going on, but for me the clincher on the lot was the little two tiered tackle box with aluminium shot tins, there is something about these tackle boxes I find really quite personal…
Huddled around three Anglepoise lamps five students gathered under the guidance from Bruno Vincent AKA Super Fly Guy. The Three Kings pub is our meeting place, tucked away on Clerkenwell Green, pleasantly quiet, the perfect setting for some focused concentration. In a room above the main bar we sat around a dinning table and discovered some of the techniques from master fly tyer Bruno, while supping a few pints and chomping through scotch eggs and pork pies. Considering three of us were complete beginners the results were quite astonishing, buzzers, cascades and broadswords patterns…
If you want to see Bruno’s freestyle and traditional work or ask about these evenings please drop Super Fly Guy an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I quite enjoy using and accumulating fishing tackle from the same era as when I was a young lad, but at the age of ten or eleven most of the tackle I owned was hand-me-down rubbish, a pink solid glass rod paired with an Intrepid Black Prince reel was my only kit. With my inadequate tackle and limited funds the only ‘good’ items I could afford in my local tackle shop, Penfolds of Cuckfield were fishing floats.
When entering the narrow shop illuminated only by artificial light, carded displays in glass cabinets from various manufacturers covered one wall, it was always the Ultra range of floats that caught my eye. Neat rows of floats organised into models and then graded into sizes lined up like church organ pipes standing to attention as if on parade. To a novice angler the range was beweildering, I mean how many ‘onion’ floats do you really need, and how different are they from a ‘Ducker’? To understand the range was an education in how to fish, although attractive they all had a utilitarian purpose.
Thirty years on I still have a few remaining Ultra floats, a band of brothers that managed to avoid the pitfalls of being cast into overly optomistic situations, less lucky comrades were lost in battle, eventually washed away by the ebb and flow. Today though I was most pleased to find that good friend and dealer in nostalgia John Andrews of Arcadia had located a lost battalion of Ultras, locked away in a box for decades but now released, dressed in black (as I remember them) and the earlier olive-green version.
A person who is born in the town of Usk or has lived there for forty years or more can qualify as a ‘Usk butterfly’. The butterfly symbol was used by Usk craftsmen who created Japanned finished wares, it distinguished their work from nearby Pontypool who created similar work. Last week I was fortunate enough to meet a Usk butterfly for the first time…
Thursday I found myself driving to South Wales with fellow photographer, angler and friend, Nick Moore to cover the stills for an advertising campaign. We were staying at the famous Gliffaes County Hotel that sits on a rocky outcrop in the Usk valley. The hotel is very much of the arts and crafts Edwardian style, and mainly caters for the brown trout, sewin and salmon fisher. As anglers we were both quite frustrated by the prospect of staying at this hotel in earshot of the river Usk, unable to fish, only to work! Ever an optimist I packed a spinning rod, reel and waders hoping that I could grab an hour before or after dinner and winkle out a salmon. The previous day I was talking to John Andrews of Acadia about our predicament and his reply was ‘do yourself a favour and drop into Sweets of Usk…’ I had heard of this old style tackle shop but had never been there so during our drive up to Wales I mentioned this to Nick and the possibility of a detour to visit the tackle shop, after a short conversation a decision was made and we took the turning to the town of Usk. On arrival we found a tiny wooden-clad shop front with the glass panelled door covered in various notes and signs obscuring what was hidden within, to be honest we thought the shop was closed. On close inspection I could see the smiling face of a well dressed lady who was reaching for the locked door, before long we had entered into another world.
When we first stepped inside Sweets we were overwhelmed at the sheer array of things to look at, there were trays of hand-tied flies, old books, stacked boxes, photographs old and new, wooden carved salmon, tweed jackets, bags, cane and carbon rods, we were struggling to know what was for sale and what items were on display for sentimental reasons. The air smelt of wax and old books, the sun had just come out and shafts of light shone through the gaps in the glass illuminating the shop in dappled light, the atmosphere was thick and there stood behind the wooden counter our host with her infectious laugh and sweet smile. Nick and myself were actually quite dumb struck like a couple of school boys, but we were soon put at ease with Mrs Williams offer of tea and stories that were attached to every object that we pointed out. We felt that we had entered someones front room for the first time and with that in mind turned down the offer of tea for we felt that we were intruding. Instead we turned our attention back to the shop, its history and the content. I spotted a delicate looking cane trout rod that turned out to be a Harry Powell rod who originally opened the shop in the 1930’s and was told that “Harry’s rod would never be sold, it is far too special.” Mrs Williams told us about Lionel Sweet who took over the shop from Harry Powell and of his legendary fly casting skills (in 1953 he became the Casting Champion of Europe which he held for twenty years) while his wife Molly hand-tied the flies in the shop. In the early 1960’s Mrs Williams started work in the shop after her parents were looking to find her some temporary work, then in the 1970’s she took over the shop with her now husband, Mike. Over forty years on Mrs Williams, the Usk Butterfly continues to offer her time and hospitality that is warm and genuine, in truth we felt after an hour that we should leave but I think she enjoyed our visit as much as we were. The shop is very much orientated to fishing the Usk which is literally a stones throw from the shop. I spotted a cupboard of boxes with labels from bygone Redditch tackle firms, stacked in a higgledy-piggledy manner. From this cupboard Mrs Williams showed me some of the contents including some floats, “I have a few floats for the boys in the village, you have to get them started somehow,” it was almost as if this was a rite of passage, from float to fly. By five o’clock we had to leave, we could have stayed longer as I know that Mrs Williams had many more stories to share, time was not an issue in this shop, it looked like it had stopped many decades ago, but we had to move on and step back into 2014. A meeting had been laid on for us to discuss the photo-shoot that was to take place on the following day, the contrast was quite extreme.
In hindsight there is a slight sadness about this shop as you realise it won’t be around forever. When Mrs Williams locks the door for the final time I can’t see this business being passed on or sold as it stands, the vintage tackle dealers and auction houses may buy up the contents and the shop will be lost. The stock is probably worth very little but some of the historic photographs and wood carving are worth considerably more, but as a collection under one roof it is priceless. On a historical and social level Sweets is a very rare place to discover. For now it still stands as a business supplying the Usk fishermen with flies, spinners and line, it is a very honest place and certainly not a parody or museum. For anyone who remembers fishing tackle shops that precede the 1980’s when the owners were normally a husband and wife duo, this is a place you have to visit and spend a few pounds. Sweets is a tackle shop that survives where many others were lost to Angling Centres with departments run by ‘experts’. My experience in Sweets reminded me how far we have come as a country over the last thirty years, we seem to be in a big hurry. Sweets is a real lesson in customer care and understated knowledge, an antidote to modern shopping. This little tackle shop is in no rush, run by a lady who has time for anyone who steps through the door, I’m just looking to find an excuse to go back soon, this time though I will accept the offer of “a nice cup of tea with welsh water” as Mrs William would like to say.
I think its time for a bit of tackle talk, its been a while and I quite enjoy it…
I’m constantly chopping and changing when it comes to my general carp set up, the rods stay pretty much the same, for jungle warfare I use my B James IV with six inches missing off the top (possibly my favourite rod), general carp fishing a standard B James Mark IV full length, and for slightly heaver fish or snaggy swims my Allcocks Carp Superb with its longer handle, this rod has a little more back bone in the butt although it sports a Mark IV taper.
When it comes to reels though I can never make my mind up. For margin work I always use a Speedia Wide drum with 12lbs line or an Allcocks C815 for lighter lines, say 8-10lbs. But when it comes to fixed spool reels I keep using different models and find they are not quite right for one reason or another. I have the problem that my basement is fast becoming a museum for old fishing tackle, I’m a user not a collector so I am trying to sell the ‘deadwood’ and use the ‘keepers’. Letting go of the ‘deadwood’ can be a hard process but I generally have never regretted selling any old tackle especially if it under performs.
For a fixed spool reel you need something that pairs well with a cane rod (my rod material of choice), call me a bit of a tackle tart but it needs to look right and feel well balanced. The obvious choice is the Mitchell 300 but that scratchy clutch, no line roller, and general coffee grinder mechanics can leave you with a heart-in-the-mouth moment when a larger fish takes flight. The Hardy Altex has a beautiful smooth clutch and casts very well but I don’t trust that bail arm, maybe its because my particular example has let me down in the past, I keep thinking its going to let go just at a critical point.
So where do we go from here? I want a good retrieve, good size spool, excellent clutch, decent size handle, quality engineering, overall reliability and finally something that sits well on a cane rod. I think the answer comes from Sweden.
Finally after some trial and error I have found my reel of choice for carp or indeed pike and barbel fishing, the Abu Cardinal 66. The clutch is so well set up that I can use it as a Baitrunner, slackening off the clutch and then with a quick twist engage the reel into a fighting fish mode. The engineering is superb with a metal spool, roller on the bail arm, ultra smooth gears, decent sized handle, tight springs on the bail arm that slam it shut with a clunk, its the right weight, and overall it is the right size, not too large or too small. The green and cream is a good looking reel that sit well on a cane rod, only draw back, getting spare spools, anyone?
Looking forward I have a plan for the ultimate rod and reel set-up. I would stay with the Mark IV cane option but place something completely modern on it, a reel that showcases the best of new technology but already holds some form of cult status. I still want to experience the qualities of split cane but combine it with high octane engineering incorporating quality clutch control and line lay. The analogy could be that of placing a modern tuned and reliable engine with efficient brakes and cram it into a classic car. The reel I’m thinking of is the Daiwa SS2600 Tournament or its little brother the SS1600. Will it look strange? Possibly, but not as strange as the looks in the tackle shop when I rock up with a Mark IV and ask to place a SS2600 Tournament on it! Personally I can see this working, it could be a joyous set-up to use. Ok, tackle talk over and out.