“Ours was the marsh country…”
Kentish cotton ball clouds, blue skies and the endless verdant jade vistas of England in early summer. The walks out onto the onto the marshes were pleasant… I’d found an old trail I could use to get my car within two miles of three of my chosen locations. This in itself was a fulfilling task as this track exists neither in the map books nor on ‘Google Earth’. Though hardly illegal, there is a keen romance to be experienced in walking roads that theoretically don’t exist. I positively revelled at the prospect of my imminent double life. School teacher by day… ‘Tench Poacher of the Kentish Marshes’ by dusk.
But even that most lofty of titles could only apply if I caught one- and I wondered if there really would be any tench out there. Other than Mick’s accounts, I have honestly never seen or heard any other evidence of giant tench populating Kent’s wild marshes. Pike- yes; and even carp- but never tench. But they are survivors. The highlight of the previous season was when my Uncle and I foolishly went punt-fishing for tench on an old Estate Lake in Surrey. It was terrific fun. We went deep into the belly of the lake and I caught a corking tench of 5lbs 4oz- a decent fish on a float- complete with duelling scars across its dorsal fin; no doubt these were mementos from an infant tussle with a pike or one of the lake’s resident herons.
The experience reminded me that tench are a very hardy fish- well known both for their resistance to predators and also their tolerance of all kinds of harsh environments. If Mick was catching them in the marshes twenty-odd years ago, then there was a good chance that the remnants of a tribe would still be left out there. Or better still, it could be just as the old master had described it to me; a tench fisher’s paradise. I sometimes dared to think the latter- and more. But I quickly stilled my dreams… Because the first job of any tench fisherman is preparation.
It was time to delve into oldest Albion. The Kentish coastline is intermittently covered with marshland and dykes as far as the Thames. Mick lived in the same town as me so I picked the two biggest local marshes- roughly half an hour’s drive for me to each and about an hour away from each other. Counting both of them, I was looking at over a thousand acres of wetland riddled with all kinds of drains- many that looked capable of supporting fish. I hit the map books, took some long walks on both marshes and chatted with various farmworkers employed on the grazing sections. It didn’t take long to locate the larger drains with the denser habitats. Getting out to them was a different matter.
Tench are tough nuts; they fight in the truest sense of the word. A carp may go wild. But a tench gets angry. Strange then that in their daily existence they’re such a lazy fish- and a greedy one. The hobbits of the fish world, really. The way to locate their exact layabouts would be via their stomachs- so I needed to find their feeding areas. I did this by locating the deepest ‘bends’ present within the systems. These curves in the landscape are the fast food outlets of the tench world. The bends slow the water down and all kinds of edible morsels get caught up there. The fish regularly congregate around these areas to feast. Tench are also great fans of their creature comforts and will periodically shelter in the slacks and undercuts that these well worn grooves offer; particularly during the high winds to which the marshes are so prone.
As the crow flies, my target spots weren’t that remote; this is Southern England after all… But they were all forgotten areas. Mini-wildernesses. Without exception, the last few hundred metres of every chosen location required me to crawl, climb and tiptoe through five feet high undergrowth. At times a knife came in handy (all fisherman need a good one- my current favourite is a Lappish hunting blade I bought from Finland); sensitively used, naturally; I’m an angler- not a survival enthusiast. I did however allow myself to wear a camouflage jacket that I’d been using for rabbiting in the previous season; it can take a real beating. Moreover I wanted to tip the odds in my favour on every front- especially given that the water out on the marshes is crystal clear. I was eventually proven correct in my assumption that the marsh tench are very, very wary of mankind; any extra available cover was to prove a real boon.
The final (and most crucial) piece of lunacy would be my adherence to the time honoured tradition of using a ‘weed-rake’ to clear the swims (actually making them fishable- you can’t just cast directly into dense lily pads and thick cable weeds); I had mine welded especially for the campaign and it proved pivotal to success.
I hit gold very early on. On my first visit to one of the spots, I saw a carp. It was a great feeling just to know that there were fish there of any sort. On my second visit to the same area, I struggled about twenty yards further up the bend and started raking a huge jungle of weeds; the aim being to create a clear patch of about six square feet.
I’d been doing this for about half an hour or so when I took a break and poured a tea from my flask. The marshes are absolutely stunning so I sat and watched the bird life. During my time out there I witnessed barn owls hunting and was regularly dive-bombed by swallows. Once, I even saw a red kite, which are reasonably rare for the area. On this occasion I could hear (but naturally not see) cuckoos. It was late June. High season for cuckoos and tench, I thought to myself.
As I was still thinking about this I suddenly saw a tench of at least five pounds creep out from the weedbeds about 25 feet in front of me. I froze. The fish then started inspecting the open area I’d just raked. The water was clear now- I’d stopped raking several minutes earlier- and I could see all the way down to the bottom; right down into the deep water where the creature was now contentedly rooting around. Around ten feet in depth. He ambled around in the lazy but slightly bullish style that tench do- completely unaware of my presence. His huge paintbrush of a tail wafted into view several times as he upended like a duck and started sifting through the freshly disturbed weedbed for food… I felt a mixture of glee, satisfaction and trepidation all at once. The latter perhaps because I had no fishing rod with me. Would the fish still be here tomorrow? I reminded myself that tench are creatures of habit and that they never live by themselves… This lone scout had to be a member of a larger tribe.
After five minutes the fish moved very slowly back into his submerged jungle. I kept watching him until all I could see was darkness and even then I only looked up when I experienced the most vivid sensation that I was being watched from the surrounding thickets; this was not the last time that the marshes would give me this feeling.
It was time to leave. But before doing so I baited the area copiously with mashed bread, hemp-seed, sweetcorn and luncheon meat. I watched for more fish but saw none… That didn’t matter. I would soon return with a rod. More importantly, I had witnessed a wild tench alive and well in an area I had selected from a map two weeks earlier whilst having a pint of Guinness; this in itself felt immensely fulfilling.
I now started to think unreasonable thoughts. I wondered what else must lurk beneath those lilies- and I imagined huge fish. One in particular. A giant… The Queen of the Marsh!
And in my dreams I spoke again with Old Mick.
I told him I had found his tench.