It’s hard to keep up with the river in July and to be fair, I don’t usually bother. When I was a child, I had extremely long summer holidays- ten weeks! I was the only kid in my neighbourhood who had this long a break and for the first four weeks, I was on my own. It was heaven. This was pond fishing time and in the still, early mornings I would either cycle or get a lift out to the Kentish countryside outside Sandwich where I would fish a couple of old brick pits. The pits had been abandoned in the 1930’s and made fabulous ponds; along with a subscription to the ‘Angler’s Mail’ and a battered old copy of ‘Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing’ that my dad brought home from an auction house one night, they became my apprenticeship to coarse fishing. Then later, when my friends all broke up, the remaining six weeks of summer would be spent playing football or bass fishing in the surf. The latter is a tradition which I still keep.
With the very odd exception, the river has always been sepia-tinged or snow-frosted for me. I’ve always avoided the halcyon months as running water feels so manic at this time of the year. I’ve taught for over a decade, and summer terms being what they are (all exams and deadlines) my mind is usually a chaotic mess by mid-July. The river just seems too full of ideas; too much like a jungle for me to settle and reflect. So my natural inclination is to follow my childhood blueprint and settle down to some lovely, calm pool for a spot of delicious float fishing. Then by August, I’m ready for bass fishing and the violence of the surf. The river is something for later. When school has recommenced and I can spend lovely Saturday afternoons chasing perch among the boats and leaf-filled pools of Grove Ferry and Pluck’s Gutter down on the Kentish Stour.
This year has been refreshingly different. During the last few weeks of the school term, I spent several summer evenings out on the Kentish marshes, searching for the giant dyke tench that snapped my line last year. A female of about ten pounds, although to my mind still a ‘grandfather’ fish- one of those giants that will haunt you until death unless caught. All quarry have a ‘grandfather’ spirit- hares, rabbits, perch- the full gamut of English country sports share this concept. A matchless creature, preeminent amongst its own tribe. When you fish or hunt for one particular animal, you become a little distracted at times. It’s compelling- and without question a siren for a certain type of male. My chosen landscape for this annual ‘giant tench’ hunt (and I shall continue each year until I catch her) is absolutely stunning. Marshlands are reclaimed from the ocean; the horizons are low here and the dusks stretch forever. They are strange too, and there are pockets that are unwelcoming, but the pervading feeling is one of calm. As a result, the last two weeks of the academic year saw my tempo dropping, as opposed to cranking up. When school finished, I didn’t feel like pond fishing. I also didn’t feel like tench fishing the dykes any more. Going after a single creature is all consuming. What I wanted was light relief; some fun- and for once at this time of the year, I was ready for ripples.
So I headed to the tidal Kentish Stour. I grew up near its estuary mouth, which is only about two or three miles from the marshes I’ve been fishing. A few more miles inland, the river becomes less saline and by the time you’ve reached the small villages between Sandwich and Canterbury, it’s a classic coarse fishing river with weeping willows, bankside pubs and boating clubs. An oasis of English calm and culture… But despite this cultivation, the river and its residents are far older and wilder than the dyke lands I would be leaving. The latter, remote and forbidding as they are, were made by men mere centuries ago. On the other hand the river was carved out by the ice age and has run for millennia. This last week has been one of the few occasions I’ve ever attempted to catch up with her in July.
I wanted ripples. Well, I got them. And sun, too… And rain; and rainbows. And perch, pike, eels and bream. It’s been an amazing first week of the school holidays- and an unsettling one, too. My float hasn’t stopped bobbing all week- and the weather hasn’t stayed the same for longer than ten minutes. It has been warm all week. Too warm at times. But it’s also rained torrentially and best of all, we’ve had the rainbows. The river as Falstaff, then: mercurial, capricious and greedy to experience everything all at once. For the most part I’ve loved it, but today I gave up. I’m all washed up. When the week commenced, I could see all the way to the bottom of the stream- beyond the fry and to the big, dustbin lid bream. But the river is full now and following days of rain, it’s a little too coloured for the type of fishing I want. When it was clear I saw lots of pike too. And caught them. Accidentally, I should add. The Kentish Stour is experiencing one of its intermittent explosions of jacks at the moment- possibly due to a lack of larger specimens to cull them. They’ve been ravenous and I’ve hooked a couple whilst reeling small roach and perch in to the bank; they’ve taken worm, too- and even maggots. I’ve also seen more insects than ever before on the river; it’s been alive with damsel and dragonflies. And far too many horseflies for my liking. You never see them in the autumn…
Harder fighting than the pike was a big river bream I hooked at Grove Ferry. You know things have been turned on their head when a bream scraps harder than a pike. This seemed a meet metaphor for the mercurial nature of the river this week. I thought at first that I’d hooked a carp… It tore off and spent a full minute thumping around underneath a boat, before finally (very grudgingly) coming to the net. It weighed a good six pounds or so and, with chestnut scales on bronze flanks, rates as one of the most handsome bream I’ve ever caught.
I stayed late one night on a wooded stretch that borders the huge nature reserve at Stodmarsh and heard baby tawny owls trying to sing. It reminded me of when I lived on Putney Heath a few years back. There was a huge colony of them there, completely unabashed by the urban sprawl. It was nice to hear their old voice again… But the blackbirds won’t sing again until next year. They were just about done when the week started. I heard a couple of chirps and a bit of broken song last weekend but the rain has finished that.
It’s also brought to an end the time of year I associate with pond fishing and still waters. When the river recovers from the recent deluge, it will be the second week of August. By then summer is in its third, final act. I won’t go back to the main river now until September. I have a couple of side streams I want to fly fish for trout and dace, but they’re fairly well off the beaten track. In any case, I’ll spend most of August bass fishing.
When I next see the river proper, it will be back to its reliable old self. Leaves will be starting to fall, the days will be closing in- and the perch will be waiting for me on every bend.
… Monsters live underneath the willow trees. They did when I was a boy and they still do now…
Yesterday at about four ‘o’ clock in the afternoon, I poured a pint or so of Earl Grey tea into a thermos flask and then drove out to the countryside. I now live in the middle of town but it still only takes about three minutes to reach a sea of fields which flood all the way out of the county if you follow the right tide. It’s a nice feeling to know that. The wild things know this too, and as I drove I saw three different types of raptor before I got to the river. At this time of the year, at this time of the day, there are still about six hours of light left. The final three are when the water creatures do their hunting. That’s when the bats come out and smash into the newly hatched flies and moths; the voles venture forth for a fungus and berry party, whilst the perch try to eat everything within sight- worms, roach, crayfish, gudgeon and even other perch.
But in the hours preceding this mass banquet, I had to buy some bait. And also catch some bait. And then sit and wait. Until it got late. Etc etc- You get the idea. First off, I drove out to somewhere between Sandwich and the village of Ash in Kent to buy some maggots (yes, really, to my non-angling friends) and worms. I can’t dig any of the latter at the moment due to my back having fresh stitches in it (I had a minor operation in the morning). The bait shop is situated on a campsite that also features some fishing ponds on the grounds. It’s a stunningly beautiful place and this was the first thing that came out of my mouth when I spoke to the owner. I’ve never fished it as I usually only visit wild locations, but I will go there later on in the year specifically to hunt the perch, which grow to over 4lbs! This is on a diet of mainly carp fry… If you’re an angler, then you’ll know only too well that these places are heavily stocked with the nation’s other favourite fish. But I think there is merit in fishing them in the winter, when the carp are dormant and the perch are rampant. For me, a perch would still be ‘wild’ if you threw it into a barrel of water.
As I drove back out, I took the wrong turn for my intended destination- the Kentish Stour near Canterbury- and had to plough through an extra ten minute’s of stunning countryside. Hardly a chore. I adore my local patch and ever since I was a child, I’ve attempted to find all the different hiding places of note; those quiet places of green solace and remote tranquillity where the hedgerows predate Domesday and the fields contain the remnants of battles stretching as far back as Viking times and before. The south is being heavily developed, but I think I’m ‘safe’ for my lifetime. There are just too many nooks and crannies here. England lacks the size of our continental neighbours but if you drive for ten minutes, you will notice how diverse the countryside is. Within half an hour from my home, I can access beaches, marshland, ancient forests, rivers, estuaries and stunningly varied farmland.
As I neared my bolt-hole, I started to think about my quarry. Perch fishing is one of the darker country arts. Pike fishing is all well and good, but they’re moody buggers. And lethargic. They don’t always follow the rules. Pound for pound, a perch is much more aggressive and follows the predator’s code with far more dedication than his loutish cousin. If you want to introduce a child of twelve into country sports, then there are few better ways to do it than with perching. A perch never stops being a hunter; it remains true to form- no matter what. The boy who goes ‘stripey hunting’ will learn the general principles of predator and prey far more quickly than his roach fishing, rabbit chasing friends- as well as a dozen other country smarts. He will also acquire a lifelong fascination with the paraphernalia that goes with it. Myself, I am hopelessly addicted to the floats, particularly classic ‘perch bobbers’. I can’t get enough of them.
When I got to the river, I unpacked my gear in the company of about three dozen goldfinches, two brace of bullfinches and one linnet. They’ve calmed down a little by July, but still make a dear, sweet racket. It’s too late in the year now, but I’ve heard nightingales in this spot before. Yesterday was nice and tepid, with a wonderful, refreshing breeze. By British standards, it was appallingly hot just one week ago- and according to the reports it will be broiling again next week. The perch feed in all of these conditions, but when the heat drops slightly, it’s much better. Autumn is a long way off- when all the pageantry of the wild feast like crazy to gain weight before it gets cold- but a cooler day in the summer seems to stir up an equivalent lust for food.
I now had four and a half hours left until dark. I got to my intended area- a row of huge, old willow trees- after just a few minutes’ gentle strolling (a sweet relief!- Some of my recent haunts have taken considerably longer marching time). I decamped and threw an enormous handful of maggots underneath the nearest willow to the bank. I then walked a brisk few yards with the current, laid down underneath the trees and got my head as close to the water as possible. Deep below the myriad of branches and interwoven river plants, I could see the bait gently drifting along with the slack water, bumping into weed cables and skipping over tree roots. Suddenly I saw a flash- and then another. Tiny, dart-like figures, each less than inch in length, were crashing into the maggots and eating them one after another. Sometimes a slightly bigger shape would join the frenzy; then the grubs would explode outwards, upwards and almost to the surface as various fish competed to mop them up. As the creatures descended back down into the inky abyss, my eyes became accustomed to them and I could see more and more. Previously featureless expanses of the riverbed became apparent and soon a whole armada of fry, turquoise and lithe, stood massing almost beneath my nose- where moments ago I saw nothing.
When you reach a river, you think you can see, hear and smell. But you can’t. After just a few minutes, everything changes. Incrementally, you begin to see deeper into the water. You become aware of distant changes in the breeze, and you start to detect the different aromas that accompany the wind. You are able to trace single scents back to the various roses, parsleys and lilies that own them. I could smell all of these yesterday, and as I started to fish, the faintest bouquet of honeysuckle had started to permeate the air- travelling from the hedgerows of the neighbouring fields. Evening was coming. Which reminded me that I should hurry.
I began by retreating upstream to the top of the willows. I threw in more maggots, but this time I also hooked a couple and cast them in under a stick float. Before long, they met their mark and I was catching my primary bait- tiny dace, roach and gudgeon: the perch’s staple diet. And all the while, the grubs kept going in, and more bait fish kept showing up underneath the trees. I only took three or four silverfish for the perch; after that, I would use worms. I am open to advice in this area, and may one day cease to use fish as bait. But I’ll be honest and say it feels natural enough to me to use the perch’s intended quarry to tempt them- and it’s also tremendously exciting. But is there a tinge of guilt to think that I am extinguishing one life to catch another?… Well, I’ve been at this a long time and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t. Especially these days. This time last year I watched a kingfisher take and kill about a dozen bait fish in the time it took me, using one, to catch a smallish perch. The bird killed his quarry clean. And I have to say, that has come to haunt me.
My bait caught, and with three hours of light left, I started to fish in earnest. ‘Old Stripey’ was already in the area. It doesn’t take a dyed-in-the-wool perch hunter to know when they are feeding. Once you have your ‘river-eyes’ you will see their magnificently coloured flanks turning over and over as they attack the lesser fish in the vicinity; and any old pair of ears will suffice to hear the surface water crashing as they hunt fry all the way up to the surface, sometimes scooping them up from the top of the river into their huge mouths. By this point, I’d attached a hugely impressive ‘bobber’ float, made in the vintage style, and had cast out a tiny, silver fish underneath the willows.
But something was wrong. The caverns beneath the trees had become quiet- and looked empty. Ask any roach angler if he can pinpoint the moment a pike enters his swim, and he can answer you with alarming accuracy. Perch fishing is less circumspect than roaching; it’s a tad more myopic in its focus. More aggressive. And as such, interloping pike usually come as a total surprise. I was just starting to piece together why or how my beat had become so eerily silent, when the float sank straight under with no bobbing whatsoever. Occasionally a big perch can do this, but usually even the most giant of stripeys will make several dashes prior to engulfment. ‘Old Esox’, however, made light work of such a tiny bait. I never, ever target pike in the summer. But the smaller, ‘jack’ pike can on occasion take a perch bait. My rod, a mid-50’s Edgar Sealey Float-Caster Deluxe, made from Chinese bamboo, chided me severely (not in Chinese… I think) as the pike submerged and headed for the tree roots nearest to the bottom shelf… But its first charge was its hardest. It was a baby. Using the rod alone, with no line given, I angled the fish close to the bank and netted him without much fuss. A real pike would have easily bested my 4lb test line, but then a decent sized specimen wouldn’t be wasting its time trying to eat a bait so small.
As so often in the early evening, the sun had stored up its brightest light particles of the day and was now hurriedly casting them off, making it less than perfect for the kind of stealth tactics favoured by both me and my quarry. What with the pike having upset things as well, I decided to rest the swim for ten minutes. A tough thing to do for a perch-less perch angler. But it would soon pay off. I threw in more grubs and then snapped open a nice chunk of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk that I’d brought with me. I poured an Earl Grey and found solace in the ensuing sensations as I ingested Bergamot, tea and cocoa- all the whilst getting ever drunker on the scent of the now rapidly rising honeysuckle colony.
I returned to the river suitably refreshed, with around an hour and a half until blackout, when the perch stop feeding and in any case, when I can’t see my float. Before long I was doing battle with a decent sized fish. The area below the willows was now much darker, and again I’d started to hear the occasional great splash as the perch began shepherding their quarry into position. A harsh reality, but then each of tonight’s hunters were in fact the hunted at one point in their lives; 99.9% of the fry being hunted this evening would break out, but it is a fact that the river provides its own supper. The perch I hooked was here just for that, and once I’d managed to capture him and take a quick photo, he’d be going straight back to his nightly repast. But that would prove to be easier said than done, as firstly I had to withstand the signature war dance for which the species is so famous. Finally he surfaced in a battleground of ripples, and I landed him gently. When out of the water, he looked to be about a pound- and was perfectly marked:
I had another tea, some more chocolate, and braced myself for the last hour. By now time was bleeding out just like the sunlight… When you arrive for a summer perching session, the late afternoon hours are so lovely and slow. They seem to last forever, and it’s all so colourful and jolly that you regret not bringing a deck chair. But by the last hour, you’ve graduated from ‘Technicolor’ to ‘Hammer Horror’; the whole landscape inherits a more difficult, dangerous type of beauty… And on cue, this is the time when the real vampires come out. The giant stripeys, or ‘Sergeant Majors’ to give the big perch their proper, rural nom de guerre.
The sun was dipping into the woods as I made my last cast, but I still had a fair amount of ‘half-light’ left. This last hour, as that light gradually diminishes and then extinguishes, is when I have caught all of my big perch. I was now using a worm as bait; I’d got lucky tonight- the pot I’d purchased contained some absolute snakes and I almost had to take a picture of the biggest one. Once I’d summoned up the courage to put it on the hook, I secured it with a tiny speck of elastic which I pushed down the hook shank to stop the worm slipping off. I then drew some slack from my old centrepin and tossed the worm and bobber under the willows. Possibly for the last time; a worm this size could probably last all night… I waited for forty-five minutes without an answer. I began to think that the worm was too big and was actually intimidating the perch! But then I regained my confidence. “A perch will eat anything. They fear no worm!”- I told myself. Meanwhile the sweet perfume of honeysuckle had begun to rankle ever so slightly as it reached its zenith and the moths started to descend upon it. And on me, too. There were lots last night. Huge, great big river moths- so big in fact that once or twice it was difficult to distinguish them from the bats when their run started shortly afterwards. To be fair, I was slightly over-sensitized by this point… When my float started shaking, it was almost dark and I thought I was seeing things. When it bobbed and vanished, I had to tell myself to wait a couple of seconds and then strike.
When the perch came home, it weighed about a pound and half. A good perch; and an excellent fighter too, but then they all are. It was too dark for a proper portrait so I cradled him gently in the dew and took a quick photo.
When I returned him to the water, I held him in a loose tunnel that I’d formed with my hands so he could depart when he was fully ready. After a few seconds he kicked off with his tail and I felt him swim off confidently (perhaps malevolently) into the river. By this point everything was pitch black and I could see the moon in the stream. As I packed up, the night turned chillier and I noticed a pair of eyes watching me from the field’s edge. A huge buck rabbit- the biggest I’ve seen since I got back from London a few years ago. What we used to call a ‘grandfather’ rabbit, as children. I walked along the path until at one point I was ten feet away from him. He showed me no respect or fear whatsoever. Once I’d passed him, I turned my head back a few times and he was still staring after me for forty yards or so until I’d crossed through a large thicket and was out of his sight.
“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”
– John Lennon
Read on if you’d like to encounter dragons, fairies (and even fish) in their most favourite environment: an English jungle. Well, not so much the dragons. More like dragonflies. Actually, damsels, really. And damselflies at that. But when you’re staring at a float in the midday sun, the mind’s eye can do funny things. The damselflies’ favourite part of the estate lake at Bury Hill is the so-called ‘Jungle’; a vast collection of interwoven trees and bushes that line the distant back end of the pool like a giant horseshoe. Here there is no division between land and water; rather, the tree roots and brambles spill freely into the lake to create a boggy, leafy angler’s paradise; an electric atmosphere in which to fish.
Jungles fascinated the upper classes of the era; like all the English, they loved the idea of not quite knowing what lurked beyond the end of the garden. Quite charmingly, the word itself is Hindi and translates as ‘wild or uncultivated land’. It made its way to Mother England from the Indian Raj some time in the 1800’s- and was in good company; other words we circuitously inherited from the subcontinent include ‘dinghy’, ‘pyjamas’, ‘thug’ (the name given to the travelling bandits formed during a regional rebellion), ‘nirvana’ and, most important of all, the life-giver: ‘Curry’…
So there you have it. A thug on a dinghy in a jungle. With a penchant for curry. The gods of fishing could surely not be blind to this rare alignment…
I’d arrived early for once, and soon I was drifting excitedly- but slightly uneasily- along the strange banks of this angling ‘nirvana’ (sorry- couldn’t resist that). Far from the shoreline and only accessible via punt, you cannot help but feel like Marlowe in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’: very slowly inching upstream toward some gory but compelling discovery. In actual fact, it is all a great trick. A fascinating Victorian-made folly. The ‘Jungle’ is wide but doesn’t extend further back than perhaps fifty yards in any given spot. However, you can’t see past the first waterlogged ten feet or so. And what your eyes can’t see- your brain instead begins to imagine…
This is the very quality that makes the jungle so bewitching a siren to anglers; it’s the perennial problem that you can’t quite ever solve. Still – like the boy who discovers a secret pond or an abandoned old tree house- you can’t help but keep looking and staring into it for hours, searching for signs of life. Bubbles, shadows, branches moving against the breeze etc… Periodically your trance is broken and suddenly you’re staring into nothingness. An abyss of natural neglect. At these times, you feel all washed up and abandoned in a faraway place. But gradually you relax- and little by little your gaze is drawn back in.
I attached my new float that I’d bought for the trip, and cast off. I’d plumbed the depth; it averaged about four and a half feet but I’d found a deep, dark hole amongst the branches that went down to about six feet. The space had been created by the competing roots of two old oak trees and it tunneled right down into the jungle itself. Perfect, really. And very, very intriguing. Such a dark and mysterious hole is the perfect summer hiding place for a big tench. Conversely, when the weather cools and the tench leave for the great deeps in the middle of the lake, the perch will move into a spot like this and take up winter residence. Perhaps I’ll remember and return. These close-up, ‘ambush’ tactics (for lack of a more romantic term) are the quintessence of summer angling for me and most of my tench fishing involves this kind of approach; creeping up on them, basically. You plan, you prepare and you follow the basic tenets of angling, but beyond that it’s a contest between you and Mother Nature.
So, in full stealth mode, I cast my float into the hole. I then fixed a brew and began to recline. It wasn’t long before waiting became anticipation- which only an angler can understand. Here and there, I also thought about my approach. Not quite doubts. Not yet; but even when perfectly confident, your mind will question your tactics at some point. The bait was two small worms; I swear this is a bait that a tench simply has to accept, even if it’s not particularly hungry. I was using an insanely beautiful float, styled on a vintage design. But this particular piece also possesses state of the art balance and build quality. Like the Knight in UA Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Not My Best Side’, it practically screams at the fish: ‘Don’t you want to be captured in the most contemporary way?!’
The maker, Andrew Field, fashioned it from a delicate quill that is usually employed for crucian carp fishing; he beefed it up slightly and then added the classic body and buoy-like tip of a real tench float so it could beat any ‘drift’ on the lake. Perfect for this type of depth on a big water. Big enough to stay put, but light enough not to scare off the tench when they (inevitably) take the bait. I also thought of the float as a good luck charm; there are, in fact, ancient crucian carp in this lake- some of which weigh well over four pounds. They’re not abundant enough to ‘target’, so to speak, but they are occasionally caught by tench anglers. With a tench float made from a crucian quill, I was surely going to be in the lake’s good graces…
And as I stared at its bright red tip, the rest of the picture began to fragment. What had seemed like the integral parts of a ‘whole’ landscape, slowly broke away and became distinct. Firstly I became aware of the different types of birdsong. There were goldfinches chirruping some thirty yards to the southeast of the punt; whilst beyond the float I could hear a song thrush- always later than the blackbird- finishing his morning ballad. Further into the undergrowth, I could just detect the muffled giggles of a greater spotted woodpecker. Then the smells began to grow stronger. Firstly the scent of the lilies yawning and then, as the mercury rose, I felt overwhelmed by a great shower of dandelion seeds. I was becoming badly sunburnt, but seemed powerless to move- so deep was my state of hypnosis. The float, and everything near it, seemed enormous. Trees developed distinct features that hitherto I hadn’t perceived… When it started to occur to me that the damselflies resembled small dragons, I knew that my sojourn from reality was complete.
The Jungle now held me completely in her thrall.
After a while, some fairies came and joined us: a company of twenty or so long tailed tits (although I prefer the name ‘old red eyes’) nestled in the woods near my boat and started to gambol charmingly about between the branches of the jungle. Like candy floss on stems; their tails are actually bigger than their entire bodies. I find them very inquisitive and unafraid of humans. Fairies really, these ‘little people’ set the dragon-damsels off beautifully. The whole atmosphere of the place was intoxicating. The magical creatures, the angle of the float, the lilt of the punt… Until eventually the trance deepened into drowsiness…
… And then sleep!… As I realised my error, my flickering eyes could just about discern the tip of my float sliding down into the depths. Smells, sounds, fairies and dragons all retreated as I pulled myself out of dreamland and struck hard. Hard enough to pull slack line up, but not hard enough to connect. I cursed myself as I reeled up the slack, but then nearly jumped out of the punt when the line went solid- very solid.
The fish was hooked and it felt decent. I got it into open water and attempted to play it away from the jungle. No good. It made a series of spirited, no, terrifying charges back into the woods and would have beaten me outright if it weren’t for the strong line that I was using; much sturdier than I would normally use for tench. A necessary insurance against the malice of the jungle. The line held, but my rod perhaps wasn’t fully up to the job. It bent to the point of snapping but ultimately did hold. Just. It made for an exciting battle, but a bigger fish may have made mincemeat of me. When the fish finally surfaced, I could see it was a nice tench. Almost five pounds; an excellent size for a float fisher… But my experience with the rod had left me shaken.
I stayed awake and alert(ish) for the rest of the day. A subpar rod is one thing, but a sleeping angler would be the ultimate gauntlet to lay down to these fish; I would soon find myself floating home if I drifted off again.
As the day progressed, I missed two further bites by striking too early. Then, an hour before rowing back, I hooked one more tench: a four pounder. Another amazing battle ensued, similar to the last. My only advantages were being more alert this time round- and shirtless, which probably frightened the hell out of the poor fish when it finally surfaced.
A clear blue sky had started to gather clouds by the time I packed the car up. Tonight I was staying somewhere else: the ancient (and haunted) ‘White Horse’ hotel in Dorking- just a couple of miles away. Tomorrow I would return and try the lake anew. But before doing so I intended to call into town and buy a new, stronger rod from the local tackle dealer. And prior to all that I had drinks to drink and curries to eat and, apparently, ghosts to see.
And all the while, the clouds kept growing. I thought about this as I drove away from the lake and back up into the woods- sorry to leave the fairies, but safe from the dragons…
“I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core”
I’m forty next year and I don’t like it. The overwhelming feeling that repeatedly haunts me is that I’ve been unfairly convicted of a crime which I did not commit. But without the glamour of the ‘A’ Team or the moral high ground of Jim McDonald. It’s true that I haven’t done anything to deserve it. In fact I’ve done everything I can to avoid it; I’m borderline religious with the push-ups and if I’m honest I buy moisturiser, too. If you’d told me at twenty that I’d ever do that, I’d have punched myself in the face on general principle. Really. But I’ll admit I do seem to have become a man of habit. If I’m honest I find myself in the pub more than I like. And I’ve had the same hairstyle since 1997; this is changing, though. But pathetically, only because I have no choice over it. Loss of natural resources…
The older I get, the more powerless I become over many aspects of my life. For instance, I am the prisoner of a long list of self-imposed traditions. Some of which I question… Others, however, I cherish and could never consciously break with. One of my most precious rituals is my strict adherence to commencing the tench season with an annual trip to the Surrey Hills. There I can punt-fish the grand estate lake at Old Bury Hill and join with the seasonal advent of bugs, birds, flora and fauna that, like me, are so reassuringly set in their ways. The tench, in particular, never let me down. They arrive promptly with the cuckoo in the spring time and then depart punctually with him in late summer. Both creatures then go south: the bird flies to Africa whilst the fish finds himself a nice deep hole and there he lays in suspended animation for the best part of the year. But when his hibernation is over, he eats, mates and makes merry for the duration of the warmer months. I like to join him in his revelries at the end of May, when spring is at its zenith and the solstice is still a few weeks’ off.
In his book ‘Confessions of a Carp Fisher’, the author (and naturalist bon-viveur) ‘BB’, wrote a lovely passage about the pleasures of encountering new inns and taverns whilst fishing away from home in the summer months. I heartily agree and have stayed at many lovely locations whilst on some foolish quest for angling glory- ranging from grand hotels to old, haunted pubs. This year I started my sojourn with a night at Denbie’s Wine Estate, Britain’s biggest vineyard, just outside of Dorking. I’d slipped into Surrey late the previous night (I like to imagine myself as a fugitive or perhaps a secret agent on all such trips) following an exhausting few weeks of teaching and study. It was dark as I drove up the winding country track but I was able to trace the contours of the surrounding hills and could detect the outlying trees belonging to a huge, ancient wood that borders the edge of the estate. Having kindly waited up for me, the landlady showed me to my room, gave me two bottles of beer and bade me goodnight. I awoke early the next morning and opened my curtains to a kind of English Eden. I arose and took a walk around the estate.
The scenes washed away all thoughts of my former, regular life, and reminded me that I was now an escapee of sorts… A runaway from reality… The ‘High Plains Tencher’… And so I stomped around gleefully taking photographs and getting carried away with visions of England in the summer time until, as always, I became extremely hungry. All subsequent thoughts were sharply reduced to images of food, so I checked my childish fantasies and retreated for an enormous breakfast back at the farmhouse.
The lodgings themselves were divine. The landlady, as all hosts should be, was wonderfully eccentric- big, booming, generous and cheerful. And hysterically High Tory, in the most innocent sense possible. Not one copy of any left leaning muck whatsoever in the newspaper selection. And frightfully posh anecdotes about imminent village fêtes etc. The purpose of my visit being to ‘start the tench season’, I fitted right in with this rather quaint, alternate England, and attracted a series of questions from curious breakfasters. I smiled, but answered as laconically as I possibly could (which is always difficult for me) in an attempt to add glamour and mystery to my cause… These lovely places always deepen my sense of adventure. Having eaten, I bought several bottles of the estate’s famous white wine- ‘Surrey Hills Gold’, packed my car and headed for the other side of the forest.
… As I drove, I performed a final mental checklist of my equipment and tactics. Just as I’ve done since I was a school boy, I’d spent the previous few weeks devouring various angling books and getting my tackle ready for the new season. My most important tools are my floats, which I buy from a small group of British craftsmen who make them to order; these men are a rare breed and carry on a tradition that mustn’t ever be allowed to die. I now use handmade floats for the vast majority of my coarse angling; they are a highly romantic indulgence, I suppose- but then float fishing is an ancient and venerable art form. And the very finest way to take a tench. As such it should be accorded a fitting level of prestige…
… The approach to Bury Hill is stunning and takes you far into the Hills. Before long I was held captive by the beautiful summer song of the woods. To get to the lake you have to travel for some time underneath the huge canopies of an ancient forest, whose leaf-filtered light creates a beautiful, jade half-world. The effect is entirely soporific. Combined with the anticipation of what’s to come, the process of detachment becomes deeper and deeper until finally you find yourself waking in the bosom of a vast, lush valley… You have reached a very different England. And you have arrived in tench country.
Like all true estate lakes, the boat house is stationed so that the sun faces you at dawn. When you look out in the early hours, you are almost blinded but what you see is nothing short of glorious- and very spooky, too; for here exists one of those strange pockets of the old country where the English ‘eerie’ dominates one’s senses. Today it was strangely quiet when I arrived- a highly unusual state of affairs. But, for whatever reason, I have learned that lakes (in particular the well-established, older waters) can have different ‘moods’, for want of a better word.
This particular pool was one of many Victorian attempts to exert some kind of aesthetic control over nature… They almost succeeded. But the fact is, they’ve only accentuated the power of the wild by super-imposing such a beautiful landscape. The flooding of valleys up and down England in the 18th and 19th centuries may well have been done to provide a tranquil juxtaposition with the Great Houses and their gardens, but the resulting lakes’ real majesty is in their ability to foster wildlife.
A flooded valley is likely to hold ten times the amount of creatures that it did when ‘dry’. They’re jam-packed with insect life due to their excellent positioning and weed growth; as a result, the few fish that were introduced centuries ago have bred healthily and happily to the point where these lakes now hold huge natural stocks of pike, rudd, tench, bream and perch. And being densely tree-lined, they give cover, sustenance and habitats galore to an amazing variety of bird species.
So when you arrive and load up your boat, you may well feel ‘alone’. But to the contrary- you have awoken a host of curious listeners. Many walk the bank and the local meadows. Some soar above you in the trees. All took heed as I began to punt out. I went as quietly as I could, but it didn’t matter. The splash of the oars echoed out all around the lake, smashing its hitherto unseasonal silence.
But below all this surface noise- there lurk other, far more mysterious listeners. These creatures live not around the lake- but in it. They are less seen, other than in one’s imagination. But they are real- and it would be my mission today to prove that.
I punted further and further out until gradually the boat house receded from my view.
I had just emerged from an old river tunnel when a shiny object shot past me, missing my nose by about three inches. It was dusk and at first I thought it was a bright yellow sweet wrapper dancing in the breeze, a refugee Haribo ribbon floating downstream from the nearby city. I’ve seen stranger things drift by. But this was no ‘thing’. It was brimful of anima and curiosity- exploring every part of the stream and the surrounding foliage as only a real water baby could. I had no camera or binoculars but on the way back to my car I was fortunate enough to encounter a far more experienced river walker, who solved the mystery for me.
I was informed that the creature was a grey wagtail… ‘Grey?!’- I asked incredulously. And so began my relationship with perhaps the most unfairly named beasts in all of England. Because these particular wagtails are in every way- song, dance and pigment- as full of vigour as any other native on this island.
It is a great pleasure to find diamonds in the rough. In fact it’s become quite a curiosity of mine that the darkest places often hold the brightest jewels. I have recently fallen under the spell of an old weir pool in Kent, which I visit once per week in order to fly fish. So far I have caught no trout from it, although several small perch have become attached to my flies. Pretty little weir beasts, their stripes are all the more vivid in such a seat of darkness- and they never fail to raise my spirits.
But despite their devilish charms, the perch have recently been forced to take second prize in the beauty contest. Because the ‘grey’ wagtail, with his delicate symmetry and indulgent, custard-coloured chest, can rival even the most handsome of kingfishers for good looks. And in terms of charisma? Well, I’m afraid that he can best them all with just one swoop of that eponymous, ever-quivering tail.
I first saw them only in the distance, raiding the weir’s rubbish-raft for flies, bugs and other goodies. Just like us, they are nothing if not adaptable. They have compromised on nearly everything yet still they beat on- in ever smaller pockets- pushed back, harried and diminished by the modern world. They are a river bird and although I have fished since I was twelve, I don’t mind admitting that I have rarely seen them. I think the last time was over a decade ago. And so when I first saw these flashes of yellow in the distance, I was hugely intrigued. Like a stargazer viewing a returning comet.
And for a while, that’s how it was. They would come no closer than the other side of the pool. But just like that first faint spectre I encountered some weeks ago- they are curious animals; thus my visits have become ever more colourful. The weir is rather a lonely place so perhaps they couldn’t resist finding out more about me. As time has passed, the tunnels that grant me access to the area have become our meeting place and from my third or fourth visit, that’s where they’ve met me- no longer flying away but rather tolerating my clumsy presence.
My closest encounter thus far was when one of the birds landed upon the end of my fishing rod. I’d put it down to drink my tea- and from a distance of ten feet we stood staring one another in the eyes for about thirty seconds, which is a long time for an animal to spend gazing at a human. Most nature lovers will tell you that it’s an arresting experience whenever any wild species ‘locks on’. I can remember a mistle thrush, with its long neck and high-seated eyes, doing the same thing to me a few seasons ago. And last summer, I caught a large wild tench which stared so hard at me that I actually had to look away.
Since then we have become quite friendly; the birds are cheerful, intelligent and- most of all- inspiring; after all, they have somehow turned a chaos of weeds and abandonment into a comfortable home. The river is at its most unpredictable here; the pool oozes danger and its bed is littered with old tyres, bottles and umpteen bits of detritus from our own world- yet they rule over all of it like little yellow gods; the Kings of a forlorn wasteland.
Indeed, the Wags of the Weir are all the more fascinating because they thrive in so violent a place. I very often see the birds flying straight up the centre of the drop-off, just inches above water that would drown me in seconds. It’s hard to believe that such seeming frailty could survive- let alone prosper- so close to mortality. But as well as accentuating their fragile elegance, it also enhances the deathly nature of this dark place. Especially when you see two at a time balancing their dainty stems on the ivy just adjacent to the main sill…
A daredevil act because the pool rages at this part of the river- and affords no casual visitors. Myself, I tread gingerly. I have occasionally fallen foul of the weir and suffered my waders to be breached. But more troubling has been the persistent sense of treachery that such a location instils in a man. If ever you’ve waded a dark, lonely place then you too will know that feeling of control drifting from you- followed by the momentary dread that it’s no longer yours to regain. In those few seconds when you lose your balance, you often feel other forces at work… And they’re not always benevolent.
Tragically the grey wagtail is in serious decline. Two years ago he was granted ‘Red’ status by the RSPB and judged, just like the nightingale, to be of the highest possible conservation concern. Over 50% of the species has vanished in just the last twenty-five years.
Thus it is a bittersweet experience to watch my local birds playing so happily, because I worry that one day we may lose them completely.
Consequently I treasure the memory of each encounter and can vividly recall our last meeting; it was at twilight, two weeks ago.
I was leaving the tunnel when once more I was accosted by a familiar, sweet-wrapper apparition. I watched in the dim and traced the yellow shape back and forth across the surface of the river until in the coming gloam it became a flash of zest. It zigzagged faster and faster until it was just a blur; a neon comet. My eyes could hardly keep up and in the day’s dying moments it seemed to me that the bird had transformed into a river spirit-completely oblivious to my presence and that of all mankind- dancing peacefully to an innocent rhythm known only by the animal kingdom.
Finally the bird melted away into the darkness and was gone forever.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it”
– Norman Maclean
The winter is over. Up until a few days ago, I hadn’t got out of town (or in fact shaved) for a long while- but it’s reached that time of the year when one’s home, an erstwhile warm and inviting hibernaculum, becomes a chilly sepulchrum- colder inside than out. Eventually, like Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Moley’, the light gets in and your whiskers start to bristle. When finally I popped my head out, it was a sunny day in early April, and Kent lay languorously low and far before me. A vernal Viscountess. When I was a child, lush spring greens and cyan blues were her favoured shades; but with the advent of rapeseed, she has taken to idly draping her body in exquisite, yolky stoles.
These zesty ribbons now punctuate much of the Home Counties, a fact lamented by some, yet the crops only constitute a small proportion of our farmland. For me they’re a golden thread amongst a sea of emerald; a sophisticated adjunct to her Ladyship’s seasonal wardrobe. In any case, I don’t hear the local blue tit tribes complaining on the sartorial front; the new fields are a beautiful complement to their lemony flanks.
But if you seek subtler treasures, you have to dig below the surface. Kent’s outward appearances are stunning, but they are merely a diaphanous veil to her many secrets- some living, some dead.
At the highest point of my local river valley, an old windmill stands vigil. During the Battle of Britain it was used as a lookout post to spot incoming German bombers; the resulting dogfights left much detritus that is still cocooned in these old fields and occasionally a farmer will plough into a piece of Spitfire or Messerschmitt.
The war haunts Kent like no other county. When I was a child, an elderly German farmhand used to deliver the football pools coupons to our house each week; he was a lovely old fellow, full of stories, and always brought sweets for my brother and I. He had arrived in Kent in the summer of 1940 by way of parachute. Aged 17, his incoming bomber was hit by a Spitfire and he bailed out, landing in a cauliflower field just outside Dover. He was arrested by a group of farmers armed with pitchforks and spent the remainder of the war in a local P.O.W camp. He subsequently fell in love with the area (as well as a local girl) and never returned to his homeland.
When you reach the mill, you begin a steep descent into the lower valley and are borne back ever further into the past. The way is old here, and many have passed through it over the centuries- some pilgrims, some seekers of refuge. Submerged below the fields, there is an ancient halfway house; a signpost that tells me I am near to trout country.
But for many others it has been a beacon of safety and English hospitality- not least of all the continental Huguenot refugees, who settled here in great numbers in the 17th century to work as weavers and silversmiths. Every Sunday in nearby Canterbury, the Cathedral still holds an entire sermon in French.
The inn jealously guards one of their more mischievous (though perhaps no less spiritual) mysteries: Barrels of ancient Huguenot cherry brandy, whose recipe dates back centuries and is a secret known only to the tavern-masters and their successors. On my recent foray into the country, I decided to buy a bottle and see if I couldn’t combine it with another of the valley’s treasures. Perhaps the most precious of them all.
For in the deepest part of the valley, far beneath the rape fields, oast houses and taverns, there lay wonderful creatures that pre-exist all of these human histories. Wagtails, woodpeckers, kingfishers, grass snakes, roach, perch and trout have all played peacefully in the lower water meadows for centuries whilst humanity has been distracted with money, war and religion. In spring time, the coarse fishing season is closed. But the game season is just beginning… As is the world. And it is the trout that draws anglers out of hibernation. A native just like us, but no less migratory (my local river welcomes back returning sea trout every spring), he thrives in clean water and is particularly partial to the chalky streams of southern England.
And so on Tuesday last- having not held a rod for nearly two months- I found myself ensconced by the riverside, hunting for one of the county’s last living secrets. I started in perhaps one of the least likely spots- a shadowy old weir pool. As much as anything else, these parts of the stream act like a magnet to the boy perch fisherman hidden within me. The mystery of the overhanging branches is like a siren and I seem to find a fiendish delight in the constant scanning and probing into dark and forbidding places. I had no luck with the trout but what a thrill it was to stand chest deep in such powerful water after a winter of too much sitting and supping. I found it hard to pull myself away, but eventually I wandered too deep and some of the weir-water burst through the bib of my waders. I took a minor soaking but it felt good. It was enough to remind me to take better care, though- and like all anglers I interpreted this break in the pattern as an auspicious signal that it was now finally time to change tactics.
I sat by the bank for some time and gradually I could feel myself drying off. The breeze was tepid and the sound of the water gurgling along was enough to soothe my pride-inflicted ailments. Presently I began to think about trout again. The river was quite cool so I wasn’t using a dry fly but instead a nymph. This complicates matters slightly as you can’t see the latter, it being the underwater predecessor to the former. But nymphing is much misunderstood, to my mind. It may not offer the halcyon day delights of surface smashing salmonids, but what it lacks in stark spectacle it more than makes up for in subtle divination and cunning. With a nymph, you are submerged even further into the stream, rushing deep with the current and bumping into weeds, rocks and flotsam until, if you are lucky, you connect with your quarry. Which eventually, I did.
I’d wandered for a while and saw what I thought could either be a chub or a brown trout lurking underneath a willow tree. The shade and the surface current were too strong to accurately identify which species it was; a fair day’s angling is a series of ever reducing odds. Thus I waded downstream of the willow and started to cast the nymph a few yards ahead of the mystery fish. It took me several attempts before I found my mark; I always make a point of hooking half of the nearby foliage first. I then started to repeatedly inch the cast a little further upstream until the nymph was running naturally back in the current over the desired area.
The take was confident and I didn’t need to strike. I stripped and tightened the fly line before harrying the fish into open water, upon which it leapt completely clear of the stream. After spending so much time indoors, the moment is seared in my mind more clearly than any photograph could be. The fish was about fifteen inches long, weighed well over a pound and was beautifully spotted as opposed to heavily scaled: a brown trout. I was perhaps slightly dumbstruck; the fish was able to make two more jumps and zigzag precariously several times across the stream before I got it within landing distance. Despite my lay-off, I’d had prescience enough to fully extend my net and place it within easy reach before I started casting off. After one botched attempt, I broke the angling rule book and thrust the mesh out under the fish, rather than bringing him to it. A silly thing to do. But I was lucky.
I sat under the willows and watched the river melt by. After a while the sun started to glow and then dip. I could hear but not see a green woodpecker yaffling. More trout or chub jumped, but I had no further need to fish.
It was dark by the time I passed the halfway house, but I stopped and bought a bottle of the Huguenot potion I’d been promising myself all winter. When I got home, everybody was out; the house was empty and cold. I pan-fried the trout in the cherry brandy before baking it in a butter sauce consisting of cherries, almonds, mushrooms and garlic. It was delicious- and a superb way to consummate the start of spring.
Some time has passed now and that meal is just another memory… But the river is still flowing. And if I sit still and close my eyes, it feels as though I’m back underneath the willow trees again. I can even hold my fingers close to my nose and they smell just like the trout did- of fresh water mint and thyme. The stream is quiet now and I can hear it lapping gently at the bank.
I started the perch season late last summer by taking a lovely great stripey from the ancient Miller’s Pool in Canterbury city centre- not too far from the Cathedral. It was a real monster and my beautiful old cane rod had to be angled high and hard to get the fish past all the snags. Afterwards I drank some delicious, hoppy Kentish ale in the local- the Miller’s Arms- and promised myself I would go back for more. Both to the pool and the pub. But I have done neither.
In the end, and as usual, I found more fascination eastwards- out beyond the city walls and into the open Kentish country. One of my favourite haunts is the so-called Grove Ferry, a beauty spot on the tidal Stour, nestled somewhere in the fields between the coast and the city. In August great tribes of fry gather in the deep, cool pools underneath the willows there. If you arrive at noon you can lay flat and have a snooze. It’s not difficult. Particularly if you’ve already had a cider or two at the ancient riverside inn. What’s more, the whole area used to be a lavender farm and you can still sometimes smell it amongst the various water mints. It can be a precarious business to lay your head down in any part of Southern England in the summer. But to do so by the riverside at this time of the year invites deep slumber. For most of the season you are very quickly stunned to rest and so cannot even fully savour your repose. You lay dumb and tranquillised among the dry scrub before waking up feeling slightly cheated, with a wet mouth and numb cheeks. The bankside herbs are half-baked and the earth is scorched.
But then in those last days of August, nature leaves her oven door open and great balmy draughts rustle their way through the willow leaves and you fall asleep with the river. You wake up refreshed and it is mid-afternoon in late summer. Gone is the mass hysteria of every living thing in the vicinity. You can actually detect individual insect sounds. Any remaining birdsong is subdued and slightly dolorous. And as you look into the river you can focus and see deep down into its belly. You can see the shoals of fry, turquoise and serpentine in the black underneath the willow branches. Millions upon millions of tiny fish grouped together into tight globules, moving as one in the current and performing spectacular underwater murmurations just like the great flocks of starlings do over fields… Protection from predators. Protection from the beautiful deaths that hover above and lurk beneath them. As the attacks begin, then the angler sees his chance. A brightly painted bobber is tossed down into the stream, baited with a worm or a prey fish… The perch and kingfisher season has begun.
During the last few weeks of the real sun, I intercepted several lovely perch on the edges of these fry schools- up to about a pound and a half in weight. None quite as big as the ‘Miller’s Pool Beast’, but just as aggressive and lithe. The smaller perches are the prettiest and can rival a kingfisher for beauty. In common with their avian cousins they sport cute, inky eyes- and possess a plumage equal to that of any kingfisher. I even managed to catch one on a float inlaid with kingfisher feathers. The perch was on the cusp of adulthood; when I hooked it, the fish exploded into a weed bed and I had to take my time angling the rod back and forth until I wedged it free.
But the real joy of a place like this is to watch both the kingfishers and the perch at work. A few hours after the sun starts to cool, they both appear. The kingfisher at various ambush spots in the trees around the river, and the big daddy perch nestled in amongst the roots beneath them. One lives in the sky and the other lives in the water. But they both hunt the river- and are experts at it. I could never catch as many fish as they do- nor be so adept at it… So I don’t try… But I do try my best to understand my prey… And my prey they are- although I mean neither any harm. The kingfisher least of all- since I only mean to watch him and perhaps take a photograph.
As the season turned colder, it meant I couldn’t turn up early and take a nap. And naturally I had to change my drinking routine to after my visits. But in general, the game stays the same; it’s just that the active window for hunting gets smaller. In the early stages, when it’s warmer, the birds and the fish hunt for much longer- maybe several hours. In the cooler months you have perhaps two hours- at a maximum- to see your kingfishers and catch your perch. And it all usually happens in the two hours before dusk.
In mid autumn I caught my biggest perch of the season. A giant river fish of almost two and half pounds. Bigger than my flat cap! And I take a 7 3/4- only certain styles by Olney and Christys’ actually fit me. The perch took a roach bait fished underneath a big, bright red bobber… I hooked it below an old willow tree situated on a bend in the river. It disappeared, running deep down into the centre of the river with the bait and the float. At first I thought I’d hooked a pike (a possibility and as a precaution I’d used a wire trace)… But then I saw its wonderful flanks flashing and striping in the gloam. Big perch coming out of cold water are an amazing sight. And it’s a lovely experience to be their captor; the nearer it gets to the solstice, the more and more they seem to sparkle. The water gets darker and more impenetrable; when you do catch a giant, the full, opal spectrum of their colours is revealed. When at last I got the fish into the shallows I realised it was probably the second biggest river perch I’d ever caught. As such I treated it with the respect due such an old champion. When I couldn’t find my unhooking mat- I used my flat cap as a resting place for the creature. I washed the hat afterwards in river water and still wear it most days. A badge of honour, I suppose.
In the couple of months since, I’ve fished and walked the river but have had a hard time locating the bigger perch again… However I have encountered many more wonderful kingfishers…
With or without the cap, I never fail to feel a little silly in their presence.