A Reel Challenge! Sam Edmonds’ epic species hunt angling challenge

Ever wondered how many British fish species it might be possible to catch? For most of us, it’s a challenge that can last a lifetime. For Sam Edmonds, however, the task formed a memorable and frenetic month long angling adventure alongside his father, Gary Edmonds. Here, he looks back on a remarkable fishing journey for a great cause…

Sam Edmonds fishing

If you’ve ever experienced bad jet lag, you’ll know how frustrating it is not being able to get to sleep, especially when it’s late at night. Even though you’re tired, it’s hard to switch off, and that’s exactly how my Mum, Dad and I felt after returning from an amazing holiday to Belize over Christmas and New Year 15 years ago, where my Dad and Grandad fished for Bonefish and other species.

It was nearly midnight and none of us could get to sleep, so we were all up watching TV. We started to talk about our New Year’s resolutions and what they would be. Mine and Dad’s were both fishing related, as you might guess, and both involved trying to catch different species in the UK.

My Dad then had a brainwave. At the time, one of our favourite TV shows was ’The Great Rod Race’, where Matt Hayes and Mick Brown travelled around the country trying to catch as many different freshwater species as they could in 30 days. Dad thought we could set ourselves this same challenge, but also raise money for charity at the same time.

My parents are freelance graphic designers and, at the time, Mum had been busy working for the charity Children with Leukaemia (now Children with Cancer UK), so we decided to raise money for them. Now we just needed a name. The idea sounded like a real challenge – so ‘A Reel Challenge’ was born!

A plan comes together…

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Plans were ambitious and our species hunt would take us to waters from small to epic!

We decided to embark on our challenge over the summer holidays, when I was off school, starting on August 1st and finishing on the 28th. I was extremely lucky, as Mum and Dad, being self employed, were able to work around the time we planned to fish. Everything quickly gained momentum, and before long, we were researching where would be the best places to target specific species. Dad and I enjoyed this challenge just as much as the fishing itself.

I tried to spread the word as much as I could, from spending the day at the Go Fishing Show at the National Exhibition Centre, asking people to share our challenge with others (or donate, if they had a bit of cash on them!) to contacting, and eventually speaking on local and national radio stations. I spoke to Keith Arthur live on ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ on TalkSport, and he was incredibly supportive. I ended up speaking on air every weekend throughout the challenge with my Mum, keeping listeners up to date with our progress. I can’t thank Keith enough for his support, and ever since we’ve remained very good friends.

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Fundraising began too, and the amount of donations we received was amazing. I was 10 years old at the time and very shy, but as I was so passionate about our challenge, talking to lots of people helped build up my confidence. There are some very generous people out there, and a good family friend of ours, Neil Adams, who was a fishery officer for Abbey Cross Angling Society, went well out of his way and helped raise over £1000 for the cause, much of which came from club members. Through ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, the word spread and we were soon getting phonecalls from anglers and non-anglers offering help, from fundraising, to building a website for us, which John Hancock voluntarily put together and regularly updated.

Many well known anglers were incredibly supportive too. Some of the kind donations we received were from Chris Tarrant, Neville Fickling, John Wilson, and Danny Fairbrass, from a relatively new carp fishing company called Korda – how times have changed!

Day One: Trout and predator fishing at Grafham Water

Gary and Sam Edmonds Grafham lure fishing

The first day of the challenge was at Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire, targeting basically whatever we could catch on the fly. My Dad had grown up fishing Grafham with my Grandad, and the pair of them had been flyfishing there for the predators more recently, with great success.

This would be my first time fishing Grafham for predators, and it turned out to be a brilliant start to the challenge, as we landed 33 fish (16 zander, 11 perch, 3 pike, 2 rainbow trout and a brownie). On that day I caught my first zander and 2lb+ perch, beginning an obsession with both species.

One week in, 18 species landed!

After that flying start, the first week was challenging but went well as we managed to catch 18 species in that time, including grayling on the fly from the River Mimram, barbel and minnows from the River Lea, and stone loach and bullhead from the River Beane.

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However, after each new addition to the list, the targets became harder. We’d slipped up on catfish, eels, crucian carp and bitterling during that first week, and now a new banana skin was thrown in our path, as Dad and I both came down with colds. All the preparation of different types of gear every day, driving, visiting fishing tackle shops for bait, and fishing 11 days on the trot had started to catch up with us, and I began to feel really ill with the cold. My Grandad had to pick me up from a lake where were targeting catfish, whilst Dad carried on.

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We trooped on though, and Dad managed to catch that elusive catfish, and we caught some other difficult species during the second week. These were ruffe, some kind of sturgeon or sterlet, pumpkinseed, and crucian carp.

Two and a half weeks into the challenge, whilst trying to find bitterling, we also crossed paths with Matt Rand, who, at the time, was writing his first ever feature for a fishing magazine. He kindly gave up his time to ensure we ticked this tiny cyprinid off the list of targets too, and also helped us catch some cracking rudd. We’ve remained good friends since, and Matt is now the Brand Manager for Fox Rage and Salmo, whilst I’m a consultant for them.

Tackling up for grass carp

By day 16, we’d therefore managed to land 26 species, including a host of other variants and hybrids that weren’t included in the final tally. Next on our hit list was another tricky species – grass carp. We’d planned to fish at Elphicks Fishery near Kent, and whilst talking to regulars as we bought our tickets, we were told that if we surface fished, one in six carp would probably be a “grassie”.

Sam Edmonds fishing carp

We caught stacks of fit common and mirror carp- but where was that “grassie”?

We fished hard, spending the night bivvied up there, and in 28 hours we’d caught 25 carp, but not one was a grass carp. We realised that we would have to pack up soon to continue our species quest, but Dad made the decision to stay another night. That evening, he hooked a fish off the surface on a floating pellet, which thankfully turned out to be our target species. We were so overjoyed that, when I scooped it up in the net, I remember running round in circles in excitement.

After unhooking the fish, Dad went to sort the camera out, whilst I held it in the net. I lowered the rim of the net slightly and looked down at the fish, as I’d never seen a grass carp in the flesh before, when it somehow made a leap so high (over 2ft) that it went over the rim of the net, and escaped!

I called Dad over and we were both absolutely gutted; we’d gone from complete elation to the depths of despair in just a matter of moments. I was allowed to say my first swear word in front of my Dad (I’m ashamed to say there have been many more since) and he ended up pulling the remaining hair out of his head.

Heading for Wales

After a day of tidying up our gear, we now had to prepare to venture further afield if we wanted to boost our tally of 29 species in 21 days. We headed over the border in to Wales to fish at Holgan Farm Fishery, owned and managed by former international match angler Ian Heaps. Ian is a great guy and at the fishery we managed to catch what, on paper, seems like a very unusual mix of species: goldfish, brook trout, orfe, and the eels that had eluded us. An added bonus was a sea trout that Dad caught on a spinner from the Eastern Cleddau River that runs alongside Ian’s fishery.

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The next few days saw us chase salmon through the pouring rain on the Wye, ending up with no salmon, but a surprise Flounder caught on a Flying C eight miles from the sea! This was followed by golden trout and blue trout at Bigwell Fly Fishery, and then, on day 25 and stuck on 35 species, we made a gruelling 6 hour drive up the A5 to Llyn Padarn, to fish for char.

Fishing on Llyn Padarn

The next day, we met up with Huw Hughes, the fishery officer for Llyn Padarn, and set off in Huw’s boat, trolling spinners deep down. Huw explained that the char fishing had been poor, but he was still optimistic. It took until around 4pm to get any bites, but these turned out to be small brown trout. It was a lovely afternoon though and really interesting chatting to Huw, and we thanked him for taking us out free of charge, and for all his help. Huw was unavailable the next day, but we felt like we’d gathered enough information, and decided to take a rowing boat out ourselves.

Firstly, though, we had another challenge – to find accommodation for that night, being a bank holiday weekend. After searching through many B&B’s, which were all fully occupied, we were starting to give up hope as it had gone 11pm, but all of a sudden, we stumbled across a converted church called St Curig’s on our way to Betws y Coed. They had one room left, and what a find it was! It was a fantastic renovation project, and the owner, Alice Douglas, a columnist for The Sunday Times, donated the room for the night for us, which was a very kind gesture. The challenge to find accommodation had been completed, and now the challenge to catch a char, with one day left, was on.

The wind had really picked up and we thought there was a chance we wouldn’t be able to fish. There were no proper fishing boats to hire on the lake, but there were pleasure rowing boats that were still allowed out despite the high winds, which we hired and used instead. We set off trolling spinners in the areas we’d fished the day before, and after half an hour, I hooked a fish. Whilst Dad steadied the boat, I reeled it in, and as it emerged from the depths I noticed the fish had a blood red belly to it – it was the Char that we’d been hunting!

Dad stretched his arm out with the net, I lifted the rod and tried to guide the fish in to it, when disaster struck. As its body touched the rim of the net, it shook its head, bounced off the rim of the net, and got away. We couldn’t believe it. Dad was confident that, after coming so close, we still had another chance, but the wind was getting worse. We had one more bite, which we missed, but Dad did manage to get a handful of blisters after rowing like a madman all day.

Final species tally and reflections on an amazing trip

To round the last day of the challenge off with being so close to landing a char, but failing, was very disappointing. We still talk about it today. But what an amazing experience ‘A Reel Challenge’ had been.

Apart from the Char and the Salmon, we’d managed to catch every species we set out to target, and more. In 28 days we’d travelled the country, covering 2015 miles, fished eight different rivers, ten different still waters, caught species we’d never thought of targeting before, fished a myriad of methods, learned loads, and made some good friends.

Topmouth Gudgeon invasive species

Not quite what we bargained for! This fish was later identified as a topmouth gudgeon – a non native invasive species that should always be reported if you should find one!

Among other surprises, we had also caught some non native species along the way, including a topmouth gudgeon! At the time we hadn’t identified it as such- but with a quick fish ID later, it dawned on us that it was indeed this destructive little fish, which was subsequently reported. For the record, these creatures can be a big threat to native fish, eating their eggs and breeding like wildfire, and as such should always be flagged up with Environment Agency, as well as the fishery where it was caught (here’s some more information on the species for anyone who might be concerned they’ve come across them!).

With that strange catch to add to the list, our final tally was 35 different species, which didn’t include another 15 additional subspecies, hybrids and different strains, and we raised £4153.37 for Children with Leukaemia. For all of those that I haven’t mentioned that helped us on our challenge, thank you so much again!

Our ambitious challenge had come to an end. In many ways, though, as a ten year old, you might say it was just a beginning of a much bigger adventure in the angling world.

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