Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A Quest for Canal Carp — A Truer Sense of Things

Judy once uttered something concerning fishing that I've never forgotten. I was struggling to find words to describe the predicament that faces every angler every day of their fishing lives, and the one that faced me at that time, the one of not being able to fish for the fish of your dreams because of the wrong weather conditions prevailing, or being able to but knowing it will be a waste of time to even try 'in this wind,' but going anyhow, or making an arrangement that cannot be broken by anything less than a hurricane. 

She said ~ 'Jeff...'

You can't choose your weather, but you can choose your fish

At the time it struck me as a profundity of the first magnitude, an axiom, a self-evident truth that requires no proof, because I was going through a patch where I was trying to fit myself between the two conditions, weather and fish, and falling between two stools. We have 'targets', and we pursue them senselessly, us anglers. Fishing for perch while the mists murmur roach, fishing for barbel while the sky sighs crucian, and for pike when the wind cries carp. And that is what we do the whole time, isn't it? Recklessly pursue...

As I write, I listen to the sound of the distant motorway unwavered by breeze and watch the high stratocumulus drift imperceptibly Eastwards. I open the window pane wide, and take a draught of the cool morning air. The smell of roach is on it, not tench, nor pike, or perch. The odour is, unmistakably, that of redfins. But it's not the smell of fish themselves, that would be impossible, rather it's the smell of the kinds of weather that I associate most strongly, and instinctively, with them.

I know that if I were to abandon writing for the time being, gather my gear and make my bait, and ready myself before the conditions that create this certain knowledge change the smell to golden rudd or silver bream, then I'll be able to get to the canal and if not successfully, at least happily, while away a few hours in their pursuit, come away from the experience refreshed, and with luck, a brace of good fish to show for it. 

Since I last followed my senses, which was last week when I went down the cut and caught some surprise tench because of them, I've fishing the canal again, but once. It was blustery, tetchy weather, with the threat of imminent rain and the spot I'd chosen to fish didn't seem right. The weather might have been just so for a gravel pit bream, but was all wrong for a canal tench. As a consequence my efforts were fruitless, my bobbins dangling lifeless on their strings the whole while. It simply wasn't the weather for it.

Last Friday, Martin and I went out to a large estate lake after crucians. It wasn't the weather for them either, what with low scudding clouds soaking up the light and in the gloom of the dense forest surrounding us, a sense of carp pervading. Out front our float-fished corn found a few roach, but further off in the scum-line, were seen the blue backs and orange flanks of porpoising lumps. I had a rod fit for purpose lashed to my quiver, but neither of us had brought a net large enough to land one, should I have hooked one, so it was redundant. We failed abjectly to catch what we went for, too, though lads on the far bank had two carp while we were there, and the lake is reputed to very hard going at the best of times for them. It was carp weather.

Late yesterday afternoon I caught the whiff of tench on the breeze. Oddly, the sense was of things to come, not of things passing by. The tench would feed late, and far later than the time before when I'd caught three by nightfall. Today they'd be caught after dark, and somehow, I knew it.

In position by 7.30 and baits laid by 8.00, I then sat back to enjoy the ceaseless promenade of passing strangers and the slow mid-summer fall of light. Along the towpath came Paul, a fella laden down with shopping bags and who I'd met on the previous trip -- a busker and a boater, a one time angler, a confirmed idler and a kindred spirit. I offered him my rucksack stool to sit on, and we nattered away about this and that and nothing in particular. 

Then out of the dusk was Phil Mattock with his brace of cavalier spaniels. I hadn't seen Phil since our last trip to the river together back in the frosts of January, when we'd found that smart, and too cute kitten, a kitten incidentally that has found a happy home for itself since, that is now a cat, and who lives with a family who adore it. Now there were three, anglers all, and watching the bobbins intently, waiting for one to start up and dance. 

Then along came along an old friend, Jan, with her girlfriend, both on bikes. They stopped to talk too, so now there were five, or seven if you throw the dogs in, and a total towpath roadblock... and then, suddenly, there were eight, when the left-hander bleeped, then trilled, and we were joined by a stocky male tench of three-pounds weight.

Our party split after the fish was returned. Phil and dogs, and Jan and friend, all going their separate ways, leaving Paul and I to soldier on. Paul remarked that sitting there in the warmth of the summer night, alert for bites, but chatting away merrily in the meanwhile, was like sitting down in the living room and watching the same events unfold, but on TV. Something is about to happen, and because the plot demands it happen, it surely will happen, but you don't quite know when.  

Sure enough, and because the whole evening had an inevitablity about it, inevitably, a fish was caught, but only a bream. I love that thing about sitting behind buzzers, a form of fishing that can be as exciting a form of fishing or as boring a form, as it is possible to be. When it's all going wrong, when the lake is still, and the fish aren't feeding, buzzers are a form of torture, because you know they'll sound at some point, but some point might be in two days time, half an hour, or the next second. But they fail to sound every second, and go on failing over and over, whilst time slides by measured by the mile.

However, like household smoke alarms dutifully awaiting the waft of burned fat, if things are cooking on heat, they are going to sound out soon. And that's no form of torture at all, unless it's the torture of sitting on a chair of nails and jumping every time one pricks the skin.

A second tench was the next inevitable. A four-pound female who gave me a run for my money doing an impression of a fish far larger than she actually was. I love these canal tench. I just wish that I could fish for them here with lighter tackle, but there's always that chance of that big carp lurking in the back of my mind, and if she comes around at some point, I'll need all the power I can lay my hands on.

Earlier in the evening I'm sure we saw her make a big bow wave up the far shelf. Phil was convinced it could only have been a large carp that made such a show of itself, and so were Paul and myself. 

We'd also seen, in the dusk, a lot of large splashy signs that I fancied were not from tench, but from big roach. Tench roll smoothly, and so do big roach usually, but sometimes roach do frolic and splash, and I was certain that's what they were the signs of, but it wasn't time for roach then, and besides, I wasn't exactly tackled up for them.

Eventually Paul retired and went back to his boat to sleep, leaving me alone in the moonless black night. It was silent, excepting the pulsing whoosh of the late night motorway, which is a noise the brain filters away. It was still and warm and I started to doze. I recast both rods for the last time, fully intending to pack down while they fished and go home myself within the next quarter hour. I sat back down. My eyes were closing and I was in and out of the edge of consciousness...

The left hand alarm put paid to that, and the feisty three-pound something female tench on the other end woke me up soon enough. 

The air had changed whilst I'd dozed. It now smelled different somehow, and no longer of tench, but of another fish. I thought to myself, 'now here's a chance at her'. It was even quieter now, curiously quiet in fact. The water surface was mirror smooth and nothing disturbed its perfect reflection of the stars. However, there was tension in the flat surface, and it seemed stretched between the banks like the skin of a pitched up snare drum.

For half an hour the buzzers remained silent, but sure enough, both then began to signal the presence of unseen fish as they bumped the line.  For some reason I fancied the right hander should be recast just a few yards right of its position, to a place where the best fish of the night would surely fall...

Ten minutes after, the same alarm sounded as a stuttering take commenced. I picked up the rod and wound to the fish expecting a solid thump and a wild surge of raw power, but got a gliding, fluttery sensation instead. Clearly, this was not the 'best fish of the night' I'd anticipated, but just a small bream. 

In she came, and into the net she splashed, where I peered, and saw not a bream at all, but a really good roach. Night lights do funny things to fish. You just can't fathom their true size in the glare. At least I never can, and am always surprised by the results on the scales.

This roach, who'd taken three grains of corn, which I thought remarkable never having never caught a  canal roach on even a single grain of that bait before, sent the scales around to a confusing one-pound, five, or six, or even seven ounces, on the 32lb double revolution dial intended for far larger specimens than she was. I settled on one-six, but checking the weight against my trusty salter scales at home, found them an ounce down, so one-seven it is. And that's the largest canal roach I've caught in over two years, so even though she was caught by what I consider, when intentionally used for roach, dubious tactics, she was 'the best fish of the night,' after all.

Then came the dreaded roach trophy shot, where even a clonking great roach in the hand, and they are impressive creatures when over a pound and a quarter, can shrink away to appear about half what they really were, in the final shot. I tried my best with it, but I guess I'm going to have to practice, because once again, my roach shrank in the wash.

Steve Philips and I have discussed this problem at length, but we both have no real clue why it should be. I think it's the fingers that do it, because if you hold a roach in one hand then it always appears the size it really is, but hold it in two hands, and it never does unless it's two pounds or over, when it really doesn't seem to matter, but nowadays you just don't see that many genuine two-pound roach to compare things with...

I slipped her back, broke down the rods, and called it a night at 1.30 am. She was enough, even though the air still smelled of what I now knew was roach, and not carp. How did I fail to recognise it immediately, for what it really was?

Now, two hours after starting this missive, I'm smelling the air outside my window once again. The smell of roach has vanished to be replaced with the opposed, but mingling odours, of engine oil and soapy water. I won't go out today, or not till later, perhaps tomorrow, or whenever I get the trail of a fishy scent coming downwind.

There'd be no sense in it, otherwise.


  1. Another well put-together story Jeff.
    Love the first shot of the tench, you look well pleased/pissed. Glad you got the rewards after putting in the effort.

  2. Actually Dave, I was as sober as a judge. I went Tescos earlier in the day and found what I thought was a right bargain - fourteen bottles of Becks lager in a plain brown box marked down to four quid...

    When I got home, I found they were alcohol free!

  3. An excellent piece, some of the lines were like fishing poetry. A great read.