An Autumnal Bounty

‘Are you OK?’ My partner’s voice is tinged with an unusual inflection of concern. Looking out of over the churning water and into the dark contours of the night, I survey my surroundings and consider what I see before giving answer. It had been a cold, wet start to Autumn and during the last few weeks regular storms had rolled in from the west to pummel the already well-sodden landscape. Vast quantities of rain, at first so welcome after such a dry summer and then rapidly despised once the novelty of permanent dampness had worn off, had fallen by the time the season of mists was well under way.

‘We were just wondering if you were coming home? The forecast is awful.’ She adds.

I glance down at my phone and wipe rain off the screen. It is a little difficult for me to make out what she is saying above the noise. Beyond the confines of my trusty old oval brolly, battened down with every available peg and fixed as low as possible like a giant green limpet clinging to the earth, a vast storm is wreaking havoc. The wind is roaring through the dense reams of trees that encapsulate the lake and any leaves that have clung on into the Autumn thus far will surely be stripped from their branches by the time morning comes.

The accompanying rain is torrential, swept by the gale it is defying gravity by going sideways and every now and then I get a spray of water in my face. The wind violently swirls as if trying to make up its mind as to which direction it really wants to go and the whole experience reminds me somewhat of being at sea. For alongside the howling wind and the lashing rain the lake’s water is slapping loudly, wave after wave, against the last exposed boards of my swim. Though the ground beneath me is steady, it is a bit like being on a boat.

My swim in fact is already part flooded but I have tucked my little camp up on the last vestige of slightly higher ground against the shelter of a huge old rhododendron bush. I am for the most part quite dry and comfortable despite the ongoing melee.

‘I’m fine sweetheart’ I reply. ‘I’m having a wonderful time.’

And I mean it, I love a good storm. When it’s been cold and you suddenly get those big southerly winds blowing in you just know that some good fishing is on the cards. It would be difficult to ignore such a golden ticket and staying at home, despite its alluring cosy confines, is not an option. By learning to appreciate what is ‘good’ in ‘bad’ weather your perspective can certainly broaden a great deal. I peer down to the water’s edge and see that since I arrived in the late afternoon the level has crept up the bank by almost a foot. I make a mental note of the position and resolve to keep at least half an eye on it.

‘Well, if you’re sure’ my partner says uncertainly, ‘It sounds like the roof is going to come off at home. I hope you catch something and you don’t get too wet or blown away!’

I reassure her of my safety (and my sanity) and we say our goodbyes. I check the time and it is now 9pm: wind howling, rain lashing, dark rivulets everywhere. I gaze over to the far sky line adjacent to my swim, some 50yards away at the nearest point, and observe the silhouetted trees swaying drastically in the wind. Overgrown with gnarly old oak and whispering willow the bank is actually out of bounds for fishing. Like the flow tide of a tiny inland sea all the water of the lake seems hell bent on making its way in this direction in a steady torrent of waves.

It is along this bank that I have placed my two baits. One is out to my left just under the limbs of an ancient oak that leans out precariously to tickle the water with its lowest fingers, and the other tight against a large protruding willow much farther along the bank to my right. I feel sure that during the course of the night or the following the morning some kind of substantial angling action is going to be had.

Since the heavy rains began the lake has taken on the most lurid colour which I can only describe as luminous brown, the darkness of the night seems to amplify this strange glowing hue. Furthermore, with the addition of various feeder streams, now overflowing and spilling out to form myriad streams along the bank, the lake looks more like a river in flood than a stationary body of water. 

At this point in time I had been fishing the lake in question for about a year having been invited, most fortuitously, on to the syndicate the previous Autumn. I was just starting to feel like I was getting to know the place and its residents well enough to fish with some consistent confidence. A beautiful little enclave of about 6 acres, it housed some stunning fish with a rarely-caught handful of them going up to the mid-thirty mark. Sometimes it was a little busy on weekends but usually blissfully quiet for most of the week. To my great delight I had discovered the previous year that through the colder months I almost always had the place to myself and I had been looking forward to my second winter there immensely. And here it was beginning to arrive.

For most of that previous year I had been able to do two overnight sessions a week. Usually I would arrive late on a Sunday afternoon once the family were all ensconced and happy at home, and just as anyone else on the water was packing up. These sessions frequently proved to be quite fruitful, especially on the following Monday morning; fish quickly sense when a lake quietens down and resume their natural, more relaxed behaviours accordingly.

My other weekly session would then be on a Thursday night; here I would rock up at about 8.30pm after teaching my classes; a breeze in the warmer seasons but another ball game completely come the colder months. Nonetheless, I soon became accustomed to setting up in the dark, the cold and the rain and after a while I started to really enjoy the process of it all and the innate quiescence of those long chilly nights.  

I aim to be consistent with my fishing trips and I like to commit to more or less the same days/times each week. Even if conditions are unfavourable I do my best to go, for even if I am unlikely to catch I can still revel in the natural beauty and solitude that being by the water provides me. Also, by being at my chosen lake consistently I can observe the water over an extended period of time and from this I aim to build an ever-improving picture of the watery environment and its particular ebb and flow.

Once you start looking there is always something new to discover and at the heart of my angling is the drive to become at one with my chosen water; I want to understand the place and feel like I am part of it rather than being an occasional intruder who sneaks out the odd fish.

If and when I do get to the point where I am able to get a good sense of a lake’s unique rhythms and processes my catch rate usually reaches its peak, or is just about to. This process can take ages, sometimes months and sometimes years, but the time scale really doesn’t matter. Like life, it’s all about the process. You don’t just want to rush to the end.

So to resume my tale, on this particularly stormy Autumn night I was down to two rods from my usual three and I had been for some time. Back in the early summer of the same year one of my rods had been hauled into the lake by a fish (surely a monster) in the middle of the night never to be seen again. It had happened so fast and the whole episode left me feeling entirely distraught and as if I had lost a limb. It was my own fault completely, for just as I checked and re-set the clutch of the reel on said rod before retiring for the evening I noticed that there was a small glitch in the mechanism. I gave the spool some tentative turns either way and after a while I was sure it was fine. I was wrong.

During the course of the night a single bleep from my alarm signalled it was time for action and I leapt from my sleeping bag only to see the rod in question violently yanked out from its rests and career off into the water. I had been fishing that rod very close in next to a large overhanging tree and without thinking about it I simply jumped into the lake hoping that I might just be able to grab hold of the end of it. After splashing about empty handed in dark waist-deep water for a while, I realised that I had missed my chance. I hastily wallowed back on to dry land and proceeded to cast about with one of my other rods in a vain bid to hook onto the missing artifact. What a palaver!

After an hour or so I realised that this too was futile and I relented, completely forlorn. I took off my soaking clothes, hung them up in the nearest tree and crawled back into my sleeping bag only to remain sleepless for the rest of the night. My concern was the fish and I dearly hoped it had swiftly ejected the hook.

Early the next day when the Bailiff appeared on his morning rounds, I spilled the beans. He listened sympathetically and reassured me that it was highly likely the fish would have shed the hook seeing that I was using a barbless pattern. Nonetheless, he said he would take a trip out in the boat later in the day and probe around at that end of the lake to see what he could find. Unfortunately, the rod didn’t ever turn up.

That summer session wasn’t a complete disaster as I did manage to bank a couple of nice fish later that morning which cheered me up a little. The lost rod however played on my mind for some time afterward but a valuable lesson was learned and since then I service my reels much more regularly.

Despite losing a rod, I still managed to bank a couple of nice fish

By the time the Autumn in question rolled around I had grown quite accustomed to using two rods and not having enough spare cash or indeed the willingness to replace the one I had lost through what was essentially my own negligence, I had simply accepted that I was now a ‘two-rod angler’ and that was that. Perhaps the whole rigmarole had been a message of sorts from the Carp Gods, but as to what it meant, I was quite unsure…

Surveying my two remaining rods I gradually nod off into a dreamless sleep despite the clamour of the storm, the sound of heavy rain on the brolly, the lapping water and the constant buffeting of the wind providing a wild backdrop. At some point in the night I wake up and am relieved to find that the weather has subsided significantly. There are even a few bright stars twinkling out now and then from behind great whale-like clouds as they blow by. I check the time and it is about 3.30am. I decide to get my head down again for a few more hours.  

Just before dawn I wake up to a different scene altogether and I discover that the storm has indeed blown itself out. In part, the lack of action during the night is a blessing because not only am I well rested but I am also warm and dry; I would have been soaked playing a fish in that storm.

The temperature has dropped by a few degrees and there is still a breeze. The sky is much clearer now and it looks like we might have some welcome sunshine this morning. In contrast to last night’s wild weather the world seems incredibly peaceful, if a little messy after such a hullabaloo. I get the kettle on and scan the lake. Conditions are looking pretty good and I am filled with optimism knowing that the first rays of warming sunlight will hit my two spots in succession. As usual the first brew of the day tastes amazing and I warm my hands on my mug as I stand next to my rods and observe the ripple of the water and the distorted reflection of the trees and sky therein.

After an hour or so and just as the sun starts to permeate the tree line, two urgent notes from an alarm breaks the quietness; my right-hand rod requires immediate attention. I am fishing a tight clutch and waste no time in leaning into that which is responsible. I am met with a satisfyingly heavy living resistance. Taking a few steps back I attempt to move the antagonist away from the willow I am fishing tight to. Fortunately, this goes to plan and I manage to gain a significant portion of line. This is a good start to the conversation.

With the fish safely away from that snaggy bank, the protruding roots and branches spelling almost certain doom, all I have to do now is negotiate the huge bed of decrepit lilies that lies between us. The fish seems to wake up to the opportunity at hand and makes a powerful bid to the right, trying its best to get behind the vast mass of old stems. I apply plenty of side-strain and am relieved to find that the fish turns just as it starts to skirt the outermost fronds. Now I gain a few extra yards of line whilst leading the creature over to the left-hand side of the weed-bed. The trickiest part of the game is over and I breathe a sigh of relief.

I suddenly realise what a wonderful start to the day this is; the breezy air smells fresh and clean and the first birds of the day are starting to chortle and sing. I conclude to myself that I love fishing and I turn my attention back to the issue at hand.

With some effort I am able to lead the fish past the last lily-fringes and out into open water. Apart from negotiating a few marginal snags, the rest of this tussle should be plain sailing. I lean over and secure my landing net in place. From the feel of it this fish isn’t one of the larger residents but certainly has some mass behind it – I imagine that it is a mid-twenty or so and very welcome. As I slowly pump the fish towards me the feeling of our tussle takes on a disturbing and unwanted grinding quality. Everything comes to a juddering halt.

Scrutinising where the line enters the water, I look on dumbfounded for I am sure that there are no snags in the area. I hold everything steady for a few minutes and sense the occasional kick from the fish. It is still there, for the time being at least.

Gingerly I alter my angle of pull, apply a touch more pressure and very slowly something gives way. Looking out to where I think the fish is, I see a dark Cyprinid shape slowly rise up through the water. It appears to be a nice fish, a good-looking mirror, it’s dark orange hues and resplendent scales clearly apparent as it nears the surface. Then, to my horror, it slowly submerges and I realise that there is indeed an unseen snag hindering the line between me and the fish. Once again, I apply a little more pressure and once again there is a tantalising glimpse of the beautiful creature; it slowly rises up through the water only to descend back to the depths a second time. Suddenly the fish has had enough of this game, it gives a powerful wallow and is gone, gone, gone.

For a few moments I look on disappointed. I pull myself together and can feel that my line is still snagged. I give the rod a frustrated heave half-expecting a big branch or some other belligerent detritus to make its way to the surface and be identified as the culprit for losing a nice fish.

What happens next is really quite surreal. For slowly ascending straight up out of the water comes a fishing rod twinkling magically in the morning light. Like the fabled Excalibur of Arthurian legend, it continues to rise up until about 8feet of it is exposed above the waterline. Framed beautifully by the colours of the autumnal backdrop, it stands there bolt upright for a few moments and I stare on in astonishment. Time seems to stand still until the rod gradually submerges back down to the depths from whence it came. Whispering various expletives I pull myself together, for of course this has to be my missing rod and I am determined not to lose it again! Inspired now, I give another tentative heave and somehow the rod comes free from wherever it is stuck and with extreme care I slowly play my long-lost possession all the way into the margins. After what seems like a lifetime, I reach out and grab the end of it and hoist it on to the bank most gratefully.

The rod and reel are quite intact apart from being thoroughly coated in bright green slime. I am sure that with some serious TLC I will be able to get them cleaned up and ready for action before too long.  When the Baliff appears that morning I can’t wait to show him my latest catch and we spend some time laughing and discussing how much of a jammy so and so I am.

Very happy to be reunited with my rod and reel, I stay on at the lake until lunchtime that day, simply enjoying myself by basking in the autumnal sunshine, observing the nuances of the water and vaguely planning my next trip in a few days’ time. Despite the lost fish l am already content with my session and I concede to myself that with all the disturbance the chance of another fish is unlikely.

A belligerent beast – this brute had some serious power

Just as I am packing up however, I have a savage take from the far willow spot. The most belligerent beast of a fish is responsible and it proceeds to give me a dramatic tussle, firstly by snagging me up for ages and then by utterly destroying that massive bed of lilies I mentioned earlier with some relentlessly powerful wallowing runs. Eventually it all comes together and I land a bristling brute of a carp that is well over thirty pounds. I am chuffed to say the least.

What with the storm, the rediscovered rod and a good fish in the net, it had been quite an adventure. As I make my way home that afternoon pootling down country lanes, I smile to myself. As usual I can’t wait until next time.