Yesterday I walked the Kentish levels in search of a pike. I love towns, but it’s important to celebrate where they end. I treasure those wonderful sensations of ellipsis as buildings, trees and factories pass you by and magically become fields, woods and rivers. Then all of a sudden you’re there… Out of town.
The same concept applies to daytime- especially in the colder months. A winter’s dusk is like a fine wine. You need a whole bottle if you are to experience its full romance. Hours in the making, it must be lived through; I like to arrive just prior to the first hints of rose on the horizon- about an hour after midday in an English December. Yesterday I packed my pike fishing gear and drove just west of the old Kentish village, Sarre. I was about six miles inland as the crow flies (around double that as the river winds) but just a few hundred years ago the whole area was seafront property. The Wantsum Channel has since silted up and provided a land connection to the rest of England. But the country here still has the feel of a lost nether region; its levels stretch far, wide and low- providing a sublime vantage point for dusk celebrators. Be they birders, ramblers or would-be pike catchers.
I arrived slightly later than usual. Dusk was already underway, albeit with a few hours left before nightfall; I parked up in a lay-by, walked twenty or so yards beyond some trees and promptly disappeared from the civilised world. It was cold and the river ran a dark, inky shade of navy; the bordering trees, denuded of their autumnal leaves, stood guarding the river bank in bare bones. Between their branches the sky was already tickled a lovely, delicate pink and above them it turned by degrees into a faint, baby blue.
On an afternoon like this, I like to stalk out in the wild. Usually angling or wildlife photography are fine ways to fulfil the ‘urge’. I don’t fish for pike too often- and certainly never in the same place for all that long. But their pursuit is emblematic of the winter season and can be one of the most thrilling ways to enjoy an English dusk. I like to make a few special trips throughout the season. This one was a spur of the moment decision; I’d finished my Christmas shopping that morning and was having an early lunch when I felt an overwhelming urge to go out into the countryside and do battle with a pike. The logical and learned part of my brain told me this was stupid; it was freezing, after all. But- typically- a deeper, more primal voice won me over. Within 15 minutes I’d rejected my cosy hibernaculum in favour of an icy river walk. In earnest, it had been building up for months; the dream of a real winter pike session where you can see your breath hanging in the air- and the cold takes on a personality all of its own.
I soon warmed up as I walked the river. It was cold but it didn’t hurt like it can in some Decembers- and most Januarys. I took very simple tackle (rod, centrepin reel, float) and kept moving to stay warm, looking all the while to drift a small, dead ‘prey’ fish (on this trip a roach) into various tempting looking spots. Eddies, slacks, overhanging trees and undercut banks all being prime pike habitats where they like to hide before pouncing on lesser fish. Beneath my feet, autumn’s detritus was starting to turn black. The leaves logged high in places, smothering my path and choking up the river bed; but I enjoyed trudging through them. The pink continued to rise; it had floated above the treeline and into the sky proper, which had now turned a darker shade of blue.
A float is a medium for connecting with nature. The process of float fishing is itself a type of séance. You cast into a pool. You watch and wait for a response. Sometimes for hours. It may look outwardly idle but in actual fact the angler is mentally perched and waiting for contact from ‘the other side’; an older, more primitive world. Pike floats are huge- in order to support the larger baits involved- and when you receive a bite, the float usually bobs around a lot before moving off. It’s a highly visual art form- and it’s never short of electrifying. The pike at the other end might weigh three pounds or it could be a ‘forty’.
I only had one chance to make ‘contact’ yesterday. Some time had passed and dusk was reaching its third act. I’d walked a fair amount and it had definitely gotten colder. I also bitterly regretted my decision not to bring some of the chocolate cake that was sitting on my kitchen table; after a while I began to see apparitions of it in the water. And in the sky too- where the baby blues were now long gone. Behind me on my side of the bank, the roses were now receding as the gloam advanced rapidly. But on the other side where the sun was setting- the pinks had exploded into great mauve ribbons, streaking and vandalising the exposed vista.
The bite came as I started to think about heading home; the thought of the pub- or a slice of that cake- had become too strong to resist for much longer. Also I’d started to reproach myself for dawdling too long along the way. Too many casts in one spot; waiting around in another place for a kingfisher to reappear etc… Now I wouldn’t have the time to get to my intended destination of ‘Blood Point’- a large bend in the river where Alfred the Great saw off a huge Viking army over a thousand years ago. In fact Alfred killed so many of them that the river ran red with blood- hence the name. I had reached a large submerged bush a few hundred metres downstream from this spot and decided to make it my last stand.
The roach and the float hit the water about five metres before the sunken foliage and I intended to let them drift to within an inch of it before hauling in. I did this, albeit to no avail. But as I was pulling in, some fry scattered on the surface- just ahead of the bush though still in fairly slack water; no pike angler in the world would ignore a sign like this. I cast my bait in and again watched the float descend. It showed up well in the dusk (it’s a big, bright red float- inlaid with kingfisher feathers to satiate my ridiculous angling superstitions) and this time I let it drift deeper and to the front of the branches. As it reached the spot where the fry had leapt, it stopped and bobbed under about four or five times. It then slowly sank about two feet into the river and started to travel to the other side of the bush- into much deeper water and nearer still to underwater tangles and tree roots.
I struck hard and thought at first I’d hooked a snag. But the snag then started to move violently back and forth. It wasn’t a huge fish- but it was clearly no ‘jack’ (the name we give for pike up to about five or six pounds). I let some line release from my centrepin as the pike made for midstream and then submerged my rod as I guided it back and across the front of the bush. When it reached the net, it did what all self-respecting pike do and ran off again for open water. I was using strong tackle but I was forced to give the fish line in stages until his charge softened. He then came grudgingly in; once near the net he again went beserk- soaking me with huge, violent tail splashes- but I was able to land him and bring him to the bank. He looked to be about nine or ten pounds- I didn’t weigh him- and was an immensely handsome creature.
I released the fish and paced about beaming. I was mildy adrenalised and gradually realised that I didn’t want to go home any more, so I poured a tea and sat on the river bank with my legs in the water. Drinking it slowly, I thought about the pike. And then about Alfred. By now the landscape behind me was shadow-clad but ahead of me, towards ‘Blood Point’, the thuggish pink streaks of half an hour earlier had graduated into violent, purgatorial purples; the diurnal consummation was now in full swing and the land had entered that glorious window of time when it is neither day nor night. I decided to postpone a later social engagement and head for the point- if for no other reason than in honour of Alfred.
I got there a few minutes later and all that was left of the dipping sun was a pulpy mass of blood orange which was slowly melting into the horizon. I switched to an even bigger float, a huge great old thing that resembles an estuary buoy, and cast it into a slack just before the bend. After a few minutes the sun disappeared completely and my ears adjusted to a different type of silence. And for what might ascend. For what horror might unfold. A great mist rose from the river and shrouded the field behind me. In my mind’s eye, the opposite bank became an alternate reality. Its trees seemed like spectres whilst a solitary, late bat danced among their branches as I sat and waited in this old corner of England- staring across the abyss.