I’ve gained and lost more in the past year than I can remember. I’ve gained time. Several months of it during the lock-down, during which I learned how to play tennis again; there are some good courts and a wooden clubhouse just a few yards from my house. When not hitting balls around, I read widely; cowboy stories by Elmore Leonard, ‘Tench Fishing’ by Fred J Taylor and ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams. I also lifted weights almost every day. By the time summer came, I’d bulked up to over fifteen stones and could perform endless pull-ups, dips, squats and other painful manoeuvres I hadn’t tried since my late twenties. I began to sea swim for the first time in years. And in one of the biggest acts of revolt a schoolteacher could muster, I shaved my hair off one morning before hitting the beach.
But as I’ve gained, I’ve also lost. Several months of school, for one thing. Some of the children have got frighteningly tall in the time off. Far more than they would have without this long break, I think.
People too, have been taken from me. The shock and grief are too close to bear at times. The former is lifting. There are times when I forget to experience the latter. And then I feel guilty. I’ve lost one of my greatest pals, someone I’ve known since school. Someone with whom I celebrated birthdays, drank beer, ate countless curries and enjoyed nearly thirty years of laughter. Someone who celebrated happiness and never begrudged it in others. I owe it to my friend to try and live a good life. It doesn’t feel right to start paying that debt just yet but I’m going to try.
On Friday nights I haunt the pub for a while and sleep late on Saturday mornings. The current lock-down rule means that the bars chuck out at ten ‘o’ clock. One of my best mates runs the local but disappointingly, he’s a stickler for the rules and there’s strictly no after-hours drinking. Last Friday I sat near the fire and drank two pints of the black stuff; a breeze howled in from the main entrance and over time I began to entertain the same old autumnal fantasies. Secret pike ponds. Deserted bays where huge bass live. Midnight owls and more. You get the picture. The pub is situated on a clifftop and from the windows you can see across the Channel to the Kentish Stour estuary, beyond which a network of coastal dykes and farm-drains run out into the county.
Thanks to the early finishing time, I got home with enough wits about me to scour the house for pike fishing gear. I found bait still in the freezer from last year- a packet of joey mackerel. Wire traces, forceps, floats and other parapheranlia were all scooped up within minutes. Anglers are always buying new equipment. This year, the pièce de résistance has got to be a 1950s (or earlier) wooden pike rod made by a company called Allcocks and called ‘The Water Wolf’. Most rods from this era were made out of a wood called ‘greenheart’, which comes from South America. This ceased during the late 1950’s, when many countries gave Britain the cold shoulder for getting involved in the Suez crisis. During this time, Allcocks imported their timber from Indonesia. Apparently, several Javanese war-tribes used the same stuff to make their bows out of. The boy in me would like to think I own a rod made out of this second material.
By midnight I was in bed, dreaming of jungle battles, blow-pipes and distant pirahna pools. By morning I was up and making tea. My Thermos has been a constant companion of late; we’re no longer able to use a kettle at work due to the social restrictions. Whilst it was still dark, I fried two eggs and ate them in a baguette with some ketchup. I packed a banana and a fruit bar and left Ramsgate before sun-up. When I reached my destination, a tree submerged in a dyke between two old fields, I drank some of the tea and watched the sun come up.
Just after dawn a huge flock of geese flew overhead. The sky was still dark when I cast my bait into a spot by the tree and waited. I sat in total silence for an hour and was almost starting to question why I fished when the ghost of an old kingfisher swooped by in the gloom. The species is so important for anglers; we must see ten times as many (if not more) than walkers do. So much happens by the riverside if you just sit still for a while. When it’s later in the day, the sun lights them up and they turn that lovely turquoise colour. But dim as it was, this was equally uplifting- like being visited by a marsh spirit.
I saw a small fish jump on open water downstream, so I decamped and tried there. Just before eight, half a dozen Bewick’s swans passed low over my position, following the stream. I received no bites and in any case, I don’t enjoy fishing plain water. After half an hour, the fascination of that old tree pulled me back.
By nine ‘o’ clock, I’d still caught nothing so I followed the drain back to where I’d parked the car. Along the way, I struck up a conversation with another pike angler. He was equally fishless, which spurred me on a little as he’s a particularly good angler. The sun was fully up now and the fields were alive with birds; a wren called out warnings to our rear and a kestrel began to hunt in the next field.
My next spot was ‘Dead Fox Ditch’, so-called because I once encountered an unfortunate young fox floating there one morning last winter. There is a roadside tunnel nearby where huge eels live and if you come here after dark, you might catch a ten pounder- or bigger. It also attracts pike. The area is heavily weeded; I like these type of spots so I almost always use strong line of eighteen pounds breaking strain. It gives me the confidence to stalk the fish close up to the snags. I cast my float in and watched it gently rock about for fifteen minutes or so. In that time, several fry had jumped about underneath the bankside bushes right next to me, so I retrieved my rig and dropped back in just under my feet. I knew a fish was hunting there; it might be a six ounce perch or a thirty pound pike. I flicked the rod tip and watched my bait rise up in the water before slowly wobbling back down to the bottom.
When I flicked it a second time, the bait didn’t come back up. I gave the rod another pull and something tugged back at the other end. A pike had taken the bait on the drop and not yet dragged the float under. I struck and the water exploded. I could tell the fish wasn’t huge- but it was no six ounce perch, either. The Allcock’s ‘Water Wolf’ bent into the fish beautifully. It held and gave on its own account; I really didn’t have to do much at all. There’s such an honesty to these older rods; they’re far more sensitive for hunting in close like this, which is where the majority of my coarse fishing occurs. Special mention should also be made of my old reel, a vintage Mitchell 301. It hissed and purred a couple of times, giving perhaps an inch of line at most, caused by the pike’s first dive. The fight didn’t last long but was almost as intense as the fish’s camouflaged flanks. He was a stunning, emerald-green colour, not a million miles off the colour of my new rod’s whippings.
As I was unhooking him, some walkers stopped and took a photo for me. Behind us, some cyclists waved over. You can see one in the background. Afterwards, they rode over and we all admired the fish for a few seconds, before I put it back.
Later, in the pub, I exaggerated the size of the fish to several people. You’re not a fisherman unless you lie a little. When the (socially-distanced) backslapping had ended, I retreated into my beer and reflected on the day. The real capture was the sunrise. The kingfisher, swans, geese and pike couldn’t come near it.
After a while, the Guinness took effect. On a cold day, it’s like igniting peat in your belly. The fire grew warmer and the heat rose up in my chest.
And I thought about more than just fishing.