Caught by the River

Sea Style

16th August 2008

I never thought I’d be saying this but hats off to the Telegraph, not only for giving major space to angling writing, but to Chris Yates writing at that. This extract from Chris’s forthcoming book, ‘Out Of The Blue’ from todays Weekend front page;

The great advantage of fishing a stretch of coast that requires a bit of cliff-hanging and rock-scrambling to reach is that I often have the place to myself. And today, with this limitless expanse of sea before me and the uninhabited shoreline behind, it’s easier to imagine that I’ve been marooned, and may even be the last person left on Earth, than it is to realise there’s a seaside town less than 10 miles away with a beach seething with joyous humanity.

Yet, as this place was once described to me by an angler-who-knows as “sometimes like a boiling fish kettle”, I presumed I’d have the company of one or two other fishermen by now; but then again maybe any angler worth his salt would not venture out here in these conditions.

Though I have, over the past few years, become more familiar with the marine environment, my salt content is not yet high enough for me to always interpret what the sea is saying. However, despite the fact that an ocean obviously has a much wider vocabulary than a pond or stream, my philosophy is the same wherever I fish.

With the image of my chosen species clear in my head, I arrive at the water’s edge impatient, enthusiastic, ready for anything (including nothing). And despite the fact that I have to view the sea with a wider focus than when I’m trying to read a river or lake, I can sometimes recognise the same promising signs in both. Occasionally, it’s simply the quality of the light, or a particular texture on the surface, or a sense of something in the air – subtle, feeble indicators that can lead to a wonderful, even ludicrous confidence.

On the other hand, there have been times when I don’t seem able to grasp anything meaningful at all. This morning, when I arrived on the clifftop, the horizon-wide body of blue water looked magnificent, but all I saw in its expression was a kind of friendly blandness that didn’t fill me with hope. In such settled conditions, however, the slightest fluctuation in current or breeze or light can sometimes change the direction of an entire shoal and bring them within casting range. And the prospect of high tide just before sunset made the blandness seem like a hidden promise. So, with the image of my favourite sea fish sinking only a little deeper in my expectations, I set off along the cliff path.

Hours have passed. When I arrived here the sea was retreating, leaving a glittering universe of different shaped rock pools, but now the water is advancing and the pools have lost their identity to the government of tidal reform. My own rock will soon be overcome and I must withdraw to a neutral zone. Yet, despite the surge, the waves have become even more pathetic than before, giving the rising sea the appearance of a lake whose long-dormant springs had suddenly burst.

I’d prefer the sun to be a little lower in the sky yet, with high tide just over an hour away, I know I should be feeling more confident and more determined in my casting. Although the lack of visible indicators – scatterings of small fish, no swirls on the calm surface, no dark shapes nosing between the newly drowned boulders – does not necessarily mean there are no fish in the area, I cast better when I have something to aim at.

Perhaps I’ve been conditioned by my habit of never quite settling down until I either see or sense a definite opportunity. Presented with this same blank expanse of ripples on one of my freshwater haunts, I would at least know what to do about it, even if it was only to pack up and go home. Despite being technically unsophisticated, my 50 years’ experience on rivers and lakes obviously counts for something, but it can also make me blasĂ© at times, as if there’s no challenge I can’t meet. And that is what excites me about the new seaward direction.

Though some of my old skills will come in handy, I am in most senses a rank beginner, a true amateur, which is a happy state to be in. And if I flounder or hesitate at times, I can reassure myself by remembering what happened when, with hardly any angling experience of any kind, I first cast into the briny.

In the summer of my new fishing rod, when I was 11, after I learnt how to catch tiddlers from my village pond, I went with my family on the annual sojourn to the south-west coast and, being ignorant of the ways of sea anglers, sought to educate myself by walking along the pier (the now rebuilt harbour jetty) at Weymouth to observe how the old salts caught their fish. My brother, Nick, who was nine and had also become wild about fish, came with me.

We were amazed and rather depressed by what we saw: anglers with rods like scaffold poles, reels the size of lorry tyres, lines thick enough to moor a ship and lead weights heavy enough to anchor it. Next to such whale-stopping tackle, our rods seemed fit only for tickling shrimps. We spent almost a whole afternoon hoping to see a fisherman hook something worthy of his hauling gear, but if anyone caught a creature that wasn’t a crab, it was always absurdly small.

Intrigued, we returned a few days later, when the weather was wet and stormy, and it was wonderful to watch a heroic sou’westered figure, who had evidently been waiting for hours in the rain, finally reel in a brown flatfish no bigger than the palm of my hand. Pier fishing was, indeed, an eccentric, unproductive and extremely dull occupation, and even if we’d possessed the necessary heavy plant we decided not to attempt it.

We were staying for a fortnight on a farm only a few minutes’ walk from Lulworth, so, putting aside ideas of casting from a pier, Nick and I began to explore the famous cove and the more rugged coastline to the west where, at low tide, there were rock pools with starfish. The cove was so sheltered from wind and wave it was like a millpond and our parents were quite happy to leave us there while we made our first saltwater casts. Someone on the farm had told us that sea fish could be taken on uncooked bacon, but though we stole two rashers from the kitchen we didn’t even tempt a crab.

It was exciting, nevertheless, especially when we cast from the cove’s east side, where the fossilized forest slanted into deep water and where all kinds of Jurassic creatures were probably lurking. However, when you’re young and crackling with expectancy, you quickly begin to distrust a place that doesn’t live up to your fantasies. After a couple of hours we were convinced that no fish ever entered the cove – or at least none that recognised bacon.

The next day, leaving the rods at the farm, we explored again the western coastline, where the energy of the open sea restored our hopes. It was low water when we reached our favourite bay and the tide pools were full of prawns, crabs and little fish. We splashed about, trying to catch blennies with our hands, and eventually waded into the edge of a wide shallow pool where something made us hesitate. What had appeared to be a ridge in the pool’s centre moved.

We stared, stepped forward and then jumped back as a sinuous green fish zigzagged into the air. Before we could do more than shout, the creature had skittered out of the water, floundered across a few layers of seaweed and thrashed itself into the sea. Yelling and howling, we danced after it, but it vanished into the foam.

Though it seemed like a monster at the time, it was probably just an overgrown mackerel or garfish, its startling jack-in-the-box appearance making it seem twice actual size. We weren’t concerned with identification at the time; all that mattered was that the sea had revealed another marvel and told us exactly where to cast when the tide came in.

We bubbled with a new mad confidence, but we would have to get hold of some proper bait and also persuade our parents to let us fetch our tackle and come back to the bay on our own. We’d heard about ragworms and lugworms and had seen the pier anglers using them, but we had no idea where we might find them. We’d also watched a fisherman using a crab as bait, but that didn’t seem quite feasible to us. There were plenty of limpets and other shellfish in the pools that every fish would surely appreciate as a crushable snack.

We knocked a limpet off a rock with a stone, smashed it mercilessly and fed a few fragments to the elusive blennies, hiding under their ledges. They appeared so instantly, snapping up everything, fighting over the juicier bits, that we knew we must have stumbled on the best bait in the world – or at least one that was better than bacon.

As we headed back to the farm for tea, the tide was turning, but with the extra push of a stiff onshore breeze, the waves were building and crashing noisily, drowning all hopes of parental consent to our little plan. However, after tea I casually said that Nick and I might go down to the cove again for a few casts before sunset. Happy with the prospect of an hour’s undisturbed reading, Mother wished us good luck and waved as we dawdled off through the farmhouse garden. But as soon as we were out of her sight, we ran down to the coastal path, then up the long slope to the edge of the cliffs and finally down again to the fish-haunted rocks.

Though we’d learnt through chill experience that you must always keep a watchful eye on the sea, we had no real idea of the height or frequency of the tides. So it was just good fortune that our return coincided almost precisely with high water, when we could judge the safest casting position and when the fish would be coming in to feed virtually under our feet.

The sun would soon be behind the cliffs to our right and the sea was already a deep purplish blue. On the shoreward side of a row of jagged half-drowned boulders, 50 yards in front of us, the dark water was fanned across with white foam and spray as the waves hit them, reformed and surged on towards us. Standing on a great bungalow-sized rock, one that seemed well above the tideline, we set up our rods, sea style. It had been fine to use conventional freshwater rods in the placid cove, but they would never have coped with a riotous sea and a treacherous reef.

So we converted them from three to two pieces, removing the slender top joint and creating solid eight-foot whopper-stoppers. Realising that with lines of only nine-pound breaking strain we might lose a few hooks and weights, we’d collected a pocketful of stones with holes as alternatives to leads and just hoped we had enough hooks to last the evening.

We dropped our limpet-baited tackle close in, where all but the larger waves were deflected by an out-facing ledge. Almost immediately we thought we were among fish. Our rods were pulled and dragged forward, but we soon discovered it was only the action of turbulence and undertow on our lines. We lost several hooks after they became snagged on rocks or in beds of wrack and kelp. The large waves seemed to grow larger and fiercer, thumping into the underside of our rock and making it vibrate. The contrast between our previous angling experiences and this was like the difference between a bike ride through the woods at home and a bike ride around the rim of a volcano – with no brakes.

Whump! went the wave and the spray filled the air. Then the wave rebounded and swept away from us, colliding with the next incomer, forcing both skywards and creating more spray, which turned gold in the late sunlight. Our lines connected us physically with this spectacle, making it seem yet more intense, more powerful; and then, right in the centre of it, a different kind of tension – not the push or drag of the turbulence, but an edgy, increasing vibration that culminated in a terrific clout. The rod almost leapt out of my hands, but I held on tight and, as the thumb-thick cane went into a sort of half-circle, it was obvious I’d somehow hooked a fish – a big fish.

All the drama of the coast was concentrated down the line and I was transfixed until both Nick and I started shouting simultaneously. In the few seconds I hadn’t done anything, the fish had dived under a rock, but I managed to haul it free and it suddenly appeared on the surface. We started yelling again when we saw it swerving and splashing in the surf, for though this was not truly a monster it was easily the biggest thing I’d ever hooked.

We’d observed that real sea anglers never seemed to carry landing nets; we didn’t have one either, but when the fish came in under our boulder I didn’t think I could lift it through the air. The problem was solved by a rising wave that, together with an extra lift of the rod, almost threw the creature onto my feet. I slid it flapping and slapping over the wet rock and finally dived on it, holding it still with both hands so I could marvel at it.

We had never seen anything like it. The colours! Glossy emerald shot through with specklings and patternings of glowing amber, pearl and blue. It made the brightest perch we’d ever caught seem very plain. The dorsal fin was long and flowing, the tail square, like a paddle, the body deep and solid. Its head was quite pointed and it had unusual, almost smiling lips. We had no idea what it was. Perhaps it was an unknown species never before seen by man, though this was unimportant; what mattered was that I’d caught a magical fish that weighed pounds, not ounces.

Though it looked exotic, the fish wasn’t unique. We caught two more – one each – before the tide turned. And though neither was quite as colourful or as large as the first, we couldn’t have been more jubilant about them.

The sea must have become less rough, or perhaps we had used up all our excitement, because we didn’t need to shout any more. Furthermore, we noticed how much darker the sea had become, and then I looked up and saw the first star. It was, inevitably, so much later than we’d thought. What if our parents had gone for a stroll around the cove to see how we were doing? They would have ended up calling the coastguard. We reeled in and hurried away over the rocks and up the cliff. I’d let the bigger fish go, but we kept the other two and hoped they might placate the emergency services.

At least the lights were on when we got back to the farmhouse, which probably meant our parents weren’t fretting down at the cove. And when I peeked in through a window, I saw that they were still quietly reading. We breezed casually in and, before Mother had a chance to say anything, held up our fish, which had the desired effect.

They were baked in a pie next day, but not before they were weighed at just over two pounds each and taken to the cowman for identification. He declared them to be mullet, but I discovered later that they were ballan wrasse, and for the next few summers, whenever we came back to the sea, they were all we ever wanted to fish for.