For a while, I have been in frequent touch through Messenger and texts with Stuart ‘Taff’ Jones, typically though a mutual friend, Dave Lovelock, and more often than not as a result of discussing various fishing marks in and around Skarnsundet Fjordcentre in Norway, which between us, we must have visited dozens of times, yet somehow never managed to bump into each other out there, or indeed back home.
Stu is heavily involved with the British Army fishing club, which hosts regular regional events for both serving members and ‘associate members’ (typically veterans). I’ve discussed with him before about showing a few of their exploits within Hookpoint, because there is a story here that is much more than just fishing. So, much to my delight, Stu invited me down to join the Army for the week whilst their annual championships was to take place.
I didn’t need to be asked twice. The event was to be two pegged competitions on Southbourne beach over two days, with a couple of days practice in advance. Alongside this practice, would be some of the more experienced anglers including Stu himself, as well as shore club secretary Rob Jones and Army vet turned angling coach Wayne Hand, providing some coaching to the novices, including some rig design, casting, baiting up… all the practical skills to give them the opportunity to succeed in the competition.
The first afternoon on the beach afforded me the opportunity to meet and greet a few more people, including Andy, the British Army fishing club chairman. Whilst he was unable to fish the match due to other commitments, he had made the time to come and see people for the practice day and support the event. I spoke with Andy at length about the benefits of angling for the Army and why he is so passionate about increasing their membership.
Many of the skills required in the military, can equally be found in fishing. There are tactics and strategies to consider. Assessments have to be made, especially in match fishing, about the features within ones peg. Adaptability is likewise key, and most of all patience, discipline and maintaining maximum effort right through to the end are pivotal to both success in military disciplines and match fishing. Ultimately, it’s a whole bunch of skills that are immediately transferable to the day job as well as this hobby.
It doesn’t stop there though. Fishing is also a great reliever of stress. Whether it be the opportunity to single mindedly focus on an objective, be out in the fresh air or play to our innate programming as hunter gatherers, it has been shown time and time again that angling delivers massive mental health benefits. In a military sense, whether that be giving some respite to those returning from active duty, as part of management for those dealing with PTSD, or even simply helping ease younger recruits into Army life when moving away from their families for the first time, the benefits are endless.
It was enjoyable to watch how quickly the coaching bore fruits for the novices that had only recently taken up sea angling. Some sole were soon hitting the beach in darkness, with a half decent bag being put together by some, giving great confidence for them heading in to their first ever fishing match.
Elsewhere along the beach, the final practice session of the evening was showing that the beach could produce a few bigger fish, typically in the form of small rays of a variety of species, through predominantly small eyes, with a few strap conger mixed in that would offer good points come the following day in the match.
It became very apparent ahead of the first match just how different the Army angling club is to any other club I have been a member of. The sharing of information was incredible… As the anglers set up on the beach, open discussions on rigs were had. There seemed more focus on everyone enjoying themselves and catching than beating each other. Stu, in particular, was helping the novices, mainly in the production of 10 or more rigs for each of them, covering a variety of scenarios they would need in the match. It transpires that Stu is a bit of a rig-tying machine!
The first of the two pegged matches had been set to be half in daylight and half in darkness, to give the best opportunity to everyone of getting a fish on the board. With the beach not fishing particularly great in daylight on small tides, this was a wise move… Most did record fish this evening, though it was incredibly tight throughout most of the match. That was, until Andy Wilson caught a fantastic specimen gar fish followed up with a nice sized small eye ray! He was certainly walking the first competition at this point!
Along the rest of the beach, the odd strap had increased the points for some peoples bags, but a few plaice, gurnards, sole, blennies, whiting, pout and scad, as well as some isolated mackerel were fairly evenly distributed to ensure most people recorded fish, but not many sizeable bags had been put together. The key though, was a top 3 result, as the score would be combined with day 2 to produce an overall winner and it was generally felt two top 3 results would be needed to be in with a shout of the win.
The second match was starting much earlier the following day, to be fished entirely in daylight. As we got down to peg the match out, light was only just breaking, and a bit of cloud cover gave some optimism for a few early scad, mackerel and gars on the cards before the run rose too high… unfortunately, as the match began, the cloud broke and there went an end to those hopes!
With everyone struggling early on, a gurnard and small school bass from one angler seemed to see him monopolising the whole beaches fish stocks, it was that bad! In fact, it was so bad that a number of anglers retreated to the cafe behind the beach to get some breakfast in! As luck would have it, one such angler returned to retrieve a small eyed ray… Just proving once again, the age old ‘walk-on’ always delivers in a tight match!
This did, however, signal the start of a few more fish along the beach, thankfully! It was still challenging, and some zones were remaining bereft of fish. A zone, however, had started to produce a steady stream of gurnard and the race was on between a few anglers to build up a bag. D zone then saw a couple of plaice landed, before Stewart Herd, who had been bemoaning his terrible luck with flatfish to me earlier in the day, caught a lovely turbot in B zone. You could tell he was thrilled not just to land any fish in a tough match, but one he’s not so familiar with on his usual cod grounds in the North East.
Strangely, one of the most caught species on the day ended up being shad! These are not allowed species in the competition, else Stu Jones may have walked it, going through a spell where it seemed impossible for him to fish a gar rig without it being snaffled by these protected members of the herring family. As nice as it is to witness strong numbers, it’s absolutely gutting to catch a good sized fish only for it not to count! Many weevers, also not allowed, were also showing.
A few more small eyed ray showed before the match was out, which were to be the telling fish for a number of zones. Zone C had struggled the most, and in the end a pair of solitary undersize fish saw two anglers share the zone win! Paull Curtice was one of them and had scaled down to ridiculously small hooks and baits to fish in the backwash to tease out the smallest of whiting to get on the scoreboard.
As I understood following the match, a large part of the reason for open information sharing is that this championship, whilst very much a competition, is also a practice for the ‘inters’ that are coming up this week, between the Army, RAF and Navy. 15 anglers will be selected to take part, with the top performing novice guaranteeing their own place on the team. Hopefully we’ll bring you an account of that match in next months issue.
Some great camaraderie was enjoyed at the presentation, with prizes donated for many of the novices and Veals Mail Order supporting with vouchers acquired for day and overall zone places and winners, as well as medals for pairs and 4 man teams.
What struck me was the general good feeling of the event. Nobody seemed overly concerned by their success or otherwise and enjoyed it for what it was, two days fishing amongst great company. I have no doubt that everyone left with an improvement to their own mental health just from being there in such a positive environment, where everybody actively supported each other. Even just walking the beach with a camera, speaking to the anglers, I felt fantastic as I drove back home following the presentation.
There seems to be a lot other clubs could learn from how the Army run theirs. The reason I left club fishing myself was the competition aspect dominating too much of every decision. At the end of the day, there are more than enough open competitions if people want to compete. A club really serves little additional purpose if not to support and bring up everyones level collectively, something that clearly the Army fishing club strive to do.
If you are a member of the army or a veteran and have not yet been involved with the Army fishing club… don’t hold back, get involved and get those numbers back up! It doesn’t matter how much angling experience you have had, there are free coaching sessions laid on regularly and everyone really is there to help you.
Thanks again to Stu and Rob for inviting me down and hosting me. I look forward to visiting again!