Just one last brew; a quick cuppa and a catch up with Shaun, and a last farewell - so long and thanks for all the fish! It was the end of that journey, that particular angling chapter of my life. Friends had led me there, friendships had been forged there, fish had even been caught there, a pleasant and refreshing bonus. There were still plenty on ‘the list’, plenty I would have cut my right arm off for, but you can’t win them all. Circumstance, or fate, had conspired to take me from that little pocket of Berkshire dreams.
I’d done the previous night on the big pit, an expected blank. It didn’t matter. It was such a joy to fish, the peace, the solitude, catching anything was nigh on irrelevant. Watching the sun rise over a millpond surface of shimmering glass was as much pleasure as I needed to make the drive from Central London worthwhile. Someone, somewhere, had granted me that last flat clam morning I had dared to hope for. I’d had closure. Kit in the car, key in the ignition, ready to head down the M4 on that familiar route for the last time. It’s never that easy to leave though, we all know that. Just one last brew …
I crossed the road.
Always good for a chat and a cuppa, Shaun banged the kettle on as we stared out over an equally flat and picturesque scene as the one I had just left behind. The only difference was the dusty roar of the M4 drowning the silence as people chugged to and from their daily prison.
Shaun was one of the many. One of the many good people I’d had the pleasure to share time with over the previous four years. I hadn’t enjoyed my fishing as much since Yateley days, such was the quality of the company I’d encountered.
Shaun was mid-flow, recounting tales of woe and broken ribs when it popped into my head; just a passing thought, if you know what I mean. I mentally flicked it away as quickly as it had appeared, and concentrated once again on what Shaun had to say. I was gutted for him, it wasn’t the big ‘un but it was a special one he’d lost, a rare one. The elusive of the lake had been within touching distance. I knew he’d catch the big ‘un eventually, it was just a matter of time, but another chance at that one? We both knew it was slim.
Tea number two - he made a good cup - and when the thought popped in a second time, I voiced it.
“Anyone in Pallets, mate?”
“No, Si. I don’t think so. Looks nice eh?”
I nodded in silent agreement. The slightest of breezes had picked up leaving the corner I was fixated on in the lee of the wind. It did indeed look nice. Couldn’t do any harm now could it? Only for old times sake of course; just one more peek into the green cloak of the willow that hung so enticingly. Just one last look ...
Bucket in hand I was soon wrestling through the undergrowth of an overgrown path. Shorts: error. Flip flops: stupidity. I tiptoed daintily over the rotten pallets that marked the entrance to the swim, with only the one buckling under my pre-spawning weight. Even now, in mid-June, the little path heading behind the willow was soggy and I could feel the mud curling round my bare toes. Through the gap in the reeds, a long step over a bit of lower ground and I was behind the leaning tree, gazing down through dappled light of the willow branches. Tilting my head slightly to the left my focus fell on the yellow sign: ‘No Fishing’.
Tilting even further to the left, the yellow sign turned to yellow gravel as my gaze fell on the huge, clear bowl of polished perfection a further 25 feet up into the corner, nestled in front of a snaggy fallen willow that marked the start of the out-of-bounds. Straight away, I could see dark shapes milling over the light bottom. Straight away, a handful of magic beans found their way on to the spot at the foot of the leaning tree - on the good side of the yellow line, I’ll hasten to add. As the little pellets cascaded down through the sun speckled layers, I put together a rollie and got myself comfortable against the tree. No expectations, no pressure, I was just looking, after all.
‘As the little pellets cascaded down through the sun speckled layers I put together a rollie and got myself comfortable against the tree. No expectations, no pressure, I was just looking after all’
It didn’t take long - probably about three-quarters of a rollie. Two commons of about 20lb glided over the shallow spot from under the willow branches, straight over the bait from left to right in front of me. They’d gone a couple of feet past it when the tail-ender applied the brakes, twisted round and dipped down, its gills flaring as it hunted out the first mouthful. It took the leader a few more feet to realise that his mate had found something more interesting to do than follow him around all day, and turning on a sixpence, they were soon back together, hoovering the uneven bottom for freshly laid pellet.
A smile spread across my face. Adjusting my position against the tree I made myself more comfortable so that I could lean effortlessly, with just my head on view, and watched. I think it was the fact that I had no intention of catching either of them that made my voyeurism all the more enjoyable. Without the need to rush off to set a rod up I could simply relax and take it in. The clarity was such that when a mouth came into one of the sun’s rays that wasn’t stopped by finger-like branches, I could pick up individual pellets as they rushed into cavernous mouths; a puff of silt, a couple of pellets rejected, another suck, and repeat.
Rollie number two was by now under way and at half-time on that one, movement to the left drew my concentration from the scene below. Silhouetted against the clean gravel backdrop, another dark shape was heading in my direction, and as the clean gravel turned to silt and debris, so the dark silhouette took on a more grey and ghostly form. This was a better one. I tracked it with my eyes, my head unmoving. The closer it came the wider it became; I had my suspicions. Within feet of the commons I was certain, and as it, too, turned on the anchors and joined the party, the big scale on the right flank put it beyond doubt.
Funny, it didn’t look that big. Maybe it was the light, or the clarity, but the usual Labrador-width shoulders looked more today like a somewhat slighter breed. An illusion, of course, because it was definitely her, the big ‘un, feeding alongside two commons in the exact same manner she had been just three years earlier, almost to the day, my first on the lake. It hadn’t sunk in at the time, how close I’d been. When one of the commons shook its head frantically and made its bid for freedom from under the willow, greedily shedding line from a loose clutch, I was just pleased to hook one. It was only afterwards, as the adrenalin wore off, that I could reflect on what had almost been. Thankfully, I was given a second chance later that season, at the opposite corner of the lake; the situation similar, only this time the Labrador did the shredding rather than the bodyguard.
A bully, as always, the commons were soon cowering back under the willow fronds as the new arrival rummaged and burrowed into the light silt, a gentle fizz breaking the calm surface. I smiled again. Maybe she’d just come to say, ‘hi’, a quick catch up, ‘how are things, you keeping well?’ that sort of thing. Whether I said something wrong or we’d said all we needed, the exchange was brief as she righted her impressive frame, flicked her dorsal, and waved me goodbye. Leaving only a brush of silt in her wake and the memories in my mind, the void she left was soon filled by the original pair as they resumed the position.
‘the exchange was brief as she righted her impressive frame, flicked her dorsal, and waved me goodbye. Leaving only a brush of silt in her wake and the memories in my mind’
An hour flew by in a flash. I’d missed this. Not having been able to watch in close much over the road, I lapped it up. For the most part, the commons hadn’t done much other than show a determination to rid the bottom of every last morsel. They’d disappear occasionally, ruminating out of view, but they soon came back and resumed. My friend hadn’t returned, happy with our final farewell. I’d even had a little play with the iPhone camera and my Polaroids, trying to get a shot of the commons feeding, but it was half-arse and ultimately unsuccessful.
It was probably rollie number four when things took a turn. There was a new customer in town, sneaking in under cover of shadow. My eyes searched it for clues - if only I could zoom - just dark, brownish in hue. Closer, closer to the light patch it came; definitely a mirror I could say for sure. Into the sun’s rays and I was still none the wiser until it tilted up further and then I knew. It banked round and as it did so, its plate-like scales flexed along its linear line and that was that. Who needs a right arm anyway?
Blink and you’d have missed me, but when you saw me again there was a rod and net resting on the damp earth behind, within arm’s reach. Only the sweat pouring profusely from my brow betrayed the frantic last few minutes, as I put my serious head on and pulled my hood up over it. I peered round the tree and they were still there, the commons together over to the left and my target on its own in the middle of the spot. Time to execute carefully, albeit hastily-made, plan A, quickly.
A pinch of pellet landed straight over the two commons. It had the desired effect almost straight away, and as they rained down over the dark backs it immediately unsettled the pair. They stopped feeding and milled around, unsure of what just happened, and then simply drifted away back into the shadows.
‘A pinch of pellet landed straight over the two commons. It had the desired effect almost straight away and as they rained down over the dark backs it immediately unsettled the pair’
It was now all about the plated one. I thought I’d have a frustrating wait before implementing plan B, but to my surprise, I was wrong. Not even a minute had passed before the fish suddenly smashed against the bottom, proudly presenting me with a face full of its woodcarving flank, and then went the way of the commons.
Plan B, sharpish. I grabbed the rod, unhooked the rig, turned and stood out from behind the leaning tree in what felt like one fluid motion (it wasn’t). I could see the spot, to the centimetre, that my hook bait was heading for. A ray of sunlight lit the way, and with the clarity so good and the sunshine like a torch, I soon saw my hook bait sitting proud on the lakebed. Yeah, happy with that. Line sunk; rod down; clutch loose and retreat.
Back behind my tree I’d barely even had time to think about a rollie, let alone actually make one when I saw the beginnings of a head appearing from under the branches again. Slowly, slowly, it came, inch by inch closer to the spotlight. It was her, no commons. Closer still and she tilted down, the first morsels going down the hatch. Her nose entered the beam, her head followed, my hook bait no more than an inch away now, slap bang in the middle of the ray of light. An inch, half an inch, quarter of an inch, gone. Her head was where my hook bait had been.
I stopped breathing. I didn’t dare move a muscle. I could feel my heart pounding violently through my head and into the tree it was pressed tightly against. Slowly and deliberately, the fish lifted its head from the bottom and there was my hook bait once more, clear as day, dangling out of the corner of the mouth, it wafted like a leaf in the breeze. Pectorals fanning, gills flaring she looked right at me.
If fish had expressions I’m sure it looked curious, searching my eyes for some sort of explanation. I didn’t know what to do; the responsibility of a decision-making process is usually removed at this stage as sole focus shifts to a whirring spool.
I then did the only thing I could think of. Sucking in much needed air I jumped out from behind the tree waving my arms and screaming at the top of my voice like some deranged lunatic. It had the desired effect and I was soon holding the tip under water and using my finger gently to control the departure of line. It was all over in a flash, not even enough time to worry about hook holds. I emerged from the greenery, tightened down, up she bobbed and into the net, the sun bouncing of her mahogany flank as it broke the surface.
A phone call later and Shaun was at my side as we lowered her onto the mat. Big plates of bronze on a backdrop of polished chestnut. How old? Older than me I’m sure. How big? Who cares. One last photo; one last look; a wave; a handshake; a thank you; a smile. What’s not to love?
'How old? Older than me I’m sure. How big? Who cares. One last photo; one last look; a wave; a handshake; a thank you; a smile. What’s not to love?'