Friday, 8 May 2009

A dream of dream fish...

My sleeping dreams have been populated by big roach of late, all caught in strange places, and under queer circumstances. A large but very strange, almost dead ghost roach from the sea, for instance; the capture of a huge fish from the garden pond followed by a quest for set of lost scales to weigh it with, hidden away in a dusty decrepit attic
, for example, and all these dreams were accompanied by maddening riddles and perplexing, insoluble difficulties. This is a state of being that I'm quite familiar with from the many other times in my life when I have had to process much new information in a very focussed and rigorous manner over an extended period of time, and dreams such as these I take as a sure sign that my studies are reaching their peak, and that a breakthrough of sorts, is near. They are usually preceded by a short period of mental turmoil, and one has just passed, followed by a sense of clarity and purpose, and I hope this is going to come...

The roach of my dreams had all but evaporated from the local stretch of canal where once they had been in numbers, and I had no clear idea where they had all gone; the places where once there had been hope of a fine roach had become occupied by the ubiquitous perch, and it seemed that there was nothing that could be done about this state of affairs other than wait for their return. Now I like perch, I really do, but catching only small perch and in quantity is a sport that soon pales when you realise that the desirable big perch (a fish that I would gladly give over my faltering roach campaign for) are probably not going to come to the fine tactics and small baits you are currently employing for your target species.

The idea had formed that the roach I had briefly contacted had only been passing through the stretch, were not resident fish, but fish slowly migrating to the spawning grounds, the optimum place for the incubation of their eggs, where I was certain that they would all be waiting patiently for the ideal spawning conditions. Now searching for roach on a canal is hard at the best of times, the roach being a fish that on the rare occasions that it chooses to do so, gives its presence away splashily, but more often than not doesn't do anything of the sort, there is not the benefit of water clarity when boats pass through regularly blasting the sediment of the bed into suspension and turning the water into thin brown tea, and so finding them is pot luck - you can walk right past a resident shoal of canal roach for days on end and never know they are there - but then you might see a particular kind of 'roachy splash' on the surface that stops you in your tracks. If you then wait patiently you will see other splashes and rippling bow waves, but over a very limited area of perhaps thirty yards of canal only. This is where the roach are, and they really are not to either side of the outer limits of the shoal; cast beyond them, and you will catch none of them.

Talking to locals on the canal bank is something of an art form. Men will and do stop to talk fishy things, for only minutes usually, but for hours on end if you let them, if they have nowhere else they soon have to be, or no-one pulling their strings. One old ex-merchant seaman chap in a motorised wheelchair whirs along the towpath, parks just a little to far away to be completely audible and proceeds to chat. Well, chat is too weak a word to describe what is actually a torrent of logical thinking, tales and anecdotes, alcoholism and knowledge of everyone and anyone living or passing through his local social orbit, the limits of which are described by the end of the charge of his wheelchairs batteries, and all this punctuated, or more accurately heavily spiced, with the most advanced lexicon of obscenities imaginable. This guy knows, and uses whenever he can squeeze one in, every possible swear word in the English language. And some I've never hear of.

Another guy just stopped to tell me about some roach that some other guy had caught on the pole. Apparently they were coming regularly on caster and were pretty big fish for the canal, "some well over the pound" and one "this long". Of course my next question was a no brainer.

Next morning I was off on the track of these reported roach because the location was just far enough beyond the limits of my capacity to lug seat box, bait bucket, rods and nets to ensure that I would not have willingly walked there on a whim, or a change of swim, and actually it was logical - they could be there - it seemed right. As I walked, laden with my usual canal tackle, not exactly chub stalking gear, but once set up on the towpath, comfortable, compact and well out the way of the constant stream of dog walkers, joggers, pushchairs, wheelchairs of course, and high speed push bikes, I kept my eyes peeled for the signs of roach. I passed under a bridge just as a rat swam across, nimbly climbed the bank, gave me a quick rodent stare, and scampered off into the undergrowth, and then rounded a bend where a long straight began.

Then I saw them...

Roach! Hundreds of roach, laying up in the top layer of water in the bright morning sun, aimlessly swimming here and there, occasionally sipping trapped insects from the surface film. Unfortunately they all appeared to be tiny blade roach of just a few inches in length, but as I peered into the deeps I thought I could just make out the shapes of much larger fish, of half a pound or so. I cast a line to see if they would take on the drop, and indications came, but nothing positive enough to strike. Chucking in a handful of maggots and lengthening my drop all the way to the bottom, I sat back to await events thinking that the bigger fish would be down in the water and could be induced to the canal bed.

An old asian man took up residence behind me, watching every cast with interest, but not saying a word. I was now performing, and somehow I had the sense that he was willing a bite as much as I was. It came and I struck into a fair fish, half a pound easily, but one that slipped the hook at the net (actually the only roach I've lost after hooking it since I started with them in February) The float flew up in the air, the old gentleman exclaimed, the fine line wrapped around the rod top, and tangled in knots. By the time I had re-rigged, the old man had gone, and then I sensed, by a sudden movement of water caused by an advancing pressure wave, the coming of a boat not yet seen but somewhere around the bend, and of course the fish did too; those on the surface sank from view and made way.

When they reappeared, after twenty minutes or so, they had shifted along to the left and just out of range, involving a necessary move of tackle. I took advantage of this upping of sticks to explore a little and walked down the straight to see if any more shoals were thereabouts. They were. After a gap of fifty yards another large shoal was seen, and fifty yards further another, shoals spread along the cut in regular pods, and this appeared to be the case along the whole stretch. I sat down just ahead of a bridge and began to fish for those of a new shoal that looked bigger on the whole, but as I was starting and then getting some indication that fish were interested, I noticed some big fish activity under the dense undergrowth along the far bank. Naturally I went to investigate.

Every now and then a fork tailed, proud finned, dark shadow would shoot from the shade only to dart straight back in again. It took some time to decide that the fish were bream; far too big to be roach, certainly not carp or tench. They appeared to be spawning or at least getting quite excited by the prospect. I had to decide to try for them but as I walked back to my peg, in the deep shade of a footbridge, I saw something else and something entirely unexpected.

Two feet below the surface a small shoal of maybe ten relatively big fish could just barely be seen; small fish of half a pound or so on the flanks, some much larger just inside, but in the centre were three fish of probably over two, and even three pounds. In the distortion of the ripples on the cloudy water recently stirred by the passing boat, it was very difficult to make them out, and for some time their identity was uncertain. They had forked tails and proud fins, but I thought, and then it struck home like a needle sharp hook, that I really could see, a hint of red...

Oh dear god, these are roach!

My legs, suddenly unable to take my own body weight, got me back to my rods as fast as they could manage. I grabbed the nearest, a net and my maggots, and prayed that when I returned they would still be there. They were, so I positioned myself well away and threw thirty maggots in front of them, hoping not to spook them, for them get their heads down, and feed. The float splashed and cocked, the tip dipping down to its level in stages as the dropper shots hit depth, and then I sank the line as carefully as I possibly could, and concentrated, with ferocious intent.

It all seemed a fading opportunity after five bite-less minutes, and so I looked for them again, but they were gone, nowhere to be seen. I had to stick it out for longer, they might have gone down to the free offerings. Ten minutes after casting, the tip dipped and then slowly sank from view. What to do when this happens is normally a matter of judgement, too early and the hook finds an insecure hold or is pulled from the lips, too late and the bait is blown out and rejected, and if the fish are not seen then it matters not very much, it could have been anything, but, when you are confronted with the possibility of a very big individual that you have seen and stalked, the tension of the wait can, and often does translate, into fumbling disaster at the strike. Relative time slowed down to an infinitely large moment as I lifted the rod and pulled the hook home into the solid resistance of a fish, but it was not one of the really big fish I'd seen, in fact is was one of the smallest, at around the half pound mark. The fight was brief, mercifully, and so I was hopeful that it would not have sent the shoal into panic.

I cast again, the float settled and then slipped away once more. The strike was a little early but connected, and this time to one of the big fish, a fish that had the power to dictate terms. Jag-jag-glide, jag-jag-glide, the unmistakable and peculiar fight of big roach, bending my float rod over hard, stripping a little line. I grabbed the net, lifting the rod tip high under controlled tension, trying to lift the fishes head clear of water, to have it to gulp pure unfiltered oxygen, the anglers sucker punch...

Up it came, to the waiting net, and just when I thought I really had it on the ropes, the fish threw me a sucker punch, shaking its head and throwing the hook clear, and was gone...

I had hooked, and ultimately lost, one of the very large members of this small shoal. Quite how big I really can't say, but I have no doubt that it was easily the biggest roach that I have ever hooked in my life, and by a long chalk. I'd estimate its weight conservatively at somewhere past the two pounds and a half mark, and quite frankly, I think it was more. Of course, losing one of the head fish of the shoal is a disaster, because as dominant members they make all the running, scurry straight back to the shoals station and tell all the other fish that shoal safety is breached by emanating panic inducing peptide molecules (fish talk, to you and me) the shoal evaporates and reforms elsewhere.

I knew it was all over, but strangely, I was not at all thrown by the losing of the fish. In fact I was quite chipper, exhilarated even. I had, for a brief time, done battle with the very fish that I had chased for months, always believing it could be caught in the canal - a roach of well over two pounds, and perhaps much more. I fished on in the same place in the vain hope that they would return to their shady holt below the bridge, but when after a while a silver bream came to the net and then a skimmer bream followed by a succession of hand sized perch, it was obvious, that they wouldn't.

Will I ever find them again?

Of course I will. After all, I had a dream...

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