Sunday morning. Time: dawn. Venue: secret.
Canals are rarely quiet. At dawn we are the first on the scene. Across the water sheep bleet, on the water, water birds scooter, but the towpath is deserted. We're on the hunt for a special prey, one that must be stalked and found out before there is ever a chance of catching them. They are known to like three specific locations over a mile of water. Just three, and no more.
Danny has worked these strict locations out over years of experience with this tricky prey, and this morning he's taking me along with him for the chance, albeit an outside chance should they not show themselves by remaining deep in cover, of catching one.
We walk out to the second of the three, and set up. It doesn't 'feel' as if this is the right place, and after two hours we decide to move along to the third having seen no sign of our quarry in all that time. We both know there's no sense at all in staying on fishing over a well laid trap to bore one out over time, because this is a canal, and that is not how they work. If you aren't fishing right amongst the fish, then they won't come to you in the brief time of your hunt.
The third site is worth an hour only. Nothing is seen, but more importantly, nothing is felt. We move backwards to fish the first site, our only chance remaining. Here, it's all, or nothing. I trust Danny's knowledge. All canal fish are habitual creatures who prefer certain locations for very specific reasons, but they're reasons that never become fully apparent to us. You might think its cover that makes these locations so attractive to them, but it's not simply that, because the very same types of cover are available all along a stretch of rural canal and they won't be found there, ever, unless passing through.
Just as soon as we set up at site one, I spy the ripples of what looks to be a topping roach under the near bank to Danny's right. Danny doesn't see it facing away, but I do, and then I see more than mere roach, because at the centre of the small ripples there's a boil of water that is too large to have been caused by anything else than our target. It lasts seconds, spreads, and fades away, but I'm certain it is the sure sign that we have found them.
Danny trusts my judgement. He knows from experience that they must be here, if they ain't elsewhere, and that unmistakable pattern in the water was clear evidence that we have found them, and so we fall silent, talking only in hushed hunter's whispers. Across the far bank, well under the overhanging branches, Danny spies a further, subtle, clue. There's a fish in mid-water, barely perceptible, and you'd never have noticed it ordinarily, but it's causing the faintest of disturbances to the water surface. Then there's another further along, and here and there frothy bubbles, quite unlike those caused by escaping gasses, are erupting. They are here, and in numbers.
The air is electric with anticipation as we stand and observe these signs, more convinced by each that comes, that sooner or later one of these fish is going to make a mistake and take a bait. Twenty minutes pass by, half an hour, three quarters, and then, as we watch a fish who we can barely perceive but who is right over the very top of Danny's left hand bait, and who we are convinced will be the the first to fall, my right hand buzzer trills as a fish tears off, hooked.
As a windscreen explodes under impact from a stone, the crystal lens of silent observation through which we have peered for the last hour, is shattered to a million shards. For a second the fish is on, the rod curves downward but the next second it is free, the hook hold failing. A large orange-brown boil of muddy water erupts where the fish departs, and my corn comes back intact on the hair of the hook.
They are still there though. And moving. We expect another soon...
My recast receives immediate indication that fish are still around and rooting about for the juicy kernels of my corn ground bait. I'm convinced, that any moment, a fish will mistake the baited hook for one.
Then the boats come. In ones, at first, but it won't be long now before they come in gaggles of two and three. Every passing boat requires a rewind, and a recast. When the fourth or fifth has passed through, the crackling electrified air finally dissipates, the small but certain signs of the movements of the fish cease abruptly, our chance is chopped by the whirling prop.
As we trudge back to the car, I think to myself 'now, that, was fishing'. Just for a brief hour we were held fast in the long moment of an instant, and were, for a time, our primordial selves.
Now that is fishing.
And I'd almost forgotten what true fishing felt like!
Against all the benchmarks, and the yardsticks...