“Autumn… The year’s last, loveliest smile”
– John Howard Bryant
The Wild Perch of Black Dyke
Part One: Cowboys and Englishmen
We are not so far removed from the plains, you and I. In fact, when I’m strolling a stretch of Kentish lowland with a rod and a pair of binoculars, I sometimes feel like I’ve drifted onto the set of a Western. A very English Western, where tumbleweeds are replaced by hedgerows and condors by kestrels. It’s not so hard to pretend; after all, if you look into the heart of any true Englishman, you’ll find a child. Out in the open country, away from work, money and other formalities, I still play many of the same games I learned as a boy. In the autumn, I like to hunt the perch… And that is the greatest game of them all.
I’m writing this first part of my story whilst on a lunch break. I currently work as a supply teacher and was called out this morning to cover English for the day at a local grammar. The classroom I’ve been allotted has two huge windows that look out onto the green, where there stands a family of ancient horse chestnut trees. As I’m watching, a pack of boys are throwing sticks up to knock the conkers down. I’m secretly jealous; I’d love to have a go myself. But I’m happy to make do with some bird spotting; when I was last here, I saw a greater spotted woodpecker beating up one of the older trees.
At this time of the year, I like to keep track of the incoming migratory birds; my local church graveyard is the best place to spot goldcrests, the smallest of all autumnal spirits, who will be arriving any day from Scandinavia.
I also like to spot jays; they’re on the church grounds all year round but hide so well that I rarely see them fully. The autumn downpour of acorns brings them out of their hiding places and into plain view. I have given entire afternoons over to jay-stalking; most often I find them by chance, but sometimes it’s possible to trace their woeful cries to a point of origin. Last week, I found one sitting on top of a gravestone singing a lament for its owner. I rarely photograph jays any more; in fact, I’m beginning to think the only way to truly capture any bird would be to paint one. Perhaps I’ll learn how to use watercolours for next autumn.
The coarse fisher doesn’t need a church in the autumn; the great outdoors becomes one for him. The once infinite summer sky lowers to become a dome and the sounds of the land grow ever more solemn. All England is praying to survive the coming gloam; the ice-days. Not only praying, but performing various rituals, too. At dusk in an English field, everything speeds up and becomes far more urgent than in the summer time; whilst you watch, a waking spider weaves an entire web in the corner of your mind’s eye; a distant roe buck barks your presence to others watching and waiting at the wood’s edge… And the perch must feed before the land grows dark. It must fatten before the freeze- so its dining grows ever more reckless and splashy. Just like the jay, its hunger gives it away.
All creatures, including humans, feel an autumnal desire to hunt and gather before it’s too late. My mother goes blackberry picking- she makes the most amazing pies; I love foraging and sometimes go with her, but more often than not I’ll reach for my fishing rod. I can stalk birds and pick fruit but I have to catch a fish, which I feel deepens my involvement within the natural order. And above all other fish, the perch is the ultimate autumn trophy; I’ve pursued them all over the county, taking good ones from drains, rivers, farm ponds, flooded brick pits and even crowded city centres- I once took a big perch from a mill pool round the corner from Canterbury Cathedral.
My largest fish have all come in the autumn. A perch of two or three pounds may not sound heavy, but it’s one of the biggest spectacles the English countryside has to offer- right up there with goldcrests, jays- and even the great starling murmurations. No other fish can match its looks; from the flame-cast fins to the crown of spikes, its whole being commands the eye’s attention. Because of this, they were an extremely popular quarry for Victorian trophy fishers, who used to have them stuffed and set up by a taxidermist. Thankfully there are cameras these days, but we still chase ‘specimen’ fish and, despite what anyone might say, most perch anglers want to catch a three pounder.
Angling shouldn’t be a numbers game but I’ll admit I got obsessed at one point and did eventually get my ‘three’. My perching has since calmed down. I seem to enjoy it more. I don’t think I could aim for a four-pounder, so instead I just hope for one and enjoy whatever comes along. God only knows how I’d react if I caught a fish bigger than that size… They surely don’t exist, do they?…
Giant-hunting aside, the other big grail for perch fishers is finding new territory. It’s what we talk about in the pub and what I dream about when I’m at work. It could be the neglected corner of a lake or a forgotten beat on the river. Or something larger- a water in its own right.
This autumn, I’ve found myself the latter. A stretch of waterlogged English countryside all to myself; well, myself and very few other anglers. Wild, free fishing, off the beaten track, with nobody to disturb me except the condors- sorry- kestrels. I’ll tell you how I found it next time; there are waters just like it everywhere. The vast majority contain fish. And if they contain fish, then they must contain pike or perch or perhaps both; fresh water fish populations don’t stay fresh for very long without a resident predator to cull the sick.
My story involves game-keepers, country roads, cowboy fishermen and outlaw teachers. Its backdrop is the Kentish lowlands; the plains, for want of a better word, which I’ve been a-wandering and exploring over these past few weeks. It’s been a tremendous start to the perch season and I only hope I can relay some of it into words…
The rest, I suppose, will remain a riddle of the plains.