Preparation - The Gardener Way Pt1

There are many differences between the very top anglers and us lesser angling mortals, but they're not necessarily the obvious ones! Top anglers are NOT better because they have a top of the range pole which is a fraction stiffer and lighter than ours. Nor is it the selection of waggler rods or the stock of seldom used slider floats. Sure, top anglers are sponsored and helped with their gear, but it's NOT the main reason why they're better than the rest of us!

NOTE: For all non-local anglers, the term 'God' when applied to Steve dates back to his early days fishing on the Lower Thames, where he ALWAYS did remarkably well. So well in fact, that Banstead's Bob (Captain) Clampit was heard to remark after YET another Gardener win..."you're ****** unbeatable, just like God". The term has stuck to Stevie every since. It's not meant to be disrespectful in any religious way.

Here are a few facts you should consider. Top anglers did not start from that position, they worked their way up to it. When Steve Gardener started fishing with the Dorking club, many years ago, he had to share transport, or even walk to match draws. Alan Scotthorne was winning matches on his local Barnsley circuit since he was a teenager, but he's only recently been able to stop working as a carpenter. I can remember fishing the World Champs at Luddington many years ago and in the England squad was postman Dave Thomas and hod carrier Max Winters. Both were working men who had made it to the very top through hard graft.

In my opinion there are two aspects which distinguish 'the best from the rest':

  1. Preparation: The best anglers prepare thoroughly for every match. Steve Gardener estimates that he spends the same time preparing as he does fishing, so a 5 hour match should involve about 5 hours preparation.
  2. Confidence: Good anglers are confident anglers. They expect to catch fish and feed accordingly. I have noticed over many years how the best in the UK spend much of their time on good venues where they can catch lots of fish. Confidence comes from catching fish. You need to be prepared to travel to avoid the rut of poor and peggy venues that can knock your  confidence for six, especially during the winter and early spring periods.

Both aspects are physically and mentally indelibly linked. Preparation brings confidence and confidence makes you want to prepare better. Anglers looking to improve need to learn that half of the work involved in top flight match fishing happens at home. What most people don't understand is that this is every bit as important as what you do on the bank. Tackle preparation is more than making sure you have a few spare hooks tied up and an extra rig or two. Preparation time is where you rehearse a match in your head. It is where you start thinking about the venue you are visiting, the baits you will use, the pegs' you might draw. Prep-time gets all your equipment ready... both tackle and brain, for every match you enter.

At, we also believe that preparation is as important as the fishing itself. When we decided to work on an 'exclusive' new series for our MA Plus members, with England star Steve Gardener, we wanted to show this. We believe that preparation is the key to improvement in all forms of match fishing. And who would better to show us how to prepare for matches than 'God' himself. It's not by chance that Steve has been the most consistent angler on the world stage over the last 20 years, he has after all won more team gold medals than anyone else in the world.

Have you ever wondered what it must be like to visit a top internationals preparation area? Many of us fondly imagine it must be like a well stocked tackle shop... crammed full of the very best 'goodies', an Aladdins Cave of treats! Perhaps we imagine that here we will find the secret bits and pieces, including those magical rig's, that make a top anglers so special. If that is what you think be prepared to be disappointed. A lot of hard work goes into getting ready for competitions, at all levels, and Steve showed us where it all happens. But if you are genuinely interested in learning how the best anglers in the business set up and prepare themselves for competitions then read on. Steve is a gentlemen and as committed an angler as I have ever  met and as you would expect, his tackle preparation area is highly functional, organised and feels, well, like someone actually works in it, which is exactly what Steve does... its 'gods own country'! 

A suitable space
When Steve and his family were looking for a new home, one thing was high on the 'must have' list. A garage that was connected to the house. Not, of course, for the mundane task of storing his car, but to create a decent preparation room from scratch.  When they finally moved to his current address, some 6 years ago, Stevie has what he wanted. An internal garage which links directly into the house.

Steve set about organising the garage are into a workable and clean operating environment. First a decent floor surface. Steve used workshop paint, which is easy to clean and functional. Being easy to clean is vital in a fishing workplace. Anglers tend to hoard a fair bit of groundbait, pellets etc. which attract mice. Steve would mix groundbait before a match in the garage, but he'd always clean up any mess straight after. All his baits and groundbaits are stored in sealed plastic boxes. Two features of Steve’s garage caught my attention. One was a good quality hoover and the second was a bin equipped with bin bag, and it looked as if it got emptied on a regular basis!

Then the lighting and some heating were installed. This is where having an integral garage really pays off. It's much easier to keep a garage heated when it's not isolated from the rest of a building. Being comfortable in a workroom is vitally important, especially if you spend a lot of time there throughout the year.

Finally Steve decked out his garage with storage shelves, work bench and a comfortable swivel chair. Once again, comfort means not standing too much, so a chair makes the stay more acceptable. The garage itself is not over cluttered. The side and back walls are all fitted with strong shelving racks. Stevie's rods and poles, plus their associated holdalls, fit neatly into a recess between them (left). There's also a small area of shelving designated for his DIY household bits. On the front of the side wall facing his work desk is a bait fridge.

In true 'through the keyhole' style, the impression you get when you walk into the garage is that of clean efficiency. It reminds me of a light industrial unit where component assembly takes place. The storage shelves are full of various plastic storage boxes. Down one side Steve has a large collection of Milo trays containing his various winders and a stack systems for all his shot, weights etc, But again, these look tidy and well ordered. The workbench area is clean and organised, free from any piles of clutter and junk.

Storage systems
Steve uses a variety of storage systems for different pieces of kit. Here is a quick run through the Gardener storage solutions:

Wagglers: Wagglers both big and small are contained in a variety of long float tubes. Steve has gathered a large selection of loaded wagglers and sliders over the years which he keeps in the tubes mainly for fishing abroad. Interestingly on his desk he had a selection of stumpy pellet wagglers, which he's currently using on the UK match circuit. This is indicative of the growing gulf between the ways we fish every weekend in the UK and what's the 'norm' on European waters.

Groundbait catapults: All catapults are kept together in a single big cool bag, along with plenty of spare elastics, cable ties and pouches. Steve takes the whole bag with him practising for international matches and he will spend a lot of time adjusting his catapults in practise so he get's the accuracy just right. He experiments a lot with elastic strengths, in particular using hollow pole elastics, which have a distinctive bite point. He explained that by adjusting and fine-tuning the length of elastic on his catapult, he can get them set so that each ball of top-up feed will go exactly the right distance.

This distance will depend on the venue. For example, in Belgium during the 2004 WC's, the team found that the bream were happy at a certain depth on the slider, but the depths could vary from peg-to-peg, therefore so did the distances he'd need to feed at. Having fine-tuned his catapults, Steve was then able to find the right one for the distance required, and even allow him to move to a slightly stronger caty if the wind got up! He commented that the team use to joke about the number of catapults he carried around, but he believed that having spare metres of different strength elastics and plenty of frames and pouches would allow him to sort out precisely which caty he'd need on the day.

Hooklengths: There are three separate storage systems for Steve's hooklengths. Most are on Rive pegged hook winders, which he stores on a series of hook trays in the garage. We will be looking at hooks in more detail later in the series. One thing he did mention, was that when using these pegged hook winders, it's a good idea to put a piece of thick silicone over the tip of the pegs. This stops the hooks pinging out if you accidentally drop or knock the tray. Steve also uses short hooklength wallets for canal size hooklengths and hair rigs. Finally he stores his waggler hooklengths in a large peg hook box.

Hooks: All Steve's specialised hooks are stored in numerous magnetic hookboxes, which are clearly marked up. He also has a large stock of his favourite patterns in packets. These are kept on his work bench because he simply uses so many. Finally, Steve carries a selection of eyed hooks in small plastic bit boxes for tying hair rigs on the bank. These are kept in the top tray of his tackle box.

Shot and olivettes: Steve stores his large shot in plastic bit boxes with all the different sizes clearly labelled. The smaller shot he keeps in the garage in a series of side tray units for his Milo box system. He uses two types of shot, Milo Krepton shot, which are in no.8 and smaller sizes for both UK and European fishing as well as ZLT soft shot.

Rods and poles: There's not many spare rods or poles in Steve’s garage, most tend to be in his holdall. He regularly adjusts and changes his elastics depending on where he is fishing. Both feeder and waggler rods are made up in the garage before fishing, which are then stored in a Milo 3-section rod holdall.

Spare rigs: Steve has a large selection of winder in trays which he keeps in spare stack system units on his shelving (right). His stock of extra pole floats are kept in a number of simple plastic boxes. Nothing fancy here, these are basically food storage boxes with good sealable lids, and stored on the shelves.

Feeders: There's a wide variety of feeders, stored in large plastic storage boxes. Again, he will sort out what he needs for each venue prior to fishing rather than take them all with him.

Groundbait: Steve has some groundbait stored at home, but it's in limited quantities as he's part-owner of KC Angling in Carshalton, Surrey and therefore has access to whatever he needs.

Spare line, pole connections, waggler attachments: Yet more plastic storage boxes for his spares. Steve knows where everything is and could lay his hands on anything we asked for immediately during our time working together.

Bait: Being part owner of an angling shop does have certain advantages as Steve doesn't need to store gallons of bait at home. He does however prepare luncheon meat and pumped pellets at home and on the day we visited him, he had some bloodworm swimming in the fridge!

As we will discover during this series, Steve is not a hoarder or collector of angling junk. He's more of a pragmatist ,who has and uses, what he needs. However, because he fishes at the highest level he does require substantially more than most of us. Everything from 30 gram lollipop rigs and big sliders, to distance Dutch style feeders, are all there in his well-organised and tidy tackle storage area, ready for use.

The Workbench
The heart of any angler’s preparation is what happens at the workbench. This is where hooks are tied, rigs are shotted and most of the critical preparation is done. Steve’s workbench is a perfect example of 'simple and efficient'. With three to four domestic matches each week, Steve reckons that he needs between 15 to 20 hours a week at his workbench to prepare everything. In the run up to major events like European and World Champs, that time will increase dramatically as both domestic and international preparations join forces.

Here's how Steve organises his work area:

Daylight lamp: Like many top anglers, Steve uses a large natural daylight lamp with a magnifying glass. This is the sort of thing that is sold in craft shops up and down the country and are absolutely vital for any angler, no matter how good their eyesight is! These lamps allow you to inspect, in minute detail, just how well each knot has been tied or whether a hook has any slight imperfections.

A good radio: Steve spends hours in here so he needs something to listen to!

Black plastic tray: This unremarkable yet vital piece of equipment is what Steve uses as a backdrop when he ties all his hooks and knots. “You can see line much better against a black background” Steve explained. Simple but efficient yet again!

Measurement guide: This is in centimetres, marked clearly on the edge of the bench. The ruler system is to measure out the dropper shots on each rig so that once he decides on any particular shotting pattern, he can ensure accuracy with every rig tied to that pattern. 

One kilo sea lead: This surprising piece of kit is used to hold down the line spool perfectly still as he ties hooks or knots.

Pair of flat nosed pliers: Used to pinch hard shot onto the line.

Sharp scissors: Very important for trimming the end of knots cleanly.

Drennan hook tier: We will be looking at hooks in more detail later in this series.

Sensas loop tier: again a simple piece of equipment used by so many top anglers. Steve and I paused for a while to wonder at what sort of brain worked out that you could tie loops using a piece of plastic shaped like a ducks head. Whoever it was is owed a big debt by anglers all over the world!

Various tackle boxes: These are for spare floats, odd swivels, bits of elastic and other 'nik knacks'... even insect repellent!

Large size shotting tube: This is the largest specialised shotting tube available, in order that large large river floats can be checked as easily as fine canal patterns. The width of these large tubes also helps reduce any interference from surface tension when balancing the float.

Finally, Steve assembles all the shot, line and floats he's likely to need on his bench ready to work on. As we arrived for out feature, Steve had already made up a series of rigs which were neatly stacked at the side, ready to go into his winder trays. He likes to concentrate on putting a single rig together correctly, then complete his duplicates, rather than jump from one thing to another, again indicative of his well ordered and organised brain.

This brief tour of Steve’s work area is a prelude to our mini series on Preparation the Gardener Way. In many respects Steve’s work area looks human. It's not full of expensive gadgets and bits. A daylight lamp is a necessity, not a luxury, and a good one can be picked up for about £35.00. The rest of his equipment is very cheap indeed. A large sea lead, a plastic lid, a hook tier and a loop tier… there was no micrometer to check line diameter, for example. Steve uses the same lines for all of his fishing and has confidence in them.

This pragmatic approach makes Steve’s level of preparation seems more accessible for instance, than Alan Scotthorne's. Alan is very meticulous and checks each shot that he uses, while every hook he ties is checked for perfection. This is good practise indeed and in know way is critical of Alan's system, but to the average angler it can seem too remote from the reality of their working week and time available. Steve tends to trust a small range of hooks and shot, then checks them as he ties his rigs, something we should all be doing anyway!

We hope you've enjoyed this initial tour into the preparation area of a top flight international angler. In Next Month's Part Two, we'll look in detail at how Steve puts together pole rigs, the knots and shot he uses and how he puts them on the line.

Till then, we would like to wish Steve and the rest of the English team, as well as all the other British Isles based teams, the best of luck in the European Championships! We will, of course, be covering this event extensively next month.