Wake Not the Sleeping Tench

 

“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”

– W.B.Yeats

 

Getting ready...

 

 

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…

 

Surrey HillsThe 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.

 

Denbies 2
An English Eden- ‘Denbies’ Vineyard in Surrey

 

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.

 

Denbies
Wine Country… But what I seek lies beyond those woods…

 

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.

 

Bouquet of Floats
A Bouquet of Floats. All very pretty- but also perfectly fit for purpose.

 

… 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.

 

Way to Bury Hill
The way to Bury Hill… The ‘Hills’ are beautiful, mysterious- and the perfect escape for a summer tench fisher.

 

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.

 

View from the boat-house
Strange but beautiful. The boat house at Bury Hill.

 

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.

 

Long Tailed
The Long Tailed Tits were out in force on this trip, and monitored me from the moment I punted off.

 

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.

 

Receeding boathouse

Part Three- The Carnival and the Queen

 

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

 

An inspector calls....JPG
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.

 

Cloud busting.JPG
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.

 

dusk-marshes
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.

 

moody-marsh
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.

 

first-tench
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.

 

7-tug-boat-realised
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.

 

Orange Hour.JPG

Part Two- In Search of Albion Tinca

 

“Ours was the marsh country…”

 

walk-the-marshes
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.

 

Tench bury Hill 5 lb 4oz 2nd July 2015 BLOG COPY.jpg
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.

 

Map and Reel.JPG

 

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.

 

knife
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.

 

2-the-way-through

 

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.

 

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Tench of the Kentish Marshlands- Part One

 

‘There was a Marsh’, quoth he…

 

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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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