When I was young, my grandma used to drink Guinness. A Welsh lady born in the 1920’s, she stood a little less than 5ft tall and weighed around 6 stones. But she drank the black stuff every night. Maybe that’s why I come back to it. The cold, too. It’s currently mid-September but I know the winter is coming. It’s written in the breeze.
Just a few weeks ago the heat suffocated me to sleep each night but now the night air is cooler and I can drink it down in great gulps just like the Guinness. The start of the summer is so promising- and the air is so pure; so uplifting. But I suffer a personal stagnation by the end of it. When the freeze finally comes on, barely perceptible at first- I rejuvenate… Yet I’m also gripped by a terrifying atavism. I think of family members long dead. I’m drawn to dark ales and warm fires; I want to hunt again in the old country. And of all the autumnal quarry- it was the perch who first spoke to my heart.
Terrible beauties, perch are without question descended from dragons; whelps who fell from roost to river millennia ago. Handsome- but proud and bellicose. Only a fair-sized pike can humble them and even then he’ll receive a mouthful of spikes for his trouble. I remember my first. I was just a boy and liked to cycle out to a desolate old brick pit. It had been abandoned several decades previously; like so many of these forsaken holes, it sat adjacent to a local river which would flood intermittently- bringing great invasions of eels and other fish.
After half a century’s inundation, a classic pond emerged. An overgrown, weedy jungle; a boy’s paradise upon whose shores I spent the best days of my childhood. It was here- and also on my local beach- where my double life as an angler began. I would grab a lift or cycle the seven miles or so out into the country where I then spent entire days as Emperor of the Pond-Kingdom, armed with nought but rod, catapult and jam sandwiches. Many creatures joined this pageantry. Above me the sky was full of swallows and larks; the trees harboured cuckoos and chaffinches… But most of all I was interested in what lay below the surface. I became a master eel angler. I caught roach, golden rudd and lovely tuppence-bronze bream…
The fish I most revered was the perch- or a ‘stripey’ as we called them. Like all boys I was attracted to the spookiest and most overgrown part of the pond. One afternoon I nestled myself amongst the willows and in the half light lowered my bait- maggots, naturally- down amongst the darkness of the bankside tree roots. I stared at the crimson tip of my float; the birdsong gradually slowed and my heartbeat altered to the gentle lilting of the float- as it still does even now.
The better part of fishing is anticipation. As a child-angler, I learned that this is entirely different to ‘waiting’. Once you sense you are doing the latter, then you should move on; boys who grow up fishing or rabbiting learn to listen to their instincts…
Finally the float tip started to bob under. A proto-predator, the perch never takes his prey in one gulp; rather he smashes into it and tears it to pieces. Like a terrier with a barn rat. In the space of a millisecond, the float’s rhythm transformed from chamber music to something like Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. It bobbed up and down diabolically, then beat perilously close to every sunken object in sight. My heart flooded with adrenalin and my consciousness- too long a hostage of the modern world- went into shock as man’s basest instincts took back control of my brain.
I watched myself striking and all of a sudden I was duelling with one of the English countryside’s best looking but cruellest creatures. A demon of the old world. The fight was short but full of drama- you need maximum control to keep a perch from smashing your line into the snaggy underworld in which he resides. On the bank I marvelled at all six ounces of him. The smaller ones (and they were all I caught as a child) are the prettiest and most colourful. But above all else, throughout the battle and after I had subsequently released the fish, my mind was continually haunted by the symphony of the float. I could still feel the echoes of that final coda when it came under attack; I couldn’t stop reliving it… And three decades later- I still can’t.
So I beat on, still trying to recreate the same symphony I experienced as a child. A fool and his float, I am addicted to the rush of the strike and sit for hours anticipating it- usually in the same type of places that compelled me to fish as a boy; the overgrown, quiet corners- where nature is thickest and the sound of man grows thin. Where ancient tree roots grow into the stream and become one with it.
It is no coincidence that many of the best perching holes are also the favourite watering places of local wildlife, and so I have become accustomed to close encounters with creatures that most townsfolk consider relatively rare. I fish one very old part of the river purely due to its resident kingfisher tribe. A master float maker recently turned me out a perch bobber inlaid with their feathers and I regularly employ it at this spot.
The traditional ‘season’ for perch is really autumn onwards- September 1st being a touchstone- but I commence whenever the air cools in late summer. Some years that is mid-August and in other years it falls in September. It’s my favourite time of the year. The August heats finally give way. My languor breaks. All creatures, countrymen included, begin to think of winter.
The perch is no different and starts to feast in preparation for leaner times- making him much more vulnerable to the angler. Then, long absent fantasies revisit my mind; roast beef dinners, steamed soft puddings and walking through brown leaves. Whilst my black heart obsesses over river fishing, pigeon shooting and catching fat Channel whiting from my local pier.
The pike has not yet arrived in my dreams… But he will.
And then the perch must give way.