The River Hunters

 

… Flumen Venatores…

 

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Grove Ferry Kingfisher

 

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.

 

Millers Pool Late Summer 2016
The Beast of the Old Miller’s Pool… With a perch.

 

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.

 

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Grove Ferry

 

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.

 

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Bobber in the Reeds

 

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.

 

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Kingfisher Bobber with Grove Ferry Perch

 

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.

 

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Waiting to dive…

 

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.

 

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Dusk on the Kentish Stour at Grove Ferry

 

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.

 

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Flat Cap Perch

 

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.

 

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Rex Fluvium

 

The Ramsgate Parrot, Squirrel and Whiting Run

 

Ramsgate’s chief seat of Squirreldom is undoubtedly King George VI Park. The whole estate used to be owned by Sir Moses Montefiore and I suspect he imported them to lend the place some transatlantic charm. Anyway, they drove out the native ‘reds’ and ruled with an iron fist until the parrots turned up a century later. Well, the ‘rose-ringed parakeets’ to be precise. Fugitives from private aviaries, they turned up about thirty years ago and are just as ambitious as their nut munching nemeses. But they are far more colourful, much louder- and can fly. I have a bizarre theory that the two species cancel each other out; I can’t prove it, but I think they compete on some level and that this allows the park’s other poor species some breathing space. Despite the opposing green and grey goliaths, the smaller creatures- the finches, tits, woodpeckers (green and greater spotted), thrushes and starlings- all seem to be prospering. But then I’m an eternal optimist.

 

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King Squirrel in King George VI Park, Ramsgate

 

My own family arrived in Ramsgate during the 1940’s. My grandfather came from Wales to mine the local area, which is rich in coal. And my nan met him whilst on a day trip from London. In turn, her family had emigrated from Ireland. In any case, we beat the parrots here. But yet we lack the nutty grandeur of Ramsgate’s ancient Squirrel Families. And can only look on in awe at the pedigree of the mighty Whiting Clans, who have been wintering along the town’s shoreline for millennia. I maintain an annual tradition of trying to catch the latter creature from the local pier. I only go after them two or three times in a season and usually make the first trip in early November- just as the autumn is ending and the long, cold nights start to draw the fish in closer to the shore. I look forward to catching them, and even more to eating them as I prefer the flavour to cod (which is just as well these days). But I’ve been busier than I like to be and couldn’t make it out this year until last week.

 

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Ramsgate Custom House

 

The view from Ramsgate’s Kent Steps is lovely. I bought my bait from ‘Fisherman’s Corner’, an Aladdin’s Cave for anglers where three decades ago I bought my first sea rod, and then climbed the ‘Steps’ up to Madeira Walk so that I could look down over the harbour; it’s impossible not to look back when you reach the top. The terracotta brick work and copper dome of the Ramsgate Custom House were built in the late 1800’s. Around the same time old Moses was releasing the Grey Scourge at King George VI’s- just a few hundred yards eastwards. I was thinking about this and decided it was too early to go fishing. It was an hour before dusk (the whiting feed better after dark) so I decided to stroll along the cliff towards the park. I love this walk, not least of all as it enables me to pay a visit to one of my favourite places in Ramsgate-the Art Moderne lift on the East Cliff. During the summers I used to ride up and down in it with my nan and my mother, having walked and talked along the local promenades.

 

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Art Moderne Lift, Ramsgate’s East Cliff

 

England will never get over the Victorians. The scale of their ambition persists in our attitudes, survives in our pursuits and dominates our vistas. They installed the blueprint for much of today’s country, including its parks. Queen Victoria herself used to walk in this one. Well, back when it was an Estate, anyway. She used to stay as the guest of Montefiore. I wonder what she’d make of the modern entrance…

 

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Entrance to King George VI Park

 

I suppose it’s seen better days, but then Ramsgate itself has seen far worse. In 1941, Moses Montefiore’s Estate was made public and renamed King George VI Park. Not so long afterwards, the Luftwaffe destroyed 3000 of the town’s homes in one day alone. The town boomed in the 1950’s but by the 1980’s it boasted one of the highest unemployment figures in Europe. Crime rates soared, the cold war started to freeze and leather clad Mohicans staked out the town centre in-between dole interviews. One by one the shops all closed. Pubs, too. Whatever ‘boom’ was going on in the City of London, it had a far worse effect on the prosperity of the town than all of Hitler’s bombs put together. For a boy, the Ramsgate of my childhood was a romantic paradise of abandoned buildings, hobos and social decay. I’ll be honest and say I loved it. But the experience would have been very different for many grown-ups. Roll on three decades and the town is again fashioning itself a new identity. Global populations are shifting. London cannot hold etc… We’re being invaded by hoardes of city-quitters who bring money, stories (many untrue), hope, glamour and despair. Dangerous new cliques are forming. They shop at Waitrose, drink Kentish Ale and talk about the ‘nouveau left’ in the corner of newly (and beautifully) restored Victorian pubs. Clashes with the provincials have been inevitable. Personally, I say good luck to them.

 

For the animal kingdom, ignorance is bliss. The park soon shook off all my clifftop reminiscences and petty nostalgias. I was instantly greeted by a squirrel who thought he was Tarzan; I stalked him for thirty minutes as he bounced about from tree to tree.

 

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Tarzan of Ramsgate

 

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Disgruntled of Ramsgate

I saw parakeets. Lots of them. But I couldn’t get close to one, even with my telelens, until dusk started to come on. Then they became docile. They stopped flying from me and started simply to watch me. Almost disbelieving that I should still be there. Finally they settled in the thicket nearest to the park’s Broadstairs entrance and began to move in and out of a series of holes in the trees. I saw a flash of green between the branches and aimed my camera at it; after about thirty seconds, a bird came out and stared right at me.

 

 

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My catch of delicious Channel Whiting

By now, dusk was in deluge. I had captured a parrot, so to speak. And a squirrel. Now it was time to catch my dinner. I walked back to the Kent Steps and then hurried down onto the so-called Ramsgate Pier (in reality it’s the harbour’s outer wall). When I arrived I could see the pilot boat going out to sea. Both the sea and the sky had that lovely Arctic tinge they seem to develop locally in midwinter. Just as the day was ending, I set my tackle up and waited for black-out. Observing winter dusks seems to be as much a habit for me these days as the ‘dawn watch’ is in the summer. I feel more alive at these times than at any other. Like the whiting, I’ve been returning to this spot for nearly thirty years; life gets in the way, but I always come back… To a rhythm so familiar it feels as though I never left. Like it has all been one long dusk and that it won’t ever end. But then the sun starts to dip and the rod tip starts to rattle. The full romance of the night comes upon me and I’m not so sure I feel the same way I did as a boy… However I still always think I’ll catch a fish. But then the angler is an eternal optimist.

 

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Séance with a Pike at Dusk

 

Yesterday I walked the Kentish levels in search of a pike. I love towns, but it’s important to celebrate where they end. I treasure those wonderful sensations of ellipsis as buildings, trees and factories pass you by and magically become fields, woods and rivers. Then all of a sudden you’re there… Out of town.

 

The same concept applies to daytime- especially in the colder months. A winter’s dusk is like a fine wine. You need a whole bottle if you are to experience its full romance. Hours in the making, it must be lived through; I like to arrive just prior to the first hints of rose on the horizon- about an hour after midday in an English December. Yesterday I packed my pike fishing gear and drove just west of the old Kentish village, Sarre. I was about six miles inland as the crow flies (around double that as the river winds) but just a few hundred years ago the whole area was seafront property. The Wantsum Channel has since silted up and provided a land connection to the rest of England. But the country here still has the feel of a lost nether region; its levels stretch far, wide and low- providing a sublime vantage point for dusk celebrators. Be they birders, ramblers or would-be pike catchers.

 

I arrived slightly later than usual. Dusk was already underway, albeit with a few hours left before nightfall; I parked up in a lay-by, walked twenty or so yards beyond some trees and promptly disappeared from the civilised world. It was cold and the river ran a dark, inky shade of navy; the bordering trees, denuded of their autumnal leaves, stood guarding the river bank in bare bones. Between their branches the sky was already tickled a lovely, delicate pink and above them it turned by degrees into a faint, baby blue.

 

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On an afternoon like this, I like to stalk out in the wild. Usually angling or wildlife photography are fine ways to fulfil the ‘urge’. I don’t fish for pike too often- and certainly never in the same place for all that long. But their pursuit is emblematic of the winter season and can be one of the most thrilling ways to enjoy an English dusk. I like to make a few special trips throughout the season. This one was a spur of the moment decision; I’d finished my Christmas shopping that morning and was having an early lunch when I felt an overwhelming urge to go out into the countryside and do battle with a pike. The logical and learned part of my brain told me this was stupid; it was freezing, after all. But- typically- a deeper, more primal voice won me over. Within fifteen minutes I’d rejected my cosy hibernaculum in favour of an icy river walk. In earnest, it had been building up for months; the dream of a real winter pike session where you can see your breath hanging in the air- and the cold takes on a personality all of its own.

 

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I soon warmed up as I walked the river. It was cold but it didn’t hurt like it can in some Decembers- and most Januarys. I took very simple tackle (rod, centrepin reel, float) and kept moving to stay warm, looking all the while to drift a small, dead ‘prey’ fish (on this trip a roach) into various tempting looking spots. Eddies, slacks, overhanging trees and undercut banks all being prime pike habitats where they like to hide before pouncing on lesser fish. Beneath my feet, autumn’s detritus was starting to turn black. The leaves logged high in places, smothering my path and choking up the river bed; but I enjoyed trudging through them. The pink continued to rise; it had floated above the treeline and into the sky proper, which had now turned a darker shade of blue.

 

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A float is a medium for connecting with nature. The process of float fishing is itself a type of séance. You cast into a pool. You watch and wait for a response. Sometimes for hours. It may look outwardly idle but in actual fact the angler is mentally perched and waiting for contact from ‘the other side’; an older, more primitive world. Pike floats are huge- in order to support the larger baits involved- and when you receive a bite, the float usually bobs around a lot before moving off. It’s a highly visual art form- and it’s never short of electrifying. The pike at the other end might weigh three pounds or it could be a ‘forty’.

 

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I only had one chance to make ‘contact’ yesterday. Some time had passed and dusk was reaching its third act. I’d walked a fair amount and it had definitely gotten colder. I also bitterly regretted my decision not to bring some of the chocolate cake that was sitting on my kitchen table; after a while I began to see apparitions of it in the water. And in the sky too- where the baby blues were now long gone. Behind me on my side of the bank, the roses were now receding as the gloam advanced rapidly. But on the other side where the sun was setting- the pinks had exploded into great mauve ribbons, streaking and vandalising the exposed vista.

 

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The bite came as I started to think about heading home; the thought of the pub- or a slice of that cake- had become too strong to resist for much longer. Also I’d started to reproach myself for dawdling too long along the way. Too many casts in one spot; waiting around in another place for a kingfisher to reappear etc… Now I wouldn’t have the time to get to my intended destination of ‘Blood Point’- a large bend in the river where Alfred the Great saw off a huge Viking army over a thousand years ago. In fact Alfred killed so many of them that the river ran red with blood- hence the name. I had reached a large submerged bush a few hundred metres downstream from this spot and decided to make it my last stand.

 

The roach and the float hit the water about five metres before the sunken foliage and I intended to let them drift to within an inch of it before hauling in. I did this, albeit to no avail. But as I was pulling in, some fry scattered on the surface- just ahead of the bush though still in fairly slack water; no pike angler in the world would ignore a sign like this. I cast my bait in and again watched the float descend. It showed up well in the dusk (it’s a big, bright red float- inlaid with kingfisher feathers to satiate my ridiculous angling superstitions) and this time I let it drift deeper and to the front of the branches. As it reached the spot where the fry had leapt, it stopped and bobbed under about four or five times. It then slowly sank about two feet into the river and started to travel to the other side of the bush- into much deeper water and nearer still to underwater tangles and tree roots.

 

I struck hard and thought at first I’d hooked a snag. But the snag then started to move violently back and forth. It wasn’t a huge fish- but it was clearly no ‘jack’ (the name we give for pike up to about five or six pounds). I let some line release from my centrepin as the pike made for midstream and then submerged my rod as I guided it back and across the front of the bush. When it reached the net, it did what all self-respecting pike do and ran off again for open water. I was using strong tackle but I was forced to give the fish line in stages until his charge softened. He then came grudgingly in; once near the net he again went beserk- soaking me with huge, violent tail splashes- but I was able to land him and bring him to the bank. He looked to be about nine or ten pounds- I didn’t weigh him- and was an immensely handsome creature.

 

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I released the fish and paced about beaming. I was mildy adrenalised and gradually realised that I didn’t want to go home any more, so I poured a tea and sat on the river bank with my legs in the water. Drinking it slowly, I thought about the pike. And then about Alfred. By now the landscape behind me was shadow-clad but ahead of me, towards ‘Blood Point’, the thuggish pink streaks of half an hour earlier had graduated into violent, purgatorial purples; the diurnal consummation was now in full swing and the land had entered that glorious window of time when it is neither day nor night. I decided to postpone a later social engagement and head for the point- if for no other reason than in honour of Alfred.

 

I got there a few minutes later and all that was left of the dipping sun was a pulpy mass of blood orange which was slowly melting into the horizon. I switched to an even bigger float, a huge great old thing that resembles an estuary buoy, and cast it into a slack just before the bend. After a few minutes the sun disappeared completely and my ears adjusted to a different type of silence. And for what might ascend. For what horror might unfold. A great mist rose from the river and shrouded the field behind me. In my mind’s eye, the opposite bank became an alternate reality. Its trees seemed like spectres whilst a solitary, late bat danced among their branches as I sat and waited in this old corner of England- staring across the abyss.

 

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Part Three- The Carnival and the Queen

 

“A sadder and a wiser man,
  He rose the morrow morn”

 

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Fellows of the Marsh.

 

The next evening I duly returned and caught nothing… But I saw everything. Sitting undetected a few feet away from a tribe of wild tench, I witnessed something I’ve never seen in over 25 years of fishing- their highly formalised and very eerie dusk ceremony; in its entirety from start to finish and in perfectly clear water. I arrived at about 5pm and again raked the areas I’d worked the previous day, before gradually wandering between them on the lookout for signs. Three hours before dusk I spotted a tench moving. Then ten minutes later another- both fish were about three pounds and were quite clearly ‘patrolling’ the bend of the drain. This behaviour would make more sense as the evening unfolded. At about two hours before dusk, two much bigger fish (around five or six pounds each) emerged from the weeds and started to go back and forth with them. Up the drain. Down the drain. And then again.

 

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Late afternoon on the marshes. Time to enjoy Turner country and dig in until dusk.

 

I sat silently marvelling at this routine and didn’t even think about casting a bait in. I thought I’d wait as they seemed unsettled. Ten or so minutes must have passed when I noticed a bulky, dark mass near to one of the weedbeds. I’d been periodically scanning the area and hadn’t noticed this patch before; I assumed it was a clump of weed that had detached from the main bed. It was only when it moved out into the open that I realized the shape was in fact a colossal tench- easily the biggest so far. At least nine pounds. My whole body stiffened; it was darker now and the mood of the marsh seemed a little uneasier. I felt very acutely that I shouldn’t be there. By this point the ‘smaller’ fish were at fever pitch, frantically pacing up and down the drain. But their patrols were shortening. After another minute the fish seemed to be turning every three or four seconds until suddenly they were quite clearly circling the big one. These ‘scouts’ were the consort fish- the pages of the tribe. And they were taking up position around their Queen.

 

Together they proceeded to amble over to a patch of the drain that I’d raked the day before- about three feet from the bank. The procession now began to slow as the tribe adjusted to the slower, more deliberate rhythm set by the Queen- whom at all times swam in a raised position relative to the other tench. After milling about for a minute or so, the Queen then proceeded to roll and flank. Following several vigorous spins, the smaller fish then followed suit and started to spiral over and over- always within the Queen’s orbit but fastidiously careful to avoid actually touching or bumping into her. It was now the orange hour before dusk and I was sitting about four or five feet away from the display, hidden behind dense foliage. The carnival gradually reached its zenith and it became clear that the feeding ceremony was now at hand. The Queen had indulged in about a dozen or so of these deep rolls- each time displaying to me a beautiful, golden flank (I was close enough to identify the fish as a female by her perfectly formed pelvic and smooth underbelly; the males, for all their good looks, sport a slightly ungainly ‘gonad’ sack above a misshapen pelvic)- when all of a sudden she upended and started tearing up the bottom of the drain… Dinner time… The junior fish then followed her lead and joined in. At this point I very slowly extended my rod out over the lilies and let my baited hook drop down a foot to the left of them. I watched as the tribe’s feeding bubbles ascended to the surface and created the much heralded ‘fizzing’ that is such a hallmark of midsummer tenching.

 

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High dusk on the Kentish Marshes. A landscape shaped by the eerie.

 

I’d had no idea how hierarchical tench could be- nor how idiosyncratic in their habits. I knew they lived in groups of varying size. Some fish can never do this. Pike being a classic example- the bigger ones eat the smaller ones. But these tench functioned as a team, with the Queen setting the pace. The smaller ones had come out first. Just as rabbits do. I’d spent the previous late summer catching up with some dusk rabbiting in a sleepy valley in South East Kent. The rabbits there all lived in and around an ancient bund of about four or five hundred metres long. Their routine was very similar. Adult tench are not explicitly a prey creature in the same way that rabbits are (the latter’s whole being is built for evasion)- but their dusk ‘carnival’ is very clearly based on avoiding predators. Not hard to reason why, I suppose, after an infancy spent avoiding pike and waterfowl. Danger from above. Likewise, the smaller rabbits would leave their strongholds three hours before dusk, firstly ‘standing to’ with their ears pricked- scanning for any possible sign of a threat (of which there are many); gradually they would relax and mill about the area. The key difference was that they would not ‘display’ or ‘patrol’ in the way that the tench did- the fish being a more assertive, more physical creature. But similarly, the bigger rabbits would gradually come out, one by one (the ‘doe’s first, rather dishonourably) until at last, the big ‘buck’ rabbits would emerge to feed. By this point it would be almost dark. The tench differed in that the males came out first. But otherwise they adopted a similar hierarchy.

 

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A centuries old ceremony is about to commence.

 

As the evening progressed, it was obvious that the tench would eat nothing that I offered them- apart from (perhaps) the hempseed which they may well have been scooping up alongside their natural food. But no ‘big’ items. They would not touch meat, sweetcorn, bread or any other ‘larger’ particle that I introduced. It was obvious that they were more interested in what the rake had brought up- the small microscopic lifeforms, as well as snails and worms. The water was so clear that I could actually see them turning their noses up at my alien offerings; more agonising still was watching fish approach my hook-bait and then reject it. I decided to change my tactics immediately; I retired to the pub for a pint of the black stuff- followed by a torpid night’s sleep.

 

I returned the next afternoon with a pot of lobworms and a pint of maggots. I’d also stripped the line on my centrepin reel and replaced it with a much stronger one. This turned out to be the right decision. The whole drain was a living snag and the possibility of hooking a nine or ten pounder below the rod tip forced my hand. Again, I had time before the fish ventured out. However, this evening I could not locate the main tribe- only the scouts, whom I stalked back and forth until one came within range of my float. This fish was pacing up and down in the same manner as the night before but seemed to have more of a definite ‘flight-path’ than his brothers, so I introduced a worm directly into the middle of it and waited for him to make his pass. After two minutes, he was on his way again; he had appeared to go past the worm when in a millisecond he turned like lightning, shot down to the bottom and sucked it up. I watched him take it and then move off- my float dragging behind him for two seconds before submerging. I then struck hard and was into a terrific, dashing fight. The fish instantly dived into a heavy weedbed. Any tench above two pounds fights very hard and it’s hard to explain to a non-angler just how strong these creatures are, relative to their size. The superior line strength came in handy and after a short tug of war I’d landed my first marsh tench- a male of just below four pounds.

 

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The first tench I took on the marshes.

 

For the next couple of weeks, a similar routine emerged. I could locate and catch various scouts- but no Queens. Or even the ‘Princes’- those specimens of five or six pounds that I’d seen flanking the bigger fish. I’d typically head out onto the marshes every other weeknight and also spend some time there on the weekend. This is a fair amount of fishing time but the clock was ticking. The season for feeding tench is quite short. I only had a few more weeks left. One thing I did learn was that smaller baits were the key. The ‘Scouts’ didn’t always accept lobworms (and never took regular bait) but pretty much always fell to ‘dendrobenas’ (the smaller variety of worm you often find in compost heaps and rose beds).

 

marsh-tench
A ‘Scout’ tench taken from the marshes. As with rabbits, the smaller fish were the first to leave the sanctuary and would then ‘patrol’; they could then be stalked and quite often taken in broad daylight before the first signs of dusk.

 

One foggy evening a few weeks later- my luck changed for the better. I encountered a large gathering of tench about five metres away from the original position where I’d seen the first dusk dining party. This time I felt confident in my bait (the smaller worms) and decided to throw a few in as tempters before I engaged the fish. The tench, which looked to range between two and eight pounds, were feeding directly between two great lily beds and went crazy for the worms- with huge bubbles and ‘fizzing’ occuring wherever I introduced them. Soon enough, I lowered my bait directly into one of these areas. Within 45 minutes, I’d landed two tench of just below four pounds each. By now dusk was coming on rapidly… But I could still see very large, dark shapes moving around in the feeding area and knew that there were much bigger fish to be caught.

 

I made another cast and sat back. I had equipped myself with strong tackle in case I hooked one of the Princes- or even a Queen. But then so far every marsh fish had fought shockingly hard. One of my tools helped immensely- a 13ft long ‘tench’ rod, made especially for float fishing from weedy margins. The extra length was to prove invaluable in a few moments time. My line was the strongest I have ever used for tench and there is no finer reel for this kind of fishing than a centrepin… My float moved several times from ‘line’ bites- fish directly in the area bumping into my rig but not actually taking the bait. I became very tense and once again experienced the feeling of being watched. The fog was now at knee height. Suddenly, a flight of ducks flew past very quickly- just metres over my head- causing me to look up. There’d been seven mallards in formation; yet another wild creature with a distinctive dusk pattern.

 

As I looked down my float shot under… And it stayed under. After three seconds, I braced myself and struck extremely hard to my left. The hook went home and I knew instantly that the fish was big. Possibly a prince. It immediately made a sprint towards the tangled lily beds on my right. Coming up fast from the bottom now, it surfaced and pulled my rod tip down to the level of the water. I could not hold it. Line (of 10lbs breaking strain) peeled out of the reel in sudden, ungainly screams as it power-dived at least four feet into the beds. Once in the pads the fish submerged again, taking me down deep, deep into the lily roots and the world below. One tactic alone had saved me: at the moment it had entered the beds, I made the decision to hoist the full length of the rod out and over the pads. Because of this, considerably less line was exposed to the roots. The rod tip had just made the clear water as the fish started digging beneath me. I released a little more line and with what was spare I angled the rod higher- up to about 45 degrees- in order to gain leverage. The creature felt this and went beserk. Every lily in the vicinity shook from its roots up to its buds. At this point I held firm and gave no line. It was do or die. The rod would either absorb the shock or the line would snap… After thirty seconds of this, I still had direct contact and my opponent was tiring. But then suddenly the tench made a break for it- leaving the lilies as powerfully as it had entered them and sallying forth out into the wider channel. Open water. I gave line until it was well clear. Then I brought the rod back from the lilies and held it as far to the left of me as I could. I now had the angle. The fish knew it and tried to charge back into the chasm of pads. But this time I closed down and didn’t give an inch. The rod absorbed three violent pulls as it tried to re-enter. The tackle held, forcing the fish to give up and return to the main channel… It was over. I angled the rod high and let it cushion the last runs until the fish had exhausted itself on the open water. I then commenced pumping and reeling and after a few seconds the fish came into the net on its side like a half-sunk tug boat. A male; the biggest male tench I have ever caught at 6lbs 9oz. And also the most perfectly formed. By now a great coastal fog was enveloping everything around us so I quickly weighed him and took a photo.

Just as Mick had told me, the fish stared at me until I had to look away. At which point I could feel the entire marsh watching me.

 

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6lbs 9oz marsh tench caught in the fog. I’ve caught lots of tench over ‘6’ before using a float but never a male and never one this long… But still he’s only a ‘Prince’…

 

I returned two dusks later and hooked an even bigger fish. I didn’t land it. Nor did it snag me or slip the hook. It simply charged off and snapped the line with brute force. I know it was a tench; like the previous fish it surfaced as it ran and I saw its massive olive shoulders and peat-green head. It was one of the resident ‘Queen’ tench and possibly ten pounds in weight. I don’t think in my life time I shall ever hook a stronger fish in that weight class- be it pike, salmon or bass.

 

By this point, the marsh was closing in on me. I used to take a bottle of ale or cider with me; just the one- I’m not particularly into drinking whilst fishing, and this concession was only due to most of my drain fishing being at dusk. But it offered no solace from whatever haunts the place. Nor any protection from its inhabitants. This was to be the last evening I made it out there- and I’ve never returned since. After I lost this final fish I cast out a few more times but was feeling progressively more ill as dusk turned to evening. I packed up, made the forty-five minute yomp back to my car and by the time I got home I was both shivering and sweating. At work the next day, my Head sent me home early. The doctor inspected me and found insect bites all over my arms and legs. For the next nine days or so my body temperature periodically heated up for hours at a time whilst on other occasions I would profusely sweat for twenty minutes or so… My sleeping hours were fitful and punctuated with strange dreams about Old Mick and the carnival of the tench. The symptoms were classic responses to an insect bite- an unusual occurrence in England. But then the marshlands are not a ‘usual’ place. They are beautiful, strange- and at times terrifying.

 

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Part Two- In Search of Albion Tinca

 

“Ours was the marsh country…”

 

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Approach to a Kentish marsh.

 

Kentish cotton ball clouds, blue skies and the endless verdant jade vistas of England in early summer. The walks out onto the onto the marshes were pleasant… I’d found an old trail I could use to get my car within two miles of three of my chosen locations. This in itself was a fulfilling task as this track exists neither in the map books nor on ‘Google Earth’. Though hardly illegal, there is a keen romance to be experienced in walking roads that theoretically don’t exist. I positively revelled at the prospect of my imminent double life. School teacher by day… ‘Tench Poacher of the Kentish Marshes’ by dusk.

 

But even that most lofty of titles could only apply if I caught one- and I wondered if there really would be any tench out there. Other than Mick’s accounts, I have honestly never seen or heard any other evidence of giant tench populating Kent’s wild marshes. Pike- yes; and even carp- but never tench. But they are survivors. The highlight of the previous season was when my Uncle and I foolishly went punt-fishing for tench on an old Estate Lake in Surrey. It was terrific fun. We went deep into the belly of the lake and I caught a corking tench of 5lbs 4oz- a decent fish on a float- complete with duelling scars across its dorsal fin; no doubt these were mementos from an infant tussle with a pike or one of the lake’s resident herons.

 

The experience reminded me that tench are a very hardy fish- well known both for their resistance to predators and also their tolerance of all kinds of harsh environments. If Mick was catching them in the marshes twenty-odd years ago, then there was a good chance that the remnants of a tribe would still be left out there. Or better still, it could be just as the old master had described it to me; a tench fisher’s paradise. I sometimes dared to think the latter- and more. But I quickly stilled my dreams… Because the first job of any tench fisherman is preparation.

 

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An Estate Lake Tench I caught from a punt during the previous season. Note the distinctive battle scar just below its dorsal fin. Photo by Ganz Toll.

 

It was time to delve into oldest Albion. The Kentish coastline is intermittently covered with marshland and dykes as far as the Thames. Mick lived in the same town as me so I picked the two biggest local marshes- roughly half an hour’s drive for me to each and about an hour away from each other. Counting both of them, I was looking at over a thousand acres of wetland riddled with all kinds of drains- many that looked capable of supporting fish. I hit the map books, took some long walks on both marshes and chatted with various farmworkers employed on the grazing sections. It didn’t take long to locate the larger drains with the denser habitats. Getting out to them was a different matter.

 

Tench are tough nuts; they fight in the truest sense of the word. A carp may go wild. But a tench gets angry. Strange then that in their daily existence they’re such a lazy fish- and a greedy one. The hobbits of the fish world, really. The way to locate their exact layabouts would be via their stomachs- so I needed to find their feeding areas. I did this by locating the deepest ‘bends’ present within the systems. These curves in the landscape are the fast food outlets of the tench world. The bends slow the water down and all kinds of edible morsels get caught up there. The fish regularly congregate around these areas to feast. Tench are also great fans of their creature comforts and will periodically shelter in the slacks and undercuts that these well worn grooves offer; particularly during the high winds to which the marshes are so prone.

 

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As the crow flies, my target spots weren’t that remote; this is Southern England after all… But they were all forgotten areas. Mini-wildernesses. Without exception, the last few hundred metres of every chosen location required me to crawl, climb and tiptoe through five feet high undergrowth. At times a knife came in handy (all fisherman need a good one- my current favourite is a Lappish hunting blade I bought from Finland); sensitively used, naturally; I’m an angler- not a survival enthusiast. I did however allow myself to wear a camouflage jacket that I’d been using for rabbiting in the previous season; it can take a real beating. Moreover I wanted to tip the odds in my favour on every front- especially given that the water out on the marshes is crystal clear. I was eventually proven correct in my assumption that the marsh tench are very, very wary of mankind; any extra available cover was to prove a real boon.

 

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My Lappish blade- infused with tradition and hugely helpful with most UK field sports.

 

The final (and most crucial) piece of lunacy would be my adherence to the time honoured tradition of using a ‘weed-rake’ to clear the swims (actually making them fishable- you can’t just cast directly into dense lily pads and thick cable weeds); I had mine welded especially for the campaign and it proved pivotal to success.

 

rake-2
My current weed-rake… At rest…

 

I hit gold very early on. On my first visit to one of the spots, I saw a carp. It was a great feeling just to know that there were fish there of any sort. On my second visit to the same area, I struggled about twenty yards further up the bend and started raking a huge jungle of weeds; the aim being to create a clear patch of about six square feet.

 

I’d been doing this for about half an hour or so when I took a break and poured a tea from my flask. The marshes are absolutely stunning so I sat and watched the bird life. During my time out there I witnessed barn owls hunting and was regularly dive-bombed by swallows. Once, I even saw a red kite, which are reasonably rare for the area. On this occasion I could hear (but naturally not see) cuckoos. It was late June. High season for cuckoos and tench, I thought to myself.

 

As I was still thinking about this I suddenly saw a tench of at least five pounds creep out from the weedbeds about 25 feet in front of me. I froze. The fish then started inspecting the open area I’d just raked. The water was clear now- I’d stopped raking several minutes earlier- and I could see all the way down to the bottom; right down into the deep water where the creature was now contentedly rooting around. Around ten feet in depth. He ambled around in the lazy but slightly bullish style that tench do- completely unaware of my presence. His huge paintbrush of a tail wafted into view several times as he upended like a duck and started sifting through the freshly disturbed weedbed for food… I felt a mixture of glee, satisfaction and trepidation all at once. The latter perhaps because I had no fishing rod with me. Would the fish still be here tomorrow? I reminded myself that tench are creatures of habit and that they never live by themselves… This lone scout had to be a member of a larger tribe.

 

After five minutes the fish moved very slowly back into his submerged jungle. I kept watching him until all I could see was darkness and even then I only looked up when I experienced the most vivid sensation that I was being watched from the surrounding thickets; this was not the last time that the marshes would give me this feeling.

 

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It was time to leave. But before doing so I baited the area copiously with mashed bread, hemp-seed, sweetcorn and luncheon meat. I watched for more fish but saw none… That didn’t matter. I would soon return with a rod. More importantly, I had witnessed a wild tench alive and well in an area I had selected from a map two weeks earlier whilst having a pint of Guinness; this in itself felt immensely fulfilling.

I now started to think unreasonable thoughts. I wondered what else must lurk beneath those lilies- and I imagined huge fish. One in particular. A giant… The Queen of the Marsh!

And in my dreams I spoke again with Old Mick.

I told him I had found his tench.

 

lillies-in-the-rain

 

 

Tench of the Kentish Marshlands- Part One

 

‘There was a Marsh’, quoth he…

 

4-marsh-at-dusk
The Kentish Marshes at Twilight. This actual spot produced a near seven pound male- and I lost a much bigger fish not far from here.

 

Twenty years ago I worked as a labourer for several months before going off to University; my father felt it was necessary but I remain unconvinced. It was grotty work- most of it clearing effluent tanks on a local chemical plant- but my one salvation was ‘Old’ Mick, a painter who worked for the same firm as me. Profoundly deaf and one of the angriest, kindest souls I ever met- Mick was also hugely misunderstood… And misunderstanding.

Three days into my post, I watched him quarrel with a man who was thirty years his junior. It became physical and Mick knocked the man unconscious with a vicious straight right. The recipient- a labourer sent to work with Mick- was somewhat of a fast talker. Mick couldn’t read his lips properly and thought he was abusing him somehow.

Being by far the youngest on the firm (the foreman had kindly nicknamed me ‘Virgin’)- I was duly appointed the old man’s next assistant/victim. Hold the ladder, make the tea, avoid getting punched etc. Mick was 70 years old, about 5′ 9″ tall and immaculately fit with a thin, grey pencil moustache; he always wore his hard hat and- like quite a few of our older working generation back then- he’d seen war. He was 19 when he stormed the beaches of Normandy and was in Berlin nine months later… Me- I was an 18 year old punk who had just finished ‘A’ Levels; it was like Adrian Mole being partnered up with Clint Eastwood.

But it transpired that Mick was a superbly knowledgeable countryman, and when he found out that I fished (he saw me reading the ‘Angler’s Mail’ on our first morning working together), he started talking to me. Once he discovered I was a fellow tench fisherman, we got on like a house on fire.

 

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A tench I caught a couple of seasons ago from an old brick pit.

 

We bonded over our shared interests and became firm friends; he was a lovely man and I worked with him all summer without getting one paintbrush thrown at me- which was a record, apparently.

Over tea one morning Mick took on a more messianic look than usual and told me about some of the great sport that could be had fishing Kent’s coastal marshes- specifically in their vast drainage systems where the fish live and thrive in a rich clear water environment teeming with life. He painted an image which has never quite left me. ‘Full of the juices of the land’ he said. A boggy Hades of thick weed and primeval fogs which was transformed into an ethereal netherworld twice daily by stunning dawns and dusks; all the while ruled over by ‘saltwater tench’ as he called them, due to the semi-saline environment in which they resided. Giant, jade monsters with intense, staring red eyes that grew to well over ten pounds on a natural diet of snails and bloodworms. Ten pounds!!! And all within range of our favoured style- the float- Mick said.

 

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The Marshes at Dusk. Note the Wisp.

 

Tench fishing is a classic English field sport; it straddles the spring and summer and takes you to the old parts of Albion. England’s under-belly. Or rather its nether regions. Huge abandoned gravel workings- long reclaimed by nature; strange ponds; and the slow moving, brackish backwaters of the river system. Remote and sometimes- if you’re very lucky- deserted waterscapes. In many ways, it’s the fishing equivalent of wildfowling; a pure ambush sport that sees you hidden deep within remote undergrowth at first and last light. To be consistently good at it (which I’m not) requires preparation, commitment and a healthy dose of country-lore up your sleeves. You also need a good pair of wellies and the drive to walk miles into wetlands.

It’s an adventure and perhaps no other branch of angling feels more ‘Swallows and Amazons’ than tenching. Arthur Ransome was a true British countryheart who captured the feel of long English summers spent messing around by the water. This resonates all the more with me as I know that Ransome himself was also a highly enthusiastic tench hunter. The poet Ted Hughes also wrote lovingly of the discipline. After all, what could be more romantic than to sit alone at dawn in the beautiful but eerie English countryside waiting for- nay- willing your float to go under? Or perhaps whilst enjoying a pink dusk with a bottle of cider and the wisps for company? These are the great dual ceremonies of the tenching man- the feeding times, when the orange eyed ones come out from under the lillies and (hopefully) eat everything in sight…

This summer season I decided to catch up with Mick’s Marshes. They remain unaltered since Dickens’ time; in fact- they’re more desolate today because nobody lives there any more. To the best of my knowledge the last of the ‘marsh people’ moved out in the 1930’s. In that regard, these areas are similar to the Highlands of Scotland- where fewer people reside today than 150 years ago. The tench are now the undisputed masters and their empire spreads far and wide across the drains and the dykes; the deep running flood defences- some of which we built hundreds of years ago.

 

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The season for the marshes is a short one. They come under the old close season rules, which means that you cannot take a rod out on them until June 16th. But in general most tench populations stop feeding (at least enough to make fishing worthwhile) some time in early August. Therefore I decided to hit them on the first day of the season and keep going until the end of July; I would try to fish three or four times per week and cover the entire ‘magic’ six weeks of the traditional tench season; as it turned out, due to events beyond my control (and quite specifically for reasons known only to the marsh), I had to cut short my campaign after only three weeks.

But this was still pre-season and I didn’t know any of this yet. Or even if there were any fish out there. I gave myself a one in four chance of success (realistic expectations) and reasoned that even if I didn’t locate or catch some fish, then I would learn and see a lot.

The first two weeks of June went very slowly. I retired to the pub each evening, sharpened my hooks and made my plans.

 

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Edgar and I

 

Edgar is a very good friend of mine. He stands about ten feet high and is of mixed race. He was raised and tempered in England, but his ancestry is almost certainly Chinese. Being born in the 1950’s, he is middle-aged and can become a little stiff in cold weather. But once warmed up, he’s quite the character. Together we have conquered much of the English landscape, taking roach, perch and even pike on our journeys. Edgar is my conduit to another world. A mysterious world that shall remain undefined to me until the day I die. But with Edgar, I can at least understand some of its language; I can become a part of its rhythm. Until recently, he had lain dormant for several decades. Not quite death, for Edgar can never die. More like suspended animation… But now he is recalled to life.

 

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And what a ghillie he is. For he shows me the whole of the river- and directly connects me to some of its loveliest residents. Edgar is sensitive enough to transmit the slightest tap of a tiny roach yet sufficiently vibrant to feel every bolt of a perch in flight. And if we do accidentally hook a pike (common enough when perching) then he’s bold enough to turn them. His strength is drawn from his supernatural suppleness. Like the willow in the wind- he bends but never breaks.

 

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Edgar is one of my favourite fishing rods. As with many who hail from illustrious families, his full name is double-barrelled and a bit of a mouthful. Edgar Sealey Float-Caster Deluxe.  He comes in three pieces but for me the heart and charm of Edgar lay in his bottom third. Full bamboo cane; you can even still detect some of the ‘nodes’ and other natural blemishes of his childhood. The maker chose to whip these in blue, but you can still see and feel them. It’s a reminder that you are fishing with a piece of the earth; using organic material to catch living creatures.

 

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The top two sections are made up of several pieces of tempered cane that are firstly ‘split’, then straightened and planed before finally being bound together in an exercise that requires almost preternatural precision.  This process can take a master tradesman months to complete; it requires incredible patience and love, not to mention military-grade equipment. It is a testament to the rare skill of the rod builder; he is the one who injects the aforementioned sensitivity and strength into a rod’s soul. If all of this is done correctly, your wand may just be capable of talking to the river.

For me, Edgar will always remain my favourite perching rod; his sensitive nature being the perfect foil to their dashing fighting style. He is best paired up with a classic centrepin reel and a bobber float.

Then let loose upon the English countryside.

 

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