‘Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.’
From ‘The Owl’ by Lord Alfred Tennyson
Sunday 17th February ’19
Isn’t it lovely to have work cancelled at the last minute? When it’s too late to arrange other employment, there is almost a sense of duty in planning revelries to replace the lost time. I got a call late on Sunday afternoon cancelling my next two days’ tutoring; having feigned disappointment (convincingly, I hope)- I danced about the room once the line went dead. I then rushed to one of my locals, the Queen Charlotte, for a pint of ale. I had plans. The weather was breaking and I’d been dreaming all weekend of how nice it would be to get a little time off for some fishing. I wanted to tell everyone in the pub about my luck but in a rare act of self-discipline, I decided to keep quiet; I wanted to keep these next two days just for myself.
There’s no doubt that beer raises your spirits further still when you’re relishing an imminent escape. In my part of the world, there are three outbacks I like to disappear into. The English Channel, the Blean Woods and the coastal marshes. The Channel would be off limits; there are no cod about this season and it’s too early for bass. As for the Blean, well, it’s a little early for incoming migratory birds, so I chose to go coarse fishing on the marshes, instead. There was one month left of the pike season so my species was chosen for me, too.
I’d caught some nice looking jacks out there in November time and I was keen to go out and catch something bigger whilst I still had the chance.
My family has a long association with the south coast marshes. My grandfather used to mine them. Now I fish them. It doesn’t seem right, does it? He started as a ‘Bevan Boy’ in the 1940’s at Betteshanger Colliery, all the way over near Deal, at the western end of what I consider my patch. My hunting areas start way over to the east, past Seasalter and on the way to Graveney. I never knew my grandfather but by all accounts he shared my love of skiving. My mother tells me that he loved books and if the weather was particularly good, he’d pull a sickie and sit in his front garden reading. He was a ‘puffler’, which involved working long hours directly at the coal face; it was one of the most dangerous jobs in the mine and he ended up dying very young- so I’m glad he took those odd days off. It’s an example I mean to follow.
By now my pint was nearly empty. I went home, tied a wire pike trace and picked out my favourite floats- including a really old one, for luck. All anglers are superstitious, you know?
Monday 18th February ’19
I got up early and made sandwiches. Soft boiled eggs, cress, mayo and Tabasco. I brewed some tea for the thermos and packed some Old Jamaica chocolate (you can still get it) into my backpack. The sun was huge this morning. I drove west and through two villages, stopping at a hamlet of twenty or so houses, where I parked up behind some hawthorns next to a farm gate. Well to the side of the track, naturally. Tractors are insensitive brutes.
I’d walked about two hundred yards from my car when I looked back and saw a barn owl skirting the roadside hedges. At one point it flew low, right opposite my car.
It was early and I was yet to get my wits about me. My consciousness was fragmented, still waking up and yet to fuse. One moment I was dreaming about pike. In the next, a familiar voice was taunting me to rip open my rucksack and demolish some of that chocolate. But the owl rendered my whole mind mute. I had just enough sense to grab my camera and press ‘record’. I missed most of its display but did get a few seconds’ footage of it hunting in the long grass, not far from the hamlet. My first catch of the day.
The owl’s first catch too, by the look of things. A vole, more than likely. Or a sleepy mouse. Poor thing. But the marsh spares nobody. To the human eye, it’s a stunning environment but everything out here is either predator or prey. In some ways, I’m both. The latter to the owl, in particular. I’m paralysed to the ground every time I see one. I now see several out here and can’t be sure if this owl was the same creature that so thoroughly bewitched me last December. It probably wasn’t. I can identify her a mile off.
The day broke and I made a little camp. I travel light when I fish. A lovely Millican rucksack which I bought last summer, a folding stool, my rod, reel and a net slung over one shoulder. I used the rucksack so much last autumn that it already looks vintage. Or at least a little ‘lived in’. As the sun rose, I broke open some Old Jamaica (marsh breakfast) and poured some tea from the flask. When I was setting up, a buzzard flew by overhead and began to loudly ‘mew’. I was so intent on fixing my stop-knot that I took at least several seconds before I looked up and scanned the skyline for it…
It’s a nice place to fish. No road noise. Mile wide vistas. Hardly any people, although you do get the odd intrepid dog-walker in this location. Perhaps the buzzard was on the look-out for one. Early lunch. In any case, he gave me a wide berth; he flew far off to the east and I never saw him again. But I did see a kestrel hunting just after noon. Hovering surprisingly close to me- some forty yards away- for thirty seconds or so before he pounced; he was successful, too. Unlike me. I’d like to say that I went out and caught pike after pike on this first day but I didn’t. I had two runs but struck too early each time and fluffed them. There just seemed to be so much else going on that I couldn’t help but be distracted. A blue sky day in the winter is impossible for any creature out here to resist. Today, many of them were active- stonechats chatted, woodpeckers pecked and in the distance, two marsh harriers were either beginning to mate or else competing for control of the open sky.
When the first bite came, at one ‘o’ clock, I was on full barn owl alert. ‘The Lady’, the beautiful huntress of whom I saw so much at the end of last year, was active from half past noon onwards. This can be a bad sign for barn owls, who are usually nocturnal. But not always. For one thing, there’s lots of food out here for her so I don’t think she’s coming out early for that reason. And I’ve since been told that she’s found a mate. A farmer tells me that the pair are now shacking up in his barn, a mile south of here. In any case, she hunted like it was midnight all throughout the afternoon. Of particular interest to her was the long bund directly opposite my mark. At one point she frightened the life out of me by sprinting up and down it three times in half an hour.
Later, nearer to dusk, she stopped to hunt right in front of me. I can’t be sure but I think I may have frightened her. She was descending for her prey when she seemed to look directly at me. Upon seeing a huge lens pointed right at her, she bolted and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the day.
Half an hour went by and I received no more indications on my float, although it was clear that some kind of a predator was operating as fry were duly jumping clear of the water from three ‘o’ clock onwards.
As the day darkened, I began to imagine huge shapes shifting about in the deeps near the far bank reeds. By the time I got back to the pub, I was seeing them in my pint, too.
Tuesday 19th February ’19
I woke early again and made lunch. A garlic sausage baguette this time. And pickled onions as a side-snack. I moved quickly and got out to the mark earlier than yesterday.
I felt sharper than the previous day; a little less overwhelmed. If you want to catch a pike, at least one worth catching, then you need to be switched on. Today I was really keen so rather than sticking in one spot, I decided to stalk up and down the various side drains looking for signs of hunting pike. There was just one problem: my piking gear had attracted the attention of a runaway springer spaniel, who followed me for nearly a mile and kept jumping up at my pike float; I’d changed to a really bright red one today and the dog seemed to be hypnotised by it. I was afraid to cast off in case he jumped in after the float. I know this particular pooch and have met his owner before so I thought I’d give it half an hour before wandering back with the dog and driving into the nearest village with him. I wouldn’t have had a clue where the owner lived but I doubt it would have taken long to find someone in these parts who did.
Thankfully, the owner turned up and collected Muttley. I was sorry to see him go but grateful to get fishing again. Or looking for fish anyway. I didn’t catch any all morning. By eleven ‘o’ clock, a light mist had descended and I decided to try the original spot where I’d been fishing yesterday. When I got there, the owl was active again but I’d left my long lens at home as I’d felt guilty about scaring her the day before. In any case, being present was enough. If you want to capture beauty, then I think you’ve got to observe it and for me, photography consistently gets in the way of that.
It’s lovely to take photos of wild creatures but not at the expense of savouring their presence. I’m still convinced that painting is the way to go and I’d love to learn one day. Even children have painted watercolours of barn owls that say so much more than any photograph could. In any case, when she landed a safe distance from me and I felt like I wasn’t intruding, I took a few final shots of her using the regular lens before putting the camera to one side. I’m happy to say that I didn’t scare her off this time, so I spent several minutes admiring her as she sat on a life-ring at the top of the bund. There is very deep water on either side but its slopes are flanked by huge patches of long grass which various rodents make their home. Beachfront property for Monsieur Vole but a superb hunting ground for the owl.
After midday the mist cleared up and I made myself thoroughly vampire-proof by eating the largest garlic sausage baguette in history. Then I started to cast for pike again. And I began to hook them. Just after two in the afternoon, I hooked a decent fish only to have it spit the bait thirty seconds into the fight. Rebaiting, I had to wait until just gone four ‘o’ clock until I got another bite but by now I felt ready to hook and land anything. When the bite came, I put all thoughts of owls, buzzards and kestrels out of my head. I fed the line out until the moment came- the ‘sweet spot’- and struck firmly.
The battle lasted around two minutes- and all the way to the net, where I could see the fish was over ten pounds…
This was my final pike of the season; I didn’t go again after this. I’m not a dedicated pike man but I do enjoy the little bit of it that I do and the way that I do it. I especially love all the big, hand-made and painted floats. Watching them ‘go under’ is one of winter’s biggest thrills. What I’d like next for my piking is a bit of a gothic adventure- I have a small lake within the Surrey Hills in mind. I’ll get up there some day. There’s a choice of two (very) haunted hotels nearby and a plethora of good, ancient pubs to hand. But for now, the memory of this fish will keep me satisfied on the pike front for quite some time. I’m easily pleased.
I’ve hardly fished at all this winter season and, if truth be told, I’m fast becoming a fair-weather fisherman. Perhaps it comes to all of us. Work is picking up again for me and for the first time in ages, I’ve begun to be interested in it. I can feel old, hobbit-like ways pulling me back to the safety of society. I’ve gained weight and begun to cook more. Sometimes I look at leather reclining chairs in the Argos catalogue. And I’m considering the purchase of an 85″ television. You know I’m a fan of Westerns, right? But all this comfort can only be appreciated if we see outside of it from time to time, whether it means casting for a bass on your local beach, climbing mountains (that one is last on yours truly’s list) or installing a bird feeder in your back-yard.
These two days in February, with their blue skies, spiralling birds and lastly this stunning pike (it weighed just under thirteen pounds, if that matters) made me remember why a man needs to pick up a rod from time to time. For me at least, walking the countryside without one is never quite the same.
But perhaps next time I’ll leave the camera kit at home and just watch the owls from a distance, where their magic is surely at its peak and they can hunt and live the way they should. The way we all should.
As free as a bird.