Caught by the River


14th June 2009

(photo; Clare Hatcher)

below is a lovely piece that Chris Yates wrote for The Telegraph this weekend)

Shouldering my creel and my rod holdall, I leave my car by a derelict cricket pavilion and set off across the fields towards the lake. Long before I caught sight of the water I could smell its perfume. Every stillwater has its own particular scent, some less enticing than others; my midsummer lake smelt of mown grass with a hint of orange peel.

The light was subdued in the absurdly early hour; everything was still grey, with just a blush of green showing though the dew and the low ground mist. As I approached the last line of willows I could smell the elder blossom and dog rose half hidden among the foliage; and then, as if I’d arrived at the edge of the world, there was just a horizontal sheet of water stretching into a fog-rinsed distance.

It was June 16, opening day of the traditional coarse fishing season, a moment in the calendar that, incredibly, I have somehow managed to preserve and savour ever since I first went fishing, on a bicycle, half a century ago. I’m fortunate to have access to a number of lakes and ponds where the close season continues to be observed but, ever since the Environment Agency bowed to pressure from the commercial fisheries lobby, the majority of stillwaters and canals (but not rivers) are now open for angling throughout the year. This is not only bad fishery management; it has left a younger generation with no awareness of the Christmas Day magic that was the Glorious Sixteenth. For me and many like-minded angling retros, the magic still exists because by taking a three-month break our spirits are wild for the water again as the new season comes around.

When I first arrive at the water’s edge I like to pause for a few moments to see if any signs are showing on the surface. The lake was misty, as I said, but as the sun rose behind me, turning the mist gold, I could see where small fish were spreading little rings across the water; and a minute later a larger fish, four or five pounds, made a splashy roll, gleaming as it turned over and dived. It was a tench, a fish that so often fulfils the dream of the midsummer angler. I waited to see, as sometimes happens after a fish has surfaced, whether it would send up a shower of bubbles from the lake bed, a sure sign that it was truffling for insect larvae. Early in the season, it’s a fair bet that a bait dropped into a bubble cloud will produce an instant response.

I was just about to set up my rod when I heard another splash farther along the bank followed by someone shouting as if they were trying to rein in a stampeding horse. I recognised the voice; it was Hugh, who I knew had been on the water since midnight.
I hurried around to find him trying to steer a tussling fish away from a bed of lilies, but the hook slipped just as it seemed as if everything was turning his way.

Hugh Miles, wildlife film producer, was not too downcast by his loss. ”Happy June the Sixteenth!” he beamed, shaking my hand. He may have just lost a biggish fish, but over the previous hours he had landed several more, including tench, small mirror carp and a wonderful crucian carp of two and a half pounds. What’s more, he had brought a cake, specially baked by his gallant wife, Sue, so that we could celebrate the day. As I had also brought my tea-making gear, we could celebrate properly.

Opening day, and we had the lake to ourselves. Hugh fished on one side of the lilies, I on the other. He’d baited both areas with some cunning fish attracter and even as I threaded my line along the rod I noticed a fizz of bubbles which caused my hands to tremble and fumble as they tied the final knots. I may have been an angler for 50 years, but the fever of anticipation in the presence of a feeding fish is just as debilitating now as it was when I was a boy.

With a light 11ft rod, a 4in centre-pin reel, a crow quill float and a hook baited with a single grain of corn, I was finally ready to cast. I swung the tackle gently to the far edge of the lily bed where the float lay flat for a second before being cocked upright as the bait settled on the bottom. After that I could breathe again. I lay my rod down among the reeds, waiting for the float to begin mesmerising me.

There is nothing quite so tantalising in angling, or as lovely, as the sight of a still float on still water. It may sit motionless for an hour, reflecting its painted tip in the unbroken surface, testing not so much the angler’s patience as the power of his imagination, for float fishing is an act of faith. Though alone in a reedy wilderness, you must believe the quill will eventually vanish, snatched by the creature you have been piecing together so convincingly in your daydream.

To my left I heard Hugh bending into another fish, which rolled and circled for a minute before wallowing into the waiting net. It was a second whopping great crucian carp. Bubbles were still occasionally sparkling in my swim, but the float hadn’t even twitched and, despite my immortal optimism, I thought it wise to reel in and rebait.

I cast again, a few yards beyond the lilies, and within a minute the quill curtsied enchantingly. Then it rose up, leant a few degrees to the south and began sliding inch by inch farther from the pads. Flicking the line taut, I was reunited with the wondrous invisible aqueous world. The rod bent and nodded, the line strummed through the depths and it was obvious I was attached to a lively tench. It swept around, running me under a willow on my right and I had to let it go through a tangle of submerged branches or risk breaking the fine line. When the pressure eased, I was able to draw it safely back out into the sunlight and under the edge of the reeds where I could net it.

A perfect specimen – glossy, like polished green leather, with green, rounded fins and a paddle-like tail; its belly was buttercup yellow and its large dark eyes were finely outlined in red. He weighed almost five pounds and as I slipped it gently back into the lake, watching it shadow away under the lilies, I realised that the door to my new season was well and truly open. But before I could cast again Hugh said it must be time for tea. And cake.