Mr Crabtree still feeding lines

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The Independent Online
Kids of my generation were brought up on Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing. It came from a cartoon strip in the Daily Mirror (Mr Crabtree actually started out as a gardener) and sold more than 5 million copies. Mr Crabtree (the book never revealed his first name) was quite an angler. He never blanked, caught his hook in a tree nor got pestered by minuscule gudgeon. Instead, he caught whatever he set out for: mighty barbel, trout or pike. When he went to the Hampshire Avon after a specimen chub, he lured one of 6lb 3oz. I still haven't caught one that big.

How we envied his son Peter. This urchin clearly benefited from his father's no-nonsense approach. ("Don't stamp your feet, Peter, you'll frighten the fish.") Though he was made to fish in short trousers through winter, Peter was allowed to hold a rod and catch a few whoppers as well. If you say, "Gosh, dad, it's going like a train" to any fisher of my vintage, they can immediately attribute the quote.

I was a dumb kid. I learnt all my angling skills, such as they were, from Mr Crabtree. But far from making me the envy of my pals, the sage's advice hampered my angling development worse than trying to fish with a broom handle. While my schoolmates were chucking baits to the other side of the river with fixed-spool reels, I heeded the master.

"The threadline reel is like putting a gun in the hands of a boy before he realises its dangers. Threadline enthusiasts say the reel requires great skill. This is largely an illusion. The reels give you a sense of skill which would quickly evaporate if you tried a more ambitious method. Let him learn to float fish with a flick Tem reel. Let him learn to spin with a centre-pin reel."

And so I did. Or at least I tried. What I failed to realise was that Mr Crabtree wasn't using a five-shilling centre-pin which took a hefty pull to concede line. I blamed the fact that my casts rarely went further than my feet, despite a great heave of the rod, upon my own incompetence. A considerable while later, I shamefully tried the fixed-spool. (I could almost see the trilby- hatted maestro shaking his head and saying: "I knew you'd come to a bad end, Elliott.") That centre-pin was quickly relegated to the bottom of my duffel bag.

This week I was reminded of those fruitless early days when I fished one of the loveliest stretches in Britain, the Wasing Estate on the river Kennet in Berkshire. It is exclusive syndicate water but I snuck in thanks to Bob James, guest celebrity for 16-year-old Jamie Sprusen, who had won the Middy Specimen Masters, a nationwide competition for junior anglers, by catching perch of 4lb 11oz and 4lb 9oz. I've never caught one half that size so I was hoping for some tips from him, but Bob said he had sneaked me in as a Kennet expert, so I couldn't pester the lad.

This stretch is unspoilt. The few accessible swims are hundreds of yards apart and, even then, you are flanked by giant hogweed and nettles so high that you get stings on your nose. The foliage cocoons you and it's easy to fish without seeing another person all day. That was fine by me. I just watched a kingfisher racing up and down the river, and fed a shrew some of my chicken tikka sandwich.

I did some fishing, too. The river here is fast and shallow - perfect for a centre-pin. The float's weight and the current trickle line from the reel. With the slightest touch of your index finger, you can slow the float down or steer it round overhanging branches. As it happens, I didn't catch much. I became too absorbed in the pleasures of using a fine centre-pin in perfect conditions. Maybe Mr Crabtree was right, after all.

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