A lifelong buddy

Tench: always there for me, even after years of neglect

by Paul Halas

Most anglers have a favourite fish, even if, like me, they don’t spend their entire lives obsessing about a single species. I’ve fished for well over sixty of my seventy-plus years, and a great affection for the first “serious” fish I ever caught has stayed with me. It was a tench; not a very bright one.

A quick internet search shows that tench are incredibly widespread worldwide – found across most European countries, parts of South America, the Antipodes, swathes of Asia, the USA, southern Africa and even Alaska and Mongolia. Allegedly. Although the last two sound like tosh to me. In most of these countries the tench is an introduced, non-native species – valued presumably for its sporting prowess because only masochists would ever eat them. They’re laconic, sedate, hard-fighting, summer-loving, grub-eating, still or slow moving water dwelling – and sometimes prone to contradicting all of those generalisations. They don’t grow to a vast size, I still find a six pound fish a real thrill, while the rod caught record (British and worldwide I believe) stands at a little over fifteen pounds.

(Although the UK went metric around fifty years ago anglers still use pounds and ounces as units of weight. To my surprise I’ve frequently heard French carp anglers talking about their fish in livres too – British carp fishing has been very influential over the past few decades. The Academie Francaise would be apoplectic if they knew.)

tench are incredibly widespread worldwide

My first attempts at fishing were absolutely dismal. As a nine-year-old with no one around to teach me, I’d make my way to the ponds on Hampstead Heath (North London) with a midget rod and reel bought on holiday in Cornwall and catch nothing. Everything I was doing was wrong. Eventually, a kindly adult angler gave me a fishing float and some hooks appropriate for the task and one or two small roach came my way…


Hampstead Heath ponds

Then, one day, fishing my bait at a depth of eighteen inches in six feet of water, I somehow managed to hook a tench, and by some fluke I even landed it too. (It may have been feeding in amongst some dangling willow twigs. Everyone knows they feed on the bottom… except when they don’t.) There at my feet, all chunky, olive greeny-brown with tiny red eyes, was a tench of perhaps a pound and a quarter. God, it was absolutely enormous! I was instantly surrounded by a crowd of admiring kids, my fifteen minutes of celebrity.

They [the tench] are laconic, sedate, hard-fighting, summer-loving, grub-eating, still or slow moving water dwelling – and sometimes prone to contradicting all of those generalisations. 

That bolt from the blue set me on a path. I cajoled better tackle out of my parents. I tried to figure out how to catch bigger fish than the tiddlers I’d been content with before, and became a vestigial “specimen hunter”. I started catch the odd bream, up to maybe a pound and a half, and some magical roach of maybe up to twelve ounces. It was a long time before I caught another tench, but when it came it was deserved. And tench were the fish I aspired to, the rarely attained pinnacle of fishing on the Hampstead ponds in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Carp were present, but regarded with such reverence no one presumed to fish for them. Captures were incredibly rare, and always by accident.) I spent years trying to crack the three pounds barrier, but in those far off years I never did. A friend boasted of a four and a half pounder he’d landed – the stuff of dreams – but a couple of years later he confessed he’d lied.

There at my feet, all chunky, olive greeny-brown with tiny red eyes, was a tench of perhaps a pound and a quarter. God, it was absolutely enormous!

When I was around sixteen my parents bought a weekend cottage in Wiltshire. I loved it. Within cycling distance there were a few small farm ponds, which contained roach, rudd and tench – all of which had a liking for bread. Now I was catching three and four tench in a session, plus roach to over a pound, but that magical three pound tench just wouldn’t appear.


Small water heaven

That didn’t happen until I spread my wings a little wider and discovered the gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Park. The club book declared the “specimen weight” for each species present, and the threshold for tench was four whole pounds.

(To anglers now a four pound tench is pretty meagre pickings, but in the early 1960s it was a serious fish. For a variety of reasons many species have been growing far larger over the years. There’s numerous factors, including excessive nutrients entering the water system and global warming – but while some fisheries have improved dramatically many others have gone down the pan.)


Tench inflation. Between the 1960s and the 1990s the record almost doubled

Float-fished bread caught us all a stream of tench, and over the years anglers’ personal bests improved steadily. When the tench didn’t fancy bread they hoovered up maggots and casters (maggot chrysalis), and sometimes lumps of spam or pork luncheon meat. Or worms. Or sweetcorn.

(In the 1970s sweetcorn fever swept across the British coarse fishing scene (freshwater, excluding trout and salmon) like the Golden Horde. That was one of the very rare times I was ahead of the game. I’d holidayed by Lake Balaton in Hungary, where cooked, exploded maize was a favourite bait for carp and rudd. Back home I experimented with tinned sweetcorn and caught tons of tench before the trend caught on. While the going was good I’d be catching ten fish to other anglers’ one. Did I do the decent thing and share my secret? Did I balls!

While the going was good, I’d be catching ten fish to other anglers’ one. Did I do the decent thing and share my secret? Did I balls!

For most of my life the gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Park were my home venue, especially after moving from London to the West Country in 1980. Waters change over time, and for a couple of wonderful decades one of the lakes became a superb winter tench fishery. Tench aren’t supposed to feed in cold weather, and while people made the odd surprise catch in winter only a nut would set out to catch them. Except in this lake. At the beginning of a cold snap they’d go off the boil, but after a few days’ acclimatisation they’d bite again even in horribly bitter weather. We would fish with two rods, one for pike (noted winter feeders) and the other for tench. (One time my brother-in-law hooked a fish on his whole sardine bait intended for pike and yelled it was fighting like a tench. I told him not to be soft in the head; everyone knows tench aren’t carnivores. It was a large tench that evidently hadn’t read any textbooks.)

Later, as carp fishing fever gripped the country – the Cotswold Water Park was no exception – carp methods crept into my tench fishing. Using scaled down carp rigs and baits I caught an awful lot of tench, and bigger ones. For a while this new wave fishing outperformed traditional methods in the same way that sweetcorn once outfished bread. But fish wise up, nothing lasts for ever.

As carp have taken over more and more fisheries, tench have been outmuscled and forced into the background. At the same time I fell out of love with the Cotswold Water Park. Scandalously sold to a leisure company by the county council for £1 (perfidy at least on a par with Pearl Harbour), it became commercialised, corporatised, fenced in and hideously expensive (a parable for the UK). I stopped going there.


Cotswold Water Park, paradise lost

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While I’ve gone through long phases of fishing for other species – lots of carp fishing, barbel, chub, trout, pike, zander, perch, grey mullet, bass, roach, eels, catfish… I’ll dangle a line where I’m able) – tench have always tended to be nearby.

I lived for a year in Ireland during the late 1970s. The lakes of County Clare were a happy hunting ground for tench, as was the Grand Canal in County Kildare and the River Shannon, especially at the famed Lanesboro power station outlet hot-spot. There was something very alluring about tench and Guinness.

Using scaled down carp rigs and baits I caught an awful lot of tench, and bigger ones. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in the south west of France, and of course I fished. Carp mainly, but that’s because the tench fishing was never very good. I’ve caught tench in the Rivers Garonne, Baise, Lot and Gers, plus several stillwaters. I’d spend sessions of several days fishing one large public lake, which held carp to fifty pounds plus. I caught carp to over thirty pounds and giant roach of over three pounds that somehow picked up my big carp baits. I also pulled in a tench of around four and a half pounds. This, astonishingly, drew much admiration from some nearby French carp anglers, with gasps of “ooh, la belle tanche!” I’ve had to conclude south west France and tench aren’t an entente cordiale.


The mighty Garonne. Raging floods, vast catfish, impressive carp and some very modest tench

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With advancing age my fishing world has contacted somewhat. I’m now a fair weather angler because I can no longer withstand the cold – no matter what I wear. I can’t afford expensive fisheries any more, nor a big petrol bill, so I stick to a couple of local club cards and fish a modest carp lake and a big canal. The lake produces carp any month of the year you choose to go, plus a few other species too. When I catch a tench, even if it’s only the same size as the first once I landed at Hampstead Heath, I’m overjoyed. It’s a very old friend.


Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.