a fishing memoir by Dexter Petley
The river through town froze the week before Christmas. It looked ugly as a bruised thumbnail. The unsunk rubbish was like icing on the top. Up in the hills at my writing shack it was minus 18 and my landlord still hadn’t fixed the broken windows. Last years newspapers were stuffed in the gashes. The toilet was frozen solid. 15mm ice poles were hanging from the copper bends under the sink. There were moles under my bed. At night I was woken by frostbitten mice climbing up my pony-tail.
I always thought that if it was too cold to write, it was never too cold to fish. I spent the day feeding logs into the little tin stove with my hat and gloves on. The night sleeping in two jumpers sucking Fisherman’s Friends. Stoicism renounced, I abandoned ship and fled back to Laure’s flat in the gloomy town with the frozen river. A stringful of 40 watt festive lightbulbs sagged from tree stumps in the street below. For the first and only time in my life I bought some worms from a tackle shop. Christmas standby in case the river thawed.
There really is a time for armchair fishing. But dreaming about fishing is a neglected aspect of the sport. Dreams in which you really can fish from the armchair. The ones where the carp live under the floorboards and the bait somehow sinks through the carpet. You know for reasons you don’t question that the carp come out at night, they live behind the skirting. With the line trailing between furniture you also know something’s terribly amiss, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. In dream-fishing, your angling history is metaphysical and built from fragments of other dreams: catching that smoked yellow roach from under the road outside, the one where the float bobbed about on tarmac. Hooking that carp down a manhole cover, the one which started life as a flatfish-dog. In each dream, the old Mitchell 300 jams and it feels like kite flying. But these are the fish from childhood, the frustrations of armchair fishing aged 12. Your parents were on the sofa tutting through the Sunday Express. The rain streamed down the window and you pleaded on bothered ears: oh let me go fishing, marm, dad, it’s not fair. Stop yer belly-aching lad, it’s too wet to go fishing. That’s right Dad, spoil the rod and spare the child.
Boxing Day, the frozen moisture fell like glitter in the air, the sun pulsing it full of colour, like dust dropped from the blue sky. The snow was a dry powder and more was forecast. I couldn’t get away till mid-afternoon when the bitter grey rind was forming on the clouds and an East wind was sheering the warm corners off uncovered ears. The River Arroux through town was still a solid, but the little River Celle was rittling under the roadbridge a few kilometres downstream. I parked up and followed it down. The Celle was fishable, only the brown stain like old nylons was a colour I didn’t envy putting my worm through.
The beasts were in their mangers on the brow behind me. The farmer appeared between his buildings with a pitchfork of steaming, claggy straw. Koipus big as walruses with frostbit whiskers loped over frozen hoofprints. The Celle looked dead as doornails. There was more chance of catching a roach back on the tarmac of the route nationale where I’d parked.
The Arroux was at the bottom of the field, too wide and too shallow. Wide, slow, shallow rivers are a depressing French reality. They’re as frustrating as carpet swims in recurring dreams. My kind of fish hate them. Out in the open country they seem devoid of life. Bankside erosion by cattle, koipu and grubbing-up for that extra strip of maize. It maintains an average swim depth about three inches. The last salmon was caught from the Arroux in 1850. Blocked migration after that. They built some passes in 1987, but they’re still awaiting the comeback.
In town, the fish clustered below the bridges. They always looked on the evolutionary cusp, about to grow legs and walk, as the shallows became desert wadis in summer. On the factory stretch there was a weir by the disused pump-house, and a deeper run where the air was sharp with electrical stink. The bank was like a drive-through Zander match. I walked down there one saturday afternoon in October. The circus was in town and its scraggy menagerie was tied and staked round scruffy caravans. Llamas with half a mouth, ponies with depression, goats without self-respect. I’d seen fitter, half-dead donkeys in the Sudan. The weirpool and the run below were sown up by the usual car-seat anglers, telescopic masts and unattended snap-tackles, lines like ski-lifts and cables. My other fears were confirmed soon enough: a barbel graveyard just beyond the cars. Shameless piscicide. Some of them were freshly caught, others with eyes picked clean and hatred marks, torture scars. I’d never caught a barbel in France back then. I never felt likely to, always turning up too late. Then, just before Christmas, the mayor’s henchmen cut down all the stately bankside plane trees. The leaves were such a nuisance, falling on barbel killer’s cars.
Boxing Day’s Arroux had beauty in its bleakness. Shelves of ice arched off the margins. The drab green water had no winter ferocity, but its summer moribundities were at least replaced by a musical trickling, even if the slower runs were slabs of ice like congealed mutton fat. I walked banks turned into long-drops by pig-sized koipus. Why the French don’t eat them is a mystery. The Dutch call them water-pigs and cook them for Sunday lunch. The state employs koipu “bladerunners” to keep the dykes from collapsing and thereby flooding most of Holland. Koipus are surely the nearest organic fish/meat hybrid in the world. I’ve had thirty-pounders tangle in my landing net in the middle of the night while creeping along the canal bank. My neighbour up in the hills said it was so cold this winter down by the stream, he found a herd of them had moved into his loft and eaten all his spuds and walnuts.
I picked a nice marginal run along the ice shelf and let the worm down. The three shop bought worms I tried didn’t survive the shock. Dead on arrival. The breadflake sat its term under the tree till the sky turned to sackcloth and flocks of snow skirled on the sunset. The mountains were the colour of dead-man’s veins and I drove home through an East wind that stripped the paint off the ambulance.
The river thawed after Christmas. I was craving for outdoors, where I wouldn’t need to think up new magic tricks for Laure’s kids. The top hat had broken and the secret compartment complete with rabbit wearing a bow tie fell out during a live performance at bedtime. I craved some running water, a brew-up under bare dripping trees in the mist, some line frozen in the tip ring. It would have to be that thawed river again, the one I suspected was all but devoid of fish. Fish in hope by all means, but only if hope is one rung up the fish ladder. I bought a survey map to study the access tracks. Me and Laure went hiking with it instead, brewing up the Storm Kettle in a ruined Roman ampitheatre after steep climbs through a forest so thick with deer we spooked one from every cover. From up there, the river Arroux, brimfull and looping in the valley below, looked so at ease with itself. A majestic thing, a natural wonder with an abundance of fish. I pinpointed it, circling a good few miles above the target, attracted by a gleam on the landscape. And as the eagle flies it was a mere ten minutes from home. A village called Laizy. What better place for a river to be slow, wide and deep.
This time I purchased maggots, something else I never do. I prefer to hang my chicken carcass in a barn and watch them drip, free of charge. But with good river bait, just the rod and some gear in the waistcoat pocket, I took the mountain road on a gloomy day when you even have to grit the sky. I descended the trickle of a lane down to the valley floor, smack into paradise. It always happens when you least expect it. This is just another way of believing that one day it will happen, that you can count on it if you’re conscious of not expecting it. Too fine a paradox to take fishing.
All the pastoral elements were present. The sleepy village of the landscape painter, the country churchyard of the poet. The roar of a weir, the ker-chung and the klaxon of a slow train on a single track. The riverside farm on a rocky outcrop. The alders and willows dreeped with the flotsam of earlier floods. No muddied bruises anywhere along the banks. No heaps of litter. Everything signified a lost world. Everything hinged only on the question of depth and the nature of the river bed. I stuck the rod point in the water and found a good yard under the bank. Better still was the grating of gravel and the clump of weed in the top ring. It was a grey day of chilled mist like a stocking on your head, and drizzle flicking rings on the olive green water. And young barbel, rolling everywhere along the stretch.
At first I was sceptical. Surely they were koipus, cormorants, grebes. But they had forked orange tails and grey backs and beady eyes. It was eleven in the morning and in went a handful of corn and maggots. A four pounder rolled at my feet, a sweet delicate flip. At one o’clock I missed two good pulls. The air became colder, I brewed tea in the ambulance, the rain slapped us all in the face. I went home and boiled some hemp.
Next day I found the puddles frozen and the river running up a gear. A man in a white van passed behind me. He pulled in for a chat and got stuck in the ditch. I pulled him out while his ex-police dog tried chewing through the Land Rover to get at me. He told me the river here was full of wild carp three feet long that smashed every one up. Those who sought the 2lb roach which lived in the gullies, the 3lb perch in the deep holes behind the rocks. He said no one much fished here, just old countrymen who prefered shooting boar. Even in summer the water was three feet deep and clear, running between streamer weed, crayfish big as lobsters. I believed him, waited till dark, then missed five takes under the rod tip.
Laure was reading Montaigne that week. She showed me a passage from L’Apologie, written in 1561 to assert the superiority of animals over humans. Discussing the tendency of pigs and cattle to come to the aid of herd members in distress, Montaigne mentions several fish he claimed intelligence for. The sea gudgeon, who guides whales and sleeps in the whale’s mouth at night. The whale not moving till the gudgeon is refreshed. It all sounds invented, though he does credit this story to Plutarch. The escare , a fish in no dictionary I possess, though it might be Provençal, and I guess an eel. He has companions who crowd round him and gnaw the line when he swallows the fisherman’s hook. If he’s caught in an eel-trap the others clamp their teeth on his tail and pull him out. And the barbel; which he calls barbers, les barbiers. When a companion is hooked, they erect their dorsal fins, which are toothed like a saw, and use them to saw through the line. Mine just saw through the bait and left it alone.
The weather freaked at the weekend. A false spring had us throwing doors and windows open Monday morning and drinking tea on the balcony. I got to the river at three and there were moths and bees dancing on smooth water creased like wax. From minus 18 to plus 18, the fish couldn’t take it. The sunset dyed the hills true burgundy, reflecting on the water like wine in an olive green bottle. I sat it out till my legal half hour after sunset without a touch. Montaigne had nothing to say about the intelligence which still kept my first barbel off the hook.
The shack was habitable again and I found myself heading to a nearby lake I hadn’t fished in two years. A cold, natural sixty acre mountain valley lake I’d caught nothing from, except a kind of stoical respect. It was still frozen over, the rain dripping onto the ice. A short strip of water along the sluice was ridged in East wind and I plumbed its depth as far as the entire length of the rod. I wanted to float fish. I wanted to fish, even in this weeping weather.
I felt twelve again, and lucky to be outside, so I set the float at 18 inches and cast it onto the ice just to hear it crinkle and skid. Then I eased it into the water like lowering an egg into a boiling saucepan. And pluck, away it went, and I swung a cold roach into my hand. Those dreams of fishing came of age. The ice was the floor, the road, simply an obstacle conspired by parents to bore you into armchairs. And there was recollected time in every bite, a kind of starting over, like closing the brackets after a sentence lasting 34 years. The next bite was a jack, a tiny jack no more than half-a-pound, for less than half-a-crown! And another, then a roach, then a jack. Then the night froze over and nailed the floorboards to the water.