I like to hold court in my local pub. Boast a bit. It’s a terrible character flaw, really. Once a few ales have sufficiently severed my connection to reality, I enjoy lying to young’uns about the size of a fish I’ve caught, or the amount of hours I worked in my 20s. Despite the fact that I’m only 38, I never miss an opportunity to school the younger generation. It seems only just. Pub life in England dictates that 20-somethings should be ignored at all costs and vigorously challenged upon any occasion that they try to express an opinion of their own. Only if they become violent should one perhaps listen, and even then- the only reply should be a grudging nod or a grimace. No smiling should be administered under any circumstances. The system is time-honoured and can be traced back 100% accurately to the times of the Knights and their Page boys.
Conversely, when I’m ensconced with the old boys I become the apprentice and am forced to tell huge lies in order to acquire or retain their affections… Quite correctly and properly, they never miss a chance to bully or heckle me. Without fail all of their interactions with me are 100% unfriendly. They never give me an inch. Anything less would be a slap in the face. But no matter how much they mock me, I adore their company and it is always their stories that I cherish the most; so I cannot resist lying to boost my status within the circle. Deep in the midst of the beer drinking ceremony, I hear myself agreeing with absurd political stances and supporting Victorian views on the roles of women. Worst of all is when it comes to angling. I agree wholeheartedly with every one of their opinions on ‘modern fishing’; I enthusiastically join in the lament over the demise of roach fishing and can weep on command when conversation turns to the abolition of the old close season.
I am at my most hypocritical when it comes to the holy topic of seasons and when it is ‘proper’ to hunt for each specific fish. Carp in the summer only. Pike in the winter and perch/roach in the autumn etc… In actual fact, I commit the sin of starting every season several weeks early (with the exception of the pike where I retain my purity and never commence hunting before the ‘Glorious First’ of October).
The sad fact is that once a season has been drained of its marrow, I begin to pine for the start of the next one. This reaches childlike proportions and I fascinate myself by thinking of little else other than how it will be ‘next season’. I stockpile relevant tackle, read old books and obsess… This year was no different. Once the heart of the winter had started to break and we reached midspring, I was gagging to go and take a carp- a species that admittedly holds no interest for me in the winter in any case, when fires are roaring and the ale is malty. But this year in particular, the idea of waiting for summer proper was torturing me so I decided to break ranks and head for a lake I know…
I was in the pub when it happened; I suddenly realised I’d had enough of black beer and old men’s lies (not to mention my own). I wanted blue skies, green valleys, carp and cider. This is an annual event for me. All over the country, barely evolved Anglo-Saxons are coming out of their preconditioned hibernation. Ferreters and horse people muck out their creatures’ winter abodes. Carp fishers dust off their rods. And so I packed the car up with my (very basic) fishing kit. One carp stalking rod, an old Mitchell 301 reel, binoculars (most essential for my type of carping) and a handful of ancient floats. A flat cap is optional but good headwear and scarves certainly enhance one’s sense of escapism when taking last-minute angling trips.
I woke up at five ‘o’ clock the next morning and drove to Bury Hill, which is situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty near Dorking. It’s about an hour and half’s drive, so it’s not too close and not too far. This is important. I go fishing to get away and every escape artist needs a redoubt that is far enough away not to be found but also close enough to reach in times of duress. I have found that the Surrey Hills provide ample cover for me when I wish to drop my activities and run. And I’ve run there several times throughout the years. I arrived at about seven and headed for the boat house.
The first thing you notice about Bury Hill is the noise. The Old Lake in particular is a magnet for duck life, and you can’t fail to be impressed by their beautiful morning cacophony. They initially drown out the blackbirds and larks, who later perform a second more delicate chorus once the ducks have stood down from their booming and are actively fighting each other for territory, food and the chance of a love life. If you are of the wildfowling disposition you will possibly regret not bringing a shotgun, but personally I like their company.
I punted out to a spot on the Old Lake known as the ‘Jungle’- a snaggy territory where the trees grow out of the water and their roots call to the fish like sirens. In the spring time it’s the perfect tonic to soothe my woes after a season of Guinness, tall stories and days spent piking with nothing but the East Wind and the crows for company. I was slightly high from the journey through the M25 and the early start, so I rowed hard and enjoyed it all the more for knowing my fellow drivers were off to work, whilst I was off to toad. I staked up my punt to the furthest point on the lake from land and looked back to the boathouse; I felt confident that I could journey no more even if I tried. I poured out a brew, fixed some breakfast and steamed along with the tea… I gradually cooled down. Good tea and English scenery effect long periods of deep, calm introspection… I had reached the playground of giant carp. Bronzed English whales swam here. And I was Ahab.
After initially baiting several areas up with mashed Hovis, I surveyed the surface of the lake with my binoculars, scanning for carp. I saw no signs all morning and so decided to float-fish my bait right on the bottom of the lake bed. I cast it tight to the sanctuary of the tree roots where surely they must venture out and feed at some point… A beautiful Andrew Field porcupine quill buoyed up the bait (a huge piece of bread flake) and would warn me if any scaled diners had decided to eat at my table.
I sat and waited. Carp fishing can be slow outside of the summer and I began to recall my conversations with the old men. Hours passed by and my mind began to play tricks on me. Nature perhaps sensed that I had somehow disrespected ‘Droit du Seigneur’ back in my own world- its foremost imperative and the one principle that should be ensuring me success out here. It began to rain heavily after midday and I had to make a mock canopy out of a camo jacket and a rucksack.
But then in the late afternoon the sun came back out. Lower now, but more intimate. The air smelled different. My mind cleared and all thoughts of pathetic fallacy slowly began to dissipate. The magic hour was approaching… Dusk. When all creatures feed ravenously before it gets too dark to find food. Just as the light started to flicker in the trees, I thought I saw some branches move near my float. It was windless so this displacement could only have been caused by independent movement. Something large was yards away from my punt, surveying my bait. And circling my mind… I remained completely motionless and tried to clear my thoughts. My hands started to tremble. A minute later my float began to move- and then it slid under.
I struck into gold… And my winter was broken.