Frank Wright interview

NACA - The Journals Extracts - Fishing the Broads during the 50's and 60's

Steve Allan and Chris Turnbull interview Norfolk Legend Frank Wright

Frank Wright with one of his many large Broads pikeThere are many anglers who wish they had a time-machine which could transport them back to when Broadland was in its heyday. A time when the water was clear, the weed growth luxuriant and the fish were both big and plentiful. One man who was fortunate enough to fish the broads at that time and was very successful was Frank Wright.

Even in those halcyon days the fish didn't give themselves up, and it was still the most skilful and dedicated that reaped the rewards. Frank twice won the coveted Silver Fish trophy, the first time in the 1956-57 season for a 9lb 3oz bream, a Norfolk record, and again in 1959-60 for a Martham broad tench of 6lb 2oz which equalled the Norfolk record. Other notable captures include rudd to 3lb 4oz, this was part of a catch of 10 fish which totalled 23 lb loz taken from Martham Broad, roach 2lb 4oz and a wild brown trout of 6lb 14oz taken on a spinner from Lyng mill pool.

Frank is probably best known for his catches of big pike, he's taken over 100 twenties topped by 3 thirties, the biggest of which weighed 35lbs exactly. He still fishes regularly and particularly enjoys fly-fishing for trout, he' s one of the founder members of the Norfolk Fly Fishers. Frank was interviewed by Chris Turnbull who was accompanied by Steve Allen who had volunteered to transcribe the tape. We arrived at Franks house to be met with the smell of percolating coffee and the sound of a barking dog, Chris enquired if the dog was friendly, Frank said it was okay as long as you didn't go near his dish. We then went into the kitchen where I quickly grabbed the chair opposite Frank leaving Chris with the chair near the dog's dish, which, fortunately it didn't mind. After the interview we enjoyed a beer and a look in Franks tackle room where we examined the rod he used to land his thirties as well as his sea trout flies etc. The following interview is not simply about a fine gentleman and a great angler, it is also important as a historical record of Norfolk angling. When you look at how good the fishing was in the past, it makes you realise how important NACA is for the future.

CT You originally come from Doncaster, when did you move to Norfolk?

FW I've been in Norfolk since 1949. I came to Norwich in 1950. SA We had the impression you lived in Doncaster and fished the Broads on holidays or weekends. FW I had been here on holiday, I never got down here during the war. After the war when I had motorbikes and sidecars we came all the way from Doncaster in those Easter and Whitson times.

CT So you came down to the Broads, was this for pike or just general fishing?

FW I've always been after catching any sort of fish, but in the main I was a matchman. In those days all I had was a Spanish reed rod and a bit of split cane for the tip and that' s how I used to go fishing with a piece of bamboo and a landing net fitting on the top and that was it.

I was once fishing in the Stones match at Kirkstead in the Midlands. It was a very big match with 1000 plus people from Sheffield and area and I was pegged near the Ivy Cottage, it was a plum peg and I got some nice flats (bream) going up to a pound the size you want in a match, I must have had 20 or 30 pound and I went to take the net out and the bottom dropped out! That must have been the Stones match in about'48 or'49.

CT So the next year you moved to Norfolk?

FW When I came to Norfolk, I don't know how to put this because I don't want it to sound big headed, there were so many fish about here that the locals didn't have to watch what they were doing, they didn't have to fish fine and small and feed like we did, very cautiously but very often, they just put big lumps of pudding in there and two lumps of paste, one up and one down, with a coffin lead in the middle. There was a big match called the Industries Club fishing match, nearly all the clubs were works clubs, there were a few pub clubs but most were works clubs like the shoe factories which nearly all had their own little fishing club and two consecutive years I won that and the following year at a meeting to discuss it there was a motion put up that I should be barred as a professional!

SA How many people fished that, it was obviously a big match?

FW Oh, 5, 6, 7 hundred I suppose. It covered the entire Ant from Irstead all the way down, along the Bure on both sides, we were able to go through Horning Hall Farm in those days. I won one of the matches under the trees at Horning Hall Farm.

SA I suppose you were hoping for the bream in the draw there.

FW No I was a roach fisherman, I fished with what you call a stick float nowadays and maggots.

CT So at some point you must have become more interested in places like Horsey?

FW That didn't happen until 1959. In the 50's I had a very good job fishing wise, I travelled farms, my remit was using Norwich as core I travelled round all the farms from Brancaster, Thetford right down to south of Lowestoft. I'd call at each of the farms, try to do it twice a year, every farm that had a Ferguson tractor on it. I was just a courtesy engineer and didn't have to do any particular repairs, I didn't have to try and sell anything, and it was a very nice job, one I really enjoyed. When they stopped that job I got another job selling oil to farms and contractors. Of course I got to know lots of people with rivers and ponds and lakes and 1 fished the Waveney and the big pits near Harleston.

CT It sounds like a great time.

FW It was, but nothing lasts forever. Then the opportunity came up to go into business on my own, and I did, and that literally put the finish to the match fishing. The last match I fished was the 1960 all England match. 1 hadn't done too badly in the all England I'd had two medals, 1 had a 12lb on the Trent and 1 won the section on the Huntspill. One of the all time greats of fishing, came up to me after the Trent match, I'll always remember Sam Buxton, he said "Aye lad if I'd had that peg I'd have won this today". By 1958 1 couldn't get out at week-ends but on the other hand 1 could get out for short periods, weekdays 1 could go in and organise the work and 1 could clear off. Around Norwich there were some magnificent fishing then, Bluebell Road, Harford Bridges and Trowse, the river at Trowse at one time was magnificent for roach fishing.

CT Where have they all gone now?

FW Where indeed? A great old friend of mine, Sid Baker, he should have written a book because I think he had fished every broad, river, pond and puddle in Norfolk and in Suffolk as well. He once held the record for the biggest perch off Oulton Broad.

CT When was that?

FW It was some time in the 60's. A great character was Sid and he used to fish a lot but he was an awful fisherman and he used to always get in tangles. We used to fish together all over the place, on the Bure at Burgh Mill. We had some beautiful roach, lovely green backs.

CT You'd be hard pushed to catch good roach there nowadays.

FW Well I'm a bit anxious talking to you young bloods about what we used to catch because you must think I must be putting a bit on.

CT This is why it's important we do interviews like this with some of the anglers that have been around for a while who knew Norfolk as it was because it's a chance to record it.

FW Don't get me wrong, we had our blank days, of course we did. But there were certainly a great deal more fish about, not as big as they are today they're only bigger because there's less of them about. It was unheard of to catch a bream in the Broads waters over about 5 lbs, there were huge shoals of 2 pounders, 3 pounders and 4 pounders but very few over that weight. There was only one place 1 knew held good bream and that was Alderfen Broad.

CT And now they're all dead.
A snapshot of angling in the 50's and 60's
FW I had fishing rights on Alderfen Broad for a while. In the early 60's Alderfen was prolific with rudd, tench and there was one shoal of big bream. A couple of friends and I put up all those stagings. I couldn't have people keep coming to the garage for tickets so I let it out to John Roper who had the tackle shop in Wroxham. I let it to him on the condition I could fish it when I wanted. One day old Jim Knights and I went and baited it up to fish the next morning and I went down before dawn to the end peg nearest the cottage. It was still quite dark, I cast out and it gradually got lighter and I could see the groundbait on the bottom and the night before the water had been a medium shade of green. Then in the reeds I could see little glittering objects and when it got lighter still I went and investigated and they were little tiny fry and they were everywhere, dead. The water had gone crystal clear and it wasn't until the following week that I went and got the boat out and the wind had blown these fish, all dead bream, down one end and quite of few of those were 1Olb.

CT What year was that?

I think that must have been in the early 60' s.

So that has happened twice now on Alderfen because that happened again in the early 90's. I'd like to now come back to the pike.

FW Well a man owed me some money for repairs to his car so I got a boat, a littlecruiser, it was called Tiddler. I took that down to Whispering Reeds boatyard at Hickling. This must have been '61 and I had some marvellous times on Hickling it was then at an absolute peak for fishing. We used to fish for rudd and tench in the summer, and bream of course; you could catch them practically anywhere.

CT The water was clear in those days wasn't it?

FW When you got round the back of Turners Arm it was crystal clear, but of course the boats always stirred things up in the channel areas, Deep Dyke and places like that.

CT But mostly Hickling and Horsey would have been much like Martham?

FW Horsey never was clear, always coloured.

CT It always had that ochre in it?

FW Well, I don't think there was so much of that in it there might have been a bit but it always had a greeny hue. It was a different type of weed that grew there, it weren't in Hickling. That one on Horsey used to come to nearly to the surface it had big leaves, wrinkled leaves I don't know what that was called.

CT Did it have a large stem and look like a piece of fern?

FW Yes

CT Marestail.

There used to be the same weed growing in Deep Dyke in shallow areas. Around the back of Turners Island there used to be some beautiful spots, one we used to call Lord Desborough's Hole that used to be like a funnel and it used to terminate where the bird watchers' place is now. It was magnificent fishing especially rudd, I used to specialise for rudd and of course tench but you didn't get those in the day, with the clear water it was an early morning or evening job. But rudd, especially if you got a bit of breeze on you could catch them if you could find them.

CT What sort of size were you catching?

FW Plenty of 2 pounders but I had one net from Martham south broad that was 10 fish for 23 lb.

A very nice catch! Do you remember what the biggest was?

FW Yes 3lb 4oz.

CT Was that your biggest from the system?

FW Yes that was my biggest, but shortly after they dropped off and nobody knew where they'd gone to.

CT I'm told that on Hickling the rudd fishing is improving quite dramatically, and perch. But who knows whether it will stay that way you just can't tell. I remember when I met you a few years ago, you were telling me the approach to pike fishing was much less intense than the way people fish now. When you used to go fishing you would spend the morning catching a few roach or something and in the afternoon you'd put a pike rod out.

FW With this little boat we used to go down onto the Thurne when the roach shoaled in the autumn when they left Hickling. You'd have difficulty finding rudd after August, they seemed to go semi-torpid. We'd go down on to the Thurne and Candle Dyke and fish here and there until we found some fish and we'd be quite happy catching roach and bream. Sometimes the tide would change and all of the fish would go off the feed straight away, so we'd go off up to Martham or onto Hickling for the pike fishing. You learn by your mistakes, it was a bit of a hit or miss affair at the time and our friend Denny (Dennis Pye) was coming out with quite a few. I think the years 65, 66, 67, those were the finest for pike fishing for me anyway.

There's plenty of us slightly younger ones who would have loved to have fished at that time, it must have been the finest pike fishing that's ever been seen in the country.

It was. One or two of us, Kenny Smith and myself we started deadbait fishing but we always kept a livebait near the boat. We found it a very successful way because very often especially where it was shallow, we could see fish following the bait and you wouldn't get them with the deadbait but they'd take the livebait near the boat. Many fish were caught like that, we'd brought them to the boat. Horsey was a job to fish at times, very exposed.

SA I've sometimes got to the end of Meadow Dyke only to be confronted by waves 18 inches to 2 feet high and I've turned back.

FW At that time I had a little 10 foot boat and I'll tell you of one little incident and it's stayed in my mind for more reasons than one. A) I took a 31 pounder and B) I nearly lost my mate, Stanley Finch, and C) I got the fright of my life getting back to the reeds. We'd been fishing and this wind had got up it was blowing from where the summerhouse is. As you say the waves were eighteen inches to two feet high, it wasn't too bad going with the waves but we wanted to get back up towards the summerhouse for a bit of firm bank and we couldn't make it for a time so we put the mudweight down and got a bit of shelter from this little island. Well we put the livebaits out while we sat there, we thought we might as well sit it out for a little while and let it go down a bit and the old fish took that bait immediately it landed, it almost came out of the water after it. I landed that (the 31) and then we had to get back to the summerhouse side so we could follow the reeds and get back down the dyke. The waves were about three foot apart and the bow of the boat would be going down when the next wave was following on, so we started shipping a bit of water. Anyway Stanley got down on his knees and got hold of the front thwart and I got the engine going, but halfway down the Broad, Stanley's knees were getting wet and he tried standing up so I had to shout get down before he disappeared over the side.

CT So then you started spending more time pike fishing?

FW Yes we used to go down to Trowse and get some bait on one afternoon and my brother would come for a few days with me or I'd fish with Kenny Smith or Colin Dyson. Kenny Smith and I made a film; I wonder what happened to that?

The 35 pounder must have been a special fish.

FW I was fishing near the dyke and I saw this fish follow the bait.

CT You were fishing sink and draw?

FW Yes, sometimes we used to leave the swim bladder intact and sometimes we'd puncture it. It just depends where you are fishing really, if you were over on the summerhouse side you had to pull it over the weed. So I took that fish and we went onto the bank near the summerhouse with it. When I look back at these fish it's amazing how hardy they were, people say they're very fragile but those fish must have been very hardy being landed in a boat and sacked.

I think the fragility of pike is more noticeable nowadays because in the past a lot of pike were caught and killed to be eaten or stuffed so they weren't caught again. Whereas now on some of the waters the same pike are caught every week and the pressure starts to tell.

FW That did happen with us. I remember one particular fish and that was just inside the entrance to the South Broad at Martham, and I believe that fish is on this film I mentioned and that was a 21 or 22 pounder. I must have caught that at least half a dozen times and I've seen Kenny Smith catch it. Somebody had gaffed it and its tongue had gone through it's jaw and it stuck out and wouldn't go back.

Funny enough I photographed a fish for Neville Fickling on the river near to the same spot, which was 27 lb, which had its tongue, hanging out. The 35 pounder must be in Fred Buller's book?

FW That one is yes. He did me a magnificent enlargement of that fish; I'll show you later.

CT Is this the same year Hancock caught the record?

FW Mine was the year after. I remember taking one friend on Horsey, his name was Trevor. I knew one place where I caught pike regularly, a very good spot. Anyway he landed this fish and he dropped down in the bottom of the boat, I thought he was dead. He wasn't moving, just gasping, I thought what am I going to do in the middle of Horsey? Then he got an OXO tin out and took a couple of lumps of sugar then when he came round he was as right as rain and said that was a good fish weren't it?

Tell us about your other 30 pounder.

There was Colin Dyson and Kenny Smith fishing in one boat and myself and my older brother Albert in my boat, there were one or two other boats on the broad, I think old Billy Giles was on there that day. We were fishing up towards that island I mentioned earlier, it's gone now, and I heard a splash I looked up and saw some swirls near the entrance to Meadow Dyke. So I upped anchor and I'd got a wonderful little engine on my boat it had got a weedless prop and it could plough through practically anything other than that dense millfoil. So I started the engine and I pulled across and old Kenny was rowing across and these fish were still coming up, it was a group of big fish with a few jack in there. I had a '32'Albert had a '28' and we lost 3 or 4 big fish, some because of the weed and some because they weren't taking the bait to eat it they were there for spawning. Old Colin never forgot that, the way we got across the broad before him.

Through these years in the 60's you took about 100 20's, what number was it Dennis Pye was supposed to have had? Was it 300?

FW I can't remember.

CT A lot of people doubt Dennis Pye's catches nowadays. Do you have an opinion on that?

FW Not really. I knew Dennis, but he always fished on Monday, he would go down at the weekend to his chalet at the bottom of Candle Dyke. It sounds a lot but he nearly always used to fish on his own, I was talking to Derrick Amies, who had fished with Dennis, but as far as I know the only people ever seen with Dennis was his brother and his dog, but I was never there on a Monday.

CT But when you think that Bill Florey, when the Thurne revival happened in the early 80's, was supposed to have taken 70 twenties off Martham Broad alone. So if you imagine he could do that in one winter then the idea of Dennis Pye having 300 or however many it was in the years he was fishing it strikes me as being a very reasonable number of fish. But then in '67 you're coming to the end, to the big prymnesium bloom, which took all of those broads out. That must have been one of the saddest times of your life? It must have been horrendous seeing so many big fish dead?

Jim Knights and I went out on my boat, the one with the weedless prop and on Heigham Sound the ronds went back a long way and the fish went a substantial way in there. We used to think we knew what fish were in there. Then when we went down there, and that was after the river board had beendown there and cleaned it up, because I'd been on holiday and we found scores and scores of them, still there in the ronds.

CT Some very big fish amongst them?

FW Very big fish. There was one on Hickling it was a monster, a huge thing.

CT So the biggest fish were never caught?

FW Well, the biggest one I ever saw was on Martham North Broad and it swam underneath my boat and I swear I could see it from both sides, it was gigantic. I was going through those lagoons on the right hand side, I wasn't fishing just looking and I saw that fish and several others but not like that one. I went back there several times, that was before it was popular, I never used to see anybody else up there, but I never did catch a really big fish off there, just fish to a little over 20.

CT You did carry on doing some pike fishing after the Thurne system had been hit by that bad outbreak?

Not a lot. I sold my chalet, this was the late 60's and we were getting into trout fishing then and I didn't do much on the Thurne for ages and we started the trout fishing at Lyng and originally we fished there for pike right through to the end of the trout season.

Since those days is it mostly true to say you've fished for trout with a little barbel fishing?

FW I used to have my boat in a dyke at Brundall and used to fish a lot there, I also had my boat at Thorpe for a while, Jimmy Knights and I fished, but nothing serious.

I've been taking a cottage and having a week on the Teme. But it's very steeply banked through there and I'm not as able as I was, I have to take a rope to get back up now!

CT Have you had any good ones out?

FW I've had one 9 lb.

CT Well it's been fascinating talking to you, we wish you good luck and tight lines.

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