Thursday 30 May 2013

John Sait - Angler, Ex Charter Skipper, Shooter

Many people who have been fishing the Essex coast for some time will be familiar with John Sait. He moved to Thorrington in 1962 and has fished, on and off, for over sixty years. He ran a very successful charter boat, "Boy Carl", from the early 70s until 1998 and during that time shared in some of the largest rod and line catches ever seen off the east coast.

He is a man with with very forthright views that have come about from many years experience and is not one who necessarily goes along with received wisdom. Which makes for an interesting conversation.

Born in 1940, he still fishes and shoots several times a week.

Early Days

GL – Tell me about how you first got interested in fishing.

JS - When I was very young I lived in Poplar, East London.  Towards the end of WW2 I was evacuated to Metfield , Suffolk. I lived there throughout the rest of my childhood.  I remember when I was about six I caught my first “big” fish, a tench of about a pound and a half, on a bamboo cane and bent pin from a little pond near where I lived.
We used to fish the deep bends on the river Waveney for roach. We used to regularly  have big catches of roach of between 1 and 2lb, caught float fishing wheat and hemp. I thought nothing of it then, it was normal to catch roach of that kind of size. Its only when you look back you realise what good fishing it was. The biggest roach I ever had was not from the river, it was from one of the nearby gravel pits and weighed 3lb 1 oz.

GL – What about sea fishing, where and when did that start ?

JS – I suppose we were about fifteen when we started fishing at what we called Lowestoft North Extension. It was about thirty feet above the water and enabled you to cast out a bit further, which is what you needed, as in those days we used Norfolk Burma poles, which twelve feet long and weighed a blooming tonne. We used to use the old style three hook metal booms with lug and squid and often had whiting and big dabs two or three at a time. After a while we progressed on to Allcocks Orlando side cast reels which enabled us to increase our casting distance a bit. The first multiplier I ever had was an Intrepid….I can’t remember the details, but I won it in a newspaper competition with a big cod.

Moving To Essex

GL – So how long did you live in Metfield ?

JS – It must have been until I was nineteen or twenty and I moved to Tottenham for work for a couple of years…..I hated every minute of it and was glad to get back to the coast when we moved to Thorrington in 1962. I got friendly with the McGregor brothers of Brightlingsea and used to go out with them on the boat shrimping in and around the Colne Bar. When they were shrimping I saw huge shoals of fish, which I later realised were bass.. The Mcgregors said they were near impossible to catch. As soon as I saw those shoals I knew I’d have to come back and have a go at catching them.

GL – Did you have a boat at that time ?

JS – The first boat I had was a leaky twelve foot sailing dinghy with an old seagull outboard. I had this for a few years until I got one purpose made by Freddie Mitchell of Brighlingsea. In fact, it was the last boat he ever made. Clinker built, fourteen foot long, made out of oak, ash and mahogany, it was lovely.
By this time I had my own business in the fish trade, running a mobile fish round. We worked Tuesday to Friday and I used to fish at the weekends.

John with a catch of big cod, largest 32lb, caught off Holland Haven in the late 60s

Halcyon Days

In the good years from about the mid sixties to mid seventies I’d catch enough cod over the weekend to supply four vans with fish for a couple of days. Average fish were 8-15lb with a good chance of a few bigger fish. .
On a decent day it was nothing to have thirty or forty fish of this size between a couple of you. The big catch we had off Holland Haven (see picture) I told you about was not exceptional in the number of fish we caught, it was the fact that most were double figure fish with some even bigger fish, topped by a thirty two pounder. I think it was Ken Clifford who was with me on that trip. This was about 1966 ish I suppose.
That wasn’t the biggest I hooked though. One fish I had was much bigger, I got it to the side of the boat and it drifted downtide and I just couldn’t get it close enough to net it. It just lay there out of reach. I felt like jumping into get it, it was so close. And then the hook pulled and it was gone.

GL – Had you started uptiding by this time ?
 JS – I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I reckon it must have been 66/67.  I do know that the first person I saw up tiding was an Irishman called Lehearne. This was before Bob Cox and Rawley started publicising the method. Lehearne used to come out with me and as it was my boat I used to sit in the best spot, which was, I thought, at the stern. He used a couple a little rods with very flexible tops and started casting  uptide from the bow. On the big tides especially, when it was hard to hold bottom at the stern he used to outfit me two or three to one.
Once I realised what he was doing I made him move to the stern and I fished out the bow .Well it was my boat !
Another thing  I noticed is that you'll usually catch more in a small boat than a big charter boat. Far less noise as the water hits the boat, plus on a charter boat there's more people, moving about, dropping leads against the boat, all kinds of noise which travels a long way through water.
On the occasions that I fished when I was chartering I used to fish furthest uptide, I'm sure this is normally the best position, the fish come across your bait first giving you the best possible chance.
When the wind makes the boat lay across the tide you'll often notice that one side of the boat or the other fishes best. I'm sure the noise of the rope and chain in the tide scares fish. It always pays to keep thinking about what may be happening beneath the water.

GL - Why do you think the cod fishing was so good at this time ?
JS - Well, from what I remember and from the people I've spoken to, in the fifties the cod fishing was pretty poor, so it definitely goes in cycles. Also, at the time we were having the big catches (early - late sixties) the commercial fisherman couldn't catch them.

GL - We'll come back to the point about the commercials later, but can you tell me about bass fishing , when did you start fishing for them ?
JS –  Well, it was a while after I’d seen all those fish with the Mcgregors, again about the mid to late 60s. We didn’t want people to know what we were doing, so we  used to leave Brighlingsea hard at about ten in the evening, it was only a short rip to the Colne Bar. We’d fish all night and get back early in the morning. We’d always make sure we covered up the fish, so as to not to draw attention to ourselves. But after a while a few people realised we were catching loads of fish, so we started launching from St Osyth. The best times were the first couple of hours of the flood and the last of the ebb. Ebb was probably a bit better than the flood.
The place to fish was right on the bar where it kicked up rough, I’m sure they were there after the ragworm.On a good night we’d have up to twenty, maybe twenty five, decent fish. This lasted a good few years……there were so many fish they’re you thought it could never end.


GL – When did you start chartering ?
JS – It would have been around 1970, first on “Endeavour” and then  “Boy Carl”. When the fishing was good I was booked up two years in advance. I didn’t treat it as a nine to five job, it was competitive with Cox and Rawle and all the rest of them and I wanted to be the best. Sometimes we’d leave at four in the morning to make the most of the tide.
The trouble was, I was my own worst enemy. If we’d had a really good day, the next time the lads came out they’d expect the same, or better and if it didn’t happen they’d be disappointed. I set the bar too high really.
At the time I was chartering Saturday to Monday and then doing the fish round Tuesday to Friday, I was always busy and had hardly any time off.
GL – Tell me about the first time you went to Kentish Knock.
JS – At the time nobody used to fish it. The fishing was generally good inshore and people didn’t see the need to steam for three or four hours to reach a mark.It seems unbelievable now but it was new ground to us.
We planned the trip for 7 September, there were five boats going. Gillespie came, he was meant to be doing a feature on it for some fishing magazine, but it never saw light of day. Bob Cox, Rawley and a few others came too. The Knock is a large shallow area with fierce tide rips, not a place to go if you don’t know what you’re doing.
We’d use eight ounces of lead to hold bottom in perhaps twelve or fifteen feet of water, anything less and you didn’t stand a chance. Having said that, it’s never running too hard for bass. Maybe if it’s running hard it’s difficult for you to fish effectively, but if you master the conditions the bass will be feeding.
Between the five boats we had over five hundred bass in a day, it was unbelievable. We had plenty of good trips after that, but never quite so many as that. As well as the bass we had twenty stone of skate and a hundred a fifty tope.

You never associate roker with heavy tides, but we caught plenty out there in really strong tides. They were really difficult to get to the boat if they kited down tide though.

A few years later we decided to have a three day trip, just my boat with Geoff Birch, Alf Barnard, Tommy Smith the customs officer, Hop March and myself.
Conditions were pretty much perfect. We left Thursday evening, it took us three and a half , maybe four hours. It's  about 35 miles from Brightlingsea, a fair old way. We we fished from early Friday morning to Sunday afternoon. We had sixty odd bass, there was nothing under 4lb, ten were over 10lb with the biggest going 13.5lb.

GL – That’s an unbelievable catch, I don’t think you’ll ever see anything like that again.

JS – As I was saying earlier when we started fishing The Knock the fishing was so good I had some partys that would book up to specifically fish there. This didn’t help me, as you had to have perfect conditions to go that far off shore, although in those conditions you could certainly fish inshore easily. But if these blokes couldn’t fish The Knock they’d cancel the trip, which left me out of pocket.

A catch of bass from the Kentish Knock, including eleven doubles,  biggest at 13lb 8oz

GL - What about beach fishing, did you do much of that ?

JS – Well, when I got time.  Me and John Holden used to fish St Osyth in late May/early June, for the roker. We’d pick a nice, calm, warm evening tide, with high water about eight or nine.. We fished down on the point and had most of them on chunks of herring. There’s definitely more roker about now than I can ever remember though. On the boats now we get them in November, even December. That never used to happen.
Thirty years ago boat fishing in the spring you might get half a dozen roker between a couple of you, if you were lucky.. Now you might get ten or fifteen on an average day, easily, sometimes a lot more than that.
Another thing was you never used to see a dogfish at all. The only ones I remember seeing would have at the Whittaker Bell, but it was a rare occurrence. Nowadays, some places are paved with them in the spring and autumn.
I remember a time in the winter when the cod fishing was really good, me and…. I think it was Bob Long or Roger Button, fished on Friday night from the beach at Holland. We had plenty of fish and some blokes stopped and gave us their leftover bait. I said we can’t let that go to waste, we’ll go again tomorrow night. So we went to Walton pier on the Saturday, caught a load of cod and the same thing happened again, some blokes gave us their bait. So, we went back to the pier on the Sunday ! We caught so many cod we couldn’t carry them off the pier, so we took our oilskin coats off and put them in there, tied them up and dragged them off.
I go home and my (now ex) wife had her bags packed and was ready to leave. I did push it a bit in them days !


GL – Tell me about the trips you had to Ireland with Ian Gillespie and the rest of the boys.

JS – We must have gone to Ireland, maybe five or six times, from the late sixties to mid seventies. Half the time it was sponsored trips by Guinness. Gillespie used to write a fair bit for Sea Angler and other magazines. There was Ian, John Holden, Brian Betts, and Jack Austin.Jack was a fair bit older than us and he didn’t used to fish much, he was the driver and just came craic. Believe it or not, we got five of us in Jack’s Ford Zepher 6, plus all our gear. All the way to the west coast of Ireland !

Packing For Ireland

Parked Up Next To Inch Strand


The bass fishing on the Dingle Peninsular was fantastic, we fished Inch Strand, Stradbally and lots of other places. We had loads and loads of fish, not massive, mostly 2-4lb, with the occasional fish up to around 6lb. John Holden packed up one day after catching fifty fish in fifty casts !

Inch Strand, Ireland

One day we were fishing Inch Strand, a massive, beautiful sandy beach with not another soul on the entire beach. Just me, Gillespie, Bettsy and John fishing in a line.
I looked up and in the distance, a long way off, was a little spec. I couldn’t tell what is was. After a few minutes I could see that it was a bloke running towards us. I stopped fishing and went to see what was going on. It turned out there was a film crew at the end of the beach and they’d been waiting for several days for perfect conditions to shoot part of Ryan’s Daughter (a 1970 Academy winning film directed by David Lean starring John Mills, Sarah Miles, Peter Finch  and Trevor Howard).
The bloke asked us if we’d mind getting out the way so they could get the shots they were after and took us back to where they were filming, where they fed and watered us.
We had some fantastic times in Ireland. We used to go in a bar in Dingle and after a few drinks Holden would get out his banjo and Bettsy his mouth organ, Gillespie on the guitar and they’d start to play. After a while the locals would start dancing, the whole place would go mad and we’d end up singing rebel songs with the Irish. After a few nights of us being in there, more and more locals were turning up…..great times.

A "Dingle Taxi"

At the time the Irish Tourist Board were very interested in promoting fishing in Ireland. Several of the trips were sponsored by Guinness and the ITB wanted me to start running a hotel and charter boat out of Dingle, they offered to subsidise it quite heavily. It was a good offer, but I had a settled life back home and a decent business there. Plus I had to think of the wife and four kids.

GL -  Where else did you fish arond Dingle ?
JS - One night in Paudie Boune's bar we met some divers from Belfast. They'd heard about several shipwrecks just off the Blaskett Isles and were due to go out the next day searching for them. I think they were down to there last few quid and were hoping to find something valuable pretty quick before the money all ran out. So we got talking to them and paid them to take us across to the Blasketts, on an old trawler they'd got. So we met them at Dingle harbour in the morning and went out across the sound in lovely sunny calm conditions. They dropped us off on the island, where we went fishing and they went back diving for the day.

On The Way To The Blaskett Isles

When they came back to pick us up in the evening they were chuffed, as they'd found a load of bronze off this wreck. They got 1300lb that day and at the time I think they said it went for about £600 a tonne. A bloody good days work !

One year we also fished the Isle of Arran, again that was with John Holden. We had some good fishing there, haddock and big huge plaice. I lost a massive fish there.We were fishing from a rock mark and I cast out , the bait hit the water and just kept going. I pulled into it but it was unstoppable and in the end it spooled me and that was that. Probably a shark I reckon.

GL – Brian Betts** told me to ask you about falling out of a moving car, after drinking several pints of Guinesss, whilst in Ireland ?
JS – Well….erm….. (I think John must have been well gone because he doesn’t seem to remember this).

 ** After speaking to John, a few weeks later I met up again with Brian Betts, who fortunately, not being a big drinker, could remember a bit more about the incident. He takes up the story "We headed off to Milltown harbour to dig some ragworm, but when we turned up the tide was in, so we could dig any bait, so we went for a pint at Paudie Bourne's bar. Anyway, the others were tucking into the Guinness and the Paddy whiskey, especially John, Ian and Jack Austin. When it was time to leave Ian insisted on driving, it sounds bad now but that was how it was forty years ago. John fell asleep in the back of the car and the rest of us were larking around shouting and hollering. A while later, John suddenly woke, shouted "I'm walking back home" and opened the car door and got out while it was going about 30 miles an hour ! How he wasn't seriously hurt I'll never know."

GL – Tell me a bit about Ian Gillespie.
JS – Ian was a lovely bloke. Whatever he wore, he always looked scruffy, smoked like a trooper, a great laugh, always full of new ideas, things to try and places to go. Enthusiastic, but very disorganised.Very good writer too. Terrible to lose him so young, I think he was only forty when he died.

I did quite a bit of beach fishing with Ian, Pakefield, Orford, Covehythe, Southwold, we had some greats nights codding.

From Left - John Sait, John Holden, Jack Austin and Ian Gillespie. Bait Digging in Ireland

Me and Holden decided we wanted to catch a bass from the North Sea and Atlantic on the same day, so we went off down to Colne Point early in the morning, caught our bass and then jumped in the car and headed down the M4 for the Gower Peninsular. I was terrified, God knows what speed we were doing but I looked out the window and everything was a blur, this was in an old souped up Cortina Mk 1. We did it though, caught bass from  The Gower in South Wales and Colne Point in a day !

The Decline in the 80s and 90s

GL - When did the cod  fishing start to noticeably decline ?
 JS - The cod fishing deteriorated quite badly from about the early eighties and nineties, maybe earlier. Some years we barely saw a cod, even on the boats. In winter, from about October to March, if the cod don't show, what are you going to catch ? Blokes don't charter a boat to catch whiting and dabs.
GL - You mentioned earlier that when you had the prime cod fishing, in the sixties, the commercials couldn't catch them, can you explain what you mean ?
JS - I'm talking about the local trawlers. They couldn't catch the cod by trawling because the boats weren't fast enough, you want to be trawling at four to five knots to catch cod..They still caught plenty longlining though.

Dave Stoker of Mersea was one of the most successful longliners, he regularly had a hundred stone of cod a day. That amounted to a serious amount of money then, they fetched about eight shillings as stone. That's £40 a day, a lot of people weren't earning that in a week then. Dave was paying a bloke a hundred quid a week then to keep his deck clean !

It really started to change when Ronnie Garrett of Mersea went over to Belgium and bought several beam trawlers, they started using pair nets and were catching huge amounts....four hundred stone a day. But you'll never satisfy a fisherman. If he catches four hundred stone one day, he'll want five hundred stone the next.

I'll give you example of the greed of some of the commercials. In the late sixties the Mersea and the Brightlingsea boats were catching loads of herring on Eagle Bank. The price started off at £2 a stone, but they were catching so many, fishing day and night, that it dropped to 10 shillings a stone. They had a chat amongst themselves and agreed that they would both only fish daytime, catching less fish, so as not to over supply the market. That way the price would keep steady.

So what happens. That very night they met each up the river  fishing ! Greedy bastards

But it was when the Danes started drifting for them that the damage was really done. It went from fantastic fishing to being very poor in about five or six years. It was terrible to see a fishery change like that in such a short period.

By the early eighties most of the sizable fish had gone and they started taking small codling, fish we'd have chucked back a few years before. There were three or four years then when you barely saw a decent cod.
It got harder and harder. I remember the day I decided to pack in chartering. It was 1998. The fishing inshore was crap, so we went out from Brightlingsea to The Galloper (an area off the Suffolk coast). It took us five hours to get there, three hours fishing and five hours back. we could see the bloody Belgium coast, we were that far out ! We caught cod and ling, but I thought, this is bloody ridiculous. It had got that bad that I spent more time in the wheelhouse than actually fishing. I decided to chuck it in there and then. And that was it.
It's still going on. I've seen gill nets off St Osyth at the Spitway, three and a half miles long, left there 24/7. On a low tide you almost caught your keel on them. If it's rough they may be left for two, three, four days or whatever. What happens to the fish ? By the time they're hauled in they're useless. What a waste.

The only saving grace with gill nets is that although they hammer fish stocks they don't damage the sea bed. Beam trawlers do a massive amount of damage to the sea bed. The way they are used, it's like harrowing a field, it ruins the sea bed, the clams, mussel beds, oysters, you name it.

I remember speaking to an ex commercial crab fisherman up in Peterhead. He pointed out the total lack of crabbing boats at Peterhead, which had previously been a port reliant on crabbing. He said the crab grounds had been totally destroyed by the beam trawlers and it was now impossible to earn a living crabbing.

Remember, the Thames Estuary is a spawning area for soles, roker, bass and cod, so these beamers destroy the very habitat the fish need to spawn and reproduce.

Isn't it madness to target the fish that you're dependent on for your livelihood when they come inshore to spawn ? But that's exactly what the commercial boys do, they target fish while they're inshore to spawn.

GL - What would you do about commercial fishing in the Thames Estuary ?
JS - Well, first of all, consider how many commercial boats are we talking about ? How many inshore boats fish commercially in the Thames Estuary ? Eighteen or twenty I'd say. So, there's very few jobs associated with the massive amount of damage they do.

I'd close down the whole area to commercial fishing. Decommission the existing boats and don't allow commercial fishing. The whole area is a spawning / nursery area. If this area was protected you would very quickly see an improvement of stocks. Fishery protection works. Look at what happened to roker. Twenty years ago there were so few of them they weren't even treated as a commercially viable species. They cut down the quotas and now there's more about than ever.

You could license recreational sea anglers and limit them to a couple of fish a day or whatever. Think of the economic benefits related to angling. An improvement in fish stocks would see more anglers spending money in tackle shops, which would help manufacturers and bait suppliers, and  it would help the charter boats. It would be sustainable, because you're not destroying it by hammering the stocks.

GL - It would be great if anglers had enough clout to get something like this sorted but at the moment we seem to lack organisation, if not numbers.

My conversation with John continued and we talked of his other great interest shooting. At this time of year he spends alot of time shooting deer along with regular fishing trips. Maybe a story for another time.

In his early seventies now, he still has the passion and hunger of a man half his age. I hope I'm that keen at his age !


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  2. John is not only a good fisherman, but a really good dog trainer too! long may he continue. Len & Maggie.