Caught by the River

The Sea Perch

29th April 2008

Hi Jeff,

At last, a piece from my book for CBTR! Hope you approve (the book – Out of the Blue – should be published early September.)

There was a great sound and music piece on Radio 3 last night by Chris Woods. Listening to the river was a 20 minute description of life on the River Medway. It had some lovely moments. Go to Late Junction’s web site; Wed 23rd April. The river piece is about 45 minutes into the 110 minute programme. I’ve started writing in the Weekend Telegraph again, now I’ve finished my book. The 1st article should be going in a week on Saturday – I think (in the weekend section). Its about monster brownies on the Lodden. I’d rather write for the weekend Guardian, but they said they weren’t sure they had space for fishing related articles – and the Telegraph pay much better!

Hope you’re well and enjoying the spring. First swallows arrived a day late here (20th). No cuckoo or nightingale yet. But a red kite and a peregrine flew right over the garden on the day I finished my book. And my old Toyota turned 200000 miles. Good omens, I presume.

All good fishes,




A tidal river introduced me to the bass, and though it was a long time ago, and I was only sixteen, the encounter created a little turn in my path that would inevitably lead me to where I am today. Of all the dozens of Piscean species that have fascinated me over the years, only four had actually taken up residence in my dreams; but now, after half a lifetime, the bass has finally joined them.

As I mentioned before, the Latin name for the European sea bass is Decentrachus labrax, which is almost as impressive as the name of the family of fishes to which it belongs: the Serranidae. The Serranidae sound like like a group of beings, half fish, half elf, who probably inhabit the forests of sea kelp around our more remote shorelines. But with each tide they send in their armies of bass to invade the estuaries, advancing upriver, spying out the land, because, one day, they know it will all be sea again.

Isaak Walton, writing in the 17th Century, referred to bass as the sea perch, and this old English name also appeared in my childhood bible, The Observer’s Book of Freshwater Fish. I used to keep this book in the pocket of my school blazer so I could maintain a connection with my preferred reality, using the sacred images in the colour plates to keep me from despair during lessons. Especially maths lessons. The illustration of ‘the Bass or Sea Perch’ – all spectral blue and silver – shared a double page spread with the freshwater perch – all earthy greens and russets. I was familiar with the latter because of the shoals of small ones in the village pond, but, in my beginning, I knew nothing about the former and wondered what it was doing in a book about freshwater species until I read that it could exist as happily in an estuary as in the sea, and, as a juvenile, would ascend miles upstream to feed. So, when I first cast into what I definitely knew to be a tidal river, I fished for bass.

The river was the Blythe in Suffolk, near the harbour, just half a mile from the sea, where Nick and I insisted we be abandoned for the day while our parents explored the nearby town of Southwold. Upstream of us was a broad reedy lagoon which gradually narrowed into the deep straight channel that ran down past us and beyond the timber pilings and black clapboard harbour buildings towards the Wash. The water in front of us was dark and turbulent, with the tide running strongly and the river rapidly reversing. It seemed we had arrived at a propitious moment for surely, as the bible said; great shoals of bass would be riding in on the tidal current.

I told Nick we were bound to catch something, but he stared into the greyish depths and said he didn’t rate our chances. For a start we didn’t have any proper bass bait – no prawns, sand eels or mackerel strip, only bread, which was probably not a favourite item of diet. However, the bible said that ‘… bass are occasionally caught using a shining bait;’ and we had shining baits. In our tackle bags we had a small collection of metal lures which we’d acquired over the years, not for any specific purpose, but because we liked the look of them. Now Nick tied on something in silver and blue while I chose a gold Kilko spoon with red diagonals; and as the Blythe continued to rise we began to fish.

For a while we worked our lures through the quieter water close in, thinking it too wild in midstream, but after a few minutes I made a long cast across river and, after waiting a moment for the spinner to sink, began a slow retieve. I could feel the faint buzzing sensation along the line as the lure came back through the current – and then something pounced making the rod tip shake. For a second I couldn’t believe it was a fish. Perhaps I’d simply hooked a piece of jetsamming driftwood. But then the rod swooped violently over and the reel began to sing a song that I’d never heard before. Until that moment, no fish had ever taken more than a yard or two of line from me, mainly because I used strong tackle and screwed my reel down tight. But because I was fishing an open river with no visible snags, I was using much lighter gear than normal and had wisely slackened the clutch before I cast.

Hearing the continuous screeching, Nick came running over, looked up at the rod and said: ‘Is it really a fish?’
‘Of course it is!’
Then he ran away again, as if the stuation was just too overwhelming, but we’d covered a few yards since we’d started casting and he was only hurrying back to where we’d left the net.

The fish was going with the flow, away from the sea and towards the distant lagoon. It was pointless standing still, trying to stop it, so, with Nick following, I began to run after it, the three of us in a frantic procession that seemed to go on for miles. Despite my assertion that this had to be a bass, there were, of course, other possibilities. Maybe it was a shark! I presumed it was something gigantic, but then a flounder would have felt huge in the tide race.

The fish eventually slowed, turned and surfaced, thirty yards out. We saw a flash of silver before it plunged away again and made another dash into mid-river. It was only a glimpse, but it was enough to confirm its identity and reveal its surprisingly modest size. Nick stood on the high embankment with the net, yet despite the rising river he could never have reached down to the surface. However, a few yards upstream there was an iron ladder fixed to an empty mooring point and he clambered down to water level and waited while I coaxed my fish towards him.

By now, one or two passers-by had stop
ped to watch the drama, and another angler, who’d been cycling along with a bundle of rods tied to his crossbar, came to offer advice.

‘Got a mullet there, have you?’ he asked.
‘No, it’s a bass.’
’It’s fighting more like a mullet.’

I didn’t like his derisory, local expert tone, but the fish rose again, much nearer than before, and I didn’t need to say more.
‘Blimey! It is a bass!’

It wallowed round towards Nick who eventually reached out and managed to scoop it into the mesh without falling in. To mumurs of appreciation from the assembly, he passed the net up to me and I laid the shining fish down and carefully unhooked it. I was slightly disappointed that it lacked the luminous blue of the original illustration; it seemed almost uniformly silver, although when I looked more closely there were subtle blushings of mauve, green and blue along the back and flecks of pale gold round the head. It was just over twenty inches long and weighed around three pounds – not the giant it had pretended to be, but still, as far as I was concerned, a great fish.

Had it not been my first bass I would have taken it back to the farmhouse where we were staying, but having given me so much already the least I could do was to give it back its freedom. After climbing down the ladder with the fish still in the net, I slipped it out of the mesh and watched it swirl away again into the tide race.

Chris Yates