“Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you…”
The Wild Perch of Black Dyke
Part Three: The Devil of the Dyke
I woke up early the next day and hit the road; a combination of dragon-dreams and rising mist buoyed me up as I drove through the countryside. This part of Kent- the estuarial lands- is beautiful. I couldn’t think of many areas where I’d rather coarse fish, even if it can be difficult at times. Coastal dykes are exposed places and the fish soon learn to hide, becoming wandering tribes to keep the various bird-predators guessing. I’d already experienced this when tenching a separate part of the drains- there are simply no easy swims; no freebies. An entire shoal can reside in a fixed location one day and then be half a mile away the next. I got to my intended track and slowed the car down.
The approach to a wild fishing spot is always eerier at dawn. Many night creatures are still up; you have to be mindful of badgers and foxes coming back across the fields and forgetting about roads. The only animal I disturbed today was a heron, who was busy posing just down from the spot where I’d caught my first perch yesterday. I hate to upset herons, who are fishing for food whilst I’m doing it for exhilaration and adventure. It’s funny how nervous these larger creatures are; the next beast I encountered was a robin red breast- the James Cagney of the bird world. This one jumped and chirped around within feet of me, until I tossed him a worm.
I then threw some chopped worms in for the other great gangster of the dykes- the perch. I’d brought red maggots and started to trickle some of those in, too. All schoolboy stuff I learned as a kid but it’s my favourite form of fishing; I can do it all day. I love to fly fish and beach-cast locally, but I can’t stick at them the way I can with float fishing. Floats mesmerise and hypnotise you; add to this a mysterious, beautiful location- and many men are lost to the world. For this campaign (foolishly, I love that term when it’s applied to fishing) I’d picked two real beauties: a vintage red bobber and a striking, feathered float made from a Moet champagne cork.
To begin with, I stayed an hour in last night’s spot but caught nothing. The day was now starting to emerge and it was looking lovely. A faint blue sky was breaking through the clouds and various birds were starting to spiral and hunt. Yesterday’s mist seemed a distant memory… As did that solitary perch- I passed the whole day without catching one.
A little after two ‘o’ clock, my float received a transmission from the world below. It didn’t come like a perch bite; there was no bobbing. Instead it just cycled round and round until I hit it. Pulling the rod high to keep the fish away from the weeds, I soon had it cradled in my net. But what was this? A flounder, of all things! I should have known from the bite. And I needn’t have been so surprised. These waters are estuarial; a brackish half world where mullet and flatfish swim alongside carp, all getting fat upon a diet of marine shrimps. This flounder obviously fancied a change and went for my worm.
A couple more perch-less hours passed before dusk began to come on. It was almost pitch black by the time I reached the next point of interest- another sluice. This one was smaller but like most of these man-made structures, it had a grim fascination about it. I knew it would be the first place I’d fish tomorrow; I find a thrill in visiting these remote structures. They’re not pretty but oddly, there’s a romance to them. You often find inscriptions from years ago. This one had some but I didn’t photograph them as I was too busy thinking about all the fish that must be lurking beneath it.
I was busy the next morning but got back to the marsh by about one in the afternoon. It was another pleasant day and despite the sluice’s attraction, it felt slightly wrong to be starting off my fishing at such a place; for one thing, I had to descend twenty feet down a steep slope. By the time I got to the bottom, I was level with the drain’s surface and I’d lost all sight of the beautiful fields above; I was also deprived of any birdsong, which was now replaced by the sluice’s slow murmuring and gurgling.
The central point of all these contraptions is a gate, which opens and closes according to a timer set by the environment agency. The aim is to control the levels and keep the lowlands from flooding. The deepest hole will always be a few feet downstream of the gate, where a groove will form due to the repeated release of pressurised water. I plumbed the depth and found it was just over eleven feet. I’d already descended twenty feet, so I calculated that the hole went down at least thirty feet beneath the farmland. I began to suffer visions of huge, ugly perch with deep-sea monster eyes and before long the sluice had completely captured my imagination. The dreamy landscapes up above- the birds, the skies- I’d suddenly lost interest in all of it.
I decided to plumb the depth again, just to be really sure. Everything around me fell silent- or at least felt silent- as I winched the lead down. Again, it hit the bottom at eleven feet, with the float cocking precisely where it had before. I began drawing up. Suddenly, just as the plumbing weight was coming into view, a perch of about a pound came out of nowhere and attacked it. And I do mean ‘attacked’; the fish didn’t try to eat the weight but rather butted it and shoved it as though trying to warn it off. Or warn me off- the vibrations carried on up the line, through the rod and straight into my hands. It would appear that I’d disturbed an ancient order. The observer in me felt like leaving. The angler in me would hear no such nonsense. By this point, I was consumed; like a cat with a mouse. Within a minute, I was lowering a worm down into the hole. Something grabbed it half way down; it was a beautiful little perch of about six ounces.
I carried on like this for some time, catching eight fish up to about half a pound in weight, before going ‘up top’ for some scenery- and some lunch. It’s amazing how tasty a cheese and pickle sandwich can become after a day out in the English countryside. I looked west and started yearning to wander again. The plains are so pretty here that it’s hard to resist them; but behind me, I could again hear the low belching of the sluice-gate. Not the most pleasant sound, but a spell is a spell. There was no way I’d be leaving this place today. I was convinced that something bigger was down there. I finished off my lunch and descended for the dusk run. There were now three hours before darkness, which is an exciting time of the day for perch anglers. Moreover, we were coming into the Harvest Moon; from now until the Hunter’s Moon is peak season for perching. The fish sense winter and hunt much more actively, trying to pack the fat on before everything stops. Sometimes it feels too easy, like an autumnal version of the trout fisher’s mayfly season.
It didn’t feel like that this afternoon. The small fish all disappeared and I went without a bite for some time. But this gave me a renewed reason for hope. Perhaps a larger fish had moved in and scared them off- perch are the most fantastic cannibals. My bait was now reaching the bottom, too; perch can feed at all water levels, but the water was so clear here that it made no sense to put it anywhere but the deck. A big fish could see everything from down there… Especially a grand-daddy perch, the one who watches all the others; a monster of the deep who’s been out here for years, undisturbed and certainly unfished for… I daydreamed like this for some time. The location assisted me; there is very little angling presence out here. What fish you catch are yours; they don’t belong to clubs or day ticket waters. Of course, I return them. I could never eat a perch, having respected them as a quarry since my school days. But not knowing what you will catch- and being the first to do so- is hugely alluring. I’m not saying that all of my fishing requires such effort; far from it- I’m a confirmed hobbit in most aspects of my life- but there are times in an angler’s career when the local pond loses its lustre; then he must explore wild places. Taking a fish from such locations answers many questions. In a strange way, it also resets the rest of your angling life; eventually, your wanderlust subsides and you become fascinated again with the village pond.
But not before you take your trophy. The sun was lowering now and it lit up my corner of the dyke so that I could see to about three quarters of the way down the drain. When at last I got a bite, it was tiny. The float hardly budged before dipping. There was none of the usual violence associated with a perch bite but it did keep moving and as I watched, the float sank deeper and deeper. It was moving back towards the gate; in the half-light, it was like watching a tiny, painted satellite spinning towards an abyss. When I finally lost sight of it, I struck upwards and towards the open water. I hit into a decent fish, which immediately yanked my rod downwards in a series of dashes that pulled me closer to the submerged gate and its potential snags. All the while, the sluice bubbled and whirred its displeasure until suddenly the fish broke free and made for the shallower water. My line slackened and I reeled hard to achieve tension; the last thing any perch angler wants is a loose connection- the fish are masters at throwing hooks and a tight leash is essential if you wish to bank them. When it reached the upper layers, it tried bombing into a weed-bed adjacent to the sluice; twice, it got in and twice I angled it back out before it surfaced. Guiding it towards the net was no easy task due to an overhanging blackberry bush; I was aided in this by my favourite rod for these locations- my thirteen foot long ‘dyke-buster’, as I’ve come to call it; a shorter rod is an unnecessary hardship whilst dyke fishing. A longer wand positions floats and controls fights perfectly out here. Including this one, which was now finished at perhaps just over a minute- a long time for a perch on six pounds line. I raised the fish up and over the barrier.
It was a good fish; not quite the deep water ‘Dyke Devil’ that I’d been dreaming of all afternoon but at least one of his demons. He weighed in at two pounds and two ounces, which made him all the more important to me; last year was the first season in years that I didn’t catch a fish of over two pounds. I’d hardly got out and when I did, I caught small fish so it’d been two years since I saw a perch this big- or this wild. Don’t get me wrong, a perch could be wild if it lived in a barrel; I’ve caught some huge fish from local farm ponds- and hope to do so again. But it felt incredible to raise up something so pretty from such a lonely spot. My internal mapbook was changing again; this location would now forever carry the note- ‘The Wild Perch of Black Dyke’. It was getting darker now; before leaving I noticed a huge swirl and some splashing at the other side of the sluice. I’d bought a pike rod with me and a small pack of bait so I spent the last half an hour trying to catch whatever was responsible for the commotion, but was unsuccessful.
It was soon dark and the dyke was beginning to mist over. I decided to call it a day. I would try this spot again tomorrow before making my way into the open country beyond; I’d glimpsed the spirit of the plains during my earlier lunch break and it wouldn’t be long before I was wandering again. I got back to my car to find the sky starting to burn orange on the horizon; the harvest moon wasn’t far off. A fox called out in the distance and I felt glad to be homeward bound. It’s not a secret that I don’t like the dykes after dark. I did say I was a somewhat of a hobbit, didn’t I?
All hobbits follow routines and before getting home I found myself in my local pub, supping a jug of ale with two of my regular pals, Pete and Ray. I had my rod quiver and rucksack with me so I got asked a few questions. The same old stuff- ‘Where’s my fish, Craddock?’ etc. Ray will usually ask me why I’ve been coarse fishing instead of sea fishing but he did once witness me pulling a lovely bass out of the local bay, just a few hundred yards from this pub. Further along the coast is the estuary and beyond that the dykes, where the dusks last forever and the perch live secret, wild lives far from mankind. I tried to relay some of this to the lads but was rightly mocked for my attempts. After a while, the ale kicked in and I started thinking about that huge explosion I’d witnessed in the water, just before dusk. Perhaps it wasn’t a pike? Maybe it was a giant perch. No. That was silly, I told myself. There are no such things as monsters… There is no ‘Dyke Devil’!
But then again, the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist.