The Inglorious Sixteenth.

The lake water is as tepid as a cup of tea that has been left to stew. A cacophony of birdsong fills the air, a chorus of excitement and expectation. The air is heavy with the heady smell of spicy hempseed and the strawberry flavoured sweetcorn that has stained your fingers blood red. The odd morsel of which has fallen into the bankside reeds and become a welcome early breakfast for a family of mice. All this you take in whilst staring through the mist at a scarlet tipped quill that twitches amidst the cauldron of pinprick bubbles that the feeding tench are creating; right next to the bed of waterlilies where the coots and moorhens squabble over the stray free offerings from your wayward rusty catapult technique. With every dip and sway of your float your hand tightens on the cork handle of your rod. Your throat has gone dry; but dare you reach for the flask in your basket? Your rapidly increasing heartbeat sounds as loud as a bass line on a subwoofer in a passing car. You subconsciously click the line a little tighter with a wind on the centerpin. The raucous noise scatters the feeding mice. You watch them as they scurry beneath the fallen willow. At that split second the quill rises and lies flat on the surface. A classic “lift” bite. You strike…

June 16th. Hallelujah. The long torturous months of waiting are over. You’ve spent hours or even days over the past months; hidden away in the shed or garage checking over tackle, muttering to oneself about wether the line on those reels needs replacing. Rods are checked, repeatedly (unless like me they are stacked against the wall from their last outings.).

Reels are spun in earnest, just to hear that satisfying sound of staccato from the ratchet; akin to a Barbel tearing across the river, or a carp on the run having snaffled your piece of floating crust. Tackle boxes are tidied. Shopping lists are made. “Do I need any more float rubbers? ”The answer is no- you have packets going back for the last five years! You’ve even disposed of the foul smelling tub of liquefied lobworms along with the even worse cling film wrapped stinky ball of cheese paste that you made with all the cheese that was left over from Christmas a couple of years back. You’ve been so long in your hideout that a search party’s been sent out to see what you are up to. They retreat to the house shaking their heads, almost disappointed that your hideaway secret is nothing more sordid than that never lost childlike enthusiasm for fishing. Back in doors, instead of watching the endless repeats on the tv, you are pouring over maps, looking for pinpricks of blue that may just be “that” water. The one that contains the monster fish that everyone else has missed. Fishing forums are searched on the internet, sometimes long into the night. Scanning through photos of smiley faced camo clad anglers holding specimen fish whilst trying to work out where they are by the background scenery. A word of advice here is to never “click’ off a page, when someone comes down the stairs to see why you are still sat in the dark, staring at the laptop screen. No explanation will cut it- even though the reality is as innocent as the time spent in the garage. Once more, retreating heads are shook and the words “bloody madman” are aimed your way. The close season has its merits; even if it’s only for all of the reasons above. I know that for many anglers the close season is a thing of the past and if that is their want then so be it. I’ve always felt that fishing for coarse fish out of season is akin to scrumping someone else’s apples, though from personal experience I can assure you that the punishment is not nearly as painful!

For me; the barren months are spent on a different set of waters. Small streams stalking wild trout and trying to deceive them with some dreadful home tied imitations of aquatic fly life that don’t even fool me let alone a wily trout. In my head I am thinking “size 14 hook with a pinch of bread flake would empty this river in twenty minutes.” But that would be game fishing blasphemy.

Other distractions include sea fishing. Being lucky, the coast of East Devon is only a fifteen minutes drive away and here I can throw lumps of plastic and metal at the uninterested bass that frequent these waters; or cast a fly at the hungry shoals of mackerel that almost beach themselves as they chase the tiny baitfish ashore. Unlike the burly men that hurl out great strings of gaudy feathers and reel in a helpless half dozen at a time, I am happy to hook one mackerel at a time, marvel at the spirited, reckless fight that it gives and let it go. The saltwater is a refreshing change, not in taste obviously, but the push of the tides, the energy of the waves, the ozone tingle is good for the soul. And then, should the desire to drive myself to complete and utter madness during the coarse fishing void, I can head for an Estuary and fish for mullet. Personally though, I have discovered that staying at home and banging my head against a brick works equally as well.

Of course, all the preparation in the world won’t compensate for your human failings. In past years I have managed to forget reels, nets, bait and refreshments. I remember once having to trudge through a muddy swamp to reach an estate lake in a fine pair of brogues because my boots were still in the porch.

Weather will always throw in a curve ball. One yearI had set my sights on the large tench in a canal. I’d set up in a quintessential misty dawn; only to be driven back to the car by a torrential hail storm that lasted for an hour. Golf ball sized hail stones pounded the earth , my brolly and me into submission, and breached the water like depth charges.

Diaries show that I blank more often than not. Red letter days are few and far between. But to call this failure would be folly. H T Sheringham wrote about angler’s excuses for failure in his book “Fishing. It’s Cause, Treatment and Cure. He wrote “There are blanks, blanks and blankety blanks. All I will say is that “there are many reasons for not catching a fish; but not one for not being there.

An edited version of this post is available to view in the excellent online publication The Piscators Journal which is available here

https://thepiscatorsjournal.wordpress.com/download-the-piscators-journal/

Beep!

16th June. Coarse fishing on our rivers begins again. Sharing my swim today was a kingfisher. He was no more than an arm stretch away. Together we watched the mists rise and the trees turn to gold. We fished side by side. Brothers of the Angle. He, a sleek flash of electric blue; me, an old cane rod and a gaudy orange topped float. At one point I was outfishing my noble opponent by three fish to one. With a loud “Beep” he left his perch. A neon arrow shot downstream and out of sight. Back to his nest; as did I, for breakfast. #coarsefishing #traditionalangling #vintagefishing #wildlife #riverculm @westcountryangling

149 to go!

Molehill number 1!

Today’s frosty riverside ramble produced a new world record. A pleasant forty minute winter walk actually took two hours. Not that I am complaining. For whilst Sherlock inspects and pee’s on every single molehill; I am able to watch the wildlife and immerse myself in it’s splendour.

To quote Claude Monet (some bloke who could paint a bit,) “My wish is to stay like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.”

Amen to that.

Another Year

2021. A year that began with a perfect sunrise family swim at Sidmouth. Dancing on frosty stones to warm up; complete with an audience of well wrapped onlookers and “caterwauling” gulls. A dawn full of promise and positivity after the debacle of 2020. Invigorated. Life is good

The year ended with a walk under a damp and grey clouded sky. Not maudlin black and dismal, just a heavy hanging sky that melts seamlessly into the river. Rae and I clad in wellies watch Sherlock comically tiptoeing through the mud. Peering through the sentry line of skeletal trees I noticed there was a glimpse of a brighter patch; a hint of blue over the valley. No more than an artist’s brush stroke, but a smile worthy hint just the same.

And so passes another year. Like the sky; filled with moments of darkness and for some, absolute bleakness. Unnamed here but you know that we will always be here for you.

That greyness of uncertainty still hangs over us all. But when that flash of blue seems fit to burst through our pessimism let’s embrace the moment. Never forget how to enjoy. Family, friends; we are but a moment in time.

Happy New Year to you all.

Lake Of The Dead.

It is a few minutes after five o’clock on the last day of July 1991. The air is still, humid. That stifling torpor of mid summer lethargy. Slowly, I am making my way along a narrow spit that juts out into the lake. I am already sweating and the sun hasn’t even begun to light up the trees on the far bank. The water is clear, luke warm; as it always is at this time of year. This spit I can only conclude was an access point for the transport that moved the clay from the pit to the adjacent brickworks. Long since gone. Closed in the 1960’s. I digress. Ahead of me, through the mist; I can spot my quarry  (no pun intended.) Three large carp are feeding right on the edge of the drop off where the spit gives way to what seems like a bottomless depth. Heads down in unison; truffling. Feasting on their breakfast; a bed of hemp and corn that I had laid out for them last night. I keep my bow wave as small as possible as I wade towards them. They seem oblivious of my presence. I couldn’t believe my luck. A plan might actually come together. Normally by now I would have screwed things up by stepping on a submerged branch and slipping off the spit; ending up waist deep or worse. Stopping to load my hook with a couple of grains of sweetcorn I suddenly begin to shiver. The air temperature has dropped and the mist seems more intense. Enveloping me in suffocating, damp cloud. The birdsong of the dawn chorus has fallen silent. An almost sinister silence. I stand still, trying to see if the carp are still feeding. The corn on my hook slowly swinging in rhythmic anticipation. I can see nothing but grey. It’s then that I hear the first of the bubbles breaking on the surface beside me. First it’s just a solitary bubble of air escaping the oozy mass beside me. This is followed by another, and then a couple more emerged. This time with a solitary oak leaf  keeping them company before slowly spiralling back down to the depths. I am transfixed as I watch the fluttering leaf descend. As it disappears out of sight a more urgent and extremely pungent smelling stream of bubbles rapidly rises to the surface. Arriving en masse. The stench of decay is almost overpowering. The water clouds, as years of silt, rotting leaves and branches are disturbed. But by what? A monster carp; or maybe one of the large eels that Inhabit the depths. 

I didn’t have too long to wait. Another violent eruption of gaseous  bubbles is followed by a pair of tiny hands and arms which break surface in unison. I’m horrified to see that these are followed by a head and torso of what looks like a small girl. She lay on her back floating on the surface. Grotesquely bobbing up and down. A macabre dancer from a watery grave.  Slowly she drifts towards me. Her hair long since rotted, but her piercing green eyes are wide open; staring up at me with a hideous smile on her upturned mouth that gurgles. I notice that she has no legs, a trail of mud oozes out of the hip sockets of her torso. Her tiny white hands then bump into my waders, causing me to involuntarily recoil away. Ironically stepping on a submerged branch, stumbling and  ironically I slip off the spit; ending up waist-deep in the now murky water. My rod tip now firmly stuck in a willow  tree, my line wrapped several times around  the branches above my head. And my hookful of corn dangling in front of my nose; the sweet scent of vanilla flavouring filling my nostrils.  I am slowly sinking, trapped, as the girl once more reaches out for me grabbing at my waders again. I am frozen to the spot. We stare at each other. Impasse. Studying her closer I realise my personal horror show is being performed by a bloody doll! One that at some time had been dumped here. Unwanted, discarded just waiting for her chance to frighten the living crap out of someone. Payback. Extracting myself from the mud, I begin to laugh; loudly. Partly in relief; who am I kidding, it is total relief. The swirling mists begin to clear; the scene having been set and executed perfectly. The carp have long since evaporated, and strangely so has the doll. Vanished in a second. Still laughing I retrieved my rod from the tree and head home for a shower. The carp could could wait. The “Lake Of The Dead” strikes again. At least I have a bedtime story for my daughters that even Stephen King couldn’t make up.

This lake is no stranger to me. It’s daunting name well earned. Back in the seventies, we would cycle up to the tip next to the brooding black water. Spending hours smashing old television screens that exploded with a fabulous bang. There was always a fire blazing somewhere on the site and if we were lucky the local factory would have dumped their 50 gallon drums of used paint thinners nearby. We used to take great delight in rolling them on to the fire before retreating to a safe distance to wait for the flying inferno. WHOOSH! Lift off. The drums would cartwheel twenty yards into the air, like a huge flying Catherine wheel. Broken toys, bikes, old building materials that we used to build dens with, were always readily to hand. Whilst rooting through a box of old books we came across several copies of the Health And Efficiency naturalist magazine. Bingo! Bizarrely I also found a copy of “The Compleat Angler,” which I still have to this day.

My mate Steve and I once found an old moped. Gutted to find it wouldn’t start, we wheeled it home to try and fix it. We took it apart, bolt by bolt but we were no mechanics. Disappointed; we chucked it into the lake As we were leaving an old chap approached us and asked us if we’d seen his moped. He remembered leaving it in the hedge but couldn’t find it anywhere…

Locals reckoned the place was haunted by the ghosts of old quarry workers and the dead pets that ended up in this unofficial cemetery. Few people would consider hanging around there at night. The feral cats were huge and would silently prowl around, hissing if anyone went too near. The lake itself was said to be toxic. It always had an oily scum on the top, old bottles floated around, clinking together. On a choppy day it sounded like a harbour with yachts rigging singing. Shooting at bottles was a favourite pastime for some. Anything and everything ended up at the tip when all usefulness had gone. I know of at least two Humber Sceptres and three old work vans being driven into the lake. When the levels were low enough you could see their rusting skeletons. Relics. And like those relics, along with the larks we had; the lake became a memory. Rusting away in my mind. Until one day I spoke to Mike “The Prof” Winter and he told me how the local angling club had taken it over; and he’d heard that there were some fairly large carp in there. He’d also seen a copy of the Water Authorities report on the quality of the water and surprisingly it had a higher quality than the River Otter! I had to investigate.

Heading up the track I hardly recognised the place. The graveyard of junk had been reclaimed by nature. Ox-eye daisies, foxgloves, primroses and herbaceous plants that had survived being dumped now thrived from the neglect of man. Rabbits scurried into the undergrowth as I approached. At the brow of the hill I stood to survey the lake. I had no tackle with me, just a pair of old army binoculars. I could see a huge shoal of roach sunning themselves by the island. A grass snake was swimming across the small bay in front of me and then the mallards, moorhens and coots called out a warning of my presence. I started to circumnavigate around the lake. The woods were almost impassable. The solitary track winding away from the water’s edge as if in fear of getting too close. The air heavy with the perfume of the dog roses and honeysuckle that adorned the hedgerows and old quarry equipment that lay abandoned amongst the trees. Struggling to the top end of the lake, bramble scarred and tingling with nettle rash, I reached the spit that I mentioned at the start. The water in front of me exploded as a group of carp shot out from under the boughs of the sunken willow to my right. The lake had called. Reborn and waiting for my presence. All thoughts of an evil presence were forgotten; for now.

Over the following years, both whilst the water was leased by the club and then later run by a lovely man named Mike; I was fortunate to catch many of the carp. Feisty and muscular unlike the pot bellied beasts you see in the angling press; but they fought like Marlin, jumping clear of the water at any opportunity. Great fun. Roach and Rudd to a couple of pounds graced my net and once whilst stalking carp in the shallows I witnessed a huge eel struggling to pull itself out of an old drainpipe. I dangled a worm in front of it’s nose and then chickened out as it was about to swallow it. The only other predator that I saw was “Nelson” an old, one eyed pike that skulked under the trees waiting for a hapless roach or two.

I fished there a few times with my father. He wasn’t a fan of the place. He reckoned the place had a bad atmosphere, an uneasiness that he couldn’t explain. He refused to stay there after twilight. His last cast was always in sunlight. He thought I was quite mad to fish into the darkness, the witching hour; when all manner of strange eerie sounds echoed around the woods. My only company being those feral cats that hid in the undergrowth. If I shone a torch in their direction several pairs of eyes would scarily light up before melting into the darkness.

I got to know Mike quite well over the years. He rarely fished but would spend his time feeding the waterfowl, or trimming the brambles that rambled across the narrow paths that he had created. We’d often sit and just talk. Enthusing about the wildlife, including; the family of great crested grebes, the pair of mandarin ducks that had made the place their own, the amount of crap that the flock of Canadian geese left everywhere and the exciting discovery of Bee Orchids. He loved to listen to my stories about what my family had been up to and was genuinely happy when I took my daughters up there to fish- well climb trees really. He always said how lucky I was to have a family; something that had never happened for him. I think he thought of the lake, it’s surroundings and it’s wildlife as his family- that and his motorbike and his crazy dog that liked to chew up the interior of his car!

The last time I spoke to Mike was also the last time that I fished the lake. I’d spent a few late evening hours stalking carp.. Fish-less, I turned to leave. Mike was stood behind me, leaning on an oak tree, watching the water and the sunset through the trees. He was dressed in his usual khaki, his ever present coil of rope on his shoulder and carrying his bill hook and a bag of bread for the ducks and geese. We spoke briefly and took in the splendid sunset. “I didn’t expect anyone to be here tonight” he said and turned to leave. We walked back to the cars in silence. I left him locking the gates. Two days later I heard that he’d committed suicide. An angler’s wife had found him  whilst walking around the lake. He was hanging from the oak tree where we’d had our last conversation. I was mortified. Distraught. I never returned. I still have no desire to go near the place. For me the “Lake Of The Dead” had claimed its final victim. One too many. The one person that cared more for its wellbeing than any other.  

A syndicate now runs the fishing. I hear that “proper” swims have been created, trees and hedges cleared. The snags of old pulled from the water. I hope that these are just rumours. I’d like to think that Mike’s ghost happily haunts the place with the rest of the spirits and that and that one day, through a mass of bubbles; that doll resurfaces beside a bivvy to remind the current anglers of the lakes past.

An edited version of this post can be found in the excellent Fallon’s Angler publication.

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