Evesham – The Best Natural Water Festival

The Evesham Angling Festival is one of the highlights of my season. Here’s how I got on this year over three tough (and very wet) days.

In action on Day One. Picture courtesy of Steve Martin.

I love the buzz around the Evesham Festival, seeing the crowds, hearing the commentary over the tannoy and mingling with the top names. It’s also nice to have my family and friends come along to watch and hopefully cheer me on. That includes a very supportive wife who sits behind me in all kinds of weather. She deserves a medal, especially after all the rain we had!

Saturday was the big individual championship with £3,000 to the winner. 70 of us lined up to draw and I had a list of pegs I really wanted to be sat on. I would have taken anywhere on the Crown Meadow other than dreaded Peg 3 (which I incidentally found myself on two years ago – so I don’t always draw flyers!) but pegs 1 and 2 and pegs 5 to 10 were the ones I really fancied for a day’s roach sport. I was about 15th in the queue and no decent pegs of any description had come out by the time it got to my turn. I dipped my hand in the bag and out popped peg 6, quickly followed by a big groan from everyone and a few jealous mutters!

I had already gone before hearing yet more groans as Lee Kerry was on 7, Matt Godfrey on 8, Cam Hughes on 9 and Darren Davies on 10. I also had the legendary Keith Hobson above me on 5 to make me the filling in a nice Drennan Barnsley Blacks sandwich.

Bloodworm and joker was always going to be my main gambit and I kicked off with 10 balls of Sensas Gros Gardons Fine, Canal Black and soil then cupped in three joker-rich balls over the top. I knew I was up against it as the next three anglers below me had all been fishing the river a lot and were obviously going to be more in tune. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to feel completely in my stride most of the day and never felt at all rusty with this bloodworming lark!

What did surprise me, though, was just how hard it was fishing. I am sure the strong sunshine and clear water wasn’t helping. I was happily catching little dace on bloodworm for the first few hours with only two tiny roach amongst them. Below me, no one was setting the place alight and Cam, Matt and Lee were all just catching odd tiny fish. For some reason I had a pocket of dace to myself so I kept plodding on as every now and then I caught a slightly better one. Word came down that Cam had lost a big barbel on his bloodworm gear and we were all having occasional looks for better fish with nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, Spud Murphy had bagged himself a big barbel in the 40s but no one was catching much of any description on the Crown Meadow. I therefore felt I was doing relatively well and perhaps could just plod on and hope for a last-hour run when/if the better roach eventually switched on.

That all changed when I looked down to Lee and saw yards of hollow elastic streaming from his pole. That’ll be a barbel then! With loads of elastic out I couldn’t see how Lee would get what was obviously a big fish in any time soon so I turned back to watch my float. Next time I looked back towards Lee I was totally amazed as the very same fish was now on the surface waving a white flag and slowly being eased over Lee’s landing net as if it was a bream!

A massive “Get in!” from Lee was probably heard as far as end Peg 73, followed by a very deserving cheer and applause from the large crowd that had gathered behind him. On this occasion I was genuinely happy for Lee. A great effort from a good friend and a man in top form. Interestingly, Lee never fed his chopped worm swim with a baitdropper like most would perhaps have done. Instead he potted it in heavy soil. That’s something I also like to do if the flow’s gentle.

I think this quality fish signalled time for everyone to try a lot harder for a big fish. None of us managed one. Spud won the match with his big barbel and Lee’s helped him to second overall. Johnny Freeborn was 3rd off Peg 2 with the best small fish net on the day.

I just missed out on default section money, as Darren Davies put 4lb+ on the scales. My 3lb 10oz was the next best weight against some very strong company so I was reasonably happy with my first day. I’d caught a few fish and don’t feel I did too much wrong. The roach never fed but overnight rain would hopefully freshen things up the next day…

The Wychavon Champs

My 4th placed bag. Picture courtesy of Steve Martin.

After winning the UK Champs for a 3rd time I had another cheeky/greedy wish and that was to be the first three-time winner of the Wychavon! Sadly that never quite happened this year… but I came oh so close!

I was once again on the Crown Meadow, this time further down on Peg 13. It’s not an area I fancied to do a big weight of silvers but you never quite know. There is a bit more depth in this area and always a good chance of big fish. The only problem was that it was directly behind the food stalls, so the scent of fried food and donuts kept my stomach rumbling all day! It also poured down all day so only a few brave souls were watching – including my mum and dad, who I really felt sorry for.

I balled in as per usual and for some reason I had a really terrible start this time. I never felt at all happy with my presentation. The surface layers were really skimming through while the lower layers were much slower. A 1g float seemed all wrong yet a 1.5g or 2g float fished overdepth and edged through wasn’t right either. In the first 10 minutes I had already swapped rigs and depths four or five times and wasn’t happy. I also lost a reasonable fish first drop that somehow cracked off my hooklength. I had managed a few small roach but it just never felt right. I had Drennan Barnsley ace Sam Wildsmith next peg downstream who would be a good barometer of what was happening on the small-fish front. Although he was fishing much tidier he was still only catching really small fish and waiting for bites. I would normally like to spend the first hour on the worm but I was clearly not going to win anything doing this so it was time for a change.

I had three bleak rigs set up but deliberately held off feeding this spot as I didn’t want to upset my big fish swim, which I also hadn’t fed just yet. With small fish topping close in I had a quick five-minute look to see what they were. I hoped they were chunky bleak but they sadly turned out to be tiny minnows. The guy above me was regularly pouching in hemp for barbel so I was wondering if they were being attracted to the slick from his feed? Either way, I’m not a massive fan of bleak fishing so I decided to scrap this idea completely and the cloudy slop I had lovingly mixed up before the start never saw the river.

Now just 20 minutes in I made the decision to feed my close-in big fish line. This was 11m down the peg and about five metres off the bank where I found a nice flattish spot, just away from an attractive line of lilies. There was next to no flow but a decent 7ft or so of water. I had framed in two Wychavons on very similar pegs – once with eels and the other with a barbel – so it felt dead right for a fish or two.

I am normally an advocate of fresh dendrabeanas for chopping but as the river was fishing so hard I felt lobworms could be safer this year. With very little flow I decided to feed some chopped lobs in a ball of soil and the rest loose to create more of a spread. Here I used a heavy 2g bodied float (an old inline Garbolino pattern) just to nail things in position and cope with any increase in tow. This was on 0.20mm Supplex to a 0.16mm hooklength and my old faithful size 14 Carbon Feeder hook. Importantly, I like to keep the shotting positive but the bulk quite high up, as I want the fish to see the hook bait falling in the last half of the depth.

After five minutes I had an indication on the float and promptly missed a bite. The same frustrating thing happened next cast. As no one around me was catching I was determined to sit there until I discovered what it was. A good 20 minutes of patience paid off as I found myself striking into something solid, followed by metres of yellow Carp Bungee streaming out to the other side of the river! I stopped the fish and managed to ship back and take a section off before the unseen fish decided to zoom towards me and head straight for the nearside weed. It had to be a tench!

I heaved and hoisted 10 metres of Acolyte Carp in the air with yards of bright yellow elastic out and grabbed my big 20in Speedex landing net. I saw an olive-green flash amongst the weed as I managed to persuade the fish back into open water. Soon, I was thrusting the landing net down and scooping the fish up. It all happened so fast and I was so glad I had set up a bigger landing net just in case.

I absolutely love tench; especially big river tincas! Grinning from ear to ear I really wanted to proudly show the fish off to the crowd behind me. I resisted the urge and carefully tipped it into my keepnet instead.

By now the rain was really hammering down so I got off my box and packed away most of my silverfish bait and tackle. All I now had on my side tray was worms, casters, dead maggots and mud! I also quickly assembled a 3g flat float for a new swim at 15 metres. That fish had bought me time to sit it out for big fish for the rest of the match and really go for that 3rd title.

Over the next few hours it was slow going but I managed a good perch on the close-in swim and a 1lb eel on the 15m flat float line. That gave me a very satisfying 7lb 3oz total on a rock-hard day. Just 4oz more would have given me 3rd spot. I know I could have easily had that if I had picked up a bloodworm rig. However, I needed just over 2lb more to win the match outright and that would have been impossible on bloodworm. I felt I made the right decision to gamble and was still very happy with a 4th place trophy and £500 cheque. It was also great to see my old mate Dean Barlow win with over 9lb of roach. Well done that man!

Collecting the trophy from the Mayoress of Evesham. Picture courtesy of Steve Martin.

The Match Fishing Team Champs

This is ‘the’ team event I love to fish. I was fortunate to help Shakespeare Superteam win it many moons ago but since then I haven’t fished it half as much as I would like. The qualifiers are open to all so this year I entered one as Team Drennan. After all, the company sponsors some really big names from all over the country who are mostly unattached, so it made sense to bring them together under one banner. I think smaller squads like this, and events for four, five and six-man team events is a progressive move and should be encouraged for the good of team fishing. I even registered Team Drennan with the Angling Trust to make it official. We put in a great team effort to qualify. I gather there were a few murmers afterwards, which one can only take as a complement!

Dean Barlow, Wayne Swinscoe, Chris Vandervleit, Dan Varney and myself were fired up to do well as I lined up to do the team draw in 10th position out of the 14 teams. Looking at the fixed pegging I fancied draw 1, 2, 6 or 7, as they all placed you well at the top half of the Crown Meadow, put anglers around the better pegs near the White House Bend and missed out the poorer ones in the high 50s to low 60s. Drennan Barnsley, Daiwa Dorking and Kamasan Starlets had pulled three of those four draws out by the time I dipped my hand in the bag. Draw 6 and dreaded draw 3 were as yet unclaimed, so I breathed a huge sigh of relief when 6 stuck to my mitt!

That amazingly placed Dean back on his match-winning peg from the previous day, Dan on iffy Peg 20 which could be pike city, me on 35, a great peg opposite the Isbourne, Chris on 51, which you wouldn’t normally fancy so much but Lee Kerry had somehow caught nine eels off it the day before, and Swinno on 65, which is a steady peg outside Hampton Ferry cafe. Game on!

At the team huddle, Deano reckoned I should kick off for chub on the waggler but I was having none of that. I knew there could be some decent roach and perch on this peg at the very start so I wanted to begin over my bloodworm swim hoping for a quick flurry. This would give me a good picture of how things were fishing while I carefully built up a waggler swim with loose fed maggots. My plan seemed even more sound when I looked at the state of the river. Despite heavy overnight rain the Isbourne opposite me was like a mill pond! I was really expecting/hoping some muddy water to be coming out and creating a more coloured channel but there was absolutely nothing.

My decision to start on the pole really paid off. I had to fish a full 14.5m of Acolyte as the bottom was all over the place closer in. I had a great start, catching chunky roach and perch from the off. Thinking a few fish were about I topped up a lot sooner than I would normally dream of doing and was rewarded by another decent flurry. On the third topup things really slowed down but with a good 2lb already in the net I felt I had already secured mega team points on a tough day. Time for the waggler.

Worringly my loose fed waggler swim was boiling with bleak and I couldn’t see how they’d be there if big chub were about. I messed around with depths and feeding but my fears were well founded. I managed one small 6oz ‘pup’ down the peg but that was it. Instead, I managed a good 50-60 tiny chublets casting right across and well beyond the range of my loose feed. At less than an ounce apiece they weren’t massive but they kept the catch rate ticking over.

I then wasted 30 minutes back on the long pole and a close-in perch swim for next to nothing before going back out onto the waggler for a few more of those micro chub. I was slowly adding weight but knew I needed the long pole to come good again. I tried feeding a couple of balls of joker in soil right down the peg which brought three perch edging the rig through, but none of the hoped-for roach. The roach seemed much happier at the top of the swim and, with an hour to go, I made the decision to re-ball it with six big oranges containing not too much bait. Nothing responded immediately but I wasn’t overly worried. It had at least laid the foundations ready for when they felt brave enough to return.

Ten minutes back on the waggler was less productive than I hoped. Back onto the pole I had a 3oz roach instantly then nothing. I am sure the roach are there all the time but catching one unsettles the shoal. With three matches a week on the river it gets more pressure than any other stretch in the entire country, so the fish are always ultra cautious. I managed a couple more smaller roach and perch before the whistle and that was it. It sounded like it had fished really hard so I felt a top three or four in section was hopefully on the cards.

Dorking’s Lee Edwards was immediately below me on 36. This is another good peg and he also struggled to get any big chub, which was a relief. He put 4lb 14oz on the scales which was the top weight up to him. I was next to weigh and very happy to see my hard-earned bag go 5lb 7oz. Starlets’ Darran Bickerton has been one of the most in form men on the river all year and won the section off peg 31 with a really impressive 7lb bag. That placed me 2nd in section. Job done! Darran’s weight was also 3rd overall so I also got the £150 section prize as a handy extra bonus!

Dean did the business again to win his section with 9lb and took 2nd place overall. As I feared, Dan had a difficult day with pike and was 9th, with Swinno 7th and Chris 6th. Wayne had lost a 1lb perch at the net that could possibly have cost us 2nd or 3rd spot, but that’s the nature of team matches; there are always close finishes and points lost here and there.

Ultimately we ended up 4th out of the 14 teams, ahead of more established squads but behind the ever-dominant top three of Starlets, Dorking and Barnsley. Not bad for our first ever attempt!

I must say it was a nice change to not have to help pack away the stands and tents this year, especially as the field looked more like a dirt bike track! Everything seemed to run smoothly and DHP, Diana Raphael at Hampton Ferry, the stewards and everyone else at Evesham put the usual great organisation and effort into what I still believe is the best natural water festival in the country. Well done to everyone involved!

For me it was a great three days spent on my favourite bit of river. The fishing was hard but the sport is so varied. Every peg is different and every peg can throw up a match-winning fish. We all know the fish are there and there are always a few surprises. It’s anything but predictable and that’s what keeps people like me coming back for more!

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