Sunday, 20 June 2021

The British Record Tench that Never Was

I was about 12 years old when I first met Ric Francis, the younger brother of a school classmate. We clicked immediately, and down through the years spent a lot of time together in shared interests. Birding and running featured, but in the early days it was fishing. Lots and lots of fishing. We shared an almost obsessive passion for coarse angling, and I have many happy memories from that era. However, by June 1981 I was married, with a mortgage, and birding had begun to dominate my outdoors time. Ric, meanwhile, was fishing as hard as ever, and looking forward to a solid season on the Tring Reservoirs complex as a member of the new syndicate. The omens were immensely good. Within hours of the new season commencing on 16th June, Tony Chester landed a new British record Tench of 10lb 1¼oz from Wilstone. The 16th was a Wednesday, and our tale begins the following Sunday evening.

To put events in context, when I started fishing in the 1960s the Tench record was 9lb 1oz, a fish caught in 1963. The notion that anyone could ever catch one bigger than 10lb would have seemed preposterous. Yet in 1975 that is what happened, and at a stroke the record increased by an astonishing 1lb and 2 drams. Tony Chester's fish was only the second double-figure Tench ever caught, and just 2 drams, ie, one eighth of an ounce, heavier.

And thus the scene is set. The following events began exactly 40 years ago today. In Ric's own words, and never previously published. A painful but salutary lesson in human fallibility...

 

"Admit it. You were not fishing for Bream when you had that twelve pounder!"

Such were the very first words spoken to me by the late great Lester Strudwick. He was right of course. Quite correct. Not sure that I knew how to catch anything back then. I was simply casting out a worm in the hope that a fish might take it. Let’s face it. Catching something is one thing, knowing why that something was caught is another. Me? I was just there. No plan, no expectations. Just going along with a suggestion from John Hugill that in the light of the recent record Tench coming out of Wilstone Reservoir, it could be worth a go. Which was why I found myself there on Sunday, 20th June 1981. Get casting!

Well, not yet awhile. At Tring back then, no fishing was allowed on a Sunday. I assume management thought it appropriate that instead of a day off enjoying ourselves fishing, we would be going to church instead. Somewhat ironic considering the owners of the estate were rumoured to have done a deal with the 'other side' a century or three earlier. However, money talks and members of the syndicate had some leeway on hours, so our 'no fishing' slot was 07:30-22:30. And, despite there being no one around to enforce them, we all adhered to these hours.

Sunday evening then. There were several players involved, none of whom had been present for the opening act where a 10lb 1¼oz then British record-breaking Tench was beached. As we were now only five days into the season (which back then opened on June 16th) this might sound surprising were it not for the revelation (to me at least) that to secure the most favoured swims on the bank, several participants had arrived the best part of a week before the season had even started! As Jim Gibbinson famously put it, "The mind boggles!"

Looking back, there are two amusing aspects of that fanaticism that I recall. First, the enormous pressure to catch before any casual 'Johnny come sensible' who simply rocked up on opening day! One year, exactly that happened, an angler settling in on the end of the bivvy encampment, casting out and promptly catching a nine pounder! Took him about 90 minutes. Called home for relatives to come out for a look. Pictures taken and off home for breakfast. Have it! Yeah!

Secondly, Google Earth indicates that the spot which the hoards were fighting to secure was in reality further along the bank than they thought! Such are the benefits of an aeriel view. As things turned out, it was that spot which I ended up in, the evening I arrived. Not immediately mind. I’d sat down in one place only for John H to mention there were a lot of fish topping further along. So I moved. To a spot  on the bank I would now call position A. If I went and fished Wilstone today, I’d fish right there.

The reason it was such a good spot was the 'Gravel Pit'. Wilstone had historically been dug out in stages to provide top-up water for the Grand Union Canal and for other reasons, but one feature of these excavations was a deep hole set among shallows at the north-west end. A channel led from this hole towards the fishable bank, approaching it at an angle. By placing themselves in a particular position an angler could access both the channel and the shallows. All depths and features covered. Ideal. Anyway, that's exactly where I found myself. By accident. The bit I don’t get is that the early arrivers all talked about the channel - they all knew it was there - but were fishing in the wrong place for it! Me, I didn’t even check the channel out. Meant nothing to me at all.

Where the deed was done...ish (with thanks to Google satellite view)

 

We must have been an obedient bunch back then. Despite there being no one about (in the shape of Bernie Double, the Tring bailiff) to keep an eye on proceedings, the starting-time rules weren't even bent, let alone ignored. As a result, none of us cast out until 10:30 pm. It was like a lesser version of midnight on opening day. There was nothing special about my set up, just open-ended feeders with liquidized bread. Sweetcorn bait on one rod, lobworm on the other.

Looking back, I can see there was no real thinking or analysis about my methods. It was generally as simple as I could muster. All the tackle tweaks, upgrades, ringing the changes and constant reassessments were, and for me still are, too much like hard work. If I thought something would work, I'd do it, but like I found when fishing for Pike with lures, I might try every lure in my possession and still blank. Nil bites, nil everything. It doesn’t give you any information to work with. And nil bites or action was the usual pattern. If I found a method that worked, I stuck with it.

Well, something worked that night. Fifteen minutes after casting out, the sweetcorn rod came to life. The indicator sailed up, to the accompanying beeps of the Optonic, and the resultant strike met with a resultant nothing! Damn! I kind of thought the sweetcorn might have masked the hook point. Of course, nowadays we would hair-rig the stuff, but that was for the future. So, to bolster my confidence I replaced the corn with another lobworm, at the same time convincing myself the bite I missed was simply a 'liner'.

I didn’t have to wait long to test the liner theory. The indicator sailed up and the strike was met with a slow, heavy resistance. Tench? A solid thud followed by some more heavy dragging made me think it might be a Bream. Yes, I was sure it was. Soon enough the bronze flanks of a slab were being lit up by torches held by the various helpers to this capture. And on to the bank it came. It was clear to me that the fish was into double figures but I  thought nothing more of it. Out with the weigh bag, scales zeroed, and…the shock of my life as the needle tracked around past 12lb. This called for some steady hands and an "All agreed are we?" 12lb 9½ oz! Which I understood to be the biggest Bream ever caught from Wilstone. The British record was 13lb 8oz and this fish might have been fourth or fifth biggest on the all-time list. Which was nice.

I bagged the fish up, intending to get a picture when it got light, before settling back for what I hoped would be a night of Bream action. No chance. That fish was the sum total of the night's efforts. I don't recall even another bite. I guess I was lucky then. Fluke capture? Probably. Time and place.

Early morning, 21st June 1981. The Wilstone Bream - 12lb 9½oz

 

6:00am. And the Bream was back where it belonged. I'd got the pictures as soon as it was light enough, so no need to keep it a moment longer. Shows how my attitude to such things has changed. These days it's odds on the fish would have been put back the moment it was caught, but getting pictures of fish seemed to matter then. A view that was to have consequences in the very near future.

The morning conditions by now were clear and bright. Hardly a breeze either. The odd Tench was getting caught by others, but nothing massive, and to be fair my own efforts were hardly sound. I'd already messed up as it was. Leaving the rods in, I'd nipped off down to the car for some item only to discover on my return that I'd had a bite. I must have retrieved a hundred yards of line before the end rig appeared with that one. Typical!

At 6:30am I was away again. Good, solid bite, the line tightening up to the fish before I'd even grabbed the rod. No need to strike; this one was going for it, taking line against the clutch from the get-go. But something felt odd about the fight. The fish hit the surface about thirty yards out, and with a strange rotating motion continued to take line at will. I mean, I was leaning on it all right but simply had no control over proceedings. I guess it had gone about fifty yards before it stopped.

Now encased in a weed bed, I set to dragging it back. But something wasn't right about the way it was fighting. It was broadside on. So, either the line had got looped around a pectoral fin or it was hooked there. Either way, it was a protracted slog getting the fish in. Once on the bank, my suspicions that it was foul-hooked were confirmed; the hook was located in a pectoral fin. It wasn’t the first fish to be hooked in that position either. That could have been a function of the distended pre-spawning bellies these fish possessed. Who knows? What I did know was John Hugill saying, "I wouldn't weigh that if I were you." I really should have listened.

A foul-hooked fish is not deemed to have been caught by 'fair angling' and doesn't count. Full stop. But I was really curious to see how much it weighed. I guessed maybe eight pounds. However, an initial rough weighing had it at 10lb 6oz! It was a fact, but nothing else. I called out, "Hey guys, it’s a double! Tell you what. I’ll bag it up, we'll get a few pictures and then let it go." And that was all there was to it. Simply getting a picture of a curiosity. And then fate stepped in. In the form of one Bernie Double.

Now Bernie was the long-time resident bailiff at Tring, and one of his duties was to sell tickets. I guess I was somewhat naΓ―ve regards what lengths he would go to in order to sell those tickets, but there you go. Whatever the dos and don'ts of the situation, he was keen on publicity for the fishery, so when one of the guys let him know I'd caught a couple he wasted no time in tracking along to see what was what.

Clearly I hadn't got the Bream any more, but the Tench was still in play. I told him what my intentions were, but Bernie had other ideas. He mentioned that an Angling Times photographer was nearby and that I should hang on to the fish until he could get there. He also wanted a look at the fish, and to weigh it for himself. Exactly 10lb 4oz.

The photographer arrived.

21st June 1981. The Wilstone Tench. At 10lb 4oz only the third ever double-figure Tench caught, and 2¾oz heavier than Tony Chester's new British record, landed only a few days earlier and yet to appear in the angling press.

 

Before I knew it, this pair were talking in terms of a new British record. But it wasn't. It had been foul-hooked and therefore didn't count. They were persistent though, making out that it would be a disappointment if the capture wasn't rewarded in some way. I felt they were suggesting I was somehow letting them down. But really they were just thinking of themselves.

It was difficult to know what to do under the pressure. Asking advice from the others met with either no answer at all or, "It’s up to you." So, on one side I had proactive operators and on the other side, apathy.

In the end I yielded to the pressure and made the mistake of going along with the fraud. This was a Monday, and I planned to wait until the Angling Times was published on the Wednesday to see what emerged. Only then would I decide how to proceed. I didn't feel good, but rather a bit cornered. My own fault of course. I was down the rabbit hole. Would I get out?

From Monday until Wednesday I fished along in a cloud of guilt. I never let on to a number of people who were no doubt puzzled at my lack of joy in relation to this event. I felt terrible. For some people, lying, cheating and basic dishonesty are just them. They don't care. It's what they do. Not me. Integrity meant a lot to me, but there were gatherings on the bank discussing just that. As in, my apparent lack of it.

No prizes for guessing the topic of conversation

 

Wednesday arrived and so did the Angling Times. I’d remained at Tring, but on seeing the news felt I'd be better off elsewhere. It didn't look good. There I was on the front cover with the whole pack of lies. I went home. Once there, I revealed all. Gerry Savage, coordinator of the National Benzole 'Angler of the Month' award, phoned to say I'd won that month’s prize. I told him the score and said I couldn't accept. He said he'd phone back. He did. I was still the winner! Seems the judges regarded the situation worthy of an award despite the foul-hooking issue. I mean, they thought the Bream was worth something, along with my honesty. It was still a mess, but at least I could breathe again.

Having nothing else to do, I went back to Tring. In the meantime, all hell had been let loose between the angling publications. Anglers Mail v Angling Times. To be fair, they were either about controversy or sensationalism, and here they got both. Other publications got involved, but despite all that I was never contacted again about the subject by anyone. Maybe they thought I'd been upset enough. Whatever the reasons, I was able to carry on fishing much as before, but it was never quite the same again.

That Tench is still the biggest I’ve ever seen. My pb is actually 8lb 8oz. However, there's a chance that I'll soon have access to a gravel pit where double-figure Tench appear to be almost common. If I can avoid the Carp there's a good chance I can land a fish bigger than 10lb 4oz. I'll settle for that, as well as the lack of headlines.

Ric Francis...June 2021 

 

A few days after the above, I drove over to Startops Reservoir - also on the Tring complex - with another fishing friend to visit Ric and commiserate. Both Roy and I were fully aware of the whole story, and in the Startops car park we posed with the latest issue of Angling Times prominently displayed, hamming it up for Ric's camera with appropriately sceptical expressions. We all turned it into a bit of a joke, but being young I had little idea of what Ric had actually been through...

'Tench record tumbles TWICE!' yells the Angling Times. Except it hadn't.

10 comments:

  1. Bloody brilliant! I've been going on to Ric about telling the story of "that" fish for some time. Well done to you both for making it happen. Great photos and "Little Richard" looks just as aggie as he ever was! Fantastic memories of a very special time and place which sent shock waves through "big fish" angling across the UK. - Dyl

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    1. Thought you'd like it Dyl. πŸ˜„πŸ‘

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  2. A great story that tells us so much about integrity and deception. The Angling press must have really enjoyed the sensationalism of it as sales would go up as the intrigued and outraged gripped their trashy papers. There is only one winner and he felt at a loss.

    Relax, go fishing..... or bird watching, what could possibly go wrong?

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    1. Easy to see why people are wary of the press! I once sent in a photo of my younger son Baz with a 2lb+ Perch he'd caught from Startops. He was just nine years old, so I mentioned that fact. They obviously didn't believe me, so when they published it the caption read '13 year-old Barry Haig...'

      Never trust 'em! πŸ˜„

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    1. Agreed Brian, terrific story. πŸ‘ Really pleased Ric has written it down too, especially because of the lessons it contains. Deserves much wider readership than it will ever get on here.

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  4. Well, its taken four decades, but with assistance, support and persuasion from Gavin and Dylan, this skeleton has been removed from it's closet and given a decent burial.
    Many thanks.

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    1. Ric, I would imagine most readers of this account will not be youthful, and all will have 'history', shall we say. So it's no surprise that the human aspects of the story resonate strongly. I posted a link to this post on Twitter, and below are some of the comments I received...

      'Really enjoyed that ! I was mad keen Angler in my youth, I remember the Tench record being broken at Wilstone (I think?) by Alan Wilson (?) when I was a kid, always had a soft spot for them.'

      'Brilliant write up GavinπŸ‘'
      'Cheers Andy. πŸ˜ŠπŸ‘
      Ric's words of course. He's not on Twitter but might get to see these comments anyway.'
      'Pass it on to Ric when you see him next. Thanks.'

      'Must've been like fighting a tug boat attempting to land it'

      'That’s brilliant! Well sort of! Great tale told and thanks for sharing Gavin'
      'Cheers for the kind words. I'll pass that on to the main author.πŸ˜ŠπŸ‘'


      So, Ric, thanks again for putting fingers to keyboard. It is a terrific tale, with big-fish thrills but also thought-provoking and poignant. And such evocative photos! Yes, a very decent burial. 😊 πŸ‘

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    2. Ric- a brilliant account! Nostalgia at it’s best! Was it Jim Gibbinson who applauded your honesty for coming clean back in the day?
      On another note is it correct that you were the first to use the power gum short, two hook link, paternoster bolt rig for Startops roach? I’m sure I recollect Leon Tandy crediting you with the rig in an Anglers Mail Specialist article?
      We’ve only met a few times (I recall giving you my baiting boat on one occasion) but you always seemed ahead of the game. You mentioned using braided main lines long before anyway else deemed them viable and you used a floating keep net as a chum bag..... thought provoking stuff!
      Anyway, once again, a brilliant artical and I’m sure I few more would be well received!
      All the best. JJ

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  5. Hi Jango, yes, I understand Jim made a comment about integrity on this subject.

    Bolt rig for Startops roach? Not me. It was Mark Clatworthie who in September 1983 devised that method. The power gum was added later due to the numbers of fish bouncing off. I created a slightly more subtle version. Mine was all light at the rig end of proceedings. The weight was all on the monkey climber. If the indicator moved, it was on!

    Baiting boat! The only boat I was given is the one I still have in storage in my garage. A chap called Paul Reeves asked me to look after it for him and I've been waiting over 25 years for him to take it back along with all the other items (life jacket, roof rack bars...I have them all) I'm sure he had my phone number. I have never moved.

    I did once use a massive floating keep net as an artificial feature to draw in the perch. Not sure if it worked or not. I can't remember. It's been a long time.

    Thanks for the comment

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