Sara, the owner of Landrace Cottage in Carlton Miniott pinged me an email about a last-minute availability in the first week of September (2019).
The forecast looked reasonably good, so I thought "why not?" - and before I knew it, on Monday 2 September I was trundling down the East Coast Main Line to Thirsk Station.
Being familiar with the lie of the... errrr... cottage - I was settled in in no time, and Tuesday morning saw me making my way to Woodland Lakes, an easy (even with a day's fishing tackle and whatnot on my back) walk from the cottage.
For no particular reason I elected to start on "The Skylark" - a lake I hadn't fished before - but I was confident that I'd get to grips with it quickly enough.
My confidence was well founded.
My standard approach to fishing at Woodlands - feeding 6mm pellets from the rod-tip to about three rod lengths, fishing (mainly) sweetcorn and luncheon meat on size 16 Drennan Pushstop hooks to 5lb nylon, under a loaded waggler at or slightly over depth - seemed like a good place to start, so that's what I did. Heavy gear, relatively speaking - but I was (rightly, as it turned out) confident I'd get plenty of bites.
I was using a different rod for this visit, though.
Rather than the (excellent) four-piece Shakespeare Agility EXP 11' Travel Pellet Waggler rods I'd used last time, this time I was hoping properly to christen my five-piece JW Young "Trotter Travel" rod.
Five piece at 11' - it comes with an extension section that takes it out to 13' - I was at 11' because I like short rods these days. And no, I have no idea why "Trotter Travel" and not "Travel Trotter"...
(I'm not using that garish, tacky rod tube, incidentally. I actually use telescopic document holder tubes - they're ideal for the job, are lighter and slimmer, and don't make me look like a billboard...)
I'd caught plenty of smaller fish on the rod on my local club pond, but I wanted to see a proper bend in it...
I wasn't disappointed - by the fish I caught during the course of my visit, or by the rod's handling of them.
I quickly realised though, that the handle was too long, so the first thing I did when I got home was lop about four inches off the bottom to make it more manoeuvrable when passing the rod across the body to change the angle of play.
The reel would be either a Shakespeare Superteam 35FD (a really nice reel too, incidentally) or my old but lovely Browning Rotator centrepin (fun fact, it was made by JW Young, the maker of the rod), and still the favourite of all my 'pins to fish with - yes, even being that colour..!
Today, on The Skylark, it would be the Shakespeare: I didn't know how the lake would fish, and if it turned out that I needed to fish at distance, a fixed spool reel would give me more options.
I caught pretty much from the off. Conditions were ideal, and the fish (almost all carp, with blessedly few nuisance fish like Skimmer bream - although I did catch some cracking Roach) were keen to feed.
And happily, I was getting into them close in, which I really enjoy, even using a fixed spool reel.
No monsters on the day, but the carp averaged around 7 to 8 lbs, and 30-odd of them by the end of the day made for a very satisfying bag of fish. By the time I was ready to go, the swim was still fizzing like a jacuzzi - but the light was going, so I had to leave. It's the rules...
A great day, then?
Well yes, but also a fecking disaster.
I'm entirely wedded to the benefits of polarised sunglasses when fishing - the lack of them is pretty much a guarantee of a migraine in my case; and besides, they let you see so much stuff that's might otherwise be missed - like silt clouds sent up by fish feeding close in - which are harder to see than you might expect (especially in coloured-up water) unless you're wearing polarised glasses.
Last October, when I'd finally decided to take early retirement, I celebrated the decision with a pair of Maui Jim Sandhill shades - I got them cheap at £220 - and I'd decided to spoil myself because I'd always scrimped on my sunglasses previously (one pair is much like another - right?) but these things were clearly in another league: feather-light yet really strong, with fantastic polarisation, and super-slim titanium frames and arms.
This last is a biggy for me. I've got some scar tissue on the back of my left lug, and the arms of most glasses rub on it and hurt badly enough that after a short period of time they become unwearable - not what you want for a day's fishing - but these things were supremely, all-day-long comfortable, and otherwise just obviously of really high quality. Thinking about it, they were probably the first and only outright "luxury" things I've ever owned.
What they aren't however, is floating...
As I was setting up, a gust of wind caught the case they were in. The case floats, but that's of precious little help when it's open: so it landed on the water, the opening facing down of course, and the shades disappeared into the depths, never to be seen again.
I was - and am - utterly, utterly gutted. Even if my insurance company is prepared to cover the loss (I'm going to find out [Added: Bugger. Yes, they're covered - I've got "away from home" contents cover - but in addition to the £100 excess on my policy, I'd also chosen to add an optional extra £100 excess. So even if the claim was successful, I'd get next to nowt back]), these glasses are no longer made, and you just can't find them any more.
So while I caught a pile of fish, the loss of the sunglasses really put a crimp in the day.
I know it's a First World Problem, but I really liked them...
OK, onto day 2. The loss of the sunglasses necessarily influenced my choice of swim, so I picked a corner peg on "The Kestrel".
Same tactics, fewer fish - but bugger me, some there were some lumps among them!
In fact, apart from two Skimmers and some more nice (1lb+) Roach, every fish was a carp, and none were under 10lbs. Some handily more than that, up to around 13lbs, I'd estimate.
This was more like it, and the rod acquitted itself brilliantly. I'd wondered whether it would have quite enough in the lower sections to "boss" bigger fish if it came to it (comparing it in the house with the Shakespeare Agility rods, it seemed to have less backbone) but on the bank it was great.
Besides, as it struck me when I was actually playing the bigger fish, I tend to support the lower section with my free hand, so any concern about the power of the rod was a practical non-issue anyway.
Nevertheless, it felt (and looked) really good, hooped right over - and at no point was there any suggestion that being five-piece was a compromise (although as I suggest up the page, I decided early on that I would need to shorten the handle); and although the rod was actually built in China, the quality of the blank and fittings were plain to see.
Very happy with the rod, then.
I did lose a couple of fish due to hooks straightening: this was a surprise, as they're specifically designed for good fish on commercial fisheries, and I've landed fish to 17lbs+ on them. But I found out that there are carp to 30lbs in this lake (and a 29lb Koi - I'd like to see that!) so I'm putting these losses down to big fish.
I did "level up" to size 16 Guru QM1 hooks - they wouldn't bend out if I was playing a bus on them - but no more fish capable of straightening a hook turned up.
I'll call that a good day - and I didn't lose any stuff, either...
Day 3 - inevitably, I suppose - saw me back at "The Dragonfly", the pond I'd had so much fun on in May. It still felt like unfinished business.
Same peg as the last time (I had the pond almost to myself, so choice wasn't a problem), and it was time to break out the centrepin.
Well, although nothing particularly noteworthy came to the net in terms of size, I had a blast. It was one of those days when I didn't know what would pull the float under next, and I was delighted to catch a few small (1 - 2 lb) Barbel: they looked immaculate, and fought like stink for such (relatively) small fish.
So much for it being "cruel" to stock Barbel into stillwaters, then - these fish were the definition of "thriving".
I also caught my biggest Roach of the week, at maybe a pound and a half. Again, it was pristine.
Luncheon meat was the bait on the day, unlike the previous two days, when sweetcorn was the the most productive choice, and I caught all sorts of fish, continually, until it was time to go.
I hadn't planned to fish Day 4 - the Friday - partly because of the forecast, and partly because I figured that as I was leaving early on Saturday morning (to be on the 07:35 direct train back to Newcastle) I'd want to spend the day chilling, packing and making sure I was sorted without any last-minute panics.
But by 11:30 it was clear that the forecast was wrong again - the weather was glorious - so off I went.
I started on The Dragonfly again, but that didn't last long: some numpty with a petrol brushcutter had decided that - of the thirteen lakes on the venue; and of the three islands in the lake I was fishing; and of his choice of sides of each island - he would strim the living fuck out the island right in front of, and on the same side as, me.
What a twat.
After making it clear to him that I had significant doubts about his parentage, I stomped off to find a quiet corner somewhere else.
I ended up on the north bank of "The Silver Birch". One of the venue's original waters: very pretty, very fishy looking - and one which I quickly remembered (after I'd settled in, still spitting feathers) that I'd never caught anything worthwhile out of...
But I was here, time was getting on (it was around 3pm by now, and I'd need to be off the water not long after 7) so I grudgingly determined to make the best of it, figuring that some things must be common across all commercial waters - like the habit of fish coming right into the near bank towards the end of the day, when anglers who are packing in invariably dump their left-over bait in the margins...
So I fished accordingly, baiting quite generously with pellets at several points under the rod-tip, and between it and the bank.
I'll be honest - I expected to be disappointed - even though I knew the theory was sound enough.
It was a surprise then, when I actually started getting bites.
The first fish was - of course - a Skimmer. So off came the sweetcorn, on went a generous lump of turmeric-dusted luncheon meat.
Another bite - another Skimmer...
But I decided to persevere, and I'm glad I did.
In the previous couple of days I'd hooked and landed fish that had taken up to 20 minutes to get into the net - it was quite common that I'd get them under the rod-tip, where they would plod around for ten or more minutes before deciding that enough was enough.
Well the float zipped under (from a spot just a foot or so off the bank to my left), I struck - and immediately knew that I was attached to something serious.
Although I'd caught fish around double figures on numerous occasions during the week, none of them had felt like this - the power was immense as it headed out to the middle of the lake. I was worried that it was looking to get behind the island to my right, and to be honest, it could have if it wanted - I was a passenger - but by changing the angle of pull of the rod, the fish responded by changing course.
Before too long it was under the rod-tip, and a quick view at the surface - I only saw the tail, which looked huge (the water being far too coloured-up to see more) - confirmed that it was a very good fish.
Predictably, there was then twenty minutes of plodding up and down under the rod-tip (which, if nothing else, gave me plenty of opportunity to admire the fighting curve of the rod!): then, just as I was thinking that it would probably be giving up shortly, it decided that the island in the middle was a good idea after all, and it shot off across the lake again as if it had only just been hooked!
It was becoming clear that this was not going to be like any other fish I'd caught during the week (or during my May visit, when I had the 17lbs+ fish) - in fact the strength of this fish was unlike anything I'd ever experienced on a float rod. And I once hooked a Salmon by accident on a tributary of the River Tweed..!
Bear in mind that I'm using pretty robust tackle here - I'm geared up for strong commercial fishery carp - but I wasn't a meaningful part of this conversation at all. I wondered if I'd foul-hooked a biggie, to be honest, but it didn't feel like I'd hooked it anywhere but in the mouth. It was just either a very big fish, or an unbelievably strong one.
Twenty minutes is quite a long time to play a fish (I don't fanny about when I'm playing fish - I'm careful, but I try to get them into the net as quickly as I can) but I ended up playing this one for - and this isn't a guess, I timed it from bite to net - one hour and forty minutes.
FFS! I should also add that for much of this time the fish was at the rod-tip in less than three feet of water, and I couldn't even see it.
I probably leaned into it a bit less than I might otherwise have done, because of the fish I lost to hooks bending out a couple of days previously: but the rod was hooped over from start to finish, and I was applying as much pressure as I dared the whole time.
This is what finally graced my net (and yes, it was on the 'pin):
Without scales to hand I can only guess at the weight: it's about 30" long, and although there's not much of a gut to it, it was very broad across the back and shoulders - approaching a foot across - so it's certainly an upper double in my book.
But more importantly, it was completely immaculate - an entirely pristine fish without any hint that it had been caught before (although obviously it must have been).
As a case in point, after nursing this one back into its home - it was less tired than I was! - I (nervously) dropped another lump of luncheon meat in at my feet (I'd kept feeding pellets while playing the fish - it was something to do..! ) and down went the float again.
Less than ten minutes later, I had a Ghostie in the net. Not a great deal smaller than the Common, but it never presented me with any problems.
And I'd have taken some pictures of it too - it would serve as an interesting counterpoint to the Star Of The Show - but then I noticed that it's dorsal fin was completely ripped to shreds - recently too, judging by the blood - as a result of some knuckle-dragging retard keeping it in the wrong kind of keep-net for too long.
I felt bad for the Ghostie (which I made a point of liberally dosing with Klinik carp antiseptic - it needed it) but if anything, it just further emphasised what a glorious fish I'd been lucky enough to catch in the Common.
And to think - I wouldn't even have fished the pond in the first place if I hadn't been driven off my first choice by a tool with a power tool...
But it does make the point that if you understand something about fish behaviour - like the likelihood that they'll visit the margins towards the end of the day for a free feed - and you're prepared to think things through, and to persevere, you can often make the most of what might otherwise seem be a less than promising situation.
So that was that for my trip.
Normal business was resumed on Saturday morning when the 07:35 direct train to Newcastle was cancelled, meaning that I was more than an hour late getting home, and an extra £30 out of pocket because I needed to get a taxi from Newcastle (by this time I'd missed my connecting train, too), but it was, all told, another brilliant week, and I'll be doing it again as soon as the opportunity arises.
After I've tracked down some new sunglasses...