Caught by the River

People are Strange, Zander are Stranger

3rd April 2009

by Jon Berry


Life can be strange, and some of its participants are unquestionably so. People who choose to be traffic wardens are strange. Eels are strange. Listening to Captain Beefheart in the middle of tequila-induced psychosis is strange. Fishing is strange, too.

The last nine months have been weirder than usual. Summer floods, unseasonable snow and empty barbel holes featured regularly in the diary, and when March 14th arrived I was relieved. The usual signposts that line the journey from early summer to the final days of winter were absent, stolen by something mischievous and placed elsewhere. I spent much of the year wondering where I was, why I was there and what I should be fishing for. Just before Christmas it all got too much for me, and I succumbed to a zander excursion with men who carried pods and painted their deadbaits orange.

That was strange.

The season began on the Bristol Avon at Somerford. A year earlier the river had been in flood and I’d caught ten barbel and a rogue mirror carp of over thirteen pounds. Now, the usual glides were uncharacteristically empty and I found only one fish, a five-pounder which ignored my pellet paste and demanded cheese. The water was low and cold, and the wind in the north. It felt like October.

I moved to the Warwickshire Avon the following day, to a new stretch of water near Stratford rumoured to hold barbel in excess of fifteen pounds. Perhaps it does – I didn’t find them, but caught them to ten pounds and drove home with the early symptoms of sunstroke.

The summer holidays – a time in which I traditionally chase carp with dog biscuits and bread crust – was overtaken by other fish. I’m currently writing a book for the Medlar Press, following some of the old train routes used by anglers before the Beeching Report killed off this sublime method of piscatorial travel, and so spent six weeks in unlikely locations pursuing other species; blue shark off the coast of Looe, Welsh rainbow trout, Derbyshire brown trout, Thames bream and bleak, Hampshire Avon roach and the garfish that congregate every summer off the beach at Southsea, among the screaming children and discarded kiss-me-quick hats.

The man in the tackle shop at the end of South Parde Pier was having a strange year too. ‘Ain’t got much gear in, too much rain. Season’s fucked mush’.


I spent that night watching Polish immigrants catch bass on livebaits to sell to the sea front hotels, and drank too much of their beer. When I got home a few days later, I discovered that my marriage had finally, thankfully imploded and I would need to sell my best cane rods to pay for a solicitor.

Strange days, indeed.

Autumn brought a few barbel and chub, but the pike on the river were largely uncatchable in the rain-coloured water. I took two anglers, a father and son who had never caught a fish over eight pounds, on a guided day on the Bristol Avon; I don’t usually do that sort of thing, but this was a favour for a friend who had double-booked. They wanted to see a pike, but the river was thick and there was little hope. I took them to a quiet beat where I knew a few gullible jacks predated on the stocked trout, and by mid-morning both had caught nineteen-pounders. Both fish were bigger than anything I’d caught all year. My guiding career ended abruptly, if triumphantly.

To recover, I returned to the Warwickshire Avon’s enormous barbel on a windy, autumnal day following rain. The river was up, the temperature cool but stable, the omens portentous. For the first time since opening day, the weather matched the calendar and the designated species were inevitably going to feed. I caught a small tench.

Winter belonged to solicitors, work, a very attractive brand new friend and only occasional days on the river. If I took my chub rod, only the pike were active. If I cast for barbel, the surface would simmer with the vortices of grayling. Friends dragged me to the Warwickshire Avon and kitted me out with zander tackle, but the only bite of the day – a dropped run in the margins – occurred while I was fifty yards away drinking tea. Apparently, I should never have had a bite, as conditions were the antithesis of those preferred by this oddest of fishes.

I also spent a day on the Thames at Marlow with Roger the Boatman, catching little, and we retired to his local where he was gigging that night. Roger’s alter-ego is that of a blues harmonica player and incendiary singer with more than a hint of Beefheart about him. A day that had started enshrouded by mist on a weir pool ended with drunken renditions of Howling Wolf. It was surreal, but appropriate; anything less strange would have jarred with the spirit of the season.

The final week brought northerly winds and low clear water. I returned to Somerford but the barbel were elsewhere. Instead, cheese paste stret-pegged with an old Chapmans 500 worked magic among the chub, and the universe seemed to briefly realign itself in a more regular orbit. The last day was spent on the Teme at Cotheridge, in hope of a big barbel. I shouldn’t have bothered – the temperature had dropped two degrees overnight, the rain had failed to colour the water and pike were the only prospect. Of course, my pike rod was not there, but in Wiltshire.

Reeling in on March 14th evoked all the traditional reflection and wistfulness, but I was glad to do so. Fishing is often strange, but its predictable, seasonal fluctuations offer reassurance in a world that rarely makes sense away from the riverbank. When tench feed in June, and pike in November, we know as anglers that it is supposed to be so, and feel umbilically attached to a sub-surface world. When the reverse is true, the planet can seem a little weirder than usual.

With luck, the river’s wild trout will do as they should, and soon be supping mayflies as the days begin to lengthen and early summer arrives. If not, I’ll reach for the tequila and my copy of Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and surrender myself to strangeness willingly. And, when I do, I’ll wonder why the fish on the cover of the Captain’s psychedelic opus is not a trout but a carp.

Perhaps he was having a strange season too.