The idea that going fishing could be stressful, would make most non-fishermen laugh. But, as competition anglers will know, turning up to take part in your first ever open competition is a daunting prospect. Unlike club matches where you meet up with your friends and take part in the pre-match banter, being an open-match 'cherry-boy' means standing in the car park waiting for the draw and feeling like the proverbial spare one at a wedding.
I'm no great fisherman, my only victory was in the Cubs match when I was nine (67 gudgeon, dace and bleak for 1 lb 12oz - shows just how much that win meant to me doesn't it?). But I have managed a couple of second places in club matches - once from peg 17 on the Pats with 30 odd pounds of chub. More significantly for this story, I also came second in my first ever open, but it wasn't exactly as a result of a dazzling display of angling technique.....
A run of good pleasure sessions gave me ideas above my station. Reading match reports in the angling press started me thinking about competing on the open circuit. After an aborted attempt to take part in a match at Gold Valley (they returned my entry fee with a note saying that the match was full. Truth is they probably had a 'no unknown Noddies at our matches' rule), I found a Saturday open at a venue called Radley Fishery near Abingdon.
A quick call to ask how much a ticket cost, some directions and a few tips on what I could expect to catch, and I was off a few days later. Radley Fishery is a twisty, hole in the ground type fishery varying between three or four metres to 12 or 13 metres wide. With depth of three of five feet, the main species were carp (or course), tench, bits and bobs and a few, very elusive, large bream.
I was one of the first to arrive. Five minutes later a procession of cars turned up and I was in the middle of a car park bristling with expensive looking tackle; rod holdalls and tackle boxes that I would be happy to have as lounge furniture let alone sit on by a muddy lake bank.
As inconspicuously as possible, I opened the boot to my car and dragged out my crappy old plastic box which I had since I was 13. Next came the equally crappy holdall held together with electrical tape, and then to cap it all, my net bag cunningly disguised as a supermarket carrier (perhaps they'll think I am sponsored by Waitrose', I thought).
Leaning against my car, and nearer to someone else's shiny tackle than my own shabby collection, I waited for the draw. Next to me was a group of blokes discussing an earlier match in which one of them, wearing a bib and brace covered with just the right amount of fish slime, had been pegged next to Kim Milsom.
"Great angler that Kim Milsom", said Bib 'n' brace man. "I wonder who she is," I thought. Listening to the little gang next to me run through their previous victories, hundred pound River Erne catches and the like wasn't doing my fragile confidence any good.
I was contemplating taking part in the discussion with a blow by blow account of my 1 pound 12 ounce Cubs victory, when the whistle blew for the draw. Lined up and miles away from my tatty tackle, I was one of the lads. I struck up a conversation with the chap in front of me. We went through the usual stuff - how's it fishing, what's the method, blah, blah and ended up with him giving me a run down on the fancied pegs. "Number 43's going to win today", was his final words as his hand disappeared into the bag. Evidently he didn't draw peg 43 as he went away mumbling. In went my hand, you guessed it, out came 43.
I could sense the thoughts going on around me; "that tosser with the Waitrose bag has got the flyer". With an apologetic look on my face I crept away to gather up my tackle, placky bag and all, to seek out peg 43.
By the time I found my peg some of my confidence had returned. I was the 1976 Cubs champion after all. 43 was a corker, easily the best-looking swim on the water. About 11 meters wide with bushes on the far bank and either side of me, it looked right.
I turned back to set up again. As I did I glanced to my right. There was Bib 'n' Braces, setting out his expensive, stiff as a poker roach pole, sat on gleaming continental six draw box.
I reached into my holdall and pulled out my £120 second hand pole with fresh doubts creeping back into my mind again. "What are they going to think when they see that my pole looks like a banana at anything over five metres and is held together with tape in three different places. Are they going to laugh out loud when I mix up my groundbait in a biscuit tin?" All these thoughts went through my mind.
Thirty minutes later I was all set up; a waggler rod and two rigs on my roach pole - my whopper stopper number 14 elastic and a more conservative number six elastic. The whistle went. I had my master plan all set up. Just like Bob Nudd, or that Milsom woman, I would feed three different lines - two left and right on the far bank and one close in to the bush by the side of me where I would feed corn and small bits of luncheon meat, this would be my big fish swim.
Bib 'n' Braces used a pole cup to plop a ball of groundbait and some maggots into his far bank swim. "Hah!" I thought - obviously he doesn't have my ability to toss a ball of groundbait with pinpoint accuracy.
Dipping my hand into my biscuit tin I squeezed together an orange sized ball of groundbait and in one fluid, well-practices action, tossed it under arm to my right hand far bank swim. It disintegrated mid air as if blasted by a shotgun and thousands of little pieces of groundbait peppered the water as well as the far bank. Bib 'n' Braces just smirked.
"Next mind." I thought, "loose-feed is going to be the key today." Carefully I shipped my number 14 elastic rig out to the far bank. Expertly I trapped the butt under my elbows, reached for the catapult and sprayed maggots up the far bank bushes trees, miles away from my float. I didn't even look in the direction of Bib 'n' Braces.
My float cocked, I settled down in a Nudd-like crouch, all eagle-eyed. The float twitched, bobbed and then dived under. I struck - laugh at my biscuit time and Waitrose bag will you - I thought as I lent into what surely must be the leathery lips of a massive carp.
Moments later a roach of a few drams - a bumhole with eyes - dangled six feet in the air. Hastily I brought him in. Out went the pole again. A few more maggot in the far-bank bushes, slap the pole about a bit more and I was off again. Ten minutes later with only a little perch to add to my miniscule roach, I decided that number 14 elastic might be a bit over the top so I switched to my number six.
As the hours past I added a few more roach and perch. The float went under again and this time I had something that pulled a few inches of elastic out of the pole. A few minutes later I slipped the net under a carp of about a pound. "That'll put the wind up Bib 'n' Braces", I thought as I turned round expecting to see the concerned look on his face as he realised he was being thumped. Unfortunately Bib 'n' Braces was unhooking a carp that looked about as long as my arm.
Towards the end of the match, reailty was slowly asserting itself and it was obvious that the spirit of '76 had died and I wasn't going to emulate my Cubs victory. With 10 minutes to go I did have one trick left up my sleeve though - my inside swim which must by now be stuffed with carp and tench of enormous size feeding on my offerings of corn and luncheon meat.
I shipped my pole back in to switch to the 14 elastic rig. As I turned back to face the water to disconnect the top two sections I gaped bemusedly at the sight of seven metres of number six elastic stretching across the water. "Funny," I thought "wonder why that's happening."
Seconds later a very big, very angry (and very unlucky) bream rolled on the surface. With only minutes of the match remaining I re-connected the top sections to the rest of the pole and played my catch. After a brief struggle I gawked at the fish, which I estimated to weigh about five pounds, laying in the bottom of my landing net. Seconds later I popped him in the keep net and the whistle went.
The weigh in seemed to take ages. At last a procession of anglers came trooping up the bank with the scales. As I pulled my net up the bank, gasps of amazement went around the cluster of anglers as they viewed me with a new found respect. I had caught one of the water's few and elusive big bream "What bait did you use?" "Where did you catch it?" The questions came thick and fast. I explained that I had identified a slight hollow when plumbing up and had spotted its potential as a bream holding spot early on. Controlled and accurate feeding had tempted the bream to bite, I said. They nodded in agreement. Only Bib 'n' Braces and I know the truth
Muy bream helped me to a weight of nine pounds and one ounce. Bib 'n' Braces was the next to weigh in. Nine pounds dead. "No bream then?" I asked. I had snatched second place by an ounce.
Back at the car park I picked up my brown envelope as it it was something I did every Saturday afternoon. As I packed my gear into the car I chatted with the locals, passing on a few more tips and bits of advice as you do when you are a master bream angler.
"See you next week," they called as I got in the car. I just smiled, waved and thought 'not bloody likely', as I drove off down the road. On the way back home I thought how I could spend my £50 winnings - new rod, a new reel perhaps. Its an investment I thought - first the Cubs match, now this, there's no stopping me now.
I came down to earth with a bump when I got home and proudly showed my winnings to the wife. "That's nice dear. I can get some wallpaper for the baby's room with that".
So there you have it. How I lost my open match virginity. I haven't been back to Radley since then based on the fact that lightening won't strike twice. I have fished in plenty of Twyford &District club matches though since without winning a penny.
Still, the baby's room looks nice!