I had received a call from an old writing buddy, Phil Williams, for suggestions as to who would make good contributions to a series of historical podcasts he was making on sea angling. I had also done a few “legend” interviews with Big Game anglers, and it does indeed become quickly apparent that once these people shuffle along the bus queue of life, their history will be gone forever. Sad to say the list I had with Phil appeared to have quite a few already wearing the wooden overcoat, and we both realised a lot of this untold information might prove of interest to younger anglers. I had been travelling all around doing feature writing on sea, coarse and trout when the River Kennet came up on the writer’s “must-do” list. Being located in north-west Hampshire now, a quick skirmish over the border into Berkshire meant I could throw a few short sessions together. As with all articles, an interview with the local expert is always a requirement in order to get the full picture of a fishery. I also usually write up stretches or stillwaters where the public can buy a day ticket, not some syndicate stretch that has a waiting list longer than the NHS.So with a prime river like the Kennet, there are not many commercially available day ticket stretches.
The most famous all is probably Aldermaston Mill and the bailiff here is Peter Arlott, whose family has had it under their ownership for around 80 years. I had also been brought into the modern world by suggestions from Phil to use an audio recorder rather than write everything down longhand. So pen and notepad were put down and the interview with Peter about the Aldermaston big barbel fishing was done on the recorder. Mistake number one was to do the interview with the pleasant tinkling of the small weir as “ambient” background noise. Bad move! It sounded as though the interview was being done in the fast lane of the M4 motorway at six on a Friday night. So here’s how the interview went, and remember nearly all this information is new, and never before told.
GRAEME-“Peter, give us some sort of background into your family ownership of the Old Mill, as I understand it goes back some way”.
PETER-“My brother runs the actual mill business which does specialist wedding receptions and similar events. We have had the property in our family for 80 years, my grandmother actually bought it, and its been passed down from my father, to my brother .The main business is definitely the functions side of things”.
GRAEME-“It’s more the fishing that I’d be interested in, as I know years ago the river was famous for a large head of small to medium fish. What is the scene like now?”
PETER”I have been fishing on the river since a youngster so have at least sixty years under my belt. Years ago it was possible to get between a dozen and fifteen barbel in a day, with 2, 3, 4 pounders. Today there are larger fish by far, and less of the smaller ones. Over the last two years we have seen an increase in very small fish, so hopefully in a few years we will be getting back to the days when we used to get plenty of barbel”.
GRAEME-“Peter, give us some sort of breakdown of the numbers and size of barbel that this stretch has produced, as although you told me earlier, I was quite shocked at the high stats”.
PETER-“Yes, there again many years ago a double figure barbel was barely on the cards, and it was not until fifteen years ago that I caught my first double. I had many fish of 9lbs 14ozs, even lots of 9-15’s, but getting an honest ten pounder was very difficult. Now it’s not unusual for somebody to get two doubles in a day. Only last week we had somebody who landed an 11-5, and a 14-8 in the same day. That was fishing with two rods, and the angler concerned had them both on at the same time. It just totally changes throughout the last few seasons”.
GRAEME-“Is there any difference between the summer and the autumn fishing? Do they have a prime feeding spell, or do they actually slow up at certain times of year?”
PETER-“It just depends. If we can get plenty of water and it’s been in flood as well, it can be just as good as summer time. I always think the first couple of weeks of a new season can be disappointing, as fish have got to get used to the baits going in. It takes a couple of weeks before they start feeding properly, but I was fishing last January in a couple of evenings just into dark and I ended up with fifteen barbel which had a colossal average of 9lbs 11ozs, and I had a personal best of 14lbs 5ozs.That was with the water in flood, and there was a sort of back eddy in the side, just where the fish were hanging to keep out of the main force of current”.
GRAEME-“”Now I did hear you had a huge fish here a year or two back, was that in the region of 16lbs or something along that size ?”.
PETER-“16lbs 5ozs is the official record for the mill, and I have also heard of a couple of 15’s and not having seen those two I cannot confirm, but I have no reason to disbelieve as I witnessed the 16-5,a superb fish”.
GRAEME-“As to techniques, I notice you have something on your line above the hook there, that is unusual, would you care to share it with us ?”.
PETER-“Basically, I like to roam about to catch my barbel like to get the meat to roll around the deeper areas so use a piece of plasticene for the weight, as with this it’s quite easy to either add to, or take off to suit the bait moving on the bottom. Also, quite often with other rigs it is the weight which will snag it up, but if the plasticene snags up it will just pull away off the line and the fish is still free to swim around, so it’s a trick I use all the time for mobile movement of the bait”.
GRAEME-“Just run us through some of the other species you have here, and briefly how you would fish for them”.
PETER-“The Chub are a bit like the barbel stocks. We used to get lots of 3 to 4lbs, now there are less fish, but these are going larger, 5 to 6lbs are quite possible. But there are one or two smaller chub coming in to the river which is nice to see. Dace are the same. Many years ago you could have great fishing with the dace, but there are more coming through now”.
GRAEME-“Are there any particular reasons for this changeover of size, as the water when I saw it thirty years ago it was gin clear, and even though as we speak we have had no rain there is a slight colour in it. Are there any theories going around as to why this should be so?”
PETER-“A lot of rivers have changed like this, I can’t remember exactly but over the years the canal (Kennet & Avon) has been reopened up which allows the boat traffic to go up and down which is upstream of us, this makes the water that bit more dirty as they stir up the silt.Henceforth,we don’t now get the weed growth in the water ,which allows the small fish to thrive, and the larger to spawn in on the weedbeds,which I do think makes a lot of difference. Many years ago we had Ranunculous right across the river in full bloom; unfortunately those days are not there now. I do think lack of weed has quite an influence on it. Also, the Crayfish (American Signal), plus our other “friends” which are flying around in the sky, the Cormorants”.
GRAEME-“Do you get any trouble with Mink here, as I know some of the areas do get problems with them”.
PETER-“No, we’re not too bad, though I do keep a couple of traps open all year round .I suppose in the past I was trapping around forty to fifty mink a year, but this year I think I’ve only had about six, over the last nine months, which is the least I’ve had for a long time. (Peter had one trapped a couple of days after I did this interview!)”.
GRAEME-“What’s the breakdown of all the different anglers that come here. Are there more big barbel anglers, families, or matchmen?”
PETER-“You get lots of different types, but we do have a lot of people that want to catch their first barbel. It seems to go in cycles, someone would be a regular, and then don’t come any longer, not quite sure of the reason why. Some people catch their first barbel and that’s it, they just want to change their type of fishing. We do get a few children come along who must be accompanied by their parents which is nice to see. We also get lady anglers”.
GRAEME-“Peter I notice you only use one rod and you are moving around, what’s the tackle you’re using?”
PETER-“Basically this is only a cheap quivertip rod that my wife brought me, it’s a 12 foot heavy feeder rod. I use a fixed spool reel, nothing special about it, as long as it’s got a usable clutch. I use 10lb line and I use a number 4 hook that I tie directly to the mainline. On goes my plasticene ,I don’t hair rig at all, just put barb just on the outside of a large cube of luncheon meat. Cast it out to roll around, and pretty much hope for the best”.
GRAEME-“Do you do any fishing other than the barbel, do you do, say, any floatfishing for the Roach?”
PETER-“I like floatfishing, especially on our slower stretch upstream above the weirs. I like to go up there with a loaf of bread and fish for the roach. You do get some reasonable fish, I had a 2-2 last year, which is nice, and you do get the Perch, some of which can run quite large.Normally, just a loaf of bread, or worms, I rarely use maggots”.
GRAEME-“Why no maggots, is that because you get pestered by the smaller fish?”
PETER-“No I just think its cheap bait that I can use when I want. It saves me going all the way to the tackle shop just to get maggots”.
GRAEME_”How is the general quality of the river, do you suffer much with the low water levels like so many English rivers?”
PETER-“The water level is affected by what rain we have. In years gone by it would take somewhere in the region of 48 hours to come up if we got anything heavy. Now, it can rise in just two or three hours, the reason being that above us, Newbury,Thatcham etc with all the new houses being built, any rain coming down is straight onto concrete and tarmac, into drains, and then into the river instead of soaking into the ground slowly as it should do. Obviously it’s like getting more like a spate water now”.
GRAEME-“Looking at the river you have large and small weirpools, plus those lovely swims running off the side of the lawn. What sort of number of anglers can you take here?”
PETER-“There again it depends if anglers use the slow stretch above the weirs, I guess about 15 to 20 people on there quite comfortably, with a place to fish”.
GRAEME-“A lot of big barbel come in stretches of river where the anglers are night fishing. What sort of restrictions are there at Aldermaston?”
PETER-“Fishing starts at 8 in the morning when the gate opens, and you can fish till 7 in the evening. That applies all through the winter months as well, so once you get the clock change you do actually get a few hours of fishing into the dark. Some of the barbel specialists like this, but it doesn’t always guarantee a fish”.
GRAEME-“Do you get any Pike in here at all?”
PETER-“Yes, a few, if you get a double figure fish it should be classed as quite a good fish, but I wouldn’t like to put it down as a good pike water”
GRAEME-“As well as having this extremely picturesque stretch of river I notice you have a lake, just give me a brief history on what that is about”.
PETER-“That was dug out from a tiny stream, and opened out to hold a few trout in there as it was gin clear. Then it got to have carp from an overflowed pond, and we just left it at that, and it is fed in by the river, top and bottom”.
GRAEME-“Now, I’ve had a quick look at it, and by chance managed to get a 5lb pike out of it, so that was good, but I saw some clonking great carp, so what’s the story on them ?”.
PETER-“Yes, we have got a few big carp in there, one or two twenties, the best this season was 30lbs.There’s both linear and commons in there not far off that weight as well. The bream in there run to 7lbs, but they certainly aren’t easy to catch. Plus there are one or two nice Perch swimming around. The lake Perch run to 2 1/2lbs, but just upstream of us on the Wasing stretch they have had really big Perch over 4lbs”.
GRAEME-“Fishing and living on site, must have given you some really great opportunities to fish when conditions were perfect. Do any catches stand out in your mind?”
PETER-“More years ago than I care to remember, I fished in the small weirpool with a centrepin. There was a knot in the line so I knew to cast out that, and reel the knot back onto the spool. I was using just a large piece of bread, and though the large numbers of 2 to 4lb fish were around in those days, I fished all night to get my own personal best total of a hundred barbel in one session. That was Kennet barbel fishing at its best. I remember all the time was taken up just fighting fish, one after the other. I also remember one fish that had a distinctive mark on it, and I caught that fish three times in the same night”.
GRAEME-“That is a fantastic catch Peter, I just wish there were more of those fish around today, as a barbel that size on a match or Avon rod and float is, for me, the pinnacle of barbel fishing enjoyment. Having wound me up with those stats, where do you think I should go fishing today, as I know you have an uncanny knack for putting beginners on their first barbel, often beating the so-called experts”.
PETER-“Try down on the lawn, and keep your piece of meat rolling around”.
GRAEME-“Peter have you any idea how many doubles you have had, remembering that it is only comparatively recently that the big barbel scene has appeared”.
PETER”-24 doubles to date. But I fish less now as I like to move around, and only fish when a lot of the anglers aren’t on the fishery”.
GRAEME-“Well I have never fished up here before so I only want to get my first double figure Kennet barbel,(joke !) so I’ll give it a go and hope I get lucky. Thanks for the interview”.
Interview finished I go to the bottom of the lawn as all the swims are taken and this is all that’s left. I have just two hours. A lead cast out near the far bank, the bait, my secret hotdog segment. I’ve just done what Peter said don’t do, and anchored the bait. An hour later the rod is away and I’m into a small barbel. It’s a perfect candidate for a match rod and float; I guess about 2 /3lbs.I talk to the other anglers, and wish I hadn’t. They were all blanking, but said it was worthwhile, for a shot at a biggie.Next evening (after work) I race over again. The swims are gone again, so I sit where I was the previous time, hopefull.About 4pm I look round and see three swims above me vacant, the anglers having blanked and packed up early. I dive into one Peter had suggested, mixed a tiny amount of bran and bread, two open end feeders, size 4 hooks, and segments of “dog”. At 5pm a rod folds round, now this was more like it. A 7-6 graces the net. I try for a picture using the camera on self-timer, balanced on my tackle box. No joy, the timer seems kaput. Fish returned. I cast out again. Twenty minutes, rod hoops round.Wow, this is a big fish. It could have dumped me in snags (I was on 6lb mainline and Avon rod) but I get lucky. Holy smoly, it clocks 11lbs 8ozs! Thank goodness the self timer functions and I get a few pics.
Next evening, river full, stuffed myself in small weirpool. Blank! Following day, work on hold, full day assault in “hot” swim.Blankl Oh no, the bubble has burst. Worse to come. ! Peter comes down after mowing lawns, fishes for a bit over an hour, two swims down on rolling meat technique. TWO barbel!! Can he read the swims of what! Few days later doing roach pics with Peter upstream stretch. He says nobody on lawns swims, try them. Rolling meat. This time I use rolling meat. RESULT….third cast 10lbs 2ozs.Another “rolling” enthusiast gets a 6 and comes up to take pics for me. How many waters can you fish where you get four barbel, two of which are doubles. And the price of an afternoon ticket is just £6 from 1pm to 7pm.Is that value for money or what. Thanks to Peter for the interview and swim tips. By the time you read this I hope to have had many more short sessions, and have every hope of maybe getting a P.B.Barbel….
COPYRIGH: Graeme Pullen. All rights reserved.