Death in the Willows

 

… Monsters live underneath the willow trees. They did when I was a boy and they still do now…

 

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My father taught me how to beach cast and surf fish for sea bass. I had to learn coarse fishing by myself. Young ‘Jim’ didn’t know how good he had it.

 

Yesterday at about four ‘o’ clock in the afternoon, I poured a pint or so of Earl Grey tea into a thermos flask and then drove out to the countryside. I now live in the middle of town but it still only takes about three minutes to reach a sea of fields which flood all the way out of the county if you follow the right tide. It’s a nice feeling to know that. The wild things know this too, and as I drove I saw three different types of raptor before I got to the river. At this time of the year, at this time of the day, there are still about six hours of light left. The final three are when the water creatures do their hunting. That’s when the bats come out and smash into the newly hatched flies and moths; the voles venture forth for a fungus and berry party, whilst the perch try to eat everything within sight- worms, roach, crayfish, gudgeon and even other perch.

But in the hours preceding this mass banquet, I had to buy some bait. And also catch some bait. And then sit and wait. Until it got late. Etc etc- You get the idea. First off, I drove out to somewhere between Sandwich and the village of Ash in Kent to buy some maggots (yes, really, to my non-angling friends) and worms. I can’t dig any of the latter at the moment due to my back having fresh stitches in it (I had a minor operation in the morning). The bait shop is situated on a campsite that also features some fishing ponds on the grounds. It’s a stunningly beautiful place and this was the first thing that came out of my mouth when I spoke to the owner. I’ve never fished it as I usually only visit wild locations, but I will go there later on in the year specifically to hunt the perch, which grow to over 4lbs! This is on a diet of mainly carp fry… If you’re an angler, then you’ll know only too well that these places are heavily stocked with the nation’s other favourite fish. But I think there is merit in fishing them in the winter, when the carp are dormant and the perch are rampant. For me, a perch would still be ‘wild’ if you threw it into a barrel of water.

 

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One of many sign posts I’ve been following since I was a child. The coarse angler is a highly territorial beast.

 

As I drove back out, I took the wrong turn for my intended destination- the Kentish Stour near Canterbury- and had to plough through an extra ten minute’s of stunning countryside. Hardly a chore. I adore my local patch and ever since I was a child, I’ve attempted to find all the different hiding places of note; those quiet places of green solace and remote tranquillity where the hedgerows predate Domesday and the fields contain the remnants of battles stretching as far back as Viking times and before. The south is being heavily developed, but I think I’m ‘safe’ for my lifetime. There are just too many nooks and crannies here. England lacks the size of our continental neighbours but if you drive for ten minutes, you will notice how diverse the countryside is. Within half an hour from my home, I can access beaches, marshland, ancient forests, rivers, estuaries and stunningly varied farmland.

As I neared my bolt-hole, I started to think about my quarry. Perch fishing is one of the darker country arts. Pike fishing is all well and good, but they’re moody buggers. And lethargic. They don’t always follow the rules. Pound for pound, a perch is much more aggressive and follows the predator’s code with far more dedication than his loutish cousin. If you want to introduce a child of twelve into country sports, then there are few better ways to do it than with perching. A perch never stops being a hunter; it remains true to form- no matter what. The boy who goes ‘stripey hunting’ will learn the general principles of predator and prey far more quickly than his roach fishing, rabbit chasing friends- as well as a dozen other country smarts. He will also acquire a lifelong fascination with the paraphernalia that goes with it. Myself, I am hopelessly addicted to the floats, particularly classic ‘perch bobbers’. I can’t get enough of them.

 

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I also drink tea.

 

When I got to the river, I unpacked my gear in the company of about three dozen goldfinches, two brace of bullfinches and one linnet. They’ve calmed down a little by July, but still make a dear, sweet racket. It’s too late in the year now, but I’ve heard nightingales in this spot before. Yesterday was nice and tepid, with a wonderful, refreshing breeze. By British standards, it was appallingly hot just one week ago- and according to the reports it will be broiling again next week. The perch feed in all of these conditions, but when the heat drops slightly, it’s much better. Autumn is a long way off- when all the pageantry of the wild feast like crazy to gain weight before it gets cold- but a cooler day in the summer seems to stir up an equivalent lust for food.

I now had four and a half hours left until dark. I got to my intended area- a row of huge, old willow trees- after just a few minutes’ gentle strolling  (a sweet relief!- Some of my recent haunts have taken considerably longer marching time). I decamped and threw an enormous handful of maggots underneath the nearest willow to the bank. I then walked a brisk few yards with the current, laid down underneath the trees and got my head as close to the water as possible. Deep below the myriad of branches and interwoven river plants, I could see the bait gently drifting along with the slack water, bumping into weed cables and skipping over tree roots. Suddenly I saw a flash- and then another. Tiny, dart-like figures, each less than inch in length, were crashing into the maggots and eating them one after another. Sometimes a slightly bigger shape would join the frenzy; then the grubs would explode outwards, upwards and almost to the surface as various fish competed to mop them up. As the creatures descended back down into the inky abyss, my eyes became accustomed to them and I could see more and more. Previously featureless expanses of the riverbed became apparent and soon a whole armada of fry, turquoise and lithe, stood massing almost beneath my nose- where moments ago I saw nothing.

When you reach a river, you think you can see, hear and smell. But you can’t. After just a few minutes, everything changes. Incrementally, you begin to see deeper into the water. You become aware of distant changes in the breeze, and you start to detect the different aromas that accompany the wind. You are able to trace single scents back to the various roses, parsleys and lilies that own them. I could smell all of these yesterday, and as I started to fish, the faintest bouquet of honeysuckle had started to permeate the air- travelling from the hedgerows of the neighbouring fields. Evening was coming. Which reminded me that I should hurry.

 

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My favourite knife. It’s Lappish. Like Santa. I had it inscribed ‘Pike, Rabbit and Pigeons’; the base end features an owl carving. I bought it for piking (it goes through 28lb wire like warm butter) and for hunting trips. But there is no more exquisite a form of hunting than perch fishing, especially in the British Isles. Our perch are far prettier than their American counterparts- just like our women. They also grow much bigger (no comment).

 

I began by retreating upstream to the top of the willows. I threw in more maggots, but this time I also hooked a couple and cast them in under a stick float. Before long, they met their mark and I was catching my primary bait- tiny dace, roach and gudgeon: the perch’s staple diet. And all the while, the grubs kept going in, and more bait fish kept showing up underneath the trees. I only took three or four silverfish for the perch; after that, I would use worms. I am open to advice in this area, and may one day cease to use fish as bait. But I’ll be honest and say it feels natural enough to me to use the perch’s intended quarry to tempt them- and it’s also tremendously exciting. But is there a tinge of guilt to think that I am extinguishing one life to catch another?… Well, I’ve been at this a long time and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t. Especially these days. This time last year I watched a kingfisher take and kill about a dozen bait fish in the time it took me, using one, to catch a smallish perch. The bird killed his quarry clean. And I have to say, that has come to haunt me.

My bait caught, and with three hours of light left, I started to fish in earnest. ‘Old Stripey’ was already in the area. It doesn’t take a dyed-in-the-wool perch hunter to know when they are feeding. Once you have your ‘river-eyes’ you will see their magnificently coloured flanks turning over and over as they attack the lesser fish in the vicinity; and any old pair of ears will suffice to hear the surface water crashing as they hunt fry all the way up to the surface, sometimes scooping them up from the top of the river into their huge mouths. By this point, I’d attached a hugely impressive ‘bobber’ float, made in the vintage style, and had cast out a tiny, silver fish underneath the willows.

But something was wrong. The caverns beneath the trees had become quiet- and looked empty. Ask any roach angler if he can pinpoint the moment a pike enters his swim, and he can answer you with alarming accuracy. Perch fishing is less circumspect than roaching; it’s a tad more myopic in its focus. More aggressive. And as such, interloping pike usually come as a total surprise. I was just starting to piece together why or how my beat had become so eerily silent, when the float sank straight under with no bobbing whatsoever. Occasionally a big perch can do this, but usually even the most giant of stripeys will make several dashes prior to engulfment. ‘Old Esox’, however, made light work of such a tiny bait. I never, ever target pike in the summer. But the smaller, ‘jack’ pike can on occasion take a perch bait. My rod, a mid-50’s Edgar Sealey Float-Caster Deluxe, made from Chinese bamboo, chided me severely (not in Chinese… I think) as the pike submerged and headed for the tree roots nearest to the bottom shelf… But its first charge was its hardest. It was a baby. Using the rod alone, with no line given, I angled the fish close to the bank and netted him without much fuss. A real pike would have easily bested my 4lb test line, but then a decent sized specimen wouldn’t be wasting its time trying to eat a bait so small.

 

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Two country boys. I don’t like to take pike in the summer. My camera was already set up for perch so I took one quick snap and released this little fellow. As I did so, he then took two or three quick snaps at me. I retain my reflexes, however.

 

As so often in the early evening, the sun had stored up its brightest light particles of the day and was now hurriedly casting them off, making it less than perfect for the kind of stealth tactics favoured by both me and my quarry. What with the pike having upset things as well, I decided to rest the swim for ten minutes. A tough thing to do for a perch-less perch angler. But it would soon pay off. I threw in more grubs and then snapped open a nice chunk of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk that I’d brought with me. I poured an Earl Grey and found solace in the ensuing sensations as I ingested Bergamot, tea and cocoa- all the whilst getting ever drunker on the scent of the now rapidly rising honeysuckle colony.

 

battleI returned to the river suitably refreshed, with around an hour and a half until blackout, when the perch stop feeding and in any case, when I can’t see my float. Before long I was doing battle with a decent sized fish. The area below the willows was now much darker, and again I’d started to hear the occasional great splash as the perch began shepherding their quarry into position. A harsh reality, but then each of tonight’s hunters were in fact the hunted at one point in their lives; 99.9% of the fry being hunted this evening would break out, but it is a fact that the river provides its own supper. The perch I hooked was here just for that, and once I’d managed to capture him and take a quick photo, he’d be going straight back to his nightly repast. But that would prove to be easier said than done, as firstly I had to withstand the signature war dance for which the species is so famous. Finally he surfaced in a battleground of ripples, and I landed him gently. When out of the water, he looked to be about a pound- and was perfectly marked:

 

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Stour Stripey laying in the damp grass of dusk.

 

I had another tea, some more chocolate, and braced myself for the last hour. By now time was bleeding out just like the sunlight… When you arrive for a summer perching session, the late afternoon hours are so lovely and slow. They seem to last forever, and it’s all so colourful and jolly that you regret not bringing a deck chair. But by the last hour, you’ve graduated from ‘Technicolor’ to ‘Hammer Horror’; the whole landscape inherits a more difficult, dangerous type of beauty… And on cue, this is the time when the real vampires come out. The giant stripeys, or ‘Sergeant Majors’ to give the big perch their proper, rural nom de guerre.

 

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The ‘Witching Hour’- when giant humpback perch swim abroad and frighten the lives out of smaller fish. And anglers.

 

The sun was dipping into the woods as I made my last cast, but I still had a fair amount of ‘half-light’ left. This last hour, as that light gradually diminishes and then extinguishes, is when I have caught all of my big perch. I was now using a worm as bait; I’d got lucky tonight- the pot I’d purchased contained some absolute snakes and I almost had to take a picture of the biggest one. Once I’d summoned up the courage to put it on the hook, I secured it with a tiny speck of elastic which I pushed down the hook shank to stop the worm slipping off. I then drew some slack from my old centrepin and tossed the worm and bobber under the willows. Possibly for the last time; a worm this size could probably last all night… I waited for forty-five minutes without an answer. I began to think that the worm was too big and was actually intimidating the perch! But then I regained my confidence. “A perch will eat anything. They fear no worm!”- I told myself. Meanwhile the sweet perfume of honeysuckle had begun to rankle ever so slightly as it reached its zenith and the moths started to descend upon it. And on me, too. There were lots last night. Huge, great big river moths- so big in fact that once or twice it was difficult to distinguish them from the bats when their run started shortly afterwards. To be fair, I was slightly over-sensitized by this point… When my float started shaking, it was almost dark and I thought I was seeing things. When it bobbed and vanished, I had to tell myself to wait a couple of seconds and then strike.

When the perch came home, it weighed about a pound and half. A good perch; and an excellent fighter too, but then they all are. It was too dark for a proper portrait so I cradled him gently in the dew and took a quick photo.

When I returned him to the water, I held him in a loose tunnel that I’d formed with my hands so he could depart when he was fully ready. After a few seconds he kicked off with his tail and I felt him swim off confidently (perhaps malevolently) into the river. By this point everything was pitch black and I could see the moon in the stream. As I packed up, the night turned chillier and I noticed a pair of eyes watching me from the field’s edge. A huge buck rabbit- the biggest I’ve seen since I got back from London a few years ago. What we used to call a ‘grandfather’ rabbit, as children. I walked along the path until at one point I was ten feet away from him. He showed me no respect or fear whatsoever. Once I’d passed him, I turned my head back a few times and he was still staring after me for forty yards or so until I’d crossed through a large thicket and was out of his sight.

I can still feel him watching me now.

 

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Pound and a half stripey I caught at dusk last night on the Kentish Stour. My biggest of the season so far. Who knows- perhaps a future ‘grandfather’ perch?

The Water Dragons

 

When I was young, my grandma used to drink Guinness. A Welsh lady born in the 1920’s, she stood a little less than 5ft tall and weighed around 6 stones. But she drank the black stuff every night. Maybe that’s why I come back to it. The cold, too. It’s currently mid-September but I know the winter is coming. It’s written in the breeze. Just a few weeks ago the heat suffocated me to sleep each night but now the night air is cooler and I can drink it down in great gulps just like the Guinness. The start of the summer is so promising- and the air is so pure; so uplifting. But I suffer a personal stagnation by the end of it. When the freeze finally comes on, barely perceptible at first- I rejuvenate… Yet I’m also gripped by a terrifying atavism. I think of family members long dead. I’m drawn to dark ales and warm fires; I want to hunt again in the old country. And of all the autumnal quarry- it was the perch who first spoke to my heart.

 

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Terrible beauties, perch are without question descended from dragons; whelps who fell from roost to river millennia ago. Handsome- but proud and bellicose. Only a fair-sized pike can humble them and even then he’ll receive a mouthful of spikes for his trouble. I remember my first. I was just a boy and liked to cycle out to a desolate old brick pit. It had been abandoned several decades previously; like so many of these forsaken holes, it sat adjacent to a local river which would flood intermittently- bringing great invasions of eels and other fish.

After half a century’s inundation, a classic pond emerged. An overgrown, weedy jungle; a boy’s paradise upon whose shores I spent the best days of my childhood. It was here- and also on my local beach- where my double life as an angler began. I would grab a lift or cycle the seven miles or so out into the country where I then spent entire days as Emperor of the Pond-Kingdom, armed with nought but rod, catapult and jam sandwiches. Many creatures joined this pageantry. Above me the sky was full of swallows and larks; the trees harboured cuckoos and chaffinches… But most of all I was interested in what lay below the surface. I became a master eel angler. I caught roach, golden rudd and lovely tuppence-bronze bream…

 

Old Style Bobber.JPGThe fish I most revered was the perch- or a ‘stripey’ as we called them. Like all boys I was attracted to the spookiest and most overgrown part of the pond. One afternoon I nestled myself amongst the willows and in the half light lowered my bait- maggots, naturally- down amongst the darkness of the bankside tree roots. I stared at the crimson tip of my float; the birdsong gradually slowed and my heartbeat altered to the gentle lilting of the float- as it still does even now.

The better part of fishing is anticipation. As a child-angler, I learned that this is entirely different to ‘waiting’. Once you sense you are doing the latter, then you should move on; boys who grow up fishing or rabbiting learn to listen to their instincts… Finally the float tip started to bob under. A proto-predator, the perch never takes his prey in one gulp; rather he smashes into it and tears it to pieces. Like a terrier with a barn rat. In the space of a millisecond, the float’s rhythm transformed from chamber music to something like Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. It bobbed up and down diabolically, then beat perilously close to every sunken object in sight. My heart flooded with adrenalin and my consciousness- too long a hostage of the modern world- went into shock as man’s basest instincts took back control of my brain. I watched myself striking and all of a sudden I was duelling with one of the English countryside’s best looking but cruellest creatures. A demon of the old world. The fight was short but full of drama- you need maximum control to keep a perch from smashing your line into the snaggy underworld in which he resides. On the bank I marvelled at all six ounces of him. The smaller ones (and they were all I caught as a child) are the prettiest and most colourful. But above all else, throughout the battle and after I had subsequently released the fish, my mind was continually haunted by the symphony of the float. I could still feel the echoes of that final coda when it came under attack; I couldn’t stop reliving it… And three decades later- I still can’t.

 

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So I beat on, still trying to recreate the same symphony I experienced as a child. A fool and his float, I am addicted to the rush of the strike and sit for hours anticipating it- usually in the same type of places that compelled me to fish as a boy; the overgrown, quiet corners- where nature is thickest and the sound of man grows thin. Where ancient tree roots grow into the stream and become one with it.  It is no coincidence that many of the best perching holes are also the favourite watering places of local wildlife, and so I have become accustomed to close encounters with creatures that most townsfolk consider relatively rare. I fish one very old part of the river purely due to its resident kingfisher tribe. A master float maker recently turned me out a perch bobber inlaid with their feathers and I regularly employ it at this spot.

 

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The traditional ‘season’ for perch is really autumn onwards- September 1st being a touchstone- but I commence whenever the air cools in late summer. Some years that is mid-August and in other years it falls in September. It’s my favourite time of the year. The August heats finally give way. My languor breaks. All creatures, countrymen included, begin to think of winter. The perch is no different and starts to feast in preparation for leaner times- making him much more vulnerable to the angler. Then, long absent fantasies revisit my mind; roast beef dinners, steamed soft puddings and walking through brown leaves. Whilst my black heart obsesses over river fishing, pigeon shooting and catching fat Channel whiting from my local pier. The pike has not yet arrived in my dreams… But he will. And then the perch must give way.

 

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