Chris Ballan Alderney

The 3rd and 4th of September saw both local and visiting lure anglers congregate upon the beautiful island of Alderney for the annual Alderney Lure Festival. Hosted by Alderney Angling and its 4th year, it was great to hear the event was going from strength to strength, with a record turnout.

This year our party had cleverly planned to add on a couple of days pleasure fishing either side of the main competition, which runs over Saturday and Sunday. However, there was some bad news this time around. Dan was too busy having babies to make it. If it was making babies, I might have understood. Might. Which left just myself and Chris travelling from Southampton to Alderney on the swish, new Aurigny plane. No dilemma with choosing a window-seat or aisle-seat on this plane!

As it turns out, it must be Dan that’s good at organisation because Chris and myself turned up a day early! Oops

Although I’d wholeheartedly recommend being this unorganised (as it got us an extra day in angling nirvana), we did feel a bit sorry for Mark Harding, the organiser, as I’m sure our unexpected arrival caused some unhelpful stress two days before the festival. Having said that, it didn’t show and Mark was as welcoming and helpful as ever, aiding us in finding some digs for our first night, before we officially moved into Mark and Fieona’s angling inspired B&B. It used to be a tackle shop, don’t you know. That’s my kind of feng shui!

Mark’s friendliness was not the only warmth that greeted us on our arrival in Alderney. The sun was shining! With such a great forecast, we grabbed our rods and headed straight over to the south of the island to look over some of the more exposed marks that I’ve always wanted to fish. We easily managed to lose the rest of the day to wrasse fishing, with Chris breaking his wrasse PB almost immediately. Eventually we scrambled back up the hill in search of a well-earned beer.

We lost Thursday evening to general fannying-about and getting our gear prepped for the next few days.

Friday was our free day. Once we’d transferred our belongings to our new lodgings we reached for the big sticks and headed up to the north of the island in search of wrasse and bass. In fairness, we didn’t get very far. The problem with Alderney is that every inch of coastline looks so good – especially for wrasse. It didn’t seem to matter where you threw a lure. You’d almost immediately get the tonk of a Ballan Wrasse… or a snag. We lost soooo much gear that Friday it entirely removed the stresses of 15kg baggage allowance. That was, until we visited Alderney Angling – one of the best stocked mail order tackle shops in the UK. And tax-free. Handy.

Chris was again increasing his wrasse PB with multiple fish over the 3lb mark. I was all-in, chucking 4 and 5-inch shads in the hope of connecting with one of Alderney’s mega wrasse residents. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say they push 8lb here. ‘Connecting’ and ‘landing’ a giant wrasse are altogether different skill-sets. I’m afraid my heavy outfit was not quite heavy enough when I eventually did connect with an oversize fish. If you’re going to head over to Alderney with wrasse in mind, tool up. Alderney’s granite does not always play nice. I was fishing a 28g rod, 4000-sized spinner, 1.2PE braid and 15-20lb leader. The braid was the weak link when exposed to rock ledges. (This is as much a note for me for next time)

The tide range around the Channels Islands is pretty legendary. Alderney is no different. As the tide ebbed it revealed a couple of marks that were a cast iron replica of our most productive bass marks back home. I’m self-confessed rubbish at bass fishing. I’m not always flexible enough to target marks at the right time. But here was one hell of a seductive looking bass mark presenting itself to us. An opportunity not to be missed! We re-jigged our location and lightened our tackle in anticipation of some good sport. I’m sure you’ll all be familiar with that sense of achievement when a plan pays off. Especially when fishing a new mark. I was delighted when I converted one of the shy taps and the hooked fish came straight to the surface. We’d struck silver! Not a large fish, but great fun on appropriate gear in such a current. There was also an added win in now having confidence that we could find Bass during the species hunt. We just needed to adjust the timings by 30 minutes or so to hit the same mark at the same state of tide the following day, or 60 minutes for the day after. #CunningPlan

We had a great day on the rocks but eventually peeled ourselves away to go meet fellow contestants at a friendly get-together at Mai Thai – Alderney’s infamous Thai restaurant. There were lots of friendly faces, both locals and contestants, met in previous years. Once people fish this comp, they tend to keep coming back. Testament to the angling on offer and the friendly vibe of the island and its inhabitants. HTO gaffer, George had landed and was in fine spirits, looking forward to defending his visitor title from the previous year. After some tasty scram, a few beers and a catch up, Chris and I slinked away for some shut-eye, ahead of the following day’s competition.

We were up early ahead of the 8.30 start. Fieona very kindly cooked breakfast for us all and we made our way down to Alderney Angling, based in the heart of the action, on the quay. Chris and I had checked the latest weather updates and with a worsening forecast had decided to hit the rather epic breakwater, with the thought that it might get shut off once the wind blew up. It was a tough decision to make as it meant we would allow the best inner marks to get hammered by other competitors, most likely making our lives harder later down the line, when it came to targeting minis. We’d also decided to park the ‘bass assault’ until the following day. Overhearing a comment from one of the locals that the island might get weeded-out, briefly planted a seed of doubt. But still, we stuck to our guns.

Our Le Mans style start saw Chris and myself at the end of the near kilometer long breakwater by ourselves. The current was racing down the side of the breakwater and forming some attractive looking creases. Good friends that we are, Chris and I opted for tag-teaming the most likely looking spot and started our strange ‘dance’ around each other. We got off to a flyer.

The lure species hunt format is pretty common now. Photograph your unique card or identifier with the fish, etc. However with the Alderney comp there is an added twist with several attractive prizes on offer for the best length of certain categories, as well as a generous prize for longest total length of species – a prize I had been lucky enough to win before. Consequently, contestants measure every species they capture and have the opportunity to upgrade species’ lengths through the match – an element I really enjoy. There’s always hope that your 98th Corkwing might be 1cm longer than the previous 97!

Anyway, we were catching straight away. But there was a time pressure. Both in terms of the tide and the other competitors we could see making their way down the breakwater towards us. I still had a few pre-match jitters. I landed a 32cm Pollack and then a not-always-easy Mackerel in the first few chucks. Result! It wasn’t until we photographed Chris’ first Pollack that we realised that I had been incredibly dumb. Although I’d measured the fish, I’d forgotten to put the required laminated card in the photo. “Bother” (or words to that effect!) Somehow I knew that a repeat performance on the Mackerel wasn’t going to be easy. In the space of the first 15 minutes of a 33 hour fishing competition I’d gone from sky high to rock bottom.

As the number of anglers on the breakwater started to swell, I was thrown a lifeline in the form of a Garfish. As Chris and I wrestled with it for the picture – card and tape-measure in shot this time – I reasoned with myself that I would have swapped a silly Pollack and a Mackerel for a Garfish, anytime. And so I put the whole episode to the back of my mind.

I didn’t catch another Mackerel from the breakwater.

In the back of my mind, the ‘Mackerel Episode’ starts to ferment… “What if I don’t?” “What if this?” “What if that?” Etc, etc.

As the wind picks up, the tide slows and with it, the fishing. We exit the breakwater with the Garfish being the only real highlight of our mornings efforts. We did however witness the capture of a lovely Pollack on light tackle by Simon De La Mare, which as it turned out, won the longest of the competition. Nicely done Simon!

Saturday 3rd September, 13.49: The wind is blowing hard. Water is ebbing away from the inner, sheltered marks. Light game is no longer looking so light.

I send a text message to Dan back home: “You’re not missing anything. It’s shit. I’m on 4. Chris on 2”

I was too miserable to mention the Garfish.

Dan can’t really help our predicament from the other side of the English channel, but somehow having a moan helps. Although I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, this is what I love about these enduro-hunts. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. For Chris’ sake more than anything, I proclaim that we should consider ourselves about to start a 24-hour species hunt with a few species head-start! It does the job.

A quick stop for sugary coffee and invincibility pills (aka sausage rolls) and we’re buoyed again, ready to attack the mini species. “We need some bites on the light gear.”

At low water, I call upon a mark that Dan and I discovered one previous year. It’s nothing to talk of. A rock. Easily missed by the other competitors. But as I hop onto the rock, despite the fact that two years have passed since the last time I laid foot on it, it’s familiar to me. I head straight to a particular corner of our rock. The area I target must only be 10 inches by 10 inches. Despite not having any remarkable features, I’m again surprised by what lives in this honey-hole.

Tap. Tap. Thud. Strike. Fish has a reverse gear… Yes, it’s a nice Tompot!

“Chris, drop in here mate.” Moments later, we both have a matching pair. “Nice one man.” We return to solo duties around our tiny ‘island’.

Goldsinnys. Check!

Chris quickly finds his Corkwing and numbers are gaining fast, despite not having much real-estate to play with. “This is better mate!”

Somewhere along the line Chris has learned where we could find Giant Gobies. When we reach the next mark, this is confirmed by another helpful Alderney resident who narrows down our search by pointing us in the right direction. This is one of the great things about this event. Because Mark has set it up with matching Local and Visitor prizes, the locals are only too happy to help out with advice. And I don’t think that was one-sided in any way. I heard similar tales from many other visitors.

Like one of those old arcade machines where the ball bearing drops down and bounces off the pins, hopefully into a winning hole and a prize, the in-game game here is to find a hole in the boulders that leads down into the deeper sections, many boulders down. Get it right and bites are instant. But then the final stage of the game is to get your prize back out! It obviously wasn’t easy, as Chris reeled in someone else’s rig.

Chris was the first to hit target with a lump of a Giant Goby. His first ever and consequently another PB for the trip. I was finding everything else but. As Chris graciously waited for me to get the job done, we both made an upgrade or two on current species and then, “yes!”, I’ve got one. We climb back out victorious.

Over the bottom of the tide we vote for food and strategise about the night-time to come. Despite our long list of targets, there are only really two suspects to focus on – Pouting and importantly Scad. As torrential rain is added to the now howling wind, we settle in for a shift. Dusk gives up Pouting fairly easily to us both, but darkness isn’t so kind.

Chris plays an absolute blinder. Like unsheathing the mighty Excalibur, Chris reveals the killer jig from his bag. But this weapon doesn’t kill dragons… it slays Scad!

When Chris’ Scad swings in we’re jumping around like we’re back at school again. We’ve hit 3 out of the 4 joint targets for the session and it’s looking like we might be able to get out this appalling rain for an early kip. But of course, that tempts fate.

A scad-less hour passes. Chris is trying not to catch another Scad, to increase my chances. He’s given me his whole set-up to increase my confidence and puts up with at least 60 minutes of my relentless questioning. “How far out was it?” “How deep was it?” “Bail arm open or closed on the drop?” And around I go again, scrabbling for confidence. If that wasn’t already an outstanding display of teamsmanship, there is another ‘predicament’ to endure. While the platform that we’d skillfully resourced for ourselves was offering some shelter from the rain, it was now flooding from below. Every now and then a wave would wash over the platform and deliver wet feet. As we increasingly became saturated we eventually give up trying to dodge the incoming waves and allow the rising tide to creep up our legs. My walking boots never came back from this night. RIP

With mild hypothermia fueling my imagination, the image in my head is of me gasping for breath in the remaining few inches of air within our concrete box. Still somehow managing to flick out a metal in the vain hope that I might actually be able to catch a bloody Scad. So I called it. “Right. Last three casts. Sorry mate.”

As the last traces of hope faded away. Divine intervention perhaps. The pivotal moment. Against all odds.

“It’s a sodding Scad!!!” A jumbo one at that. I wish you could bottle this feeling up. I think Chris was as jubilant as me. We evacuate.

Content, I had the best 4-hour, mid-comp sleep I have ever had.

Early Sunday morning and we beat our competitors out the house. We know we’re behind the leaders, but we have a clear plan. Gobies, then our date with the Bass, and then freestyle. 12 hours of angling left. C’mon!

With the thoughts of the previous night still with me, I had the distinct feeling that something was on my side. This was confirmed first drop when a tiny bite converted into my first Leopard-Spotted of the year. It was still dark outside. Nocturnal gobies? #Unstoppable #OneManArmy #SuperMario

A change of position saw me with a Rock Goby fairly shortly afterwards, which meant I could return favours and leave Chris to find his. I think I went off looking for Smelt, but alas didn’t add or upgrade. As more anglers flooded the mark, our odds seeped away. I was gutted for Chris that he didn’t nail the required gobies, but did my best to remind him that we’d have plenty of time later on. “No bovs geez. They’re just gobies.”

At this point in a comp, food and hot drinks are again the answer. We needed to be looking our best for our hot date.

I can’t romantically build up a story about the bass fishing. We were fishing to the clock with German precision. There was nothing to ponder.

Stand on that rock for 10.30.
Cast towards that rock.
Let the lure sink.
Hop. Hop. Bang!

“Now you mate.”

Chris repeats the process.
Bang!

“Get in!”

I think we were off our rock by 10.50, only delayed slightly by upgrading our Ballan lengths.

“Yeeeeah, straight from the top of my dome. As I rock, rock, rock, rock, rock the microphone!” [40 year old white man stops rapping] [silly dance briefly ensues]

“6 hours of freestyle Chrissy! Let’s F’ing do this!!”

At this point we had different fish on our hitlists. Chris’ best bet was hitting up an area that could give him at least 2 species of goby and dragonet. I wanted to complete my set of goby with a Black and I thought I knew where they lived. So back down at the quay we were just about in view of one another but fishing different marks. I was struggling. Funny how the easiest species can often be the hardest. My zen-like concentration was briefly interrupted…

“Ad!”

I squint in Chris’ direction and make out he’s clearly measuring a fish on the deck. “Oh good,” I think to myself, “he’s got one.” A few texts later and I’m none the wiser to what he’s caught, but when we finally get back together and Chris shows me a picture, it’s a friggin’ Clingfish! Chris is on fire with his species this year. “Haha! Nice one geez.” Chris is buzzing again. We’re ending the comp well, where others are visibly struggling. We split once again.

Putting the Black Goby fail behind me I head off looking for inspiration. Smelt? Scorpo? I climb down the stairs into one mark expecting it to be full with anglers seeing out their remaining time, but much to my surprise it’s empty. It’s strangely peaceful and calm down there. Okay, it stinks of 40 anglers piss, but it’s somewhere out the wind, the water below is flat calm and there’s a lot of bait fish working up and down the wall. Feels good.

In a robotic fashion I flick out my over-heavy split shot rig and Isome section. As it flies through the air I think, “no, lets give ourselves a chance.” (I’m clearly schizophrenic by this point). Fishing has been fairly brutal up until this point as the weather has dictated technique, but I can now afford to lighten my leader right the way down and I opt for Jighead. The direct approach offers me so much more control. I can work the water column much more effectively and I feel EVERYTHING! Doesn’t matter if I’m chasing 12cm Perch or Scorpos – this is the shiz!

I’ve skimmed all of the Bladderwrack covered wall within range looking for a Smelt and as that’s drawn a blank I move systematically to fan the water column in front of me. I make 10 o’clock and as the lure gently touches down I feel an inquiry. A gentle rattle. [small hop] And again. [small hop] Yes, engaged this time. Slow and steady retrieve, maintaining pressure so it can’t flick itself off the hook. The small fish is bright silver for a second. “It’s a Smelt!” As it swings cautiously to hand I realise it’s actually a Whiting, of all things. That’s a great result as it wasn’t really on my hit-list at this stage. I repeat the process and I’m rewarded with the very same outcome. And again.

I ‘radio-in’ Chris, share a few simple pointers and within a few minutes he’s logging his Whiting too. Awesome. Quick update shared and although the gobies are messing with his mind, Chris has secured a Dragonet. Mega. We fall back to our positions for one last push.

I’m back in the zone and I hear someone coming down the stairs behind me. It’s the friendly face of George. Thirty-odd hours of fishing have passed by and this is the first chance we have had to fish together. Crazy really. George, who had a string of epic captures on the first day, including a Black Bream of around a pound and a half has “had a terrible morning.” There’s a moment of uncomfortable silence as two mates are thinking the same thing. George is the bravest and finally asks, “What are you on?” I pull an uncomfortable face and struggle to get any words out, delaying what might be a killer blow to either of us at this late stage. “I’m still on 13” says George. After an epic morning I’m on 14, but even though the result is favorable for me, I struggle to deliver the news to my mate. “I… might… have one more than that”, I force out between gritted teeth. Like a guilt driven LRF-lemming, I instinctively feel the urge to give it all away.

“Have you got your Whiting?”
“Yes.”
“Have you got your X?”
“Yes.”
“Have you got your Y?”
“Yes.”

As I’m staring blankly ahead of me, searching for some piece of valuable info I can offer George to lift his spirits, I see a flash.

“That… was… Mackerel”

“There!” [pointing] “That was two Mackerel! I just saw two Mackerel swim past!”

I think George thought I was pulling his leg. He began to give me some reasons why it wasn’t Mackerel. Low tide. Wrong side. Wrong time of day. That kind of thing.

The thing was, I couldn’t argue with George’s logic. Maybe the painful memories of my bodged Mackerel from the day before had finally stewed themselves into a hallucinogenic mess.

Angling instinct kicked in and I commenced jigging, further up the water column this time. More definite. As minutes progressed, George’s logic started to win against my angling instincts… and then my line twitched.

I remember almost in slow motion, that George reacted to the bite quicker than I did. He’d reeled his rig out of the way almost as soon as my line started to shoot off, as an as yet unseen speedster hit hyperdrive. By the time I’d got maybe one turn of the reel, George had already sprung into life trying to secure a net of some kind. Alas, the net wasn’t to be found, but it’s a lasting memory of first class sportsmanship and good friendship. Thanks George.

With the mackerel memories fresh once again, it was a painful swing-in on light line. I will never forget the feeling as the mackerel came to hand. Not just because it took me to 15 species, but because of the release of the previous day’s mishap. There I was. Lying on the concrete floor, in a pool of other people’s piss, hugging my Mackerel with a grin from ear to ear. It NEVER works out this way.