Anyone following the Crabtree story will know by now that a key part of our messaging is around the importance of mentoring to encourage and involve youngsters in our sport. For any young angler lucky enough to have a parent or a family member who fishes, this mentoring relationship creates an unbreakable bond.
However, there have always been lots of youngsters who want to fish but have no direct route in, and this was the gap that Mr. Crabtree breached for many all those years ago, giving young fishers the confidence to pick up a rod and hit the banks. Through taking these first steps many met seasoned anglers who were prepared to take them under their wing, passing on their knowledge and sharing with them an aquatic world of wonder.
Mike Holcombe, along with his brother, Bob, were the mentors for a young Lester and are very much the reason why we’re all here today doing what we’re doing. Sadly, Lester’s father Bob passed away in 2006, before Crabtree came into being, making Mike’s presence and involvement so much more poignant.
We twisted his arm into sharing some of his tales…
Mike, you’re credited, along with your brother Bob, as Lester’s inspiration for bringing Crabtree back to a new generation – how important do you think it is to have a mentor in angling?
I believe that having a mentor gives a great advantage, somebody that not only can teach the fundamental skills in tackle and water-craft, but also imparts the passion for this sport. As with Lester, my two sons had the advantage of a parent and a relative to introduce them to this lifelong passion called angling.
Angling clubs, such as Godalming with whom I’m much involved, do provide a “mentor service” for those youngsters that do not have angling family members or friends. In organising free “fishing-for-fun” days, supported by qualified coaches, they provide a most important service to bring youngsters into the sport.
What are your earliest fishing memories? Who taught you?
In 1952, when I was 12 and Bob was 11, the family moved to Canterbury, Kent. I well remember the excitement and fascination of watching fish swimming in the clear waters of the River Stour.
Bob and I, with the crudest affordable tackle, set about learning to catch those fish, and then progressed to the local lakes for even more species. From Tench in summer to Pike in the winter; such was our enthusiasm that we were off to the sea in the closed-season. With rods and a garden fork strapped to our cross-bars, we cycled to the north Kent coast to dig bait at low tide, then fish for Bass or ‘flatties’ from the beach or a pier.
I not only have vivid memories of those days, but have photographs from the ’50s till the present day. For me fishing and a photographic record go hand-in-hand. Bob and I were largely self-taught, but benefited from advice from any number of good anglers through the years.
How often do you fish and what do you fish for?
Since retiring in the year 2000 I have tried to fish at least twice a week, generally day sessions, but also regular over-nighters for Barbel when I consider the river conditions to be right.
Although I fish for almost any specimen fish, I love Tench and Carp fishing in the spring and summer, and my current targets are large Barbel, Perch, and Chub.
What do you think are the most pressing issues in angling today?
My answers to your question so far have been quite lengthy; this question raises a huge number of issues that could fill a book. But briefly, complacency is I believe the biggest issue in angling.
Currently we have evolving a potentially strong angling support organisation, Angling Trust, which requires the full support of all anglers nationwide. Given our numbers, that support and finance would make Angling Trust an influential body at any level. But only a minority of anglers contribute individually, with some even using the excuse that “I haven’t joined because my club contributes”. I raised this problem with Mike Heylin and Martin Salter recently down at Sparsholt College, both agreed it was a real problem, but with no easy solution.
Finally on this subject we must not be complacent to the other issues that I identify as ‘threats’ to our sport. These are many and include; Pollution, Cormorants, Signal Crayfish, Mink, Otters, Anti field-sport bodies, etc…
Give us some PB stats – what are you most proud of and why?
I have caught hundreds of Barbel from a variety of rivers, catching my first “double figure” fish from the Hampshire Avon back in 1982. I still enjoy catching Barbel of any size ; this season’s best so far being 13lb.2oz. from the Thames and 12lb.15oz. from the Severn.
I have caught numerous 3lb. plus Crucian Carp, some of them way back in the 70’s, but as yet not a “four”.
Perch fishing goes from strength to strength, with my brace of “threes” back in 2001 being quite a feat, but I am now regularly catching a lot of 3lb plus Perch from both rivers and lakes, with a best at 4lb.4oz (pictured above)
My Carp fishing through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s resulted in hundreds of UK twenty pound plus fish, with a lot of “thirties”, both Mirrors and Commons.
Despite catching a good number of 20lb Pike, I have yet to get a “thirty”.
I take pride in these catches as they have all come from club waters or the ‘free’ Thames ; waters that are accessible to all anglers.
How influential has Mr Crabtree been in your angling life?
I mentioned earlier that Bob and I were self-taught, and as such, in those early days we were ‘hungry’ for any instruction or literature. The first Angling Weekly was launched in 1953 and opened up a whole new world to us. These were exciting times as the previous year, 1952, Dick Walker caught the record Carp.
Mr Crabtree then provided us with a new form of instruction, supported by brilliant illustrations, so exciting and informative for us youngsters. The ‘Crabtree Annuals’ were treasured ; mine were then kept and passed on to my budding-angler sons, Kevin and Alan, many years later.
Is there anything in fishing you haven’t done? What are your ambitions?
There are many things in angling that I haven’t done, but as a family man having a 44-year long full-time engineering career, I am very content with my lot. Having a very understanding wife, I have fished throughout the UK, including the Outer Hebrides, and also in Europe, Scandinavia, and Canada; fishing for coarse, game, and sea fish.
My ambitions, given good health, are to continue to enjoy my fishing and the company of my fishing friends.
Maybe catching more PB’s, including that 15lb plus Barbel, the 5lb plus Perch, and the long awaited 30lb Pike.
Do you have any angling heroes? What do you most admire about them?
Maybe not heroes, but the writings of many anglers in various branches of our sport have impressed me and contributed to my learning. Most influential were Dick Walker, the Taylor Brothers and Bernard Venables; simply because of their writings and exploits in my formative fishing years.
Dick Walker, I related to as an engineer, admiring his innovative skills.
Bernard because of his writings, and of course Mr Crabtree, defining exactly for me the value and passion that is angling, and Bob and I were fortunate enough to meet Bernard and talk to him in Canterbury at a club function in 1959.
What lessons would you pass on to today’s young anglers?
That they should start at the very basics of our sport, learning to appreciate the diverse number and beauty of our fish species and their habitats.
Then learning the approach, skills, and techniques to catch them, as per Mr Crabtree’s teachings. Most of all enjoy the sport and respect the fish and the countryside.
Describe your favourite ‘Crabtree moment’…
I have many memories and favourites, but one which particularly impressed me was an illustrated Pike session. The picture with the line cutting through the water, defined the power of a big fish, plus the awe of a young angler experiencing that power.
My lasting tribute to Bernard, when fishing a small river and finding a likely-looking spot amongst the trees, I immediately think of it as a ‘Mr Crabtree Swim’.