Caught by the River

A Mixed Bag – New Season

13th July 2011

by Jon Berry

It is dawn and July is two days old. I am on a tench lake and the mist is unfurling slowly as the surface of the water warms. The lake, which is really little more than a pretty farm pond with ambitions above its stature, is taking shape in front of me. So too is the new season, which began curiously. They usually do.

I am fishing with two rods – double my usual arsenal – but that is because a suggestion of piscatorial desperation is setting in. I need to catch a fish, for the illogical, chest-beating reasons known only to fishermen. I’ve not caught very much since the season began two weeks ago, and have fished (and written about it) far less than is usual for me. There are reasons for this, good reasons involving real life and real people and a tragic loss, but now all that matters is that I see a float dip and a paddle-finned olive fish appear from the vortex.

At least, that is what I am hoping for with one of my rods. A tench. They are the quintessential summer fish, a bubbling, bottom-dwelling totem of every coarse-fisher’s New Year, and I am trying to tempt one with a grain of sweetcorn beneath a peacock quill. A few hundred grains are scattered in the margin at my feet, and above the grains are the suspended particles of a liberal offering of wet breadcrumb.

If you’re not an angler, or a tench, that won’t sound very appetising. But if you are a tench, it really should, and the inactivity around my float right now is baffling.

My other rod is a heavier carp version of the tench rod, a B. James Mk IV built in the late-1950s. There are rumours of big commons and mirrors in this pond and I would like to prove it to be so. I’ve thrown a baited hook out to my left beneath the leaves of a willow, and have placed silver paper on my line to let me know if it twitches. Time now to brew up.

I didn’t fish at all on opening day. There was an improbable amount of work to do and, even if I had ignored the demands of my employers and left the students to their own devices, I couldn’t have. Someone cut the pipe to my petrol tank on the eve of the season in a ham-fisted attempt at pinching the fuel. They couldn’t have known, but I was under the thumbs and elbows of a Swindon chiropractor at the time, and the whole episode did little to improve my lower back or my mood. The thieves didn’t get much (the car was running on vapours at the time) but that wasn’t the point. On opening day, my thoughts were not of tench or carp or bubbling ponds. They were of workload, exam results, spinal compression and pinched nerves – and, of course, the fuckers who slashed up my motor. It wasn’t very Crabtree.

Ian and I did escape to a carp lake on the first weekend. We both fished Heath Lake in the early-eighties and decided to go back and relive a little of our youth. He and I have both reached an age where wistful reflection is never far away and when he suggested ‘doing a nighter at the heef’ I said yes without hesitating. We planned to fish as we had when we last went there; that meant glass and cane rods, cranky old Michell reels, monkey-climber bite indicators and a small cache of alcohol. In our youth, it would have been Party 7 but now it was tins of pre-mixed Gin and Tonic. We’d never have got away with that in the old days.

We fished the Boards from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon, hunkering in our bivvies against the squall and showers. It was foul and fishless, but it was fun. In the last hour we gave up all hope of a monster carp and instead fished a float for the smaller ones and made our first catches of a new year.

Last week I visited a wonderful stretch of river – a quiet beat of a Thames tributary that few know about and fewer still fish. There is over a mile of water and fish of dizzying proportions can be found there, but on that first evening it soon became apparent that they were preparing to spawn. I caught nothing.

Rivers can be like that at the start of the season. If they have been truly left alone – and this one, being on private land, really had – then the fishing can be slow a first. The fish are usually still spawning, or planning to, and the sudden arrival of anglers’ baits must seem incongruous. It didn’t matter that I blanked; we, the river and I, have begun a conversation that will enthral at least one of us for a long while to come.

And now it is midday. The morning mist is long gone and a summer sun is now burning the back of my neck. There are no bubbles in my swim, not now, but only an hour ago my pitch fizzed like lemonade and my morning was filled with tench. I caught five, all between four and five pounds, and a few beautiful rudd which grabbed the corn as it dropped to the bottom. The tench, as they often do at this time of year, carried fresh scars from spawning and it felt good to be able to dab them with a mild antiseptic before slipping them back.

But the carp rod – well, that stayed still. Nothing stirred and the silver paper bite indicator remained motionless until I reeled in just now. But moments ago, one of the rumours rose in the water in the middle of the pool and supped something from the surface. It rolled, and though I saw it for only a moment, I could see the armour-plating of a common carp. It was big – at least twenty-five pounds, maybe more – and now I know where much of my season will be spent. It is time now to walk back to the car, knowing that those things that have kept me from the water – real life and real people and one inexplicable loss – will still be there when I get where I’m going. But I’ll be going there as a fisherman, and somehow that helps.

Click here to read previous ‘A Mixed Bag’ columns
Read Jon Berry in Caught by the River presents On Nature, now on sale in the shop, priced £17.99
Jon will be appearing alongside John Andrews, Chris Yates and Charles Rangeley on the Caught by the river stage at the Port Eliot festival on Sunday,24 July.