Tom Sails – a legendary Lincoln angler

Words by:
Barry Grantham
Featured in:
April 2024

Barry Grantham shares the story of a fishing match organised by the Angling Times and the spirit of friendly competition that helped showcase one local angler’s talents.

In the 1950s there was an angler making quite a name for himself with specimen fish catches. His name was Richard Walker from Hitchin, Bedfordshire. At this time there was a newly formed weekly newspaper called the Angling Times and Walker’s catches were appearing each week in the publication.

A reader wrote into the paper saying that any top match angler would be superior to Walker and make him look like a novice. So Angling Times arranged to match Walker against the winner of the 1953 National Angling Championship. The match was to take place at three different venues – one choice each for the two competitors and one chosen by Angling Times.

The National Championship winner of that year, Sergeant Neville Hazelwood, was unable to take up the challenge because of his RAF commitments. The paper therefore asked the winning team, Lincoln Angling Association, if they would put forward one of their members who would be willing to fish against Walker, whose reputation as a great angler was already legendary.

Lincoln Angling Association was not too keen to take up the challenge. But the team’s captain, Tom Sails, was ready to have a go at the challenge and the contest was to be fished in a friendly spirit. Richard Walker was also concerned about any bad feeling that might be attached to the match.

In the month of October, on a cold overcast day, the first match took place on the river Witham. Strangely, on the day that the contest was announced, Angling Times carried a story that Richard Walker had caught three large perch from Arlesey Lake in Bedfordshire – weighing 4lb 5oz, 4lb 3oz, and 2lb 5oz. What a build-up this was to the challenging match.

The river Witham saw Tom Sails catch 7lbs and Richard Walker a meagre 2lb 5¼oz. This was not surprising, as the Witham was on Tom’s doorstep. Even though Walker fished with fine match tackle, using bread paste and maggots as bait, he could not match Tom’s local expertise. The actual location of the fishing match was kept secret to avoid lots of spectators, but anglers travelled the length of the river until they found the two competitors. I am not sure, but I believe it took place near Kirkstead. So that was round one to Lincoln’s Tom Sails.

The next match venue was Walker’s choice. He chose the river Bain near Horncastle. Walker had fished this part of the Bain before, with his friend Maurice Ingham from nearby Louth. Chub would be one of the main quarries and he was confident that he would win.

It was another raw cold day and raining and they took up positions about 200 yards apart. Walker used a groundbait that was made up of minced fish and bran; Walker’s reason being that they were fishing below a trout farm outfall where the main stew ponds were. It was a close match, Walker just winning with a small fish bag of 4lb 3oz to Tom Sail’s 3lb 5¼oz. The gap might have been bigger, but Walker had changed to light tackle halfway through the match. He hooked a large chub, it powered away and the hook hold gave out. Round two to Walker – they were now level pegging.

Angling Times chose the final venue and they decided on the Hampshire Avon. To many people’s minds, this venue favoured Richard Walker and Angling Times got quite a lot of grief over the choice. But what wasn’t known was that Tom had asked if one of the matches could be fished on the Avon. Neither angler had seen the river before, so they started off on equal terms. Tom chose a swim right on the point of the island, at the end of the now famous parlour. Walker picked a spot about 50 yards upstream of Tom.

As the Avon was noted for its specimen fish, Walker chose to fish with a MK IV Avon rod of his own design and used a rolling ledger method. The bait he chose was cheesepaste, in the hope of catching a large chub. Within five minutes he hooked a large chub but lost it at the net. The fish was estimated at 7lb. Tom chose to fish with conventional match tackle, but after a fruitless start changed to a heavier float, with most of the lead down.

Tom started to catch roach, one being just below the magical 2lb barrier by 2oz. It was now halfway through the match and Walker had not caught a fish. He was concerned that the large chub he lost in the first five minutes had scared off any fish in his swim. Tom meanwhile was continuing to catch roach and the odd dace. It was November and cold, Walker’s only chance was a barbel, so he changed tactics, increased bait size and began to search every inch of his swim. It was not long before Walker got a thumping bite and he was into a fish. This he landed: it was a barbel weighing 7lb.

Tom fished on but got so entranced by a salmon in his swim that he never took another fish. They were now even, but things were to change. Walker hooked and landed another barbel of 10lb ¾ oz making Walker the overall winner: Walker 20lb 12oz and Tom 11lb 6oz

Walker said Tom Sails was one of the best sportsmen he had ever met. He had caught some nice roach and dace, including the specimen that was 2oz under 2lb. He also stated that the friendly match changed Tom’s whole attitude to angling. He realised that catching large specimen fish was not accidental and Tom’s skill was superior to his. In the past Tom’s skill had been mainly catching small fish against time.

Now Tom wanted to apply his skill, to catch larger specimen fish. Walker went on to state that had Tom not died as a result of a tragic accident, he would have gone on to do this.

The Lincoln and District Angling Association used to hold a memorial match for adults and juniors in Tom’s memory every year, the last one being held in 2015 on the tidal Trent and won by Steve Gilbert from Lincoln. I was speaking to the Association’s president John Blades recently and he told me he would like to hold the Tom Sails Memorial Match again at some point, on Lincoln’s waters.

If anyone has any information on Tom, I would be very interested to hear from you. Please email me or contact Lincolnshire Life, who will pass on the information.

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