The English weather is as unpredictable as Crystal Palace football team, although the Pardew Boys are looking a bit stronger these days. Geoff and I had hoped to spend three days down on the southern chalkstream that we have been targeting this winter and have a last go at some big grayling before the season ends on the 28th February. We kept a close eye on the weather and heavy rains over the weekend put an end to the opportunity really. We toyed with the idea of heading to the Trent instead but with night time temperatures at around 1c, we felt that wouldn’t be much cop either (as it tuned out those night time temperatures were much higher than expected and would have been ideal for a spot of barbel fishing). Rain was also forecast during the days, with some prolonged spells of heavy rain predicted. A change of plan was needed.
In the end we decided to have just a couple of days out, instead of staying away for those few nights. I really fancied having a crack at some roach on the Lower Itchen Fishery and perhaps a day on a free section of the Itchen on one of the other days. We opted for LIF on Tuesday and Winchester on the Wednesday.
On the way down Geoff and I chatted about all sorts of stuff when Keith Speer came up in the conversation. We were discussing his time on the Avon on the Longford Estate with particular attention to his catches of dace. I had already decided to fish one particular swim on the Itchen fishery, one that I know Keith particularly liked and one that I had watched him fish before. His success there (He caught a 2lb + roach that day) inspired me to spend a day trotting this swim. Constant feeding might just bring on those big roach towards the end of the day. It’s an area where the big roach hold up in the winter and throws up some real clonkers on occasions.
On arrival we found the river fairly coloured and this would particularly suit fishing for the roach. Luckily no one was in the swim I wanted and the stretch down from the weir was also clear, which is where Geoff wanted to fish and another spot where Keith fished with tremendous success, taking countless chub on another day we spent there a season or two back. Tactics were pretty simple; 15ft float rod, centrepin reel with 3lb line and an Avon float finished off with an 18 hook and single red maggot. The swim was deep here, around 8ft and a nice crease veered off to around mid river. It looked very inviting and I felt quite confident. Sadly the wind was blowing a hooley, which made presentation very difficult and me curse a lot! After a nice cuppa I started to fish, keeping the float working along the crease time and time again, always accompanied by a steady trickle of maggots on each and every cast. If there’s one thing you learn whilst watching and talking to Keith, it’s about keeping the feed going in. You have to be methodical in you’re approach to switch the fish on. Sometimes it may take an hour, sometimes 6 hours but more often than not it works.
I saw Geoff wandering upstream towards me with flask in hand. A bit early for him to be coming up already I thought, he must be unhappy with the conditions. I looked at my phone, only to see a load of missed calls. Geoff arrived and the first thing he said was “have you heard about Keith Speer?” “No, what about him?” I said with some trepidation. Geoff then informed me that apparently Keith had passed away whilst on the river the day before. I almost laughed, as it sounded so utterly ridiculous, it had to be a mistake. Then all of those missed calls made sense and the reality of the news hit home and that horrible sense of dread crept over me. I phoned the people concerned, only to have the devastating news confirmed. Both Geoff and I felt gutted, empty.
I certainly wasn’t best friends with Keith; however I got to know him well over the last 4 or 5 years. He gave up a great deal of his time to the Association of Barbel Fishers, participating in all of our talks and also setting up a float fishing clinic on the Trent for us. He had recently agreed to take part in another project the ABF were setting up, which would involve quite a bit of his time. In all honesty he was the first person I thought of that would make up a 4 man panel and I was over the moon when he agreed to be involved. For that I am truly grateful, as are all the ABF’s team members and the membership itself. He really helped and supported the ABF and he will be sorely missed.
Keith was a warm and generous man but with a wonderful self deprecating sense of humour. I respected him, admired him, was inspired by him but most of all liked him. That was the measure of the man. He was a likeable guy who made you feel comfortable in his presence and enjoy his banter. His angling experience, or dare I say expertise, inspired many, me included. I looked at Keith as one of the angling world’s most successful specimen hunters; a great angler who was happy to share his wealth of experience on the river bank or in the pub over a pint. He will be missed by all those that met him, or read his excellent writings of days spent fishing, or watched him on TV. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family. RIP Keith Speer.
It took a while to continue fishing but I did. Then two anglers set up directly opposite me (well I mean there are only 3 miles of river here, so you can’t blame them really can you!!). I tried to ignore them and not be put off by their continual bombardment of mashed bread going in mid river. I wondered what Keith might of thought about this and just carried on regardless. Regular bites started to come and I was catching a steady stream of grayling, nothing big, fish to maybe 1lb-1lb 4oz but with most around 8oz-12oz. So far there was no sign of any roach. As the light started to fade a bit I finally hooked the target species and lost it at the net, a roach of around 12oz or so. Still that was an encouraging sign and shortly after another roach was tempted, although not a big fish.
I hooked both roach some way downstream and it appeared they were holding back down the swim towards the bridge. I decided to move down the swim about 5 yards and see if I could target the spot better. First trot down and the float buried. The strike caused the culprit to boil and swirl on the surface and I was presented with a sight I may well never forget; a huge roach turned on the surface. Well at least there was no uncertainty about what was on the other end. So began the most thrilling and nerve wracking fight I’ve ever had. The big roach kitted out into mid river and used the flow to full effect. I suddenly realised I hadn’t brought my net with me and so started the nerve jangling task of coaxing the fish upstream to where the landing net lay. The fish boiled and turned on the surface, shaking its head and thrashing violently a number of times. I was praying the 18 hook would hold, begging for the fish not to come of. Slowly I started to draw the fish to the waiting net and after what seemed an age I managed to pull the fish over the rim of the net and into the safety of the mesh. She was mine!
Despite shaking like a leaf, I hoisted out my prize and stared in amazement at this beautiful fish lying in the net. It looked huge, fat and glistening in the fading light of dusk. It was the stuff of dreams. Geoff was by now fishing a few yards upstream of me on the opposite bank. He was listening to all my shouts, exclamations and expletives as the fight progressed and once the fish was in the net he was already heading over. He arrived and looked in amazement at the fish. We both thought it was at least a mid ‘2’ because of its fat stomach. Then I realised my scales had packed up and poor old Geoff had to walk all the way back round to his swim to get his scales. Anyway eventually we weighed the fish and settled on 2lb 3oz. Not quite as big as we thought but an absolute clonker as far as I was concerned and a fish I will never forget.
It seemed a fitting tribute to Keith’s memory and I know that despite him catching 100 2lb roach he would have been genuinely overjoyed at my success today and the first to congratulate me. I can’t help but think today was meant to be and perhaps an unseen helping hand made all the difference.