Caught by the River

Forest Bass: Dispatches from a cabin in the woods

20th October 2023

Mark Mattock’s latest cabin trip takes in kingfishers, eagles, and mullet stew.

September: Fisher Kings

“Underneath the bridge, tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass and the drippings from the ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.”

— Nirvana, Something in the Way

A sticky, sickly tap, followed by another, causes me to look up. Just across the small bay’s smeared mirror surface, over which Golgotha the oak’s only large bough hangs, on an old post stuck in the mud, a kingfisher is smacking the tiny brains in of a small bass. Through my binoculars I see its large startled eye and last-gasp gaping mouth, as it arches in a final death throe of tensed gilded muscle. Tweezered tightly between the bird’s large dagger mandibles. I missed the electric bird’s arrival and ignored the plop of the dive that resulted in the scene I’m now observing. Acorns have been sporadically falling, and plopping, since the morning tide reached below the matriarchal tree. Ducking a passing red admiral the brilliant iridescent blue bird juggles the now dented silver slither into a throatwards position, flattening the fish’s sharp-needled dorsal fin for easy head-first passage down the gullet into the brick red feathered furnace. Gone. Two head thrusts of satisfaction and a shit, the uninhibited bird then drops down from the post for a quick splash bath in the shaded shallows, returns to ruffle and preen in glorious sunlight. Ten minutes later he darts back out and hovers briefly like Kes over the amnesic bass fry, drop-plops again on the small shoal, re-emerges with another flicking, shining medal. Contrary to the familiar slo-mo choreography of nature documentaries, the real time action looks clumsy and comedic; speeded up, it just needs the plink plonk piano accompaniment. He brains it on a branch among the oak leaves this time.

Evening, and at the far end of the main bay, with the confident pose of a plastic duck, bobs the first wintering dabchick. The rusty neck and cheek of summer plumage still visible. Overhead a classic skien of feral greylags passes northwards. As I stir hedgehog mushroom and chanterelle risotto by head torch, the incredible racket of a goose rave building. A huge early autumn gathering of noisy Canadians: sonorous triumphant honks, snores, trumpets and cackles, all with slight reverb, resonating from all round the marsh as small groups fly in to spend the night. I can barely make them out but I can see the black mirror water surface lighten as it ripples into a sheen of disturbance. Surf landings, splash washing, flap drying. Phosphorescent feather-generated static electrifies the funky air. Joining the soundscape a wader choir, out there too, stood on bare skinny stick legs, some no doubt bobbing with enthusiasm: redshanks, curlews, oystercatchers, sandpipers and peewits. In the pitch dark around the cabin the tawny pair call to each other in crystal clarity, the twits husky, the twoos gravelly, they must be so close, and for the first time I hear a sub-chatter of a stuttering hoot. Another answers from the distant deep dark beyond. 

2.30 am. Strong smell of smoke in the cabin. Outside the whole atmosphere like the end of bonfire night. Blurry-visioned I try to find points of focus via the stars. No strange glows anywhere, no distant sirens either. Just the random honks of now slumbering Canadians rolling across the void. An acorn crashing through several layers of leaves as it falls to earth like a little meteorite, hitting the ground with a loud thud. The next hits the deck with a hard knock and bounces twice. A single peep from a redshank. The tawny owl pair seem bothered by the smoke too, even louder now in the gauzy incensed air. 

The usual vapour trails, this morning pink, are slashed across the messy blue eastern sky heading south. Gossamer collected from between and under dew-soaked branches as I walked over to the jetty, tickles my face, neck and ears, somehow mildly echoing the vandalised sky. The 07.30 Guernsey Airline flight is passing behind me, lining up for landing. 

The lagoon is filling. The rising water spilling free from the confines of the huge twisting bough-like rivulet. It slides imperceptibly out over the soaked leather and verdant felted mud. Soon the water surface boils with hyperactivity: aquatic Catherine wheels of swirling mullet fry like tiny galaxies, pulsing flashes and glints of bass fry; thumb-size bass smashing into the glitter bait balls of both. Dimpling match heads with shocked eyes glued on either side, frantically gasping, heads stuck in a wire fence of surface tension — larger mullet fry frantically scooping up the nutritious probiotic spilt scum-shake. A grasshopper leaps from a fidgety little feather ball of hunting wren, crash landing on the water. Held firm by molecular attraction, its mayday ripples futile, lost in the surface murmurations. In the distant dazzle and shimmer a sleek black dragon head periscope pops up and shakes free loose diamanté. Between me and the cormorant, right on cue, the menacing bow wave of the stealth fisher I’ve been expecting stalks towards me using the deeper rivulet for cover. I look over to the far oak bank, make out the familiar white spot poised in a giant dead wood bough, his favourite among those protruding, like the antlers of a herd of stags, from the canopy. 

Binocular check confirms we are all here, once again, we three fishers: Osprey, mega bass, and me.

Third morning — third time lucky? New trick. A small soft plastic lure has been pre-cast and sits waiting on the bottom of the submerged gully, next to a clump of bladder wrack, and is already obscured by the swirling mini mullet. I don’t have to wait long before the big bass approaches like a surfacing nuclear sub, just where I knew she would. At six inches away I jerk the lure into action, perfectly mimicking a bolting fingerling fish, the bass tail flicks the power on then instantly stutters, like a misfire. Can’t be arsed. Failed again. I cuss her in reverence. The cunning opportunist is still totally preoccupied with the huge shoals of fry. I’m left, again, watching the awesome predator slosh around, deceptively clumsy, in the shallows — panicking and corralling the fry like a wolf, sending sprays of silver shards through the surface, fleeing the cavernous charging hoover of a mouth. The water deepening she moves on, slinking past just in front of me, continuing up into the lagoon. I tingle with neurochemistry. 

I check to see how OP is doing. 

The osprey has moved along to another perch in the dead branches. He’s standing directly front on to me now. We stare at each other across the marshscape. Without magnification he’d go unnoticed, his plumage the colours of the hard-weathered lignum. Bare snakeskin legs the tone of the bleached dry green shield lichen that in turn looks like flaking antler velvet. Only his white breast stands out a little against the dark late summer green canopy.  But close up he’s a coy comic superhero, with a fiendish strip of an eye mask — a back to front bandana with crude eye holes cut out. A heavy saggy feathered cloak, white ruff and shop lifter’s sweatpants with grabbed goods stuffed under the waist band. His big feet splayed at near right angles. He slides his head side to side like some perpetual motion desk toy, body dead still, as he holds his stare. Then he manoeuvres to take a bow, raises his behind, and blasts a loose rubber tree snake of white fish sauce into the oak crown. Ruffles his feathers. Ready. Something is spotted, some imperceptible movement or ripple, he’s glaring at it. Fish. Gently he slips off the bough, opening out his superhero cloak, completely changing character. He slides down the invisible taught wire that’s guiding him toward the hapless subject of his sudden total attention. At the last moment huge grappling hooks hydraulically drop, swing round, stretch out, open wide. The last thing the mullet sees, as the masked raptor materialises from the shadows, are the crazed frenzied eyes glaring between the ‘fiercesome’ talons. Impact. The heavy plunge — un-synched by distance — sounding a fraction after… 

A brilliant haloed vision of gilded wings, a Baroque Angel Gabriel lifting from the water, dripping molten gold and pearls, as the first ripples reach the mud banks… he’s missed again! His talons clenched fists of frustration as he makes heavy work getting airborne and back to the canopy, shaking himself dry, like a twisting feather duster, head through to tail, on the way. His success rate remains one in eight attempts. 

Warm sunny afternoon. Sat on the deck. Sipping sweet hot ditch mint (and aphid) tea. From a sunspot in the branches a wood pigeon glares down at me with a Charlie Manson stare.  His skewed off-centred pupil of black balsamic vinegar in an eye blob of olive oil, illuminated by blinding sunlight, like a bright torch, held close, checking for pupil reaction. The deranged woody is looking at me, but not looking at me. His glowing plastic beak of bright orange and red in the luminous backlit green makes him look more a mad parrot. Late season speckled woods spar over the sun dappled deck with dynamo energy. Yet another fresh red admiral passes — butterfly of the year, unprecedented numbers. Another speckled wood flits low, methodically, over the ground, searching.  Somewhere near, the perfect blade of cocksfoot grass. She finds it, alights and tastes the shining green ribbon with her feet. Satisfied, she curls her abdomen round to delicately squeeze and glue a tiny pearlescent pale green globe onto it. Continues with a little urgency, to find another. 

Cabin life is a ‘what day is it again’ kind of existence.  I always know what time though; by sun, tide, flights passing overhead, and if the wind is in the right direction, church bells. But I know exactly what day today is. Twenty two years, less five hours. The airplane mode icon on the top right of my phone screen is the hypnotist’s click of a finger that takes me back. That morning stroll downtown to something so terrible, beyond any words, like this morning: sunny, warm and blue. Behind me, as I sit on the jetty, a very ominous, sullen and unexpected deep grey-purple dishcloth of a cloud is threatening to wipe out the beautiful morning, sliding with ease under the glorious sky. The very palpable feeling of warm relief as, twenty minutes later, I watch the back edge of it disappear over the distant tree line, is overwhelming. Light returns triumphant. In which OP the osprey now glows on his second favourite perch. An old biplane — yes, and once again I’m mumbling to myself ‘no one’s going to believe this’ — comes bumping over the trees like a giant paleozoic era dragonfly. It spooks OP into flight. A buzzard, I’d not noticed, appears, to go mob him. As I follow them up into the brilliant sky through my glasses, a distant dark speck streaks across the circular eye frame. I nudge back to it, and take a quiet gasp.  Despite the enormous distance the speck’s aura is, as before, filling the vast, fusion-bleached airspace. Like the star attraction at an air show. Blinding white-topped giant cumulus billow from beyond the horizon. The repeated ineffectual dives of a second buzzard make clear the enormity of the White Tailed Eagle. Another flash in the eyepiece and refocusing reveals a diminutive musket (male sparrowhawk) has joined the scene of conservation success stories — he can’t be much bigger than a single primary feather of the heraldic giant. I haven’t seen any raptors for weeks bar the buzzards. This is the second sighting in all my time here of the Eagle, and again on a deeply emotive day. All is connected. An hour later I stroll through the oaks over to the jetty riverside. Yet another raptor is working the same gently turbulent, hawk-friendly air. A male Marsh Harrier, again I’ve not seen one for months, and probably not this one at all. An immaculately turned out, seventies-suited crooner. Feathered confectionary perfection: deep chocolate tones, with a rich caramel toupé, yellow legs dangling is he ambitiously harasses a shiny bronze cock pheasant crashing through the reeds directly below. 

Sat on the deck, watching, listening, reading. Amber and dolby-filtered late afternoon stillness and silence. The bubble suddenly punctured by the pipping alarm call of a redshank. A feathered projectile rips down the side of the cabin, bursts out of the sub oak gloom towards the gangly red-legged wader, scattering egrets, mallards and a greenshank. Almost too quick to register. The female sparrowhawk strikes again. She’s been leaving burst feather cushions up and down the mile-long path between here and the road. 

It’s almost dark at the water’s edge under Golgotha. Even before I’ve finished scooping out all the wet viscera, that I can’t really see, from the neat black slit I cut into the fat mullet’s belly, dimly glowing like a pale opalescent pillow, crabs are gathering. Plastic clickerty clacking legs clamber over each other, and my hands. Sharp pointy feet, in the dark, tickling and poking. Emerging from the half submerged purslane, mud holes, or rushing in from the shallows. Determined and unshakable, the speed of their arrival unbelievable. Crustaceous vultures squabbling on a beached whale. They remind me that I’ve often thought to make a delicious crab bisque, such are the numbers here. But now it’s more how could I? I know them, the big ones in particular, as individuals. I’ve watched them for hours; their habits, behaviour, relationships. With one big mullet head I could lure them all. But then at the very next low tide, with the zesty flavours of my ‘foraged’ boiled and blitzed neighbours still in my mouth, I’d be sitting on the jetty, the wet bustling, shining street under the footbridge empty, the crowds gone, as if something awful had happened. 

The mullet stew was really good.


Mark Mattock. Artist. Photographer. Publisher. Rabbit Fighter. @the_rabbit_fighters_club