“A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn”
The next evening I duly returned and caught nothing… But I saw everything. Sitting undetected a few feet away from a tribe of wild tench, I witnessed something I’ve never seen in over 25 years of fishing- their highly formalised and very eerie dusk ceremony; in its entirety from start to finish and in perfectly clear water. I arrived at about 5pm and again raked the areas I’d worked the previous day, before gradually wandering between them on the lookout for signs. Three hours before dusk I spotted a tench moving. Then ten minutes later another- both fish were about three pounds and were quite clearly ‘patrolling’ the bend of the drain. This behaviour would make more sense as the evening unfolded. At about two hours before dusk, two much bigger fish (around five or six pounds each) emerged from the weeds and started to go back and forth with them. Up the drain. Down the drain. And then again.
I sat silently marvelling at this routine and didn’t even think about casting a bait in. I thought I’d wait as they seemed unsettled. Ten or so minutes must have passed when I noticed a bulky, dark mass near to one of the weedbeds. I’d been periodically scanning the area and hadn’t noticed this patch before; I assumed it was a clump of weed that had detached from the main bed. It was only when it moved out into the open that I realized the shape was in fact a colossal tench- easily the biggest so far. At least nine pounds. My whole body stiffened; it was darker now and the mood of the marsh seemed a little uneasier. I felt very acutely that I shouldn’t be there. By this point the ‘smaller’ fish were at fever pitch, frantically pacing up and down the drain. But their patrols were shortening. After another minute the fish seemed to be turning every three or four seconds until suddenly they were quite clearly circling the big one. These ‘scouts’ were the consort fish- the pages of the tribe. And they were taking up position around their Queen.
Together they proceeded to amble over to a patch of the drain that I’d raked the day before- about three feet from the bank. The procession now began to slow as the tribe adjusted to the slower, more deliberate rhythm set by the Queen- whom at all times swam in a raised position relative to the other tench. After milling about for a minute or so, the Queen then proceeded to roll and flank. Following several vigorous spins, the smaller fish then followed suit and started to spiral over and over- always within the Queen’s orbit but fastidiously careful to avoid actually touching or bumping into her. It was now the orange hour before dusk and I was sitting about four or five feet away from the display, hidden behind dense foliage. The carnival gradually reached its zenith and it became clear that the feeding ceremony was now at hand. The Queen had indulged in about a dozen or so of these deep rolls- each time displaying to me a beautiful, golden flank (I was close enough to identify the fish as a female by her perfectly formed pelvic and smooth underbelly; the males, for all their good looks, sport a slightly ungainly ‘gonad’ sack above a misshapen pelvic)- when all of a sudden she upended and started tearing up the bottom of the drain… Dinner time… The junior fish then followed her lead and joined in. At this point I very slowly extended my rod out over the lilies and let my baited hook drop down a foot to the left of them. I watched as the tribe’s feeding bubbles ascended to the surface and created the much heralded ‘fizzing’ that is such a hallmark of midsummer tenching.
I’d had no idea how hierarchical tench could be- nor how idiosyncratic in their habits. I knew they lived in groups of varying size. Some fish can never do this. Pike being a classic example- the bigger ones eat the smaller ones. But these tench functioned as a team, with the Queen setting the pace. The smaller ones had come out first. Just as rabbits do. I’d spent the previous late summer catching up with some dusk rabbiting in a sleepy valley in South East Kent. The rabbits there all lived in and around an ancient bund of about four or five hundred metres long. Their routine was very similar. Adult tench are not explicitly a prey creature in the same way that rabbits are (the latter’s whole being is built for evasion)- but their dusk ‘carnival’ is very clearly based on avoiding predators. Not hard to reason why, I suppose, after an infancy spent avoiding pike and waterfowl. Danger from above. Likewise, the smaller rabbits would leave their strongholds three hours before dusk, firstly ‘standing to’ with their ears pricked- scanning for any possible sign of a threat (of which there are many); gradually they would relax and mill about the area. The key difference was that they would not ‘display’ or ‘patrol’ in the way that the tench did- the fish being a more assertive, more physical creature. But similarly, the bigger rabbits would gradually come out, one by one (the ‘doe’s first, rather dishonourably) until at last, the big ‘buck’ rabbits would emerge to feed. By this point it would be almost dark. The tench differed in that the males came out first. But otherwise they adopted a similar hierarchy.
As the evening progressed, it was obvious that the tench would eat nothing that I offered them- apart from (perhaps) the hempseed which they may well have been scooping up alongside their natural food. But no ‘big’ items. They would not touch meat, sweetcorn, bread or any other ‘larger’ particle that I introduced. It was obvious that they were more interested in what the rake had brought up- the small microscopic lifeforms, as well as snails and worms. The water was so clear that I could actually see them turning their noses up at my alien offerings; more agonising still was watching fish approach my hook-bait and then reject it. I decided to change my tactics immediately; I retired to the pub for a pint of the black stuff- followed by a torpid night’s sleep.
I returned the next afternoon with a pot of lobworms and a pint of maggots. I’d also stripped the line on my centrepin reel and replaced it with a much stronger one. This turned out to be the right decision. The whole drain was a living snag and the possibility of hooking a nine or ten pounder below the rod tip forced my hand. Again, I had time before the fish ventured out. However, this evening I could not locate the main tribe- only the scouts, whom I stalked back and forth until one came within range of my float. This fish was pacing up and down in the same manner as the night before but seemed to have more of a definite ‘flight-path’ than his brothers, so I introduced a worm directly into the middle of it and waited for him to make his pass. After two minutes, he was on his way again; he had appeared to go past the worm when in a millisecond he turned like lightning, shot down to the bottom and sucked it up. I watched him take it and then move off- my float dragging behind him for two seconds before submerging. I then struck hard and was into a terrific, dashing fight. The fish instantly dived into a heavy weedbed. Any tench above two pounds fights very hard and it’s hard to explain to a non-angler just how strong these creatures are, relative to their size. The superior line strength came in handy and after a short tug of war I’d landed my first marsh tench- a male of just below four pounds.
For the next couple of weeks, a similar routine emerged. I could locate and catch various scouts- but no Queens. Or even the ‘Princes’- those specimens of five or six pounds that I’d seen flanking the bigger fish. I’d typically head out onto the marshes every other weeknight and also spend some time there on the weekend. This is a fair amount of fishing time but the clock was ticking. The season for feeding tench is quite short. I only had a few more weeks left. One thing I did learn was that smaller baits were the key. The ‘Scouts’ didn’t always accept lobworms (and never took regular bait) but pretty much always fell to ‘dendrobenas’ (the smaller variety of worm you often find in compost heaps and rose beds).
One foggy evening a few weeks later- my luck changed for the better. I encountered a large gathering of tench about five metres away from the original position where I’d seen the first dusk dining party. This time I felt confident in my bait (the smaller worms) and decided to throw a few in as tempters before I engaged the fish. The tench, which looked to range between two and eight pounds, were feeding directly between two great lily beds and went crazy for the worms- with huge bubbles and ‘fizzing’ occuring wherever I introduced them. Soon enough, I lowered my bait directly into one of these areas. Within 45 minutes, I’d landed two tench of just below four pounds each. By now dusk was coming on rapidly… But I could still see very large, dark shapes moving around in the feeding area and knew that there were much bigger fish to be caught.
I made another cast and sat back. I had equipped myself with strong tackle in case I hooked one of the Princes- or even a Queen. But then so far every marsh fish had fought shockingly hard. One of my tools helped immensely- a 13ft long ‘tench’ rod, made especially for float fishing from weedy margins. The extra length was to prove invaluable in a few moments time. My line was the strongest I have ever used for tench and there is no finer reel for this kind of fishing than a centrepin… My float moved several times from ‘line’ bites- fish directly in the area bumping into my rig but not actually taking the bait. I became very tense and once again experienced the feeling of being watched. The fog was now at knee height. Suddenly, a flight of ducks flew past very quickly- just metres over my head- causing me to look up. There’d been seven mallards in formation; yet another wild creature with a distinctive dusk pattern.
As I looked down my float shot under… And it stayed under. After three seconds, I braced myself and struck extremely hard to my left. The hook went home and I knew instantly that the fish was big. Possibly a prince. It immediately made a sprint towards the tangled lily beds on my right. Coming up fast from the bottom now, it surfaced and pulled my rod tip down to the level of the water. I could not hold it. Line (of 10lbs breaking strain) peeled out of the reel in sudden, ungainly screams as it power-dived at least four feet into the beds. Once in the pads the fish submerged again, taking me down deep, deep into the lily roots and the world below. One tactic alone had saved me: at the moment it had entered the beds, I made the decision to hoist the full length of the rod out and over the pads. Because of this, considerably less line was exposed to the roots. The rod tip had just made the clear water as the fish started digging beneath me. I released a little more line and with what was spare I angled the rod higher- up to about 45 degrees- in order to gain leverage. The creature felt this and went beserk. Every lily in the vicinity shook from its roots up to its buds. At this point I held firm and gave no line. It was do or die. The rod would either absorb the shock or the line would snap… After thirty seconds of this, I still had direct contact and my opponent was tiring. But then suddenly the tench made a break for it- leaving the lilies as powerfully as it had entered them and sallying forth out into the wider channel. Open water. I gave line until it was well clear. Then I brought the rod back from the lilies and held it as far to the left of me as I could. I now had the angle. The fish knew it and tried to charge back into the chasm of pads. But this time I closed down and didn’t give an inch. The rod absorbed three violent pulls as it tried to re-enter. The tackle held, forcing the fish to give up and return to the main channel… It was over. I angled the rod high and let it cushion the last runs until the fish had exhausted itself on the open water. I then commenced pumping and reeling and after a few seconds the fish came into the net on its side like a half-sunk tug boat. A male; the biggest male tench I have ever caught at 6lbs 9oz. And also the most perfectly formed. By now a great coastal fog was enveloping everything around us so I quickly weighed him and took a photo.
Just as Mick had told me, the fish stared at me until I had to look away. At which point I could feel the entire marsh watching me.
I returned two dusks later and hooked an even bigger fish. I didn’t land it. Nor did it snag me or slip the hook. It simply charged off and snapped the line with brute force. I know it was a tench; like the previous fish it surfaced as it ran and I saw its massive olive shoulders and peat-green head. It was one of the resident ‘Queen’ tench and possibly ten pounds in weight. I don’t think in my life time I shall ever hook a stronger fish in that weight class- be it pike, salmon or bass.
By this point, the marsh was closing in on me. I used to take a bottle of ale or cider with me; just the one- I’m not particularly into drinking whilst fishing, and this concession was only due to most of my drain fishing being at dusk. But it offered no solace from whatever haunts the place. Nor any protection from its inhabitants. This was to be the last evening I made it out there- and I’ve never returned since. After I lost this final fish I cast out a few more times but was feeling progressively more ill as dusk turned to evening. I packed up, made the forty-five minute yomp back to my car and by the time I got home I was both shivering and sweating. At work the next day, my Head sent me home early. The doctor inspected me and found insect bites all over my arms and legs. For the next nine days or so my body temperature periodically heated up for hours at a time whilst on other occasions I would profusely sweat for twenty minutes or so… My sleeping hours were fitful and punctuated with strange dreams about Old Mick and the carnival of the tench. The symptoms were classic responses to an insect bite- an unusual occurrence in England. But then the marshlands are not a ‘usual’ place. They are beautiful, strange- and at times terrifying.