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Tom Stokes // Keeping the Faith - Text Only
OZ: So we begin to move into the final year: 2018. You’ve had this long spell of intense angling, prepping and working this swim: Speedboat Point. You have the winter away from the pit and on your return, you’re now moving into the fifth season on Burghfield. You’ve learned an incredible amount and caught a huge volume of the stock. You now feel that the ultimate target is within reach; it’s doable and you have everything in place. Your method, tactics, spots, information and sightings… it’s all peaked. Everything is there to put the final puzzle piece in position… can you describe then, the events leading up to those final moments on Burghfield for us Tom?
TOM: “The fifth year, coming into the spring, I had an incredible level of confidence. I didn’t start angling until the beginning of April. I’d learned it was pretty futile starting too much before this time, but this year I had a major game plan. I had so much confidence now in the swim and although last year I felt close, this year it was all to play for as The Common hadn’t been out since Scott banked her. Although last year I carried straight on, there was always that little niggle that she’d done her capture. This year was a fresh year; the spots were rocking and I’d caught nearly every fish you could want from the lake from those spots on Speedboat during the previous eighteen-months. Things felt good, but I did have a few concerns. I knew the lake was going to be a lot busier this year due to the enormous weight she’d been out at and from an area of the lake that’d done so many big fish; the two new swims opening and the bait boat use allowing exploitation of various open water areas were the catalyst and this had all created a big interest in the lake. There were new members that were very keen, very good anglers let’s say. So the game changed massively this year. It’s always been a very busy lake in the spring, but this year I knew it would be intense. It almost had that ‘circuit water’ feel to it and to me, that was never Burghfield; it just felt a different place if I’m honest.
“I felt like I had a good shout though, and given the opportunity I could make the most of it. The reality was though, that I wasn’t going to be the only person going in all guns blazing. I had two prime times in mind for the swim. Firstly, early spring when I’d seen her the year before. Around spawning time though, it fizzles out and they drift onto the shallow, weedy areas and bays. But secondly, there was the post-spawning period around July when it would fire up once more, and that was when I needed to be back in there. The problem with that is, I try to take my holiday to give me three nights’ fishing through the best months. My plan was to do three nights through early spring until spawning, and then for a few weeks it would be back down to my usual weekends, before ramping it back up mid-summer. I had so much riding on that period, but of course, she could trip up anytime, anywhere; that was the risk. Spring came and I got the ball rolling with a couple of early captures, but it soon became apparent that the lake was going to fish a lot differently to the previous twelve-months and it turned into a very gruelling first part of the year. Not a lot was caught by anybody, so those couple of early bites for me felt special and I kept them under wraps as it was so slow.
“Spawning time arrived and the fish dissipated out of the zone. They ended up in Alsatian and The Common did get seen, but the spawning was dragged out and punctuated.
“I saw The Common myself in the Dogleg area, but not a lot happened for anybody during this time, just random, odd bites mainly from smaller males. It was a funny old year, but I wasn’t too worried as it was doing me a favour. The new, keen anglers were expecting a very productive spring and it just never materialised, so the lake rapidly became much quieter. Once the spring had passed and she hadn’t made a mistake, the ball was out of my court for a while until the mid-summer period. Speedboat had become a lot busier unfortunately, because although on the whole I’d kept things quiet, people soon get wind of what went on over previous years, plus of course, I’d spent so much time in there and that hadn’t gone unnoticed. The thing was, although the swim was occupied much of the spring, no one else had a bite as far as I know, so it further built the confidence in my own approach and in my spots in the area.
“I saw The Common in both Alsatian and Dogleg during this period, but over time had realised that a bite was highly unlikely. The good thing was, she was looking fine, the worry being that the otters had been busy over the winter period on the lake. A lot of fish had been seen with damage and we were all concerned for The Common, so the sightings were a massive relief.
“So whilst the fish were noticeably absent from Speedboat, instead using the bays, I did a bit of time on Pingewood Point. I’d always done a bit in the area come June in previous years, and often The Common would make an appearance on the warmer days. It went quite well: six bites over two weeks with me landing five. But others were fishing the area and it became a bit busy, so I got out of the area and headed back to where my true confidence laid: Speedboat, and the swim I thought would give me my best shout.
“Even though the conditions looked poor that first week back, I had a four-fish hit from there on the session, with a couple of bites from each spot. I took that as the lake saying to me, Look Tom, you’ve made the right decision here, you need to be up this end!
“The following week the conditions changed. We’d had north-easterlies all spring and for the first time in six weeks we had westerlies and a pressure drop… it looked really good! I turned up on the Friday and it looked the one. I wasn’t thinking The Common was here, but it really looked good for a bite. I had nightmare that night though. Whilst barrowing my gear to the swim a fly got in my ear. It was hot, humid and sticky and now I had an insect buzzing in my ear whilst I was trying to set-up. I struggled to get the rods out with the drifting weed and it all felt a bit half-hearted if I’m honest. The fly was making things virtually impossible and, to top it all off, I fell in the lake! With one rod sort of on a spot, I stripped off, got in the bag, yet again feeling the lake was kicking me in the doodahs!
“I woke late that morning to five missed calls off my mate, Byron. He thought I must have caught one as they’d been showing all morning. I explained the situation… the rod they were supposed to be showing over was still in the quiver!
“I got both rods sorted the second night and had a bite the following day. Low and behold, it was only The Classic again. The moment I saw it, I knew that The Common was about. This felt different to the previous capture; I was a lot more prepared now. We were three days after the new moon and Laney caught The Classic, followed by the BC, three days after the new moon four years previously. Here I was, on a fresh westerly, three days after the new moon with The Classic in the net at first light; I felt ridiculously close! I really thought the chance was on that day. I pulled out all the stops and got the next day off work. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t.
“Nothing really happened during the night, but I lost a small common at dawn. It was clear to me that they’d done the off. I thought, Where the hell is this fish? Come on! I was a little disheartened, but the good thing was, the bite from The Classic came from the other spot in Speedboat this time, so I felt I had two really good chances now.
“The weather completely changed and the heatwave came back with those north winds once more. It was a harsh couple of weeks ahead, and even though I felt the fish may be anywhere I knew I had to sacrifice the hunt everywhere else for the sake of staking my claim on Speedboat.
“It was frustrating sitting there for two weekends with the conditions close to 30-degrees on the back if the wind, knowing The Common was probably down the other end. She’d been seen down there and I knew I was throwing away opportunities in anticipation of what I believed could happen in this swim, so when it did come good I hoped I would get back in there.
“On returning home I noticed straightaway, big westerlies forecast for Wednesday – the first for two weeks. This was it. I booked that Friday off and knew I had to be there for those conditions. The wind indeed changed and I was sitting with my mates back at home the night before the trip and I was desperate to get down there. The weather forecast changed a little though over the next 24hrs and it was back to northerlies by the weekend. It was a blow to have booked time off for one night of good conditions, but it was done, so off I went.
“It was red hot when I turned up right in the middle of this heatwave and so much hotter than normal. I was just going to enjoy the trip and thought I’d see what happened, soak up the sun on an extra day off. Speedboat looked perfect with a gentle westerly, so I set-up and went for a cold beer with Byron on Hodder’s point. Byron mentioned that a bailiff out in a boat had seen the majority of the stock out in the weed off the open water swims, but down in Speedboat area, they found just four fish; two of them sitting together in the back channel were none other than The Common and The Classic Carp… it was nice to know she was visiting!
“I left Byron and walked back to Speedboat thinking, That must’ve been a cool sighting… those two together from the boat! I got back and put my rods out as I’d done hundreds of times before.
“My mate, Chris Gardner rang that night and he’d spoken to Steve up on Barnett’s. He’d also seen a big, lone fish on the Speedboat side of the point, and away from the bulk of the fish that were in the open water. It could’ve been The Common? I told Chris about the bailiff’s sighting and it did create a bit of a weird atmosphere that night. She’d been about and was potentially still around. I had a broken night’s sleep, with a few tenchy liners, but that’s how it was those last few weeks with the tench proving a bit of a pain. I had a weird bite on the left-hand rod and the lead had gone with a little streak of fizz ploughing off into the distance… I imagined I’d been done by a tench. The rig was perfect; it was five-to-five in the morning, so I got the rod back out onto the spot.
“Within minutes, a few little bleeps on that same rod occurred, but the tench often caused those little disturbances. I did get back into bed, but a savage liner had me jumping back up. The rod was shaking in the rest and I thought, God that was savage! Shortly after, I had a proper bite, with the bobbin ramming into the Neville. With line now being taken from a very tight clutch I jumped out to the rod just as a big eruption occurred out over the spot. I walked back with the rod and slowly drew her away from the bush I was fishing to. Suddenly, the fish was kiting violently to the right, but rapidly towards me at the same time. She was pushing huge amounts of water, bow-waving at the surface and moving so fast at first, I was pumping and cranking the reel, but in the end I was just winding without even moving the rod. She was just kiting in at speed, to the extent I feared she’d wipe out my other rod which was a good 100yds from where I’d hooked her – she’d covered so much water it was a joke. As she neared the other line, she rose up in the water again around forty-yards out and rolled. I saw a few common scales on her back and the sheer length of her was incredible, but because she hadn’t really beaten me up yet, I sort of dismissed it as probably being the Saddleback Common. Then she turned and kited hard left as if to try and find sanctuary elsewhere. Fortunately I had her on a tight line by then, just short of the first bar and clear of danger. I had no need to panic; she had deep water to plod in. She rose again at thirty-yards down to my left, and rolled once again. I saw the big shoulders, the length, and those huge scales… it still didn’t click. I thought, No, it can’t be the Common…
“She came back in front and went deep, going a little solid. She held in the weed and I used that time to put the waders on. I got in the lake and gave it the butt… up she came, shoulders breaking the surface and covered in weed. At that point, a massive pair of lips cleared the water. That was the moment… there’s only one common in this lake with that those huge white lips. As the realisation dawned I was already walking out with the net; she was beaten on the surface. There was a brief moment of panic as I realised just what was happening, but it was done and she was in the folds. She powered into the bottom of the net, furious.
“I’d always wondered how I’d cope when the moment came; how would I function? Weirdly I was strangely calm. I rammed the net pole into the bank and ran up to grab a sack. She was powering into the old mesh of my net, going ballistic, so angry and giving it that whole ‘BC’ attitude – the one she hadn’t managed to pull off out in the pit. I pinned her down and wrestled her into the sack in just a few seconds. I got her secured in the water and rang my close friends, Chris and Byron. To have to make that call finally was so surreal. I said, “I think I’ve got her,” but just couldn’t bring myself to say it for sure… I just had doubts. What if it wasn’t her and I’d mistaken the fish for Patch or something mad like that? I went and double-checked just to be sure. It was so surreal (laughing). Chris and Byron came over after, one of them saying, “What d’you mean you think you’ve got her?!”
“That really was a most surreal 20 minutes, waiting for those guys to turn up; I just couldn’t bring myself to believe it was true. Once they were both in the swim, I had the help I needed for such a huge fish. I was happy to get the fish out and we all surrounded the mat. Man! She is a mat-filler for sure. We gazed down as I unveiled those huge golden scales, and as I peeled back the sack and revealed the wide shoulders and her huge head, it was plainly obvious we were in the presence of the BC. She extended those lips like a big concertina, and that was it. That was what I needed to see.
“That’s the Burghfield Common boys!” That was the moment… the Burghfield Common at last!”