A Strange And Fairly Disgusting Fish Story

July 19, 1982
July 19, 1982

Table of Contents
July 19, 1982

World Cup
Rose And Yaz
Hal McRae
Match Fishing

A Strange And Fairly Disgusting Fish Story

The point of match angling, the English workingman's passion, is to catch, by means of a tremendous rod, tiny hook and appalling bait, lots of little fish very fast—and beat the bookie

The first thought to strike one—and it turns out to be monstrously unfair—is: Hey, this must be where all those English soccer hooligans go when there's no game, no storefronts to smash, no foreign fans to beat up.

This is an article from the July 19, 1982 issue Original Layout

It's 7 a.m. in Scunthorpe, a large town a few miles south of the vast shipyards of Hull on England's North Sea coast. Milling about in the bright sunlight on the grounds of Quibell Park, a pretty little stadium, is a crowd maybe 2,000 strong. If one looks hard, one can pick out a few men in their 50s wearing blazers and carrying clipboards, but the great majority is younger and affects studded leather belts, lank hair worn long and meticulously filthy jeans. They appear to be the rabble one might run into—and maybe away from—at Wembly or Indy or on the infield at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, the kind that give the distinct impression they're looking for something to molest, stab or burn down.

But what these lads have very seriously on their minds is going fishing. At least that's what the 960 of them who constitute the 80 teams of a dozen anglers each (the other 1,000 or so chaps are spectators) are concentrating on as they prepare to compete for the 1981 National Championship of England, a title that in one form or another has been awarded annually, except in wartime, since 1903.

To an American angler, the style in which these Englishmen will fish, the equipment and baits they will use, in fact almost every aspect of the day's fishing, would be as alien as cricket would be to a Little Leaguer. Yet cricket, a sport molded by the English upper classes, draws in some ways an inapt analogy, because match angling, as this sort of fishing is called, is strictly working class. It was originated by the men who toiled in the ironworks of the Industrial Revolution, who flooded in from the countryside to labor in the dark Satanic mills of Manchester and Sheffield and to live packed into grim terraces of tiny houses.

With the advent of the railroad in the mid-19th century, such laborers found a degree of liberation. On weekends they could buy cheap excursion tickets back to the countryside and fish. The pellucid streams of the North and the West Country, where the laborers' ancestors might have cast, were now reserved for their "betters," because in those streams swam the game fish, the salmon and trout. But relatively close to the great industrial cities, fishing of a kind was available. There, in the sluggish, already polluted rivers of the middle of England, were what the gentry contemptuously labeled "coarse" fish—small, slimy species, for the most part inedible.

So match angling was born. If the fish were nothing to write home about, why not make a competition of it, have a bit of a gamble? Skittles alfresco, as it were. The anglers would divvy up a riverbank into short sections, called beats, marked by numbered stakes, and then draw lots to decide who fished where.

At first it was a rough-and-ready pastime. In 1953 J.W. Martin, a noted angler, wrote sniffily of a competition held in 1918, "This particular match had only about fifty contestants but they must have been selected from the very scum of the Sheffield dregs...the very lowest of the low grinders, men whose every word was an oath; men who exchanged compliments so painful and free that I should have thought would have blistered the tongues that uttered them. Those men consumed more beer and tobacco than was good for them, and in short conducted themselves in such a manner that any respectable angler who was looking on felt ashamed.... Every now and then one of the competitors would yell at the top of his voice to another fifty yards away to inquire in language more forcible than polite if he had 'copped owt yet' and that one would reply in still more forcible terms, 'Ave I....' "

Match angling has come a long way since, spreading right through Europe, including the Eastern bloc countries, but the sport is still resolutely working-class in England as elsewhere. Archie Bunker would definitely be into the sport, though a little past his prime now. British environmentalists have been ecstatic since the Atlantic salmon started to make a comeback in rivers like the Thames about six years ago, but matchmen, as these fishermen call themselves, have been conspicuously unmoved over the news.

Nothing, short of a groundwater sump, could be less like a salmon river than the body of water where the 1981 National Championship match was to be fished: a 10-mile-long canalized section of the Ancholme, a narrow, almost featureless waterway which is, therefore, ideal for match angling, the aim of the sport being to give every competitor an equal chance to catch fish.

But the Ancholme has a drawback. Roving in it are bream, some of them grotesquely large by matchmen's standards, three-, even four-pounders. They aren't there in great numbers, but a few anglers are undoubtedly going to draw positions where they will catch one or two, thereby turning the whole damn thing into a lottery. It seemed that luck, not skill, would prevail this day.

And even though on this sunny morning at Quibell Park there was a real lottery, on the National Championship, with a first prize of £2,000 (about $3,700) available, most everybody would rather employ his wits and back his favorite with Billy Knott Jr., the Angler's Own Bookie. Even before the draw for beats is made and the star anglers' positions are known, Knott is shouting the odds on crack teams like the Barnsley Blacks.

"Should've got in when Pete did," mutters a disgruntled bettor with ROTHERHAM RAIDERS emblazoned on the back of his jacket. "Pete got 10s. Now it's gone down to bleedin' 3 to 1. Three to one in a field of 80 bloody runners? That ain't no bloody bet."

Scunthorpe is a steel town, savagely hit in the present recession with a 25% unemployment rate. Yet one has to fight to give his money to Knott. He has brought along two assistants to count the notes that are filling up deep plastic tubs. He also has employed Dennis the Minder, a heavy gentleman with the look of an ex-pug, who never strays more than a foot away from the tubs. A plunger elbows through the knot of bettors and slaps £1,200 down at 100 to 1 on the un-fancied team from Derby. Knott takes the bet at those odds, but he quickly turns, scrubs his blackboard and revises the odds on Derby to 25 to 1. The Anglers' Own Bookie will take bets on individual fishermen as well as on teams, but there are too many to post. One has to accept a whispered quotation.

The draw is at 8 a.m. The Ancholme has been divided up into 12 lengths labeled A through M, and each length has within it 80 beats, marked off by numbered stakes some 45 feet apart. When the Barnsley captain steps up and draws No. 35, it means that one of his men will fish at Section A, Stake 35, the next at B-35, and so on up the river. Thus each angler is far enough from his nearest teammates so that, in accordance with the rules, no communication is possible.

After the draw there's a glacial Le Mans start. Buses have been chartered to take the contestants and their equipment as close to their stakes as possible, and one after another they lumber off. The match itself won't start until 11 a.m., but every moment of that will be needed for the competitors to get their equipment properly set up.

Among the match anglers' gear are things most fishermen are acquainted with, like rods, but there also are wagglers, sticks, bombs, feeders, micromesh keep nets, slingshots and, of course, plentiful supplies of cloud bait, squatts, gozzers, jokers and bloodworms, the last having nothing to do with the marine worm that is commonly used as saltwater bait in the U.S. Rather, bloodworms are the larvae of the gnat.

The sheer bulk of a matchman's equipment is daunting. Most of it is carried in what looks like a small steamer trunk and in a rack holding as many as seven or eight rods. Altogether, the weight of a properly outfitted angler's tackle is rarely less than 40 pounds, but the matchman's caddie is a figure who has yet to evolve.

Nor has anyone ever worked out with precision just how much match angling costs. It's safe to say, however (leaving boats out of it), that the investment is rather more to set oneself up as a perfectly equipped matchman than as a marlin fisherman. No marlin fisherman, for instance, has to pay £900 for his rod. Just one of his armory of rods, that is. Matchmen do.

Opening day of the match season is June 16, and on its eve, one of the extraordinary sights of the London year is at Don Neish's Tackle Shop in Edmonton, in the north-eastern part of the city. A line of matchmen stretches way down the block, the anglers waiting patiently to make bulk purchases of gozzers, jokers, squatts and the like (patience, all will be made clear soon). It's not the sort of day on which to inspect Neish's stock of rods, although if he has a second he may recount to you the legend of the first high-priced Japanese graphite match-fishing pole that he placed on display.

That was six years ago, and the price then was a mere ¬£860. Neish didn't expect to sell it—"Costs more than me bleedin' motorbike" was a typical remark of his clientele—but it brought people into the shop. The problem was that they all wanted to hold the rod.

In a flash Neish saw a way to cash in on the rod. He announced, "Ten pence a hold," which was not quite as avaricious as it may sound because each time the rod was held, Neish reduced its price by 10p. Roughly 500 holds later, Neish sold it for £800.

To understand why a matchman pays as much as £900 for a rod, one must understand that match fishing involves catching very small fish at very high speed. And also that a lot of money may be on the line, so to speak.

The now-standard graphite match rod is 33 feet long when fully extended—the better to fish far from one's stake—and on the Sunday before the National Championship just such a rod was used to excellent effect by Dickie Carr, a 35-year-old truck driver from north London, on a canal in the sheep pastures of Romney Marsh in Kent. His line was a 2.5-pound-test wisp; his hook a No. 26, which is about the size of this "j"; and he was catching fish whose average weight was a half-ounce. He had no reel, the 33 feet of graphite making it unnecessary to cast, and he was using a "wobbler," a type of bobber, of which a moderately well-equipped matchman will have 60 to 70. This one was a sliver of balsa wood, of which perhaps only a sixteenth of an inch floated above the water's surface. Carr's movements were close to automatic. First he threw out a tiny ball of finely ground cereal that contained a sample of two sorts of hookbait, squatts and pinkies (I swear an explanation is coming in a minute). Occasionally, when he needed more distance, he wielded a slingshot to fire his bait out into the water. Carr quickly flipped his hook, baited with a single pinkie, into the milky chum slick. The float tip moved fractionally. Or Carr said it did, and it must have, because immediately thereafter a tiny silver fish was swung out of the water and dropped in the net—the 11-foot-long keep net that holds the catch alive until it is weighed at the end of the match. Then Carr began the procedure all over again. He hit at a rate of about one fish every two minutes—and no other rod material but enormously expensive graphite is light enough to make a 33-foot pole that one could hold outstretched for long periods of time. "Won about ¬£6,000 with that rig so far," Carr said. Hence the second reason for ¬£900 rods.

Carr hadn't been as happy the previous day when he fished in a match on the Thames at Goring. It was an idyllic scene out of The Wind in the Willows: plum brick Queen Anne houses for a backdrop; fair-weather cumuli floating overhead; wild roses and elderflower in full bloom; all the birds in full voice. The peace was disturbed only by a floating gin palace called Rive Gauche that could well have been steered by Mr. Toad.

Carr didn't appreciate that setting because the little fish weren't cooperating. The match was won by an angler who waded out over a shallow cattle run and pulled out a 30-pound chub, a carp-like fish. That is a fair-size fish by most standards, enormous by a matchman's. And he wasn't even using gozzers, let alone pinkies.

Well, no longer can it be avoided. We must come forth with a recognizable definition for this bait. Here goes: pinkies, gozzers, squatts are all maggots; politer folk sometimes use the word "gentles." Without them, match fishing would scarcely exist.

To most people, the larvae of bluebottle and greenbottle flies, maggots, are simply disgusting. To coarse fish, they are the staff of life. Gozzers, often specially bred on decaying chickens or pigeons, are particularly succulent and thin-skinned. Squatts are small, used mainly as chum, and pinkies are just ordinary pink maggots. They can be dyed orange and bronze, ostensibly for attracting fish, but actually for attracting fishermen. Disused military airfields are frequently used as maggot factories for sanitary reasons: Both the smell—maggots are bred on carrion—and the working conditions are appalling. But maggot raising is highly profitable; Neish sells almost 500 gallons, at $20 per gallon, on opening day. The maggot breeder can also be stricken by sudden disasters, as when refrigeration fails or when high-quality flies, as valuable to maggot breeders as good studs are to horsemen, die and have to be replaced, at famine prices, by stock from rival owners.

There are dark stories of feuds among breeders, tales of powerful insecticides being let loose on stud flies, of electric cables cut. It's hard to get confirmation, though. The maggot industry, thankfully, is very secretive.

As is the bloodworm biz. Bloodworms are a lot more expensive than maggots. A pint can cost ¬£ 13, and that measure includes the damp peat the worms are kept in. One gets about 1,000 bloodworms to a pint, some so tiny—jokers, they're called—that one has to use a hook as small as a 24 to present one. Normally, though, bloodworms are used as chum.

There are no bloodworm factories. They are collected by individual entrepreneurs from the mud of stagnant ponds, and especially in winter. The life of a bloodworm man is a hard one. He wades up to his armpits in icy water, toting a scythelike implement, called a scraper, that he draws through the silt when he gets down to business. If all goes well, bloodworms by the dozen will be draped over the edge of the scraper when it emerges. The bloodwormer also has to protect his patch, physically if necessary, from poachers.

Naturally, in a sport where the financial rewards can be considerable (though not overwhelming—prize money, plus backing oneself with a bookie, plus endorsing fishing tackle can earn an angler as much as $9,500 a year), a certain amount of sharp practice goes on, but it usually takes the form of gamesmanship rather than cheating.

"Say I get a fish early on," one prominent matchman says. "If there's somebody sitting alongside me I want to aggravate, I take the hook and make sure it's well into the fish and slip the fish into the water again so it swims out a little way. Then I catch it again and again and again, and by this time the bloke next to me is redoing his rig, getting nervous, spilling his shot [sinkers]. He feels unreal.

"But there's illegal things, as well. People carry small live fish to matches in the butt section of those 10-meter poles. It's a nice, long, cylindrical container, and you can fill it with water. You might be in such a bad stretch that one little fish could be the winner.

"It only has to be a fish, remember, and alive. It only has to have fins on. I've dragged my keep net through the weeds in some places and got 14 little fish that I would be happy to have swimming around in my keep net at some matches."

Match fishing, like any professional sport, also has its star system. It can be as difficult to get a phone call through to a master angler like Ivan Marks of the Barnsley Blacks as to a star quarterback, and sometimes when he fishes in a match, Marks, 44, has a gallery that many a golf pro would envy.

"What will happen on Saturday," said Marks, a week before the National Championship, "is that the Barnsley lads will guard me like I was God. They'll smuggle my tackle separately onto the bus. I won't have a name on my jacket, nothing, because if the fans know where I am, if I get a couple of hundred people watching me, then I can't control them. And they cause vibrations. There might be just one fish around my stake, and that fish will get the vibrations and he'll be gone."

One tiny fish can be that important because under the scoring system, the angler who has the top weight in a section gets a point for everyone he beats. The second highest gets the same score minus one, and so on down to zero. But if one catches no fish, one gets no points, so if you have a half-ounce fish and 30 anglers in your section get nothing, that lone minnow is worth 31 points toward your team's total.

There was an extraordinary example of that, Marks related, in 1972, when he was a member of the Leicester team. Leicester won the National that year simply because in a particularly bad section the Leicesterman caught a quarter-ounce fish and collected 60 points for it.

The whole sport of match angling seems cold, technical and money-obsessed at times. Marks himself will tell you that he gets no thrill from ordinary fishing—which matchmen call, with contempt, pleasure fishing—"unless they pay me, too, for the TV. If I just happen to be out with a friend, a good friend I laugh and joke with, then I've got to fish him for something—a cup of tea, a stick of chewing gum, a cigarette. And then I become a nasty enemy. I have to win. I have to say, 'I am the best today.' "

Even so, Marks confesses that as a member of that winning Leicester team he was crying like the others when they went up to get their trophy in front of 6,000 or 7,000 fans. "Tell me," he said suddenly, "are there places in the States where you could catch four or five fish a minute? I wonder if there's anyone who'd take me on there. On my own terms, of course."

He'd become intrigued by the fact that his business partner and erstwhile Leicester teammate, Ray Marlow, had recently been on a fishing trip to Key West, where the charter-boat captain had told him it would take an hour to get the pin-fish they needed as bait for amberjack fishing. "Give me 10 minutes," Marlow had said, producing his match-angling gear, which he's never without. And, lo, the bait well had been filled with pinfish in just that time.

On the same trip, Marlow also organized evening matches—a Florida first, no doubt—outside his motel to catch mangrove snapper, sophisticated ones that ignored the locals' heavy gear. "Two-pound-test and a 14 hook," Marlow said proudly, "and I murdered those Yanks."

On the Ancholme, on the day of the National, Marlow's luck doesn't hold; with 5½ ounces of fish, at least he isn't dry-netted, as are many others who fish under the blazing sun. Afterward, some of the anglers would describe how, as they walked upriver to their respective stakes, they could see a mass of bream, stolid, indifferent, moving ahead of them all the time. Spectators could stand on one of the bridges over the Ancholme and see the water black with fish, but under the rules of the National, no stakes are placed within 50 yards of a bridge.

The pattern is as expected. Most anglers catch very little. A few of them find the bream—the slabs, the dogs, as match-men call them—unimpressive fighters but good enough to win the individual championship for David Steer from Surrey, who weighs in with 21½ pounds, and for the team championship to go to Essex, which finished up on Knott's board at 20 to 1. Unhappily, Essex failed to bet on itself, although Steer, a bit more self-confident, did so, and collects ¬£3,000 from the bookies.

The Barnsley Blacks end up 18th. Marks, limping disconsolately back to the bus, caught precisely a quarter of an ounce offish. "An' then I put me tackle on the wrong bus," he says.

Only a bit less dismayed is Tony Davis, who landed a total catch of one ounce in the same section as Marks, but who was disqualified for leaving his stake—to pick up litter, he claims. "I thought Hitler died in 1945," Davis says bitterly, "but I see he's a steward in C Section."

By now, though, the beer tent is open, the atmosphere relaxed. "If anybody's lost his wallet, it's lying on the bar," crackles the P.A. system. Any body of men who can be as honest as that can't be all bad.

THREE PHOTOSADRIAN MURRELLA matchman's rod can cost $1,600 and extend 33 feet, but at the end of his line is a minuscule hook to land tiny fish such as the palm-size trophy held by Dickie Carr.THREE PHOTOSADRIAN MURRELLAt the National Championship, Marks had a slingshot for casting, fags for relaxing, and there were lots of fans for support.THREE PHOTOSADRIAN MURRELLA properly outfitted matchman's box contains a considerable array of sinkers. In tackle shops the offerings of bobbers and rods can be dazzlingly extensive—and expensive.PHOTOADRIAN MURRELLKnott had all the angles carefully figured for the 1981 match-fishing championship.PHOTOADRIAN MURRELLIf it has fins, it most likely will be scaled.FOUR PHOTOSADRIAN MURRELLMaggots—even in a variety of colors—are an unappetizing subject for everyone but matchmen and fish, as is a revolting chum ball made with cereal and bloodworms.