Watery Reflections: Part 4
During a time of many changes, with Mum moving to Lawford, we would be between there and Mersea. This opened up new fishing opportunities over the coming years. I finished primary school at Mistley and then went to Manningtree High School. I had a new baby sister called Millie, so there was another person to drag around while fishing at every available opportunity.
Luckily mum was good at finding a nice bit of beach or some kind of water to keep us occupied, so everybody was happy. Mum has always been keen to broaden my interests to stuff other than fishing. That said when push came to shove, she just wanted to see us happy. There have been many times when she has saved the day. Like the time she removed her shoe buckles to use as fishing weights. Or the time we were on a strict non-fishing holiday in Tenerife, and she ended up asking hotel staff for champagne corks to act as makeshift floats for us.
We certainly kept mum and dad busy between the four of us. They near enough let us go where we wanted between Mersea and Manningtree. I'm sure each of them appreciated a rest when we were gone for a few days, though. We had some great fun exploring Manningtree and the surrounding areas, but the freedom of the boats took us to Mersea as much as we could.
Over the years, the Razorbill got faster, which allowed us to venture further and eventually we got back off to those wrecks where Dad had made his name. Sadly, times had changed somewhat by now though. Those uncharted wrecks were now firmly on everybody's charts. GPS was now commonplace rather than luxury and far more reliable. Boats had become faster too, and it seemed that every man and his dog could now access this special place. One of the first times we headed off, the first wreck we arrived at had a 20ft rib anchored on it and several people diving it. We were well over 40 miles from home! The boat we were on was too small for a journey like that let alone an open rib!
The nail in the coffin for dad was when we arrived at one of the furthest wrecks he used to fish only to find this too was plastered in nets. It's a big wreck, and he was able to anchor it to try and make the most of the last of the tide. While we were anchored, a Belgian charter boat appeared from over the horizon. They had been fishing somewhere back towards the English side out of sight and made a beeline for us. They drifted the same wreck as us and came past very close. It was flat calm; he had his engine running, and there was minimal tide left, so he was perfectly in control.
Sharing a wreck isn't something we are used to around here, and Dad certainly wasn't as he had rarely seen any other boats out here at all when he first ventured off. As it happens although we were miffed, we exchanged little more than a polite smile towards the ten or so anglers on his boat. I do remember it was an old Offshore and we were surprised how the decks were awash on such a calm day. The skipper started pointing and waving his arms out towards the North East. We didn't understand him, and he didn't speak English. He only had one or two drifts but kept gesturing in the same direction towards what we could now see was a boat bearing down on us. Whatever the skipper on the 105 was saying it seemed he didn't like the look of the boat heading our way and he wasn't hanging around any longer as he headed off pretty sharpish. The other boat grew ever closer and as it did the sheer size of the thing came apparent. Before we knew it, Dad had to start the engine and run the boat ahead to avoid being struck by the oncoming vessel. Dad came back on deck to offer his appreciation to the other skipper for his boat handling. The other boat was a massive commercial boat around 80ft long towering above us. The skipper leaned out of his window and said 'I hope your anchors are not in my net'. We hauled our anchor and watched him pull his set nets in.
The boat was vast with decks 10-12ft out of the water, so they had to use a grapnel to get hold of the marker buoys. She had a shelter over the working deck, and we watched them haul countess cod and the occasional ling aboard. As soon as they had the gear aboard another load was shot from a pound in the stern. This one day put a stop to any dreams I had of witnessing catches like Dad had seen years before. The wreck netting boat with all of its size and catching power, clearly undeterred by weather due to its size would be the demise of this fishing. We heard several years later this boat had in effect put itself out of business in the end. I will add that I don't see these wrecks netted much anymore although there isn't much for them to catch nowadays.
The Starfish 8m we were using at the time was a bit small to head right offshore and very often better fishing is to be found inshore off of the Essex coast anyway. The shallow banks and estuaries provide a breeding ground and nursery area for many species. Often fish are feeding on the shore crabs and shrimps which live very close inshore. This is why most of our time is spent less than ten miles out in winter and less than twenty in summer. Winter fishing would be for codling, whiting and the odd thorn-back ray. Summer fishing would be bass, smoothhounds and maybe a tope if we could go off far enough. Bass could be hit or miss as they had a lot of pressure on them at the time, but we did have some excellent trips on them. In the early summer, when the shore crabs start to moult, they are very vulnerable to predation. This moult usually signalled the first push of smoothhounds in numbers. These fish are great fun to catch, and we often target them in just a few feet of water.
The Starfish is a semi-displacement hull which roughly means although it could go faster than a trawler, it could handle weather better than a speed boat and was easy to manoeuvre. This made it an ideal boat for me to graduate from the Orkney. We still had the Orkney and used her for all sorts from playing around with nets and eel fykes to handpicking oysters and angling for bass or cod.
As well as my brothers and I using the Orkney, we were often joined by our Grandad. I was lucky as not only was he my Grandad but he was my mate and angling buddy too. If my brothers weren't up for fishing with me, then Grandad would often come along for the day. We didn't go far at first. Often, we fished the creeks around the moorings, which can be full of small bass at times in the summer.
One such time we were fishing, and he inevitably needed a pee. It's not easy going over the side of a small boat, particularly when your over 80 years of age and not so steady on your feet. It was common for him to use the bailer for this which was an old bottle with the bottom cut off to scoop water out of the boat. I passed him the bailer and carried on fishing only to hear cursing and swearing coming from his end of the boat. When I asked what was wrong it turned out he hadn't realised the bottom was cut off of the bottle so had removed the top and proceeded to make a mess all over the deck! I couldn't help him for laughing. The small boat was becoming too awkward for Grandad to get in and out of, and I was ambitious to venture further afield. It wasn't long before Dad let us head out on our own while he was at work. I was 14 years old when I took Grandad out for my first trip 'on my own' as such. We used to fish in the estuary at first and were happy just being out there. Grandad loved to eat fish, and he would eat any fish we put in front of him. He even ate a mullet we gave him once and enjoyed it! On our first trips, I often used to cook up something we had caught like whiting or dab, even mackerel in the summer.
Over the next couple of years, I was lucky enough that I got allowed to venture further on my own. Often with Grandad but also with some of Dad's mate who became my mates. Carl Sealey and Steve Bateman would often join me, and I learned a lot from them while also clocking up my hours at the helm and gaining boating experience. While looking through pictures the other day, I found a couple from a trip in early summer. I would have been 16 or 17, and we were starting to look at getting the boat licenced for charters. On this day it was my youngest brother, Grandad and I on the boat. We had a great day there were plenty of thorn-back rays, some nice hounds with the biggest hound over 17lbs and a good few bass with Grandad taking the biggest at just under 10lbs. Trips like this filled me with enthusiasm and confidence as I took my yacht-masters offshore ticket over the coming year.
Back then in the early to mid-2000's the numbers of thorn-back rays were at a real low point. In the spring, when they first arrived, we would often travel over 20 miles out to try and catch them. We often didn't stand much chance closer to home as the fish had to run the gauntlet of bottom trawls or a barrage of set nets or drift gear. Happily, shortly after I gained my tickets and the Razorbill was licenced there was a commercial ban bought in locally on thorn-back rays. The effects of this for us were positive and immediate. As the next spring arrived, we were seeing numbers of thorn-backs in and around the Blackwater Estuary that I couldn't remember seeing before. To put it into context, I fished the estuary most of my life and didn't catch my first thorn-back from within the estuary until I was 18. Since the ban was brought in with restrictions over the following years, we have come to expect them all year round. At the same time, the numbers of cod were good too, which made winter bookings plentiful. The fish were there in pretty good numbers which improved for several years along with the stamp.
Aside from fishing, I had left school and started as an apprentice carpenter. Dad was still working as a site manager and helped to line me up with an apprenticeship with the firm he worked for. I was a busy boy for a while, did 1-2 days a week at college, 3-4 days a week on site, weekends on the boat, volunteered as a coastguard rescue officer and somehow found the time to get my driving licence and yacht masters ticket in the evenings.