Caught by the River

A Bassless Summer

Danny Adock | 22nd September 2010

by Danny Adcock.

bassless; devoid of bass; having caught no bass; skunked

It was about two hours or so before high tide when we got out of the car. To our right the open flatness of the salt-marsh stretched to the horizon; the Norfolk Coast Path leading through the head-high reeds nodding in the light breeze. A mud-bottomed channel ran alongside the road; the trickle of scum-covered water up its centre signalling the fast-encroaching tide. The road turned into a cratered gravel track, and then ran out altogether in a small raised car park surrounded on three sides by marsh. This was where we stood now, looking up the main channel out to where it met the tide between long sloping sand bars.
“There’s someone out there,” said Matthew pointing.
“Is he fishing?”
“Err… I think so yeah.”
“Hang on, I’ll get my binoculars,” I said. I found them in the boot amongst sundry bits of tackle and old line and gave them a wipe with a corner of my jumper. “He is; lure fishing as well.”
“That’s encouraging,” he replied.
We were on a bit of a recce really. I wanted to know if the mullet I’d seen here frolicking provocatively last summer frequented the place regularly, and also if there was the likelihood of any sea-bass here.
We walked down from the car park onto the marsh. In an hour or so the tide would cover the mud again, and it was a high enough tide tonight to the flood the road we’d just come down.
“Looks mullety doesn’t it? Channels; a bit of a harbour.”
“Yeah it does. Come on, we’d better walk round if we’re gonna get back before high tide.”
“Well, worst case scenario: leave the car here, wade through to the pub, and come back when the tide’s turned.”
“OK,” I laughed.
A path led up over a sluice gate and onto the sea-wall. A single avocet picked its dainty way across the mud, looking every inch the thoroughbred of the wader world. They’re rather aloof and stand-offish looking birds I think; like one of those girls you approach in a bar who obviously thinks she’s far too good for you. True to type, as we crossed the gate it flew up huffily and settled a hundred yards away.
The sea-wall led, ley-line straight, away from the main channel now behind us, and from our elevated situation we could see across the expanse of marsh between the sea-wall and the sand dunes. Behind the dunes lay the sea-proper, but between us and the dunes countless creeks, gutters, runnels, and rivulets spider-webbed their intricate way through the marsh.
As we approached the dunes we could see someone walking towards us. As he got closer we could see not only was he carrying a rod, but dangling by the gills in his other hand was a sea-bass of about three pounds. He was bowling along, head down, giving off a definite I’m-not-interested-in-stopping-to-chat vibe. We nodded as he sped past, and he gave the hint of a nod back. We looked at each other.
“Now that is encouraging!” Matthew exclaimed.
We left the sea-wall and cut across the marshes behind the dunes. A bird I didn’t recognise flitted across the path in front of us and settled on some sea buckthorn.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Not sure.”
“What do shrikes look like?”
“A bit like that I think.”
“That’s what I thought: great grey shrike.”
“Yeah. Never seen one of them before.”
We carried on, pleased our encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world had proved itself once more. Later that week Matthew happened to mention to a twitcher mate in the pub that we’d seen a great grey shrike. Apparently there hadn’t been a sighting here for decades, and they were going to come down and cordon off the area with the R.S.P.B. in case they were breeding. Turns out it was a wheater, but never mind, we’d never seen one of them before either!
I remember another occasion fishing some local pits for tench when a group of twitchers appeared. One asked how we were getting on, and Matthew asked what they were looking for: apparently some rare type of gull had been sighted. Matthew, ever helpful, told him he’d seen quite a few gulls in a field on the other side of the hills that backed the lake. The only thing was those ‘hills’ were actually mounds of rubbish, now covered over with grass, and the ‘field’ on the other side was actually the site of the refuse tip for the town of King’s Lynn on which a screaming mob of gulls several thousand strong were picking over the scraps; individually as identifiable as a group of feral teenagers in hoodies on some grainy CCTV footage.
We eventually crested the dunes and sank down the soft golden sand through clumps of needle-sharp marram grass. We’d come almost full circle now, and as the oyster-catcher flies the car was only about three hundred yards away.
After a couple of doglegs the channel came towards us, and then swept past us curving and opening like a scimitar blade into the North Sea. We stood at the water’s edge looking out across the bay; the flooding tide was gradually obscuring the channel, and driving us back towards the dunes. Now the only indication of the channel was the marker buoys, and a trail of smoother water like a contrail on the sea.
“Looks fishy,” Matthew observed.
“It does, very. Come on, we’d better make a move,” I said.
When we got back to the car park we could see the road was already flooded.
“Should still be alright,” said Matthew, “can’t be that deep.”
“Mm,” I replied, “not your car though is it?”
Five minutes later Matthew was inching his way through the scum-flecked, ankle-deep water while I followed dead-slow in the car.
“Don’t forget those bloody pot-holes,” I reminded him through the window.
A couple of weeks later found us following the sea-wall round and crossing the dunes to face the sea. There was no mistaking the channel; well before high tide the buoys were marooned on the sand banks, and we walked way out to where a long spit of sand greeted the tide. Wavelets a few inches high glittered in the bright sun as they raced across the bar of sand rippled and corrugated by the previous tide.
Barefoot I walked out along the sand-bar and began casting my lure out into the incoming tide. The sea was crystal clear, and the lure must have been visible from several metres. The pace of the tide was evident: I was casting up the channel towards the open sea, but by the time I’d finished the retrieve I was facing the salt-marshes. We tried slow retrieves, fast retrieves, sinking lures, floating lures, silvery lures, yellowy lures, lures that looked a lot like fish and lures that didn’t look anything like fish. By the time the tide had pushed us back to the dunes we’d exhausted our selection of lures, and sat on the sand looking out across the bay.
“They’re just not here” I said.
“Nope, doesn’t seem like it.”
“I still can’t believe it. If that guy can come down and catch forty-odd schoolies, you’d think we could manage one between us!”
This was in response to tales we’d been hearing in the local tackle shop of big numbers of school bass being caught here. We walked back to the car, and finished in the pub discussing tactics for our next session.
Matthew couldn’t make the next session though, and so I waded out alone across the gently shelving sand to cast across the deep water in front of me.
It was an evening tide after a long, hot summer’s day and an hour or so after the tide had begun to ebb I changed tack, and moved further up the channel. The breeze had dropped with the tide, and now the tide and light were ebbing with the day.
The tide was up to my knees, yet the gently sloping sands meant I was probably a hundred yards from the water’s edge. A few yards in front of me was the deep water of the channel. I was casting up and across it; searching for the sea-bass I hoped would be coming off the marshes, or lying in ambush for small fish or other foodstuff sucked seaward by the tide. The buoys were straining at their leashes in the current, trailing turbulent water, bobbing and lurching like excited dogs. Apart from their turbulence the sea stretched out table-top flat before me.
I made a cast; not long, maybe twenty yards. The lure splashed down over the channel, and I jerked it back, then stopped and let it sink a few feet deeper, then reeled smoothly before going back to short sharp jerks. I lifted the lure from the water and readied for another cast when, not ten feet before me, something broke the surface.
I stopped dead.
It was a jaw-dropping moment. It took about five seconds to register, yet the image is branded indelibly into my mind’s eye now: a silver flank flashing in the low sun, every scale visible, dorsal spiky, erect, bristling defiantly on the smooth skin of the sea, before melting back below the surface. The whorl on the water was whipped past me by the tide and gone almost as quickly as the sea-bass itself, and I was left slack-jawed and disbelieving.
But… that was… I’d just… just then… there was… was that? Holy crap! That was a huge fish! That was a massive bass, that was, that was… shit!
When I’d finally overcome the shock and awe of the sea-bass that had just porpoised on the surface a few feet in front of me I began casting again. My casting was rushed and panicky now though, and a couple of times I even forgot to flip the bail-arm over and the rod bounced and jerked in my hands, the lure jarring at the end of a couple of feet of line. Then forty yards down-tide, behind a buoy, spray plumed on the surface as a big predatory fish struck; just like the pike attacks I’d witnessed on the inland drains. I cast toward the buoy knowing I was casting where a fish had been, and not where it was going to be. I also knew that was game over for today; the chance had gone.
The tide was now below my knees and dropping fast. The salt-marshes were emptying, the tide draining away like the last dregs of a pint at closing time. I felt a bit like I’d stayed too long; lingered over that last pint despite the increasingly urgent pleas to drink up from the bar-staff.
I turned to walk back to shore when something just scratched my consciousness; something so insignificant I almost ignored it. Looking to my right, through the fading light, a slow wake was turning a smooth arc. It was a lazy, nonchalant movement. Beyond it another, then another slow wake on the sea’s face. It took me a second or two but the realisation came: they were mullet. They must have come down with the tide where they’d spent the last few hours exploring the spider web of the salt-marsh. Now, in the shallow water, a shoal, a big shoal, of that enigmatic fish cruised around me. The light was dimming all the time but the sea still had a smooth sheen to it, and seemingly everywhere, everywhere around me, surrounding me in fact, were the tell tale trails on the surface of the mullet beneath it, like slow-motion shooting stars. My frantic mood of earlier had dissipated with the calming, hypnotic effect of the mullet. Looking back it was an almost surreal, out of body experience. I can picture myself, from above, at the centre of a circle, while around me the mullet were drawing smaller circles on the smooth underside of the sea, getting ever closer and closer. Eventually they faded away with the tide, and I was left with the long, dark and lonely walk back to the car, wondering if what had just happened had actually happened at all.
We made several more trips to fish the channel, but we never caught a sea-bass that summer, and nothing came close to matching that magical evening. I’m not a big fan of americanisms, but, oh well: skunked. It happens.