Saturday, 1 August 2009

To the River! To the River!!

Prolonged heavy and persistent rain over the West Midlands is not the best forecast for a camping and fishing trip on the lower reaches of the river that drains almost the entire region, nevertheless, it was an arrangement that we would not back out of, we would just have to tough it out, endure the approaching deluge and bear with the consequences. We would stay, come what may.

It’s a brisk little toodle down the A46 from Coventry to the Avon at Harvington. In forty minutes we were there; Judy, Molly and myself, plus our friends Kate and Kev who’d elected to join us for the first night of our projected three-day excursion. Kate had put up with a week of Kev’s non-stop talk about fishing matters as this would be his first coarse fishing outing for years, and he’d made a hundred and fifty mile journey to retrieve his gear from storage just for the occasion. That’s the spirit!

A nice flat piece of the Island at Anchor Meadow was chosen as fit for purpose, tents were pitched and then, and only then, the water was scrutinized. To Judy’s despair I usually get these things the other way round, the mesmerizing flow of rivers being a thing that pulls me straight out the car door like a hooked fish, but on this occasion I resisted my animal urges, did my duty and made camp first. Actually, I lie. I was under orders, on pain of female retribution, and a man never knows what ghastly form that might take, so best not to incur it, I thought.

Duty over. Me and Kev and Molly are offski. Itching to take a gander at what we had all around us, and that would be water in every rivurine form imaginable excepting waterfalls. The river here approaches sedately from the North East after traversing a complex of locks and weirs half mile upstream, hits solid bedrock faced with a stone block wall and turns Westward at near right angles. A navigation cut with its associated lock spurs off the river just before it turns, forming an island. The river picks up pace as it approaches the weir along a relatively shallow gravel run, falls across the weir sill and forms a turbulent pool, then races downstream through shallows before rejoining the cut and running away into the distance toward Evesham.

It had been a pretty damp July but not excessively, so the river was in healthy form, not too high, not too low and with a tinge of green. A barbel was seen foraging in inches of water along a gravel island below the weir pool. We watched it feeding until it suddenly turned its nose to the flow and drifted gracefully backward into deeper water disappearing beneath a thick growth of wafting weed. Fish can be such startlingly ugly creatures, always built exactly for specific conditions and modes of survival of course, but to our eyes alien and strange, catfish for instance, who look all the world like some figment of the Medieval imagination, a hideous creature straight out of Bosch hell (and they are certainly not the worst looking of the lot) but barbel are creatures from on high, an angelic fish. They should have wings, and in their natural environment of fast shallow water they really do seem to possess them.

We returned to camp and the girls and popped the cork on a bottle of wine. Kev was having trouble sitting down. Next thing he was fiddling in the back of his car and doing something to something we could not see. He came back, cocked his head and uttered the words that another angler simply cannot refuse to comply with.


I necked my half-done glass in one and had myself a rod made up for trotting a float in a flash. By the time I’d finished Kev was already at the waters edge on the point of the island setting up his pitch! I took the next peg downstream in the rapidly accelerating water below the pontoon strung across the river to stop hapless boat people from drowning themselves in the weir pool, a forty-five degree clamber down to a rough and rocky margin where I intended to long trot a stick float off the centre pin as far downstream as my ocular acuity would allow. Kev on the other hand began to conduct a short trot of just twenty yards off a closed face reel feeding alternately a small ball of ground bait and pinches of maggots every three trots through.

My first fish was a gudgeon on a size ten hook and triple maggot. Kev’s first fish was a small dace on a size twenty holding just a single grub. The difference in our approaches was evident; I’m always impatient, searching the swim and upping the stakes for the chance of a big fish whilst Kev is a patient swim builder, bringing the fish up to him over the course of time. After a while I gave up my initial attempts at doing something similar when I realised that the peg I was in wasn’t suitable for such accuracy, it being a big chuck out to start the float in a good line and not being able to get free offerings out to this start point with the required accuracy, I simply trotted lobworms and big chunks of bread flake through without ground bait of any kind to back them up.

The float ducked every once in a while, most times the hook catching bottom, but one fast duck of the float produced a nice solid resistance that dashed off toward the near bank. Chub, I thought, and chub it was. About a pound in weight. Kev meantime had started to win out with a steady trickle of small fish going in his keep net. By the time I’d tired myself out in the rocky peg and decided to set up the big guns for barbel, he was having a fish every chuck. Turns out that his early fishing experiences were of fishing the Trent and that the tactics he’d employed were not only typical for that river but also just as successful on this one – he was clearly having a lot of fun.

I’d been itching to start after a barbel. I’d had every intention to fish for anything and everything and chop and change over the course of the days ahead, but since arriving on site a little thing had been niggling away inside my brain. You see, I have endured a run of bad luck over the last months, with just about every big fish hooked getting off one way or the other and it had occurred to me that it all started here, at a precise spot just twenty yards off the island point where Kev was now fishing. Exactly the place where in the late winter I had hooked and inexplicably snapped off from what I knew full well at the time was not only a personal best barbel but also one well into double figures.

The hex had to end here, at this place and that precise spot in the water, and today.

I don’t like to have to stare at the rod tips when they are set way up high, and usually do anything to avoid looking like I am doing barbel fishing when I actually am, setting the rods up as low as I can get away with under the prevailing conditions, but today, even though the flow was so mild mannered that I could have had the rods set below eye line if I’d chosen any other peg, I found that with this one I had a clump of sunken reeds and a wed bed intervening half way between me and my chosen spot so I had no choice but get them tips up. So much for appearances; I was now one of the troupe whether I liked it or not, visibly a member of the barbel circus.

Kev was still catching whilst I experimented with baits, alternating meat, pellets and sweet corn over a light scattering of hemp to see which would prove best on the day. He’d caught five different species of fish - dace, chub, bleak, gudgeon and now the bream that had moved in to mop up. After less than an hour I had settled on just the one bait for both rods throughout the whole session because it was transparently clear that it was the only offering of interest. Don’t ask me how I know these things, it’s an instinct, an ineffable thing that has little to do with reason and everything to do with feeling, a hook carries either a dead bait or a live one, and I’m not talking pike bait here, it’s either the one they want or the one they don’t and you don’t have to be catching to know this, you just know by the way the rod feels in the hand that it is the one or the other.

The rod tops nodded rhythmically as the lazy current plucked at the line. There is something mindless about fishing in this way, waiting for what you know full well is inevitable, as the hour slips by by the long drawn minute, as the long wait shortens inexorably to the point when it seems as if the river and the fish and you are reaching for each other, and the rod top bounces and curves over, and you strike…

On automatic…

The calm is shattered to splinters as a big, big fish stops in its tracks, curves its body into a spring then whips its forked tail and pulls you over to the water with its force.

The reel screams. The rod bucks. You are losing.

The fish stops. The spool regains. You are winning.

And this continues, on and on for what seems an eternity, Kev behind me with the net, the girls and the dog having seen the commotion are there too, and they are all making babbling noises that my mind cannot process into meaning. I can feel a thousand eyes upon me, every living being within earshot is watching the tussle, curious as to its outcome, curious about such a startling bend in a fishing rod and more than just curious about what kind of monstrous fish can test a full grown man to his limits. They all want to see it, and so do I…

It feels as if the fish is tiring now, but I know it’s an illusion. It comes closer, but pulls away once more. It gains line on me and so I lower the rod, pump, and win it all back

The hook pulls out. The lead sinks to the riverbed.

It ends abruptly. My legs are shaking; the adrenalin rush cannot now be consummated with the landing of the fish and the rituals thereafter. I don’t know whether it will devastate or exhilarate, for a few seconds I am lost, blinded by a mist, in freefall.

I laugh out loud. Again! It’s happened again! Sod my luck!

The last time it happened here I was so torn because of it being a line failure that caused the loss of the fish that I was full three days in mental turmoil and more after in recovery. It happens that way, from time to time, in fishing. This time it’s a happy loss, only a hook pull. The one that got away…

The hex continues!

Kev empties his net of his catch and sets up a carp rod, flinging out the killing bait; he’s decided to join me in the pursuit of old whiskers. The womenfolk go back to camp to cook tea.

The basic campfire food tastes great, as it always does when out in it. When it’s all finished and another bottle of wine has been consumed, I remember the bottle of champagne that has been kept cool in the water tethered under the staging of the peg by the tents. I go fetch it deciding that now is the time to pop its cork.

And end the hex!

The bottle is put into my groin and pointed at the water below, raised skyward and the cork eased. The pressure fires the cork high into the air and with such force that it lands plumb in the middle of the stream and is swept away to the sea. A libation is in order. The bottle is carried ceremonially to the waters edge, a glassful is poured into the water for the gods of the river and I make my exhortations.

It’s over. It’s done. From now on my luck is my own.

We fill our glasses and drink a toast…

“To the river!”

“To the river!!”

Night falls and we fish on into the darkness. The tip of the island has turned into a little party with a single Tilley lamp illuminating all the happy faces. It’s a great occasion, and for no real reason at all, besides it being ridiculously pleasant to be alive, and here.

The left hand rod top had been knocking about for ages under the attention of some small fish but has now calmed down. The conversation is a little tipsy, and I keep falling down an invisible hole between the grassy bank on which we are reclined and the concrete bank of the mouth of the cut. Suddenly, Kev, and me who you’d think had both lost concentration leap into action simultaneously as the left hand rod top hoops over, the girls don’t see it happen at all, and I’m into a second fish.

This time the battle is easily won, no problems at all, a barbel comes to the surface and into the light of my headlamp spotlight. It looks a good one, everyone gasps when it appears! Kev does the honours as ghilly and lands it expertly in one deft sweep. In the light of assorted lamps it looks stunning and flawlessly clean; Kate thinks it’s enormous, I think it might just push double figures. It doesn’t quite make it at nine pounds dead, but it’s a personal best by a pound and after such a long run of stupidly bad luck, quite possibly the most welcome fish of my angling career! I am elated beyond words.

Luckily there’s a pro photographer at the party! Kate takes some cracking pictures with her expensive Nikon, worryingly, without using flash in pitch black darkness, but it’s OK, the pictures appear as if by magic, and there’s even one picture mid battle! How cool is that?

Then the party subsides and its time for bed. No doubt another barbel or two would have been in the offing later but sometimes, on certain occasions, just the one is more than enough, isn’t it?

(pics and rest of account to follow, I'm off to do two weeks of freelancing in Old Non for my sins, I don't want to go, and am dreading it - I mean, what does the Big Smoke have that Cov has not?)

© Jeff Hatt 2009 All Rights Reserved

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