… Flumen Venatores…
I started the perch season late last summer by taking a lovely great stripey from the ancient Miller’s Pool in Canterbury city centre- not too far from the Cathedral. It was a real monster and my beautiful old cane rod had to be angled high and hard to get the fish past all the snags. Afterwards I drank some delicious, hoppy Kentish ale in the local- the Miller’s Arms- and promised myself I would go back for more. Both to the pool and the pub. But I have done neither.
In the end, and as usual, I found more fascination eastwards- out beyond the city walls and into the open Kentish country. One of my favourite haunts is the so-called Grove Ferry, a beauty spot on the tidal Stour, nestled somewhere in the fields between the coast and the city. In August great tribes of fry gather in the deep, cool pools underneath the willows there. If you arrive at noon you can lay flat and have a snooze. It’s not difficult. Particularly if you’ve already had a cider or two at the ancient riverside inn.
What’s more, the whole area used to be a lavender farm and you can still sometimes smell it amongst the various water mints. It can be a precarious business to lay your head down in any part of Southern England in the summer. But to do so by the riverside at this time of the year invites deep slumber. For most of the season you are very quickly stunned to rest and so cannot even fully savour your repose. You lay dumb and tranquillised among the dry scrub before waking up feeling slightly cheated, with a wet mouth and numb cheeks. The bankside herbs are half-baked and the earth is scorched.
But then in those last days of August, nature leaves her oven door open and great balmy draughts rustle their way through the willow leaves and you fall asleep with the river. You wake up refreshed and it is mid-afternoon in late summer. Gone is the mass hysteria of every living thing in the vicinity. You can actually detect individual insect sounds. Any remaining birdsong is subdued and slightly dolorous. And as you look into the river you can focus and see deep down into its belly.
You can see the shoals of fry, turquoise and serpentine in the black underneath the willow branches. Millions upon millions of tiny fish grouped together into tight globules, moving as one in the current and performing spectacular underwater murmurations just like the great flocks of starlings do over fields… Protection from predators. Protection from the beautiful deaths that hover above and lurk beneath them. As the attacks begin, then the angler sees his chance. A brightly painted bobber is tossed down into the stream, baited with a worm or a prey fish… The perch and kingfisher season has begun.
During the last few weeks of the real sun, I intercepted several lovely perch on the edges of these fry schools- up to about a pound and a half in weight. None quite as big as the ‘Miller’s Pool Beast’, but just as aggressive and lithe. The smaller perches are the prettiest and can rival a kingfisher for beauty. In common with their avian cousins they sport cute, inky eyes- and possess a plumage equal to that of any kingfisher. I even managed to catch one on a float inlaid with kingfisher feathers. The perch was on the cusp of adulthood; when I hooked it, the fish exploded into a weed bed and I had to take my time angling the rod back and forth until I wedged it free.
But the real joy of a place like this is to watch both the kingfishers and the perch at work. A few hours after the sun starts to cool, they both appear. The kingfisher at various ambush spots in the trees around the river, and the big daddy perch nestled in amongst the roots beneath them. One lives in the sky and the other lives in the water. But they both hunt the river- and are experts at it. I could never catch as many fish as they do- nor be so adept at it… So I don’t try… But I do try my best to understand my prey… And my prey they are- although I mean neither any harm. The kingfisher least of all- since I only mean to watch him and perhaps take a photograph.
As the season turned colder, it meant I couldn’t turn up early and take a nap. And naturally I had to change my drinking routine to after my visits. But in general, the game stays the same; it’s just that the active window for hunting gets smaller. In the early stages, when it’s warmer, the birds and the fish hunt for much longer- maybe several hours. In the cooler months you have perhaps two hours- at a maximum- to see your kingfishers and catch your perch. And it all usually happens in the two hours before dusk.
In mid autumn I caught my biggest perch of the season. A giant river fish of almost two and half pounds. Bigger than my flat cap! And I take a 7 3/4- only certain styles by Olney and Christys’ actually fit me. The perch took a roach bait fished underneath a big, bright red bobber… I hooked it below an old willow tree situated on a bend in the river. It disappeared, running deep down into the centre of the river with the bait and the float. At first I thought I’d hooked a pike (a possibility and as a precaution I’d used a wire trace)… But then I saw its wonderful flanks flashing and striping in the gloam.
Big perch coming out of cold water are an amazing sight. And it’s a lovely experience to be their captor; the nearer it gets to the solstice, the more and more they seem to sparkle. The water gets darker and more impenetrable; when you do catch a giant, the full, opal spectrum of their colours is revealed. When at last I got the fish into the shallows I realised it was probably the second biggest river perch I’d ever caught. As such I treated it with the respect due such an old champion. When I couldn’t find my unhooking mat- I used my flat cap as a resting place for the creature. I washed the hat afterwards in river water and still wear it most days. A badge of honour, I suppose.
In the couple of months since, I’ve fished and walked the river but have had a hard time locating the bigger perch again.
However I have encountered many more wonderful kingfishers.
With or without the cap, I never fail to feel a little silly in their presence.