Caught by the River

A Day at Blenheim

9th July 2009


by Rob Beattie

There’s a light tapping on the door. I swim up out of sleep. “Four o’clock. Time to get moving,” says a voice. I raise myself onto my elbows and nod, eyes half-shut. I sit up. Rub an itch under my nose. It’s the second day of my fishing trip with Sean. Yesterday, in fourteen hours, the biggest fish I caught was a bleak. Four o’clock in the morning. This is madness.

Better. Breakfast. Cup of tea. Smoke. Feel able to string sentences together. Just. We gather up the gear and start packing the car. The kitchen smells faintly of the hemp Sean cooked up last night. It’s a killer attractant, he says. Just the job for big tench.

Travelling north on the M40 towards Woodstock and Blenheim Palace Lake. As a kid I remember Blenheim being famous for pike, but Sean says it’s the best tench water he’s ever fished. Lots of fish over 5lbs, some over six. There might even be a record in there somewhere, it’s big enough. The weather looks dodgy so the car is piled high with brollies and wet weather gear – as well as enough food for the day. We’re fishing from a boat, and once you’re on, you can’t get off. I’ve never fished from a boat before, but Sean has already delivered the key piece of advice: “Make sure you take a dump before we get on the boat.” Sounds good to me, so I have, but for the whole journey (and on and off during the day) I’m worried that it won’t have been enough. I’m also worried about the boat, but I’m not saying that to Sean.

On the dot. The gates are already open. Sean’s impatient. We must get down to the boathouse fast or we’ll get the crap boat. Crap boat? What’s he on about? How crap is it exactly? Does it let in water? Will we sink?

Amazingly, we’re halfway across the lake, poling hard, heading towards Sean’s favoured swim. Not being much of a oarsman (i.e. never having been in a boat) I defer to him when he insists we stand up. In all the other boats, the anglers are sitting down, sculling powerfully towards their chosen swims. We look like two portly gondoliers swaying on a particularly windy canal. Still we’re getting there. The boat doesn’t look too crap to me.

Sean’s fantastically efficient. We shunt the boat into the reeds, jam it back with the oars, dump the two anchors over the back (paint tins full of cement) then re-position the oars at either end, working them down hard into the mud. Apart from a sickening rocking motion every time I move a muscle, the boat feels pretty secure.

Plumb the depth (I usually don’t bother, Sean insists) loose feed hemp, bait up with two casters on a 14, direct to 4lb line, using my 20 quid reel and Sean’s flash Avon float rod (mine having been dismissed as unequal to the task). My float’s probably too big, but who cares? We’re here. We’re ready to rock. The tench may as well give themselves up now.


Expect action early, I recall Sean saying. If we haven’t had anything by 10.00ish, that may well be it until the evening…


Apart from two bites a couple of hours ago (both Sean’s) we haven’t had a sniff. I don’t understand it. The swim looks the part — lily pads, good thick reed beds to hand, enough hemp to feed an army of tench. Confidence waning, I’ve decided to appeal to their gluttony and reverted to my favoured ‘rig’, float attached bottom end with a rubber, size 8, big lump of luncheon meat.

The weather’s calmed down a bit which is a relief, and the sun’s decided to make an appearance. This is not so good. Our boat, warmed by the midday heat, has a nasty smell about it. No, let’s not mince words here, it’s stronger than that. It is a stench. Closer examination reveals that the previous day’s anglers couldn’t be bothered to clean it out properly, and the bottom of the boat is swimming with dying maggots, worms and other disgusting day-old gunk. It’s like trying to fish while sitting in a sewer. (The following day I will have to scrub every single item of tackle that has as much as touched the boat. One bag I actually have to throw away). “Chocolate?” offers Sean.

Sean has gone to sleep. He hasn’t dozed off, but is burrowed under a jacket, feet up on the side of the boat, float reeled in, gently snoring. To stay awake I re-tackle with a smaller hook and try in sequence, tares, sweetcorn, trout paste and maggots (from the bottom of the boat of death – a measure of my desperation). It’s no good, I can’t even catch a perch.

Sean’s sleep briefly fires him with enthusiasm and he re-doubles his efforts, casting with machine-like accuracy to the same spot again and again. It makes not a blind bit of difference. Both floats sit there stubbornly, refusing to do more than drift occasionally in the wind. Things are getting bad. It’s as if the tench have all been fishnapped. Still, at least we haven’t started telling jokes yet.

‘So this bloke takes his little boy out to the countryside for an educational walk. The kid’s not interested, but dad’s keen to improve his mind. “See that Red Admiral son? I’ve always found it to be the most beautiful of butterflies.”

“So what,” says his son, and treads on it.

Dad is outraged. “Right, that’s no butter for you for a week!” The kid just looks at him sullenly.

After half an hour, dad has recovered some of his good humour. “Now son, look at that bee. The bee is a magnificent creature. Sophisticated, social..”

“So what,” says the kid, and treads on it.

Dad is beside himself. “Right, that’s no honey for you for a week!” The kid just scowls at the ground.

By now, dad’s lost heart, so they slowly make their way home. Mum’s in the kitchen, cooking supper. Just as the pair are about to sit down, an ugly-looking insect scuttles across the lino and she stamps on it.

“What was that?” asks dad.

“A cockroach,” mum replies.

The kid looks at his dad. “Are you going to tell her, or shall I?”‘

The last of the chocolate is finished. We’re now gearing up for the evening session. Surely the tench will make an appearance. I’m about to throw in more hemp when Sean urges caution. We don’t want to overfeed them. (Overfeed them? There aren’t any fish here, Sean.) In the end I agree. He’s probably right. If, as we believe, the tench patrol the margins during the day, it’s likely they simply haven’t made their way round to our swim yet. They’re bound to come eventually, and when they do, there’s a veritable banquet awaiting them on the bottom. Best not to overdo things. I throw it in anyway when he isn’t looking.

Fishless. “Never mind,” I say mechanically. “Sean and Rob know that catching fish isn’t everything. Just being close to Nature is enough.” Sean gives an ugly laugh.

This is pathetic. We are now so bored and disillusioned that we’re actually going through our tackle boxes saying things like: “Well, that’s interesting, but have you ever seen one of these?” Sean produces some strange French float that appears to cock upside down. He’s never even used it. My float sits there stupidly, refusing to move. Maybe it would be more effective if I used it upside down. In the end Sean gives me three swimfeeders and a boilie needle (even though I don’t use boilies). Maybe he’s feeling guilty.

Last orders. Sean has persevered with casters all day. I am in awe. Over in my part of this dog’s backside of a swim I am using a lump of cheese from my final sandwich as bait. By now I can barely bring myself to look at the float. But at least we have made a pact. Although we can fish on ‘till 8.00pm we have agreed that if nothing’s happened by 7.00pm, we will pack it in.

Farewell then, Blenheim. Farewell mighty, elusive tench. You have bested us this day but be assured of this, we will return next season and give you a good kicking. Which leaves us here, halfway across the lake, poling the boat of death back to the boathouse where, in the final indignity, we have to clean it out with a mop and bucket, like lavatory attendants.

Rob is the author of 101 Golden Rules Of Angling, the website ‘River Running’and the blog, ‘Adurman’s Fishing Diary‘.