“Grown men can learn from very little children, for the hearts of the little children are pure. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss”
Black Elk, Lakota Chief
The Wild Perch of Black Dyke
Final Part: The Spirit of the Plains
The next morning, a period of high pressure came over the marsh, widening its horizon and pushing the sky high again like in the summer. But it was different now; we were approaching October and the sky was a darker, kingfisher blue. I returned early to the same dark hole where I’d fished yesterday but caught nothing at all this time; by mid-day, I was bored and climbed up above the sluice to have my lunch. An east wind was beginning to fumble its way across the fields and by the time I’d finished eating, the branches in the distant trees were beginning to dance a little. I poured a brew and sat awhile. A mild breeze, combined with some good tea is perhaps superior to fishing even, as a mode of appreciating the countryside. I can never tell the difference between idling and meditating, but after a while I was doing one of the two. I must have been doing a good job at it because at some point I fell asleep. When I woke up, the wind had started to whistle and brought with it the smell of fresh mud and brambles. I decided to follow its direction; I bade the hole goodbye. At the time of writing I haven’t been back, but I shall certainly return.
I wandered west for a few hours, stopping here and there for a quick cast and to have some more tea. I caught no fish all day. Near dusk, I watched a hobby weave its way upstream, dining on dragonflies as it went. By now the wind had grown stronger still and with it came an itinerant high-pitched squeaking noise. I’d looked up here and there to see the odd flock of tits making their way inland and quite fancied that there must be some goldcrests in amongst them. Their heavenly chiming is a sound that I associate most with one of my local churches- St Laurence of Ramsgate; it’s not far inland and represents a resting spot for some birds and a winter home for others. They usually arrive at this time of year, having flown over from Scandinavia on an east wind. Along with jays and perch, they’re an autumnal obsession for me; they don’t stay long on the flats but do bunch up for a while at the other end of the marsh, in the trees and bushes before the high ground starts.
The next day, my fifth on the flats, I decided to leave the fishing rod at home and go in search of the goldcrests. I drove for most of the way, passing Black Dyke and eventually parking up next to a bridleway near the western limits of the levels. The south coast marshes exist in pockets; they’re broken up by high ground and settlements. They’re also punctuated by railways; this morning I decided to walk alongside a track which would lead me to a large coppice that marks out that end of the marsh. I started at nine and, being a child of the 80’s, couldn’t help but think of the movie ‘Stand by Me’, where the gang of kids make their way in country by following the railroad. The marsh lines, just like the sluices, are quite romantic in their way. You often find pillboxes and old brick huts stationed next to the tracks; I stopped off at one to eat my lunch. There was the usual mixture of cobwebs and inscriptions- some of which went back a long way.
During the second world war, the whole area was heavily militarized and the southern levels were front-line territory; last year on the local bay, the army blew up half a dozen embedded German bombs; my father and I witnessed one going off from his back-garden in Pegwell. My parents’ house overlooks the whole of the bay and is a great place to spot seals, migratory birds and various raptors, especially sparrowhawks; one dive-bombed a bush just yards from us last summer, nearly giving my dad a heart attack. The Nazi plans to invade southern England- ‘Operation Sea Lion’- called for a forty division invasion front stretching from Ramsgate down to Lyme Regis. If successful, then this marsh and all the surrounding low ground would have seen the first of many Ango-German tank battles; of course, it never took place but the shadows of its possibility remain. Bits of old barbed wire sometimes crop up in the brambles; a friend found a service lighter here once. And then there are these forgotten structures, which were rapidly installed as part of the wider field defences during the early part of the war.
But it wasn’t Nazi invaders I was searching for today- it was Vikings. Miniature ones. Goldcrests are tiny, roughly the size of a ping-pong ball and it always amazes me how they get from one end of the marsh to the other, let alone fly all the way from Scandinavia. But their relationship with the four winds is a special one. A creature that weighs the same as a ten pence coin (they’re half the weight of a wren) must be able to feel a door slamming from a mile away. So I trod carefully as I approached my destination- a coppice on the western end of the marsh, not far from where I tench fish in the summers. I walked from one end to the other, hearing but not seeing goldcrests until finally I sat still in the middle of the woods and waited. Eventually, all was revealed- within two hours I must have seen a dozen, not to mention several thrushes and towards dusk a very old, tired looking fox. When I emerged it was almost night-time and the bats were out, flittering up and down the drains with the falling leaves.
I slept late the following morning and decided to give the marshes a miss. The next day would be the final one of my week and I decided to give it my all on the perch front. I got up early and was on the marsh before the sun was fully up. Driving down the track I spotted a hare, the first I’ve seen in this location; further west, the gypsies used to course for them. However, last year the farmer installed half-gates at intervals along the bridleway and it seems to have stopped them. It also meant a longer walk to my tenching grounds, but it’s nice to think that there might be more hare out here as a result. I hardly see any; perhaps next spring I’ll make a point of scouting for them. Having parked up, I trudged out to my spot for the day, a ‘C’ shaped bend on Black Dyke; its ‘bulge’ protruded west and so would soak up the prevailing east winds. The idea is that the tiny food particles and water daphnia get blown into the groove; these are then followed by hungry bait fish such as roach and rudd, who in turn are pursued by the perch. This is about as technical as my fishing gets; it’s not a guarantee of success but I usually follow the wind. I got to the bend just after eight in the morning and unpacked my Millican bag in time for tea with the dragonflies.
Before long the hobby was back; it was early October now and these dragon-snacks are surely the final fattening up before he sets off for South Africa. The east wind should have sufficiently alarmed him; I wouldn’t be surprised if this was his last day on the marshes, as well as my own. As I started to fish, the last of the dawn breeze melted away and there was a period of total tranquillity over the water; by ten ‘o’ clock, I could have heard a pin drop from a mile away. The character of any marsh is chameleon; open wide spaces meet the weather head on. The same location can feel completely different from one day to the next; marshlands are at the mercy of the weather, particularly the wind- which is the main reason I don’t fish them too often in the winter. But in the autumn our relationship with the wind is at its most delicate. You can see it dancing among fallen leaves, and hear it at night begging to get in at your window. The winter winds neither dance nor beg so when the autumn finishes, I find a cosy pond or stretch of river, cushioned by woods of course, where I can pike or roach fish in relative comfort.
Nowhere is the autumn wind felt more intimately than on the marshes. You can see it before it hits you out here, tumbling slowly in across the plains and bringing scents, birds and spirits with it. Today I was hoping it would bring a big perch- the great hunter spirit of the English countryside. By lunch time I’d covered every nook and crannie on the bend save for the deepest run, on its furthest downstream channel. I was storing this up for after lunch; my theory was that the bait I was throwing in upstream would slowly drift down to the deeper water. There’s very little flow on the drains so I was banking on a ‘casserole’ effect of bait and then bait fish collecting up downstream. Any perch arriving after mid-day should think it’s meal time. After refreshments (tea and Cadbury’s today) I began to cast around the deeper area with my bobber and worm, eventually hooking a fish- only to lose it after ten seconds. Perch are master head-shakers and I can only guess I had struck too early; for whatever reason, the hook hadn’t hit home and I felt awful. The fish had pulled hard and was probably a good one. I fished on for another hour, neither experiencing a bite nor seeing any signs of fish. The latter needn’t signify much on the marshes; splashing and chasing of surface fry is usually down to smaller perch, and there’s no abundance of them here. Or pike, either- of any size. My personal theory is that it’s one of those inverted stretches of water where the big perch rule and the pike come second- rarely making it to a good weight. Or at least that’s my dream.
At just after two ‘o’ clock in the afternoon, the wind was blowing hard again when my bobber was yanked down hard several times before being carried under against the current. The fish was moving fast upstream so I met it with a low, sweeping strike downstream that connected beautifully; the fish zigzagged out to midstream- a sure mistake- so I angled the rod high and maintained a reasonable line tension. It kicked hard several times before I started to crank it in; when I was near to landing it, it dove under the net and into a bankside hole that I couldn’t see from above ground. There aren’t many undercuts here, so it must have been bored out by a vole… To a point, anyway; the fish had only a foot of redoubt available and the six pound test line soon eased him out.
The fish was a good ‘two’ this time; he weighed just less than two and a half pounds and was much more finely marked than the dark beast which I’d pulled out of the sluice a couple of days earlier. Can nature serve up a more vivid red than that which paints a wild perch’s fins? I suppose a roach can rival him. And perhaps poppies- but then they’re not alive in the same way as a fish. This is a living red; a photo picks up some its vibrancy but not all of it. As I stood holding the fish in the wind, other than the sense of elation such a moment brings, I also briefly thought that I might be starting to understand these drains. But after releasing him, I caught no other fish.
Throughout the rest of the day and into the early evening, the east wind blew hard over Black Dyke, bringing with it ducks, more tits and an hour before dusk- goldcrests. By the time I got to my car, these birds would be in the western trees. What I remember most about my final hours on the levels is that the goldcrests’ stellar anthem could be heard above all else, despite its delicacy.
But then the marshes are a place where subtle spirits thrive and their voices can yet be heard.
The wider, noisier world is far, far away.