SI Vault
Robert Manning
October 17, 1960
These and other so-called coarse fish, long despised by the trout and salmon aristocracy, brought 1,212 fishermen to the Norfolk Broads for a matchless match
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October 17, 1960

Bream, Roach And Gudgeon

These and other so-called coarse fish, long despised by the trout and salmon aristocracy, brought 1,212 fishermen to the Norfolk Broads for a matchless match

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The ordinary British fisherman is as placid as the next one. He sits by a quiet stream, hat askew and rod at rest, hoping that his bait will find favor with a pike, a perch, a carp, a chub, a bream, or that it will be molested by a dace, a roach, a rudd, a bleak, a barbel, a pope, a gudgeon or some other creature with a quaint English-sounding name. His sport is coarse fishing, so called to distinguish it from fishing for trout and salmon, and it has become the tranquil pursuit of a million and a half British men and boys.

But for more and more coarse fishermen tranquillity has ceased to suffice. Angling clubs have converted several hundred thousand of them to a form of controlled fanaticism called match fishing. The climax of the nine-month season comes for them with the matches of the clubs and leagues they belong to. For 1,212 coarse fishermen the matchless match of the year was held just outside the seaside resort of Great Yarmouth, where 101 teams met for the 45th annual fish-off, the biggest ever.

The hosts were members of the Great Yarmouth, Gorleston and District Amalgamated Angling Association. They began preparations by carefully staking out 1,212 fishing-positions at 20-yard intervals along the Bure, the Ant and the Thurne. These three sluggish rivers flow through the Norfolk Broads, a beguiling fenland speckled with derelict windmills, mottled by the bright colors of pleasure boats, with stream banks that sometimes are terraced lawn and sometimes are flooded weedy thickets. The rivers abound in two favorite coarse fish—bream and roach. After marking each position with a numbered peg—these competitive fishing locations are known as pegs—they did it all over again. A three-day gale had flooded the rivers and made it necessary to relocate the fishing positions of the contestants.

Before this work was completed the fishermen were streaming into Great Yarmouth in cars, trains and chartered buses, carrying about every sort of fish-persuader except dynamite. These were the cream of the 330,000 anglers affiliated with the National Federation of Anglers, one of the biggest of the working-men's angling associations. They gave the fading summer season at Yarmouth a belated enthusiasm. A last flush of the carnival spirit infected the cockle-and-winkle booths and the seafront bingo parlors. The pubs flourished again: workmen from Coventry auto shops, Leicester shoe factories and Shropshire grocery stores traded pints of bitter, exchanged fishing talk and bet on their teams. Coarse fishermen are a friendlier lot than tweedy trout and salmon folk. They are more willing to exchange pleasantries without first insisting on a proposer, two seconders and a full calendar year's acquaintance. For most of them the fishing club is the big diversion, bigger even than the weekly football game. Most of those at Yarmouth were workmen, earning from $25 to $60 a week, and did not have a lot of cash to throw around, especially after the few bob that go into the football pools and the occasional nicker that backs a likely horse or greyhound.

Bookies and bait

But they liked a wager as much as the next man, and agents of Yarmouth's own Licensed Turf Accountants were on hand to make book on the outcome, about $15,000 being bet. The odds were 400 to 1 on individuals, and all the way from 6 to 1 or 20 to 1 on teams. The favorite was Coventry, always a hot fishing team and, while Birmingham was not very strong, the Birmingham entrants fancied themselves enough to bet their team into second favorite. Like almost everything else having to do with fishing, the betting was governed by hunches—young Ken Smith, for example, a Norwich shoe worker, belonged to an inept team, but he felt lucky enough on his own account to enter into negotiations with a Mr. Thompson, agent for Licensed Turf Accountant Duggie Pye. "He put a quid on himself each way," Mr. Thompson said later, "one quid he'd win, one quid he'd place." That was typical; there was a quid or two riding on almost every contestant.

Saturday morning dawned bright and sharp. By 6 o'clock the fishermen were gathering in an open-air arena for the drawing of fishing locations. They stacked mountains of equipment and chattered over cups of tea. Many of them were up most of the night, some because their buses were scheduled to avoid the cost of hotels and others to make last-minute preparations of ground bait.

Ground bait is thrown into the stream to attract fish to the angler's position. Its ingredients are secret, mystical and deeply connected with history, tradition and folklore. In his guide for anglers published in 1681, for example, James Chetham suggests: "Take Man's fat and Cat's fat, of each half an ounce." And after listing many other exotic materials he says, "This prodigiously causes fish to bite." While man's fat has fallen into disuse, aniseed oil is still a popular favorite, and oil of rhodium has been substituted for more archaic substances. Some sort of bread grain is the basic ingredient—either commercial white bread, dried and crumbled, or bran, whole wheat, breakfast food, dog biscuit or cracker crumbs, perhaps mixed with chopped worms or the fisherman's secret compound. Normally, there is great subtlety in the casting of ground bait. Some coarse fishermen practice by sitting in their backyards for hours beside a pail of water, throwing dainty marbles of ground-bait paste with bull's-eye accuracy. But in match fishing the purpose of ground bait is to bring the fish to one's own peg—or swim, as it is sometimes called—instead of the other fellow's, so a mad lavishness prevails.

Luck of the draw

At 8 o'clock the draw for positions began. One by one, the team captains drew from a cloth bag wooden balls numbered from one through 101. Each team had 12 members, and the number drawn determined the position of each member in the 12 sectors. Piling into buses, the team members parted from their mates and were driven to such places as Dungeon's Corner, Acle Bridge, Potter Neigham, Oby Dyke and half a dozen other embarkation points. Once there, under match rules each fisherman had to carry his own load of ground bait and his gear to his peg. Some of them carried as much as 35 or 40 pounds of ground bait in flour sacks and cardboard boxes. In ventilated cracker tins and boxes they also carried bait for their hooks—maggots (or gentles, as they are called), not the dinky variety produced by the common housefly but healthy, blowfly maggots, cultivated by maggot farmers in fresh-hung liver and sold at 30 shillings ($4.20) a gallon. To this ponderous burden of fish food, each contestant also added a wicker lunch basket, a set of rods encased in canvas bags big enough to muzzle a cannon, a raincoat, a landing net and a keep net for storing live fish during the match.

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