Dragons, Fairies and Jungles

 

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”

– John Lennon

 

The Bare Chested Tencher
I apologise for this blatant display of machismo. And for taking my shirt off, too.

 

Read on if you’d like to encounter dragons, fairies (and even fish) in their most favourite environment: an English jungle. Well, not so much the dragons. More like dragonflies. Actually, damsels, really. And damselflies at that. But when you’re staring at a float in the midday sun, the mind’s eye can do funny things. The damselflies’ favourite part of the estate lake at Bury Hill is the so-called ‘Jungle’; a vast collection of interwoven trees and bushes that line the distant back end of the pool like a giant horseshoe. Here there is no division between land and water; rather, the tree roots and brambles spill freely into the lake to create a boggy, leafy angler’s paradise; an electric atmosphere in which to fish.

 

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Welcome to the Jungle.

 

Jungles fascinated the upper classes of the era; like all the English, they loved the idea of not quite knowing what lurked beyond the end of the garden. Quite charmingly, the word itself is Hindi and translates as ‘wild or uncultivated land’. It made its way to Mother England from the Indian Raj some time in the 1800’s- and was in good company; other words we circuitously inherited from the subcontinent include ‘dinghy’, ‘pyjamas’, ‘thug’ (the name given to the travelling bandits formed during a regional rebellion), ‘nirvana’ and, most important of all, the life-giver: ‘Curry’…

So there you have it. A thug on a dinghy in a jungle. With a penchant for curry. The gods of fishing could surely not be blind to this rare alignment…

I’d arrived early for once, and soon I was drifting excitedly- but slightly uneasily- along the strange banks of this angling ‘nirvana’ (sorry- couldn’t resist that). Far from the shoreline and only accessible via punt, you cannot help but feel like Marlowe in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’: very slowly inching upstream toward some gory but compelling discovery. In actual fact, it is all a great trick. A fascinating Victorian-made folly. The ‘Jungle’ is wide but doesn’t extend further back than perhaps fifty yards in any given spot. However, you can’t see past the first waterlogged ten feet or so. And what your eyes can’t see- your brain instead begins to imagine…

This is the very quality that makes the jungle so bewitching a siren to anglers; it’s the perennial problem that you can’t quite ever solve. Still – like the boy who discovers a secret pond or an abandoned old tree house- you can’t help but keep looking and staring into it for hours, searching for signs of life. Bubbles, shadows, branches moving against the breeze etc… Periodically your trance is broken and suddenly you’re staring into nothingness. An abyss of natural neglect. At these times, you feel all washed up and abandoned in a faraway place. But gradually you relax- and little by little your gaze is drawn back in.

 

Plumbing the depths
Master tench float and ‘plumb-bob’…

 

I attached my new float that I’d bought for the trip, and cast off. I’d plumbed the depth; it averaged about four and a half feet but I’d found a deep, dark hole amongst the branches that went down to about six feet. The space had been created by the competing roots of two old oak trees and it tunneled right down into the jungle itself. Perfect, really. And very, very intriguing. Such a dark and mysterious hole is the perfect summer hiding place for a big tench. Conversely, when the weather cools and the tench leave for the great deeps in the middle of the lake, the perch will move into a spot like this and take up winter residence. Perhaps I’ll remember and return. These close-up, ‘ambush’ tactics (for lack of a more romantic term) are the quintessence of summer angling for me and most of my tench fishing involves this kind of approach; creeping up on them, basically. You plan, you prepare and you follow the basic tenets of angling, but beyond that it’s a contest between you and Mother Nature.

 

Tea
Punt Life… I’d bought along a lovely Mitchell 301 (I’m a right-handed reeler) to use with a second rod aimed at the carp, but in the end I never used it. I find using more than one rod is almost impossible.

 

So, in full stealth mode, I cast my float into the hole. I then fixed a brew and began to recline. It wasn’t long before waiting became anticipation- which only an angler can understand. Here and there, I also thought about my approach. Not quite doubts. Not yet; but even when perfectly confident, your mind will question your tactics at some point. The bait was two small worms; I swear this is a bait that a tench simply has to accept, even if it’s not particularly hungry. I was using an insanely beautiful float, styled on a vintage design. But this particular piece also possesses state of the art balance and build quality. Like the Knight in UA Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Not My Best Side’, it practically screams at the fish: ‘Don’t you want to be captured in the most contemporary way?!’

The maker, Andrew Field, fashioned it from a delicate quill that is usually employed for crucian carp fishing; he beefed it up slightly and then added the classic body and buoy-like tip of a real tench float so it could beat any ‘drift’ on the lake. Perfect for this type of depth on a big water. Big enough to stay put, but light enough not to scare off the tench when they (inevitably) take the bait. I also thought of the float as a good luck charm; there are, in fact, ancient crucian carp in this lake- some of which weigh well over four pounds. They’re not abundant enough to ‘target’, so to speak, but they are occasionally caught by tench anglers. With a tench float made from a crucian quill, I was surely going to be in the lake’s good graces…

And as I stared at its bright red tip, the rest of the picture began to fragment. What had seemed like the integral parts of a ‘whole’ landscape, slowly broke away and became distinct. Firstly I became aware of the different types of birdsong. There were goldfinches chirruping some thirty yards to the southeast of the punt; whilst beyond the float I could hear a song thrush- always later than the blackbird- finishing his morning ballad. Further into the undergrowth, I could just detect the muffled giggles of a greater spotted woodpecker. Then the smells began to grow stronger. Firstly the scent of the lilies yawning and then, as the mercury rose, I felt overwhelmed by a great shower of dandelion seeds. I was becoming badly sunburnt, but seemed powerless to move- so deep was my state of hypnosis. The float, and everything near it, seemed enormous. Trees developed distinct features that hitherto I hadn’t perceived… When it started to occur to me that the damselflies resembled small dragons, I knew that my sojourn from reality was complete.

The Jungle now held me completely in her thrall.

 

Tench float awaiting contact...
Dragon at rest on my float… Add fairies and tench for perfection…

 

After a while, some fairies came and joined us: a company of twenty or so long tailed tits (although I prefer the name ‘old red eyes’) nestled in the woods near my boat and started to gambol charmingly about between the branches of the jungle. Like candy floss on stems; their tails are actually bigger than their entire bodies. I find them very inquisitive and unafraid of humans. Fairies really, these ‘little people’ set the dragon-damsels off beautifully. The whole atmosphere of the place was intoxicating. The magical creatures, the angle of the float, the lilt of the punt… Until eventually the trance deepened into drowsiness…

 

Long Tailed Tit at Bury Hill 3
Fairies at the back of the garden…

 

… And then sleep!… As I realised my error, my flickering eyes could just about discern the tip of my float sliding down into the depths. Smells, sounds, fairies and dragons all retreated as I pulled myself out of dreamland and struck hard. Hard enough to pull slack line up, but not hard enough to connect. I cursed myself as I reeled up the slack, but then nearly jumped out of the punt when the line went solid- very solid.

The fish was hooked and it felt decent. I got it into open water and attempted to play it away from the jungle. No good. It made a series of spirited, no, terrifying charges back into the woods and would have beaten me outright if it weren’t for the strong line that I was using; much sturdier than I would normally use for tench. A necessary insurance against the malice of the jungle. The line held, but my rod perhaps wasn’t fully up to the job. It bent to the point of snapping but ultimately did hold. Just. It made for an exciting battle, but a bigger fish may have made mincemeat of me. When the fish finally surfaced, I could see it was a nice tench. Almost five pounds; an excellent size for a float fisher… But my experience with the rod had left me shaken.

 

Tench in the net
A near five pound ‘Jungle’ tench. Chunky and in perfect condition, he scared the fairies away. And nearly shattered my rod.

 

I stayed awake and alert(ish) for the rest of the day. A subpar rod is one thing, but a sleeping angler would be the ultimate gauntlet to lay down to these fish; I would soon find myself floating home if I drifted off again.

As the day progressed, I missed two further bites by striking too early. Then, an hour before rowing back, I hooked one more tench: a four pounder. Another amazing battle ensued, similar to the last. My only advantages were being more alert this time round- and shirtless, which probably frightened the hell out of the poor fish when it finally surfaced.

A clear blue sky had started to gather clouds by the time I packed the car up. Tonight I was staying somewhere else: the ancient (and haunted) ‘White Horse’ hotel in Dorking- just a couple of miles away. Tomorrow I would return and try the lake anew. But before doing so I intended to call into town and buy a new, stronger rod from the local tackle dealer. And prior to all that I had drinks to drink and curries to eat and, apparently, ghosts to see.

And all the while, the clouds kept growing. I thought about this as I drove away from the lake and back up into the woods- sorry to leave the fairies, but safe from the dragons…

For now.

 

View from the punt

Lies, Carp and Englishmen

 

I like to hold court in my local pub. Boast a bit. It’s a terrible character flaw, really. Once a few ales have sufficiently severed my connection to reality, I enjoy lying to young’uns about the size of a fish I’ve caught, or the amount of hours I worked in my 20s. Despite the fact that I’m only 38, I never miss an opportunity to school the younger generation. It seems only just. Pub life in England dictates that 20-somethings should be ignored at all costs and vigorously challenged upon any occasion that they try to express an opinion of their own. Only if they become violent should one perhaps listen, and even then- the only reply should be a grudging nod or a grimace. No smiling should be administered under any circumstances. The system is time-honoured and can be traced back 100% accurately to the times of the Knights and their Page boys.

 

1-plotting

 

Conversely, when I’m ensconced with the old boys I become the apprentice and am forced to tell huge lies in order to acquire or retain their affections… Quite correctly and properly, they never miss a chance to bully or heckle me. Without fail all of their interactions with me are 100% unfriendly. They never give me an inch. Anything less would be a slap in the face. But no matter how much they mock me, I adore their company and it is always their stories that I cherish the most; so I cannot resist lying to boost my status within the circle. Deep in the midst of the beer drinking ceremony, I hear myself agreeing with absurd political stances and supporting Victorian views on the roles of women. Worst of all is when it comes to angling. I agree wholeheartedly with every one of their opinions on ‘modern fishing’; I enthusiastically join in the lament over the demise of roach fishing and can weep on command when conversation turns to the abolition of the old close season.

I am at my most hypocritical when it comes to the holy topic of seasons and when it is ‘proper’ to hunt for each specific fish. Carp in the summer only. Pike in the winter and perch/roach in the autumn etc… In actual fact, I commit the sin of starting every season several weeks early (with the exception of the pike where I retain my purity and never commence hunting before the ‘Glorious First’ of October).

 

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Bury Hill

 

The sad fact is that once a season has been drained of its marrow, I begin to pine for the start of the next one. This reaches childlike proportions and I fascinate myself by thinking of little else other than how it will be ‘next season’. I stockpile relevant tackle, read old books and obsess… This year was no different. Once the heart of the winter had started to break and we reached midspring, I was gagging to go and take a carp- a species that admittedly holds no interest for me in the winter in any case, when fires are roaring and the ale is malty. But this year in particular, the idea of waiting for summer proper was torturing me so I decided to break ranks and head for a lake I know…

I was in the pub when it happened; I suddenly realised I’d had enough of black beer and old men’s lies (not to mention my own). I wanted blue skies, green valleys, carp and cider. This is an annual event for me. All over the country, barely evolved Anglo-Saxons are coming out of their preconditioned hibernation. Ferreters and horse people muck out their creatures’ winter abodes. Carp fishers dust off their rods. And so I packed the car up with my (very basic) fishing kit. One carp stalking rod, an old Mitchell 301 reel, binoculars (most essential for my type of carping) and a handful of ancient floats. A flat cap is optional but good headwear and scarves certainly enhance one’s sense of escapism when taking last-minute angling trips.

 

andrew-field-peacock-quill

 

I woke up at five ‘o’ clock the next morning and drove to Bury Hill, which is situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty near Dorking. It’s about an hour and half’s drive, so it’s not too close and not too far. This is important. I go fishing to get away and every escape artist needs a redoubt that is far enough away not to be found but also close enough to reach in times of duress. I have found that the Surrey Hills provide ample cover for me when I wish to drop my activities and run. And I’ve run there several times throughout the years. I arrived at about seven and headed for the boat house.

 

Swallows return to boathouse Bury Hill

 

The first thing you notice about Bury Hill is the noise. The Old Lake in particular is a magnet for duck life, and you can’t fail to be impressed by their beautiful morning cacophony. They initially drown out the blackbirds and larks, who later perform a second more delicate chorus once the ducks have stood down from their booming and are actively fighting each other for territory, food and the chance of a love life. If you are of the wildfowling disposition you will possibly regret not bringing a shotgun, but personally I like their company.

I punted out to a spot on the Old Lake known as the ‘Jungle’- a snaggy territory where the trees grow out of the water and their roots call to the fish like sirens. In the spring time it’s the perfect tonic to soothe my woes after a season of Guinness, tall stories and days spent piking with nothing but the East Wind and the crows for company.  I was slightly high from the journey through the M25 and the early start, so I rowed hard and enjoyed it all the more for knowing my fellow drivers were off to work, whilst I was off to toad. I staked up my punt to the furthest point on the lake from land and looked back to the boathouse; I felt confident that I could journey no more even if I tried. I poured out a brew, fixed some breakfast and steamed along with the tea… I gradually cooled down. Good tea and English scenery effect long periods of deep, calm introspection… I had reached the playground of giant carp. Bronzed English whales swam here. And I was Ahab.

 

View from the Jungle.JPG

 

After initially baiting several areas up with mashed Hovis, I surveyed the surface of the lake with my binoculars, scanning for carp. I saw no signs all morning and so decided to float-fish my bait right on the bottom of the lake bed. I cast it tight to the sanctuary of the tree roots where surely they must venture out and feed at some point… A beautiful Andrew Field porcupine quill buoyed up the bait (a huge piece of bread flake) and would warn me if any scaled diners had decided to eat at my table.

I sat and waited. Carp fishing can be slow outside of the summer and I began to recall my conversations with the old men. Hours passed by and my mind began to play tricks on me.  Nature perhaps sensed that I had somehow disrespected ‘Droit du Seigneur’ back in my own world- its foremost imperative and the one principle that should be ensuring me success out here. It began to rain heavily after midday and I had to make a mock canopy out of a camo jacket and a rucksack.

But then in the late afternoon the sun came back out. Lower now, but more intimate. The air smelled different. My mind cleared and all thoughts of pathetic fallacy slowly began to dissipate. The magic hour was approaching… Dusk. When all creatures feed ravenously before it gets too dark to find food. Just as the light started to flicker in the trees, I thought I saw some branches move near my float. It was windless so this displacement could only have been caused by independent movement. Something large was yards away from my punt, surveying my bait. And circling my mind… I remained completely motionless and tried to clear my thoughts. My hands started to tremble. A minute later my float began to move- and then it slid under.

I struck into gold… And my winter was broken.

 

Punt looking down at carp (2)