‘…but I could tie a spade end’
Ed’s Note – We met Baz when we put out a request on the Mr Crabtree Facebook page for stories from people about how fishing has made a real difference to their lives.
His story is both tragic and inspiring and it’s impossible not to be moved when reading it. If you’d like to tell your story, you can do it directly here on the website or get in touch with us on Facebook – help to inspire others by sharing your tales.
Over to Baz…
It’s almost three years now and I finally feel in a position to talk about what led me here, I’ll start 13 years ago, a typical northern lad aged 20 wondering what career choice to make. I had visited some friends locally and on the way home I walked past the armed forces careers centre and promptly walked in and joined the RAF as an engineer. This steered me in the direction of match angling – I didn’t drive and the RAF would drive me to matches and give me a day off work to represent them at it – although not my first choice of discipline I put the effort in and eventually became pretty handy at it.
In the middle of 2009 at the age of 30 I was posted to RAF Coningsby, Lincs, to work on the Eurofighter, a jet I’d always wanted to work on. Almost immediately after arriving I met a girl who blew my mind. Her name was Jodi and she had a 3 yr old daughter Ella. In no time at all we were all inseparable. Our favourite pastime was walking along the tiny river Bain fish spotting; huge double figure bream and good sized chub were often spotted and after a short time Jodi became a very proficient fish spotter. On one walk she got very excited as she’d spotted something that ‘wasn’t like the rest’ (spotted well before me); it was a jack pike around 8b. I remember feeling very proud and I promised to take her fishing, unfortunately I never got the chance to fulfil that promise.
After just 3 months I was moving in with them – this was not a decision I took lightly after managing to stay free of any real life commitment up until that point. I took a week off work to move in and on the Tuesday she had a meeting in Lincoln and needed a lift. With me having no car a friend of hers was to take us both. On returning from Lincoln her friend overtook at 85mph on a bend, crashing into numerous vehicles. Both Jodi (24) and Ella (3) were killed. I was left in a coma with a fractured skull and damage to my brain amongst other ‘lesser’ injuries.
It was a week before I woke up, and at first I couldn’t remember Jodi and Ella, or actually moving to Lincolnshire months earlier but hazy memories were recalled quickly and the loss and grief kicked in hard. After a couple of weeks I returned with my parents to Cheshire where my recovery could begin. First the loss had to be made sense of in my head and that’s where fishing came in, my mother still says to this day that watching me sat on the couch trying to comprehend what had happened to me, and remember Jodi fully was the hardest past for her. I’d sit with a confused contorted face for hours and hours rarely speaking. One day 2 or 3 months later my dad asked if I wanted to go fishing on the canal where I’d learn’t my trade, “yes” was my immediate answer as I needed to get out the house and do something normal. My old match kit was used and I found myself back on my old haunt – this was before any proper rehab and I couldn’t even tie my shoes properly but hand tying a size 22 spade came naturally, which was amazing and will go down as one of my best fishing moments ever, I’m not sure I’ll ever top that.
Now my biggest deficit surfaced, and it is still my biggest deficit to this day, fatigue. After just 2 or 3 hours I was shattered and promptly jumped off my box and went to sleep on the towpath for maybe 30 minutes or so but it was enough to pick me up enough to continue fishing. At this point in my life I was expecting to resume my career and fishing life but the fatigue issue (which has never improved) coupled with a now very poor memory meant it just wasn’t meant to be. The way I saw it was I could still tie hooks so I just had to find a new discipline of our sport.
I still carried on trying at the canal and still doing a match style of fishing but every time I ended up asleep on the towpath. Five months passed at my parents and then the RAF sent me to Headley Court rehabilitation centre in Sussex, the very same place where the Afghanistan vets are sent. I can’t talk about this place without a nod to the other patients. I was totally inspired by them, they never moaned and always smiled and it made me work harder in the gym and harder in classes and I pretty much owe it all to them.
When I attended Headley Court I never told anyone why I was there and I just got my head down and got on with leaving and returning to work. On the last day a triple amputee heard what had happened to me and waited for me outside as I was packing, he wheeled over with tears in his eyes and said ‘all the best, you lost as much as anyone here’ and gave me a one armed hug. It still chokes me up to this day thinking back. I’d felt like a total fraud during my stay at Headley Court but that moment made me realise I belonged there as much as the next man. The public’s perception of a brain injury is ‘he’s okay’, it’s a hidden injury and I suppose at the time I looked in the mirror and saw nothing wrong either and thought the same.
During weekends at Headley Court I was deemed fit enough to leave the camp to go stay at friends at RAF Brize Norton. On the second weekend I was walking through Lechlade in the Cotswolds on the banks of the upper Thames, the yearnings to go fishing started and I looked in the window of an old bric ‘a’ brac shop and saw a sign saying ‘tackle for hire’. In I went and after a lengthy chat with the shop owner I ended up buying £30 worth of old rubbish tackle and a box of maggots. I got my money’s worth from that rod and more, I could lose myself for hours on the river and calmly caught crayfish after crayfish (which I dispatched of naturally) and the occasional 1lb+ perch and 8lb+ bream. The time spent on the upper Thames taught me to fish to smile rather that fish to catch.
I left Headley Court after a couple of months and returned to work full of hope at a return to normal life again, unfortunately it wasn’t to be as my short term memory and fatigue was awful and I couldn’t be trusted to work on aircraft, and doing a full day at work was beyond me. Medical discharge proceedings soon followed and I was sent on indefinite sick leave.
This was around October 2010, being back in my village near Chester I once again found the lure of my canal calling me again and once again I found myself trying to resurrect my match angling but like before the fatigue was causing me concerns but I kept as it as I’m stubborn, In the August of 2011 my parents asked me if I wanted to go along camping with them, as a 32 year old man I wasn’t taken with the idea until they said there was a river on the campsite, after some quick ‘googling’ I found the campsite was in Little Hereford on the banks of the River Teme and barbel was to be my quarry.
Now being pretty much an out and out match angler I knew my feeder rods were not up to the job so after a quick look on eBay a cheap barbel set up was bought and off I went, leading up to the trip I stumbled upon The Barbel Society’s facebook page and got chatting with the likes of Steve Pope and Rich Frampton who both gave me endless tips to help make my trip successful. When I was a younger lad I used to do a spot of barbel fishing on the Severn around Shrewsbury and had had barbel to 8lb 6oz so coupled with previous knowledge (very little admittedly) and the gems of advice I’d received from the many off the Barbel Society off I went with my parents at 32 years old……not exactly how I planned my life going.
I was only spending four nights at the campsite so I planned to do four evening sessions as the beat was busy with walkers during the day, the first evening session went well as I caught a little splasher around 4lb which did wonders for my confidence in my rigs and In the swim I’d chosen, the second night came and again I had a barbel which was a little heavier at around 6lb, confidence on a high I invited my old man for the third night to fish the swim instead of me as he’d not had a barbel before, unfortunately we couldn’t manage a barbel that night, we did have a nice memorable father/son moment when a large dog otter popped up in front of us, a first for us both. Regardless of what your personal thoughts are on otters, seeing one for the first time with your old man is special and will always be remembered by us both. Maybe our blank was due to the otter, I don’t know and to be honest, I don’t care.
The final night was upon me and I picked the swim furthest from camp its self and visited every 2/3 and dropped in loose offerings ready for my session, I’d decided to have a full night session that final night in the hope I’d end the trip on a high but come 3am it seemed it wasn’t to be and just as I was contemplating some shuteye my rod arched round and I was into a fish that felt a bit better, after a short but spirited fight the fish was netted, it went 8lb 10oz and it was a PB. I returned to Chester the next morning with a love of all things barbel and all things river Teme.
I was happier in general when I returned home, I’d found a new direction and something to distract me from the harsh reality that was my life at the time, I’d lost almost everything but had found something new where my deficits didn’t make a difference, I was on a level playing field with everyone else and it felt great. The first thing I did on return was pass my driving test and over the next few months, I was mainly chasing barbel on the river Dane and the upper Severn, I was honing my skills but never catching barbel over 7lb from the Dane and never catching barbel out of the upper Severn full stop.
The Barbel Society run a big auction every year with all money raised going to the BS research and conservation fund, I went over the top during the auction and spent over £700 which included two different guided days with Pete Reading and Rich Frampton on the Frome and Kennet respectively along with other barbel related goodies, this was around Nov 11’. In the following February I found myself asleep in my car in the lay-by where I was to meet Pete the following morning for my day on the Frome. Now Pete Reading is a bit of an angling hero of mine and I’m not ashamed to admit it so the nerves were going a bit but I managed a few hours sleep despite the best efforts of the local bobby waking me at 3am to ask why I was sleeping on the side of a road in February. Now this trip was bought for two reasons, to fish with Pete Reading and to remember that there were more species in our waters than my beloved barbel. The day was brilliant, absolutely top draw. Pete had me totally at ease before we even got to the river and his knowledge of the river, wildlife in general and angling anecdotes kept me entertained all day. I’d never caught a grayling until that day and I ended up with nine grayling to 2lb 4oz. As well as sea trout, brown trout and a small Kelt. What a fantastic day and spent with a hero of mine, one of my most enjoyable days ever.
Now even when I was a hardcore match angler, I didn’t get home from a match and read about match fishing. I read about Yates, Walker, and Taylor etc and more often than not they’d be fishing on the royalty and as I was in Dorset I couldn’t not go and visit the sacred banks of what is the most famous coarse fishery in the world, the Royalty. As it turned out I fished like a complete idiot, I listened to far too many people and had too many ideas in my head and as a result I caught one minnow. My old match fishing motto leapt to mind ‘you’re best off doing the wrong method right than the right method wrong’.
The next day I found myself sleeping in the car park of the famous Throop beat of the Dorset Stour after Chub, I’d been chatting on facebook to local expert and Dorset specialist Paul Martin and had a pretty good idea how to target the resident big chub, first cast and I was into a fish that tried to get back to see, a 5lb sea trout was the culprit then Paul being an all round top bloke turned up and gave me a guided tour of the fishery with in depth talks on the main swims before returning to my swim and checking out my rigs etc, I’m pleased to say that I’d got them pretty much spot on with just a couple of minor tweaks. Off he went to his chosen swim and I went to work on building mine. I didn’t have long to wait until the rod arched over and a new PB Chub was landed at 5lb 4oz so in true Baz style I refused to have a photo with it as I WAS going to catch another and an hour later my gob was unusually backed up when an hour I had another PB at 5lb 15oz, it looked every ounce of my 6lb target but it wasn’t to be. Another lesson was learnt another hour when Paul landed a 6lb 12oz chub so the lesson learnt was learn your water and you’ll be rewarded. Since then myself, Paul and his family have become good friends and I always look forward to visiting them all.
Aside from a 6lb chub a double figure barbel was on my radar, me and barbel don’t mix although I find fishing for them the most enjoyable, my hunt for a double to me to the Dane, Dove, Upper Severn and Dee but for lots of reasons (never my own ability of course) I never got a double until I visited the river Kennet eleven months after I started fishing for barbel with Rich Frampton of the BS and had two in two casts the biggest going 10lb 8oz, mission accomplished.
One side effect of a frontal lobe brain injury was that I would never know when to keep my mouth shut, many friends were lost during the those days but I found that because I found myself in circles of experienced successful angler whom I respected I learned to keep my mouth shut again (most of the time), Yet another time fishing has helped me so speaking of ways its helped me I’ll just delve into just how it has. Emotionally it was a great way to get through those early dark days and where my renewed ‘passion for angling’ has come from, my memory is poor to say the least and it was the wasting of time and money turning up at venues without bait or my landing net etc that made me get into the habit (routine is the friend of a person with a brain injury) of making lists for things in all areas of my life. My big mouth, I’ve already explained previously, even my balance has been helped as I’ve learned to slow down a lot and plan my routes up and down steep treacherous banks so in real life I plan my routes before taking them. I’m sure that over time I would have faced all these restrictions on my life in time I’m sure but without fishing I’m sure it would have taken much longer.
People used to say I went fishing to sit and think, I used to agree but now looking back I know it was the complete opposite and I actually went to forget as all I could ever think about was how I was going to catch my next fish.