The time was 2pm, the date 27th October 1880 and on a chilly autumnal afternoon a small group of gentry, hosted by the 9th Duke of Bedford watched as 70 Wells Catfish were introduced into the Shoulder Of Mutton lake at Woburn Abbey after travelling all the way from a Berlin fish farm.
If only those gentlemen knew what pleasure those small Catfish fry would give to thousands of anglers all over the country in the years to follow, and it was this lure of History that made me want to fish the waters at Woburn Abbey.
My first visit to Lower Drakeloe lake was on Tuesday 9th May 2006, I had waited for a couple of weeks since applying to join the syndicate for a meeting with the Duke of Bedford, I had now had the two meetings required, filled out all the relevant forms required for police checks etc, paid my sum of £1,175.00 and I was now a fully paid up member of the Woburn Abbey fishing syndicate.
I unlocked then drove through the two gates that border the grounds, and down the road that runs along the side of the lake, it was a fantastic site, a beautiful lake surrounded by acres of Rhododendron in full bloom, dozens of different shades and colours everywhere the eye could see, nestled in thick deer filled woodland, but with all this beauty around me it was only one thing I was really interested in and that was the lake itself, and a lake that I knew held what it was all about, Catfish! and not just any Catfish, these were offspring from the original stocking by the old Duke of Bedford on that very same Octobers day, over 100 years ago in these very waters.
I spent a couple of hours just wandering, sitting, dreaming etc, then I saw my first fish, among the roots of an old tree on the far bank was a small Cat of around 15lb, it moved slowly among the roots for ages before moving out into deeper water, I was to see and feed this fish for the next few weeks to come, it was always there, I would drop some pellets or chopped fish etc into the root system and come back at the end of my session to find it all gone, I never tried to catch it from this area, didn’t seem fair as there are plenty more in the water, or so I was told.
I couldn’t wait to get some rods out in the hope of catching my first Woburn Catfish, but had to wait until the 25th May for my first session, I got to the lake at around 3pm and set up on the dam wall at the far end of the lake, the weed in the crystal clear water was terrible, the whole lake was full of thick weed from top to bottom, so for the first 4-5 hours I busied myself raking a clear patch in the weed with a hope of being able to present a bait in a clear area.
I baited the raked area with around 5 kilos of Halibut pellet, and baited each of the three rods with double 20mm Halibut pellet on a simple hair rig and settled down for the night.
There is a cabin at the far end of the lake by the dam wall which has mains electricity, a toilet etc, so whilst I was setting up, raking and baiting etc, Tracey my wife was cooking dinner in the microwave, it’s surprising just how much difference a proper toilet, washroom and cooking facilities make for a comfortable session.
We awoke at 2am to the sound of my left buzzer screaming off, as quick as a shot I tightened to the fish and immediately knew it was a cat, It was landed fairly quickly as I was only fishing 30 yards out (the distance I managed to rake), but a hard fight all the same, and there she was 27 ½ lb of beautiful Woburn Catfish, a fish probably never caught before as there are only seven syndicate members, all the other six are Carp anglers and it is only the second season that the lake has been opened up for fishing for a long time.
No sooner had I landed the Cat when my right hand rod screamed off also, another short but hard fight and another fish of just under 20lb was in the net, two fish on my first night, what a fantastic result, and what a start to my first season on Woburn.
A quick photo session and they were both slipped back into the water, none the worse for their ordeal, I was like the cat that had the cream, grinning from ear to ear and to say well chuffed would be an understatement.
The rest of the night was uneventful, apart from the odd roar from the lions or the howling of the wolves in the woods behind where I had set up my bivvi, with the moon peeping out from behind the clouds it made for an unusual experience I can tell you, I thought I was the hunter not the hunted!!
The following day was spent between relaxing in the sunshine or raking the swim some more, it certainly hadn’t spooked the fish with all the noise and disturbance of the previous days raking and may even have worked in my favour by churning up the bottom and giving the fish clearer areas to root around in searching for food, Although there was one drawback though, being waist deep in muddy, silty water for hours on end is the horrendous smell, and boy did I smell.
Baits were re cast at around 5pm, the clearer area was now approximately 30 metres in diameter, and very clear, huge mounds of Canadian pond weed towered either side of the swim, crawling with fresh water shrimp and all manner of bugs and insects that had been dragged from the water, I had visions of shoals of silver fish mopping up all the insects from the bottom now they had no hiding place, and Cats prowling around looking for an easy meal too, hopefully the beds of pellets that had been scattered around should do the trick again.
7pm saw my first and only action of the evening, a fast powerful run straight into the weed on the far side of the cleared area, I managed to ease the fish back into open water fairly quickly and into the waiting net, another fantastic fish of 29lb, as it was still light a photo opportunity in front of the blooming rhododendron bushes was too good to miss, so after a few snaps the fish was slipped back into the water.
My next session on the lake was 5 days later, one of the rules of the syndicate is that you can only fish two consecutive nights, then you have to wait 5 nights before you can night fish again, just as well really as if not I may have spent more time at the lake than at home, you can still fish daytime sessions up until dark in between the nights, but as I was to find out several weeks later, the fish very rarely come out during the day anyway, and of all the fish I was to catch only one was during the daytime.
Another Cat of around 18lb was caught but that was the only action for the evening, 4 fish already and only my second session, I was really enjoying my fishing here, the peace, the scenery and the quality of fish made it a majestic place.
For the next two weeks I fished another syndicate water, Bassingbourn barracks, a lake within the Army training area in Hertfordshire, I have fished here on & off for the past 10 years so know the lake intimately, and know that it holds a few Cats, four were stocked in 1998 at around 20lb and were growing fast, several of the carp anglers on the water had lost big fish, and a 57lb fish had been caught by the only other serious Cat angler on the lake.
My first weekend saw me catch a tremendous Cat of 41lb 4oz on popped up Squid boated out to an island around 80 yards away under a dead tree, The next weekend on the water ended up without a run, apart from a pike of around 5lb that picked up half a tin of luncheon meat.
Thursday 9th June saw us back at Woburn, we arrived around lunchtime and was just in the process of setting up when out of the corner of my eye I noticed something huge in the water by the dam, now when I say huge, I mean huge and it was in fact two of them splashing around together instead of just the one, and these were most definitely the two biggest things in the lake without any question, splashing around in the sun like a couple of kids in a paddling pool on a hot summers afternoon.
What a sight it was, no further than 50 metres from my bivvi was a pair of fully grown Elephants in the lake, they had wandered round from the safari park and decided to take a swim in the lake to cool down, I thought it best to wait a while before casting out as the line I had on my Shimano long cast reels would probably not have been strong enough to reel in a fully grown elephant, so my wife and I decided to take a walk round to where they were for a closer look, after all it’s not every day that you have animals like this in your swim is it.
We spent the next couple of hours watching these huge animals playing in the water, rolling over and going completely under the surface, ripping up the weed and throwing it in the air, well at least they are helping I thought, we then plucked up the courage to get real close and stroke them, and then as they left to wander back to the park I got on with the task of what it was I actually came hereto do, FISH!!
The village of Woburn Sands is approximately 5 minutes away from the lake and has fantastic Indian and Chinese takeaway restaurants, so ideal for those lazy evenings when you don’t fancy cooking or would just rather a curry etc, this was one of those regular evenings at Woburn when after a lovely chicken madras the rods were cast out with fresh baits, “Trap set”. The evening saw two more fish at 29lb 8oz and 17lb, it seems that most of these fish are possibly from the same year as the weights are so similar, the majority are around 29lb with the odd smaller fish, however it was still early on in my fishing on the water so a lot could change by the end of the year, after all it was only June so another 4 months of fishing was possible if the weather was to hold out.
The next few weekends saw me put a lot of time on the water, it was hard work continually raking the swims that I wanted to fish but the hard work was paying of, I was constantly catching, but then it wasn’t hard catching the fish once I could present a bait, no one was fishing for the Catfish here so they were not rig or bait shy at all, and they seemed to love the Halibut pellets or large BCUK fish flavoured boilies that were now going into the water. I tried using Squid, Worms, Leeches, Live baits etc but never really had a lot of luck, one Cat of 19lb to Squid, a couple of small jack Pike to lives and that was all, so I decided to stick to what was going well, why change if it doesn’t need changing.
After a few phone calls to the Woburn estate office I managed to arranged a work party with the specific aim of clearing a lot of the weed, the Bedford estate sent two tractors with drivers, a boat and a huge rake, three of us from the syndicate turned up and work began at 9am. We worked through until 4pm and what a difference we had made, there were now huge clear areas all over the lake so it was now time to fish areas the areas that were Unfishable before now.
Whether it was the raking of the weed or just pure coincidence but that night saw me bank my first Woburn 30, an immaculate fish of 35lb 12oz, caught from the margins of the island in the middle of the lake.
The island has a large Pergola in the middle and is a good aiming marker at night as it can clearly be seen from anywhere, it used to house the monkeys when it was part of the safari park, and the lake used to also be home to seals and a hippo, many people remember the lake as the old cable car used to go over the top of it.
Over the later part of September and into October I continued to catch more fish, the weights were up a little & the average weight was now around 31lb, (up by approx 3lb from June) this I put down to the amount of bait going in and the long warm summer meaning the fish were feeding more and putting on the extra weight, Things have slowed down a lot now and my last few sessions including this weekend just gone (10th Nov) have resulted in blanks, my personal best from the lake stands at 37lb 12oz caught in the margins mid October, a magnificent fish that along with all the others has made it a worthwhile experience fishing this historic water, every single thing from the herds of wild deer that wander feet from the door of your bivvi, the wallabies that bound and hop around the banks, the scenery and flowers, the elephants popping round for a swim and of course the Catfish from that fish farm in Berlin…….