Caught by the River

Letter From Arcadia

Dexter Petley | 29th July 2010

The Pit And The Pendulum.


your news of death in bivvy city put my indicators half-slack. a different face on the wanted poster now. heathcliffe holds up spawnbound coach. the old dodger gone, no 2 robbed of its pearls, and half the bivvies with it, i suspect. two years back, opening night down wimbledon common or richmond pk, the 40 came out at ten minutes into the new season. bob said 11 bivvies packed up and went home before the new dawn broke.

moral high ground gives me vertigo; the truth is i bounty hunt, all the waking minutes. take this month’s letter: a heatwave journal, a spaghetti north-western two-and-three-quarter-pound test curve newsreel; a quatermass and the gravel pit of boiling-point carp angling.

arse pit. in summer a toilet bowl, municipal bidet where buttock-brains collect for the holiday of saint dysfunction. by mid june i’d pulled off, nagged by failure, not a single run since my february 40. heatwave a-coming. sealed with a kiss, see you september. then a dog walker told me something which sent me to hell and back…

arse pit is only small. fifteen acres.

invisible carp on vows, they never show an ankle or an eye, deep water owls, buried treasure. night fishing was banned two seasons ago after years of fishing abuse and carp trafficking; it somehow got itself into a layby between champagne and essex. white vans, huge fish on the mobile auction. the locals still see germans taking their zander back over the zeigfried line in refrigerated benz. thirty big fish left, perhaps; between 30 and 55 lbs. living like rats in a castle. down there, in there, somewhere. because every square yard the bottom changes. dungeons, troughs, gulleys, plateaus, bars; sunken gravel extractors, bouys, old deux chevaux. 30 foot holes, rocks, stones, gravel, stinking mud, drop-offs, ledges, margins plunging sheer from on high, sandy beaches where it’s water off a crucian’s back.

four times a year there’s an enduro. 48 hours of carp angling with asterix and obelix, traumatising further the galicians who escaped the essex cohorts first time round; fires, barbeques, beachcaster pods, deadly nightshade flavour decathlon discount boilies, carnaby street tents, million candle lamps. two bream sometimes attracted by the lights, or the music. the gaule believes fish are attracted by lights at night. and music by default. this is enshrined in the regulations by the error of an ignorent bureaucrat. in 1829 the ministry of agriculture convened to edit what became the royal ordonnance of 1830. the functionary charged with listing all fishing methods banned, came to a favourite poacher’s tactic, pêche au clairon. in other words light, made by fire. a non-angler, he assumed clairon was a clarinette. he ammended the law to read: it is forbidden to fish with clarinette, trumpet and any other musical instrument. but carp are but tone deaf mortals. now and then a big one falls for drum at the enduro, angling’s son et lumiere. four rods per angler, two anglers per swim, more junk boilies than a sweet factory. fishing arse-pit any week after an enduro is like oyster fishing after british petroleum have blown up an oil rig.

so. i fish arse pit as a lone bum; in winter, or in foul weather. being there in summer is my idea of hell. only truth is like a slick on the sea of complacency. aversions do not produce carp. i had to see it at its worst. in the heatwave. for two summers i’d been scrambling that message. twice i drove by with the rods in the back. twice affronted by contemporary versions of ezekial’s vision. the second time, i saw paramedics resusitating elephant woman beside a supermarket carp rod, her dayglo lilo adrift over 25 feet of water, the “danger no swimming” sign broken up to grill the special belly pork on promo from hundreds of pyres round the bank.

the logic of persuasion sang sweetly: arse-pit carp feast on naturals. when water temperatures exceed 25 and the levels remain high, you bet the wage packet. i’d always meant to fish those margins early morning, pile the bait in close when the new-born crayfish prowl the edges. my last resistance fell when this dog walker said he’d seen carp, big mamas, at five in the afternoon in the last heatwave. ganged up, right where i’d hoped, right where elephant woman got her mouth to mouth.

the heatwave came the day they said. french heatwaves run on time. so hot the butterflies stuck to melted roads. i cut short a week session in central france and came home biteless. brooded that weekend, tying rigs, dutch courage for pre-battle nerves. 39 degrees in the caravan, i had to stay outside 24 hrs a day in any case. sleeping down in the field now while my appeal against the mayor’s decision goes through the tribunal admistratif in caen. fighting on two fronts.

monday on the front line. arse-pit 3 pm. like there’s a dustman’s strike. ten minutes on the crackerjack podium, armfuls of litter, half the programme till my swim was clean enough to put the gear down. over at the carpark bank 4x4s had broken through the barrier, driven onto the grass while municipal workers errect fences round them to prevent this. sunbathers lay in a rubbish tips. the glint of bottles and cans sailing on the water. 28 degrees. green algae has closed the plage but the ropes are cut down by cavalry bikinis. amphibious ghastlies, dogs, wags on lilos and always someone who thinks it’s funny to shoulder their girlfriend in a fireman’s hug and pretend they’re going to dump her in the water while she shrieks.

i sit under a tree. dappled shade, like being splashed with burning chip oil. i’m in the furthest corner from that carpark, taking in the situation which now i’m here looks only half way to hell. if this doesn’t work, my summer is ruined.

in front of me a Y-shaped island, buttocky, with a green metal bridge across. here the channel is at its narrowest. 30 feet. it widens out, down to my swim. the island sweeps away in front of me. 20 yards at one point. 40 at its furthest. any further and i’m casting parallel to the bank, under the trees. here the island continues for a hundred yards to its point. there are no plastic flowers in my swim to remember elephant woman’s last voyage.

i cross the bridge with 10kgs of bait, a particle spoon and thermometer. one snogging couple on the island, the other leg of Y to mine. i take temperatures along the margins. they match the air temperature. 27. no fish visible, so i cast a 3oz lead and marker float across from my swim. things look good now. the channel island margins are hard, stones, aggregate, crayfish graveyards. the open water in front of me is gravel at 60 yards. depths from 1 to 17 feet, undulations, shelves, holes. i find the margin drop offs at 4ft, walk back over the bridge, pick up the boilie bucket and kerb crawl the island for jail bait. high banks, looking down shafts of direct sunlight, like lazer sights into thin green water, furred up stones glossy on the bottom. i choose three spots. bush, inlet, angle. i decide to trail the bait, wondering if the carp come up the channel from the bridge end left of my swim, or towards me from the furthest point. i stand by the bridge, spoon loaded with the first 30 baits when a carp, an upper 20, drifts out of green shadow, onto the marginal shelf, swivels round, then sets off along the margin towards the only bush. holy moses.

this is an event. hell comes good first assignment. over the past two years i’ve fished 150 short afternoon or evening sessions on arse-pit. average four hours through autumn, winter and spring. this was the second fish i’d actually seen swimming in the water at close range. the other was a five pounder. french public waters are not intimate. the municipality sheers any bankside cover zealously. everything goes; bushes, reeds, bullrushes, irises. since the revolution nothing must impede the masses from total access. total access means cars, bikes, quads, granny on a lead, delinquants on parole and any passing chain gang. freedom to bongo, party, barbeque, swim, havoc and annoy. dog toilet, jam-rag station and urban myths about carp anglers robbed of everything on the island at gunpoint by gangs from chartres. the french have a problem with authority; they slavishly follow the rules of state which might otherwise lead them to individuality, but they flount all the regulations which protect the environment, personal respect and the tranquility of others. fear of eccentricity, their only outlet is suicidal driving and public nuisance beside the water. but the carp angler is bound hand and foot by regulation. and his obvious fear of grass, reeds and bankside bush. he must abide, in any case, on pain of a report from the garde and a hefty fine. he must pack up half an hour after sunset while the citizens destroy their heritage freely into the small hours without so much as a complaint to the coppers.

as for the carp; my 150 sessions produced a mere 5 carp: a 25, 26, 29, a 30, 34, a 37, and one 40. the three top weights were the same fish of course. on my very first session a mid-30 came off at the net and in early spring one bumped off seconds after hooking it.

i’m still following this carp. the top of the bank is screened in poplars. i dodge from trunk to trunk. at the bush it turns two circles, sinks out of sight onto the lower shelf. half a minute and it’s back, setting off again away from me. i follow it all the way to the point and make a decision.

a boilie chase, a 10kg bait lane from the point to the bridge, a kilo spent on each spot over 4 square yards. by 5 o’clock, three pva bag rigs are out. one combi extreme bottom, one korda IQ stiff rig, one withy pool, size 10 barbless hooks, 14mm boilies, 2oz disguised running leads, safe zone or amnesia leaders, slack lines.

the island, a berlin wall, i fish the grey area. from the other side comes open- top rap on the wind. i watch another beer bottle bob round the point instead of a carp. there are green wheelie bins every fifty yards. the nearest one to me is burned down. the sun brings out the worst in people; brings out the worst people. they do not deserve this water. give them concrete. give them east berlin, these coolbox gangs. along the road ton-up motorcyclists tear through traffic on one wheel. and a dark green humped back carp head & tails over the middle rod. big as a spare wheel.

early evening, slaps and swirls under the bank now, so close only half a circle spreads out across the swim. the carp are flattening side saddle, stretching mouths up under the tree roots, thieving crayfish like kids knobbling a bubble gum machine. two of the rods are tapping round, lines flickering. i rehearse my own lines, run through the safety proceedure, but the bite doesn’t come. 8 o clock, 9, half 9, quarter to ten. a flat swirl over the left hand rod, the one under the bush. at 10 the slack is half taken up, the bobbin rises an inch off the ground and the rod top pulls and stays in a polite curve. i hit it in two feet of water and it decides to make a run for the bridge. a dirty fighter, into the tree roots and crossing the channel one margin to the other. i net it in twilight. i recognise the first fish i ever caught from here. up a pound from 29 and into the top 30 by an ounce. triumphantly disappointed.

i’m back next day at 2.30. trail another ten kilos of bait round the island margins. 30 degrees, open water awash with bathers. litter abhors a vacuum and my swim has received its morning delivery; white plastic cups, cellophane off fag packets, a pair of dirty orange shorts. before i’m set up two bozos in red white and blue start spinning off the bridge. next time i look there’s a mepps splashing under my baited bush and the blue bozo trying to see what i’m doing.
-i’m fishing there, i tell him like a territorial army captain.
he mepps his way round to me. sits uninvited, drinks his beer in my swim. when he sees i’m english he talks me-tarzan french.
-me, he says pointing to his chest. there, he points to the private lake opposite. me, there, carp, record. me, here, enduro, record. me, here, carp, record.

beside him, in the dirt, there’s a one pound perch with a stick skewered through its gills. this mighty hunter, raised by apes, finishes his beer and says he’s going home to fetch his photo album to show me. he joins his friends; they start spinning their way back to the carpark. already, carp are moving down from the point. tarzan keeps glancing over. he saw where i cast, the rigs, baits. i’d given him my jane speech: moi, carpe, zero. the last thing i needed was tarzan clued up. they pity you, they leave you alone. i was on fish, dodging snipers. i’m watching tarzan when two beeps on the bush rod pull the tip round. i wind down and hit it. even in two feet of water it lies up like a medicine ball before rolling down into mid channel. i look at tarzen. he’s swinging through the trees. the fish runs back up the margin and ploughs through the middle swim. clutch adjusted i let it run then look back at tarzan. he thinks i’m reeling in. he’s spinning with his back to me. if i keep low he’s out of sight. there’s no art to this, crude as a village fete tug-o-war. a big fish too. fifteen minutes just holding on, keeping it in tight circles. still haven’t even seen the leader knot but it’s close in, finding depth you wouldn’t think was there. i reach for the net. stand up to get purchase. tarzan’s away down the far end throttling tigers. i slip into the water. first glimpse of the leader. it pings off the dorsal. i’m like a goalie facing a penalty. decide it’s going left under the roots, but it goes right, makes for the line on the middle rod. i switch sides too late. it comes off.

i shrug at losses. never understood the tantrumonger, rod javeling hysterics of the tv fly stars and competition carp pros. trembling fingers are no good either. i change the rig, bag up and hit the spot, bait it hard, and know the next run is coming. there are carp weaving down the baited zone, scrumping boilies and swerving in and out of tree roots, like skateboarders in a junk food carpark. attention seekers, doing their animal voices, beavering over breakfast, crocodile file, they could eat a horse.

it’s eight o clock. suffocating air, wiping sweat out my eyes when the middle rod takes a slow curve. the same tug-o-war, a french carp with traction avant, under the rod tip it’s like boat fishing for cod over wrecks. boots full of water, i net it more like a deck hand hauling a drunkard overboard back on the poop. 32lbs of blubber. this time i might have smiled.

will the heatwave keep them coming? or will it evaporate the margins and disperse the rioters? will i get back up there in time? arse pit cards are marked. cripple creek ferry rules. water like a green baize, someone up there’s always got the derringer pointing at your knees. so i bet the lot, called their bluff for the second half of the cruise… i’ll tell you what happened next week.

goldrush on the birdtable (the water’s going down/it’s a mighty tight squeeze)