It’s hard to keep up with the river in July and to be fair, I don’t usually bother. When I was a child, I had extremely long summer holidays- ten weeks! I was the only kid in my neighbourhood who had this long a break and for the first four weeks, I was on my own. It was heaven. This was pond fishing time and in the still, early mornings I would either cycle or get a lift out to the Kentish countryside outside Sandwich where I would fish a couple of old brick pits. The pits had been abandoned in the 1930’s and made fabulous ponds; along with a subscription to the ‘Angler’s Mail’ and a battered old copy of ‘Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing’ that my dad brought home from an auction house one night, they became my apprenticeship to coarse fishing. Then later, when my friends all broke up, the remaining six weeks of summer would be spent playing football or bass fishing in the surf. The latter is a tradition which I still keep.
With the very odd exception, the river has always been sepia-tinged or snow-frosted for me. I’ve always avoided the halcyon months as running water feels so manic at this time of the year. I’ve taught for over a decade, and summer terms being what they are (all exams and deadlines) my mind is usually a chaotic mess by mid-July. The river just seems too full of ideas; too much like a jungle for me to settle and reflect. So my natural inclination is to follow my childhood blueprint and settle down to some lovely, calm pool for a spot of delicious float fishing. Then by August, I’m ready for bass fishing and the violence of the surf. The river is something for later. When school has recommenced and I can spend lovely Saturday afternoons chasing perch among the boats and leaf-filled pools of Grove Ferry and Pluck’s Gutter down on the Kentish Stour.
This year has been refreshingly different. During the last few weeks of the school term, I spent several summer evenings out on the Kentish marshes, searching for the giant dyke tench that snapped my line last year. A female of about ten pounds, although to my mind still a ‘grandfather’ fish- one of those giants that will haunt you until death unless caught. All quarry have a ‘grandfather’ spirit- hares, rabbits, perch- the full gamut of English country sports share this concept. A matchless creature, preeminent amongst its own tribe. When you fish or hunt for one particular animal, you become a little distracted at times. It’s compelling- and without question a siren for a certain type of male. My chosen landscape for this annual ‘giant tench’ hunt (and I shall continue each year until I catch her) is absolutely stunning. Marshlands are reclaimed from the ocean; the horizons are low here and the dusks stretch forever. They are strange too, and there are pockets that are unwelcoming, but the pervading feeling is one of calm. As a result, the last two weeks of the academic year saw my tempo dropping, as opposed to cranking up. When school finished, I didn’t feel like pond fishing. I also didn’t feel like tench fishing the dykes any more. Going after a single creature is all consuming. What I wanted was light relief; some fun- and for once at this time of the year, I was ready for ripples.
So I headed to the tidal Kentish Stour. I grew up near its estuary mouth, which is only about two or three miles from the marshes I’ve been fishing. A few more miles inland, the river becomes less saline and by the time you’ve reached the small villages between Sandwich and Canterbury, it’s a classic coarse fishing river with weeping willows, bankside pubs and boating clubs. An oasis of English calm and culture… But despite this cultivation, the river and its residents are far older and wilder than the dyke lands I would be leaving. The latter, remote and forbidding as they are, were made by men mere centuries ago. On the other hand the river was carved out by the ice age and has run for millennia. This last week has been one of the few occasions I’ve ever attempted to catch up with her in July.
I wanted ripples. Well, I got them. And sun, too… And rain; and rainbows. And perch, pike, eels and bream. It’s been an amazing first week of the school holidays- and an unsettling one, too. My float hasn’t stopped bobbing all week- and the weather hasn’t stayed the same for longer than ten minutes. It has been warm all week. Too warm at times. But it’s also rained torrentially and best of all, we’ve had the rainbows. The river as Falstaff, then: mercurial, capricious and greedy to experience everything all at once. For the most part I’ve loved it, but today I gave up. I’m all washed up. When the week commenced, I could see all the way to the bottom of the stream- beyond the fry and to the big, dustbin lid bream. But the river is full now and following days of rain, it’s a little too coloured for the type of fishing I want. When it was clear I saw lots of pike too. And caught them. Accidentally, I should add. The Kentish Stour is experiencing one of its intermittent explosions of jacks at the moment- possibly due to a lack of larger specimens to cull them. They’ve been ravenous and I’ve hooked a couple whilst reeling small roach and perch in to the bank; they’ve taken worm, too- and even maggots. I’ve also seen more insects than ever before on the river; it’s been alive with damsel and dragonflies. And far too many horseflies for my liking. You never see them in the autumn…
Harder fighting than the pike was a big river bream I hooked at Grove Ferry. You know things have been turned on their head when a bream scraps harder than a pike. This seemed a meet metaphor for the mercurial nature of the river this week. I thought at first that I’d hooked a carp… It tore off and spent a full minute thumping around underneath a boat, before finally (very grudgingly) coming to the net. It weighed a good six pounds or so and, with chestnut scales on bronze flanks, rates as one of the most handsome bream I’ve ever caught.
I stayed late one night on a wooded stretch that borders the huge nature reserve at Stodmarsh and heard baby tawny owls trying to sing. It reminded me of when I lived on Putney Heath a few years back. There was a huge colony of them there, completely unabashed by the urban sprawl. It was nice to hear their old voice again… But the blackbirds won’t sing again until next year. They were just about done when the week started. I heard a couple of chirps and a bit of broken song last weekend but the rain has finished that.
It’s also brought to an end the time of year I associate with pond fishing and still waters. When the river recovers from the recent deluge, it will be the second week of August. By then summer is in its third, final act. I won’t go back to the main river now until September. I have a couple of side streams I want to fly fish for trout and dace, but they’re fairly well off the beaten track. In any case, I’ll spend most of August bass fishing.
When I next see the river proper, it will be back to its reliable old self. Leaves will be starting to fall, the days will be closing in- and the perch will be waiting for me on every bend.