Caught by the River

The Hackney Optimist

Luke Turner | 9th August 2011

by Luke Turner.

Freddy, a brown labrador of impeccable pedigree and intelligence inverse to an enormous appetite, lives in my partner’s parents house on the banks of the Yealm Estuary in South Devon. On the Sunday after Port Eliot, we took him on one of his favourite walks, along the trackbed of the long-disused Yealmpton to Plymouth branch line. We walked under bridges that went nowhere, past mudflats shining under the cry of a curlew, to a tumbledown ruin at the head of a creek, murky with low tide and stirring with fish. The ruin, complete with the rusty steps and faded blue tile-lined trench of an abandoned swimming pool, had clearly been the site of an informal al-fresco soiree the night before. There was litter everywhere; cans, bottles, bap bags and a file of invoices mislaid by an accountant. A few wisps of smoke rose from the still warm ashes of the messy reveller’s barbecue. Freddy, tail wagging, bounded over tho the remains of the fire and, sniffing and snuffing grey ash, sought hopefully for burnt sausage that the near square foot of olfactory epithelium in his nose had told him must be there. It was hard to drag him from his seemingly futile but, judging from the wagging tail, clearly hugely enjoyable quest.

When you are an angler running almost entirely on optimism and with proficiency in short supply, sparks of enthusiasm to head to the river bank all too often dwindle into a cold and unrealised ‘maybe next week’. Last season saw chances of tight lines lost to deadlines and the Sisyphean task of trying to tease a living from running an online music magazine. With 12 hour working days and the pleasant demands on time posed by a new relationship, the prospect of yet another blank meant that the Optimist’s fishing was limited. There were trips to the Lea Navigation on the wrong sort of day. One hot Saturday, for instance, far too hot for the fish to be biting, though the water was so clear a large pike could be seen, a menacing presence among the green of the weeds. I’d taken a non-fishing friend along, one of those who doesn’t really understand the point of it all if you don’t get to eat your quarry, and who laughed at the notion that anything in the Hackney Lea could be persuaded to take a piece of sweetcorn. I didn’t get the chance to prove him wrong, as the bright yellow dot was roundly and visibly ignored.

One evening my dad drove up through London after work and took a decent chub from the water – proof at last that fish could be had from the Hackney Lea. For me, though, that trip was one of endless tangles, floats in trees, casts that never connected. and when they did, the breadflake without fail have departed from the hook, and floated off to be eaten by a duck. It was one of those sessions that can, and did, thoroughly put you off until before you realise it, the close season notices are once more nailed to the telegraph poles.

I must admit I often feel more than a little envious of the happy anglers of Caught By The River, with their successful trips to sylvan rivers, their field knowledge and ability to read the river. To me, even the Lea is Ulysses, small print Greek edition. But then came Port Eliot, and three pleasant days of booze, books and British Sea Power, all thanks to CBTR. I confess, I didn’t quite understand the mirth of the four panelists at the poor etiquette of fishing for pike in the summer on that close and hungover Sunday afternoon. But it was inspiring stuff. Afterwards, I went to ask Chris Yates to sign a copy of his Sea Fishing for my dad, and told him that I wrote, in a fashion, about fishing for this very site. “Ah,” he said, “optimisim is what it all about”. Mulling on his words as I watched Freddy snuffle for sausage in his ash pile, I laughed to myself. This season, I ought take wisdom from the words of Chris Yates and the nose of Freddy, a brown labrador.

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