I had made a pledge to myself that through the winter months I would fish at least one night a week regardless of weather or temperature. Unless the lake froze over I would be there, come wind, rain, ice or snow. In my previous fishing life, before my long hiatus from piscatorial activities, I rarely angled during the winter. I would occasionally be tempted by a spot of Pike fishing but I found it all a bit too cold to appreciate as much as I could have.
During my time away from the water’s edge I was thoroughly besotted with my martial arts training. I lived in a small flat close to the shore in Brighton and having no garden to speak of meant that I was in my local park every day, usually at dawn, running through my Tai Chi forms and a myriad of related practises. As the years went by I became deeply appreciative of, and considerably more resilient to, the colder months. Each season has its own pace and particular feeling; with winter comes a beautiful kind of stillness that is all too easy to miss if you do not enter into nature enough to fully experience it.
The evolution of my resilience turned out to be quite fortuitous. A couple of years after I returned to angling I was inadvertently forced into embracing winter nights on the bank in the fullest sense. With the tumultuous end of a long-term relationship I was left for a time without anywhere to stay close enough for me to continue with my work. The waterside seemed the natural choice so for the best part of that December I ended up living by one of my favourite lakes, residing quietly under the shelter of my light-weight oval brolly. Fortunately it was mild for the time of year, I don’t think it ever went much below 8 degrees. All in all it was quite balmy.
What I initially thought would be a hardship turned out a great solace and I would always look forward to returning to the reassuring quietness of lake and the familiarity of my little camp during this period of personal upheaval. An added boon was that one of the places I was teaching at the time was a swanky health club and part of my remuneration consisted of full use of the facilities. This certainly came in handy; when I wasn’t fishing or teaching I could while away the hours sitting in the Jacuzzi or steam room (and keep my personal hygiene up to speed). Needless to say, I came to foster a deep love of winter carp fishing and with all those nights on the bank I enjoyed some superb fishing without ever really meaning to. I have found that such is often the way.
Everything turned out just fine in the end, much better than I could have had hoped for in fact, and these days I look forward to my winter carp fishing immensely. The banks are deserted for the most part and I find it incredibly peaceful. Once the weed has died back and all the leaves have fallen from the trees, you get to witness the water in its most naked form; here you can learn its secrets and come to know its bare bones. What a chilly privilege this is. It can be challenging fishing but some glorious moments are there to be had if you can embrace the season with open arms. For by engaging fully with what is in front us in the present moment, one distinctly paves the way for what lies ahead.
As I make my way to the lake, meandering down dark, pot-hole ridden lanes deep in the Sussex countryside, it is raining persistently. The car thermometer tells me that it is 4 degrees. It is a night fit for neither man nor beast, as my Dad used to say.
I finished teaching at 7.30pm and bidding farewell to my students, who are most likely going home to warm, cosy houses, I make my way to my car, all pre-packed and ready to go for the night ahead of me: a night of winter Carp fishing.
Gradually the town gives way to countryside as I head north across the downs. It is quiet on the roads with just the steady stream of rain drops glinting in the headlights. As I drive past the lane that leads down to my own cosy little cottage, I know my family will be settling in for the night, the wood-burner glowing in the corner and a pan of something tasty on the stove. The kids will be getting ready for bed, no doubt larking about in the way that children do before it is time to sleep. I am tempted diverge from my course and ensconce myself in the welcoming warmth and comfort of home. Instead I forge on ahead into the rain, the wind and the darkness.
I pull in to the car park around 8.15pm and turn off the engine. As expected, it is empty. No one else will be fishing tonight; the crowds of fair weather anglers who jostled against each other so noisily during the heady days of summer are long gone, a mere distant memory. And that is how I like it.
Sitting quietly I compose myself and start to consider the options as the car engine cools and ticks. The rain has stopped, which is a blessing, and there is a bit of wind blowing from the north. The thermometer now says 2 degrees. It is pitch black outside; this is not the time to go poking around the water in search of likely spots or roaming fish. Instead, I have to use my intuition and watercraft.
I conduct a mental review. The lake’s northern bank is heavily tree-lined and out of bounds for fishing. At either end are feeder streams that steadfastly replenish the body of water. They breathe new life blood into the lake, especially in winter when the rain is so prevalent. The tangled mass of overhanging branches and protruding roots that dominate this bank extend well out into the water and provide an area of sanctuary for the carp all year-round and despite comprising the shallow end of the lake also offer a comfortable shelter from winter’s chill wind. I know this for I have seen them there, the carp. They drift almost imperceptibly like grey ghost ships silently navigating the maze of roots and branches that permeate their home and all at a snails’s pace so slow that you could easily mistake the beautiful beasts for inanimate objects suspended mid-water.
In the overgrown corner where the eastern bank meets the north there is a small swim adjacent to one of the feeder streams. In the warmer months it is smothered with lilies and any big carp, infused with the unstoppable raw power that comes with summer, will give any unsuspecting angler a tough deal there. With myriad underwater obstacles, matted lily stems, tree roots and dangling branches, it is a tricky task to bank a fish even if one is deft enough to connect in the first place.
I picture the swim in my mind and filter current conditions into the image. I know it will be sheltered from the elements and thus provide refuge for myself during the course of the night and maybe, just perhaps, a good carp.
As I get out of the car the chill engulfs me but it is not unpleasant: a fresh, airy crispness with the underlying scent of nature’s cleanliness, as if the whole world has been thoroughly washed by the rain. I embrace the cold and take a deep lungful of air. Upon exhaling, the billowing cloud that comes forth never seems to end but when it does I am ready to go.
It is likely to get colder tonight, perhaps going down to minus 2, but I feel no aversion to the prospect: hot and cold, fast and slow, big and small, comfort and discomfort, day and night, good and bad; all things shape each other endlessly. If you can’t embrace the whole spectrum of life you are trapped, accept it however and you head toward freedom.
Having said that, I am no masochist. I am wearing suitable attire both under and over my usual fishing garb: a snug Merino wool base layer underneath and an incredibly cosy woolen jumper over the top. As usual my woolly grey hat adorns my bonce and my indefatigable Australian work-boots, soft and sturdy, protect the earth end. I shoulder my gear, minimal, people tell me, when compared to other anglers, and I carefully pick my way through a long dark tunnel of old rhododendrons down to the far end of the lake.
It is navy blue-dark as I softly squelch along the bank, the sound of my viscous footsteps seeming loud in the silent December night. The wind has dropped and bright stars are starting to peep out from behind the waning clouds. I pause for a moment and look up at the pin-hole lights that are so inconceivably far away. I listen and all is still. Just the drip-drip remnants of the rain punctuates the silence coupled with the odd rustle of leaves as the dying wind caresses what it can find with its airy fingers. It is wonderfully dark and peaceful.
I carry a high-tech head torch but I hardly ever use it. Over the years my night vision has developed considerably both through deliberate training and simply as a by-product of spending lots of time outside in the dark. I find that if I turn my head torch on I actually see much less amongst all that dazzle. I’m pretty sure the fish do not care for it either.
I approach the corner swim as quietly as possible for any fish likely to make it onto the bank this night will already be there, the last thing I want is to do is disturb them. It is often the smallest and simplest things, like being very quiet, that make the biggest difference in fishing. It doesn’t bother me too much whether I catch or not, simply being alone on the bank at night is a great adventure in itself and the novelty never wears off because it is always different. It is however always an added bonus to come face to face with a willing leviathan.
Crouching behind the bank-side trees I slowly lower my gear to the ground. I can hear the feeder stream gurgling away in the corner. At this point I am ravenous and as I get my tackle together I do so between mouthfuls of supper. Even my chewing seems loud in the quietness of the night.
I know this swim well and there is a good chance that I can present my baits in likely spots beneath the over hanging trees and bushes. I don’t have to cast far, just as couple of well placed under-arm swings. One bait goes out easily, about 15 yards to my right next to some overhanging bushes and beside the last vestiges of an old lily bed. This is near to where the feeder stream spills out and despite being the end of December the little area has a distinct feeling of life because of that trickling flow. It is a likely spot.
The other bait requires a more discerning cast for ideally I want it to land in a tiny, clear bay underneath an overhanging tree some 30 yards away. I know the feeling of the distance well but I clip up my line to where I have carefully marked it on a previous trip just in case. I use an old oak on the far bank as a reference; there is a bright white patch of bare wood where a limb has fallen and this hovers directly above where I want my bait to land. It is easy to make out its glow in the night. Again, I want to hit the spot first time. On most of the lakes I fish, frequent casting disturbs and perturbs the fish and a good cast first time will weigh the odds greatly in my favour. This a desirable outcome but if one is not careful it can create a psychological pressure adding unwanted tension to body and mind that is likely to hinder the act of casting itself.
I find my footing on the edge of the wet bank and steady myself; I check my weighting and balance and lower my centre of gravity a little. Gazing into the distance, I swing the weight back and forth a few times finding a relaxed and easy rhythm. I focus my intent on the distant spot and breathe. There is an optimum internal condition for which I am waiting to arrive, it comprises the fusion of a steady body position, the smooth feeling of the swinging weight, crystal clear intent and my breath. I wait for it to come and come it does. As I inhale, my body sinks and loads in preparation to release the weight and my mind only sees the target. Exhaling, I bounce the weight up and out into the cold night air. Immediately I know it is an accurate cast and yet I keep my gaze fixed on the spot as if I can further guide the accuracy of the bait as it flies on its way through the ether. It lands with a satisfying plop and I feel the lead meet the lake bed. Job done.
I finish setting up and soon I am reclining under the low shelter of my oval brolly with the kettle on the stove. I am tucked up in amongst the bushes and as close to my rods as I can be, for when fishing close to snags it is necessary to respond immediately if one should receive a take, even in the winter when Carp are not at their most powerful.
My old bed-chair is familiarly comfortable as I stretch out in my warm sleeping bag and gaze across the water. Sipping my tea, a Tawny Owl hoots loudly from the tree above me and another answers from across the lake: ‘kee-wick!’ This continues for some time, they seem to be having a noisy debate. I’m happy to listen and occasionally I feel the need to join in so I mimic their calls and receive the odd confused reply: ‘Terwoo?’ A scuffling sound close by draws my attention down to my bag on the floor. A bank vole is rallying to and fro collecting crumbs of pastry left over from my supper, which has now become his supper. He is quite safe next to me but if he is not careful he might become supper for someone else tonight, one of those owls perhaps.
In the stillness of winter there is plenty of movement and life to be found if you care to be aware. The innate quiescence of the season actually amplifies any sound or motion in much the same way that the surface of a lake, when completely still, can make even the tiniest ripple seem like a tidal wave.
The owls eventually quieten down and I drift off to sleep. At around 2am something wakes me, maybe a deer or a badger creeping past. I can’t see anything in particular but am aware of some scuffing shuffling in the leaf litter of the woods behind me.
I was about 12 years old when I started my solitary night fishing adventures and to begin with such night time noises scared the life out of me. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I have always had very sensitive hearing. One dark night, way back in the early days, I was convinced someone was creeping up on me, for steadily coming along the bank was the lurching sound of ponderous footsteps. My adrenaline flowed as I prepared myself to come face to face with whoever, or whatever, was responsible.
The noise came to a stop just outside my old fishing umbrella and I risked a cautious peak around the side. To my great disbelief all that was there was a tiny wood-mouse. He looked up at me unperturbed and I peered down at him with great relief. And then, just like that, he carried on his merry way hopping along the bank like a small Kangaroo. Each time he landed in the leaves it sounded just like a human footstep in the deep quietness of the night. After this ridiculous episode I was never bothered by night time noises again!
I adjust my position a little and with my head at a certain angle I can see the stars up through the trees, framed perfectly by the twigs and branches. It is a beautiful image than no photograph could do justice to. Stars offer a clean and distant light, they say nothing but speak volumes. I take great pleasure gazing at them for some time and slowly I drift off to sleep.
Dawn in Winter is a much gentler affair when compared to the warmer months. Now a dim light rapidly encroaches on the night and all I can hear in the way of birdsong is a Robin nearby, some raucous Rooks in the distance and the odd clatter of a Cock Pheasant who is making such a fuss that it sounds like some great drama is unfolding in his world. The sky has clouded over with a smooth, uniform greyness that has insulated the world and increased the temperature by a few degrees. I put the kettle on the stove and survey the lake. My rods have remained motionless through the night but there is still plenty of time for something to happen.
It is damp and still. The musty, woody smell of leaves and earth along with the lake’s unique winter perfume fills my nostrils and I breathe deeply. I have a good feeling about today but then I almost always have a good feeling when I’m fishing. Looking across the lake, my first cup of tea tastes divine and I can feel the gentle stimulation of the caffeine starting to course through my veins.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I see the line tighten up on my right hand rod, the one next to the feeder stream, and I am on it in instantly. Picking up the rod I am met with a living heaviness that is already well on its way around the overhanging bush to the stream and a whole host of savage snags. I plunge the rod tip into the water and apply some side-strain and in doing so I project my senses all the way down through the line to feel the precise trajectory of the fish, for my angle of pull must be be exactly right to turn the beast in time. It is a bit like being attached to a small, sleepy Bull who requires accurate and gentle coaxing, rather than brute force, to be led where you want him to go.
The fish turns and I am relieved, but then heads out toward the tree roots of the north bank. It isn’t far and I have to very careful. As soon as the fish decides a course I must respond before it has finished making the decision. If my awareness is late and my mind sluggish, my action will be inappropriate and ineffective. Again, I manage to turn the fish and in doing so I gain some line. The fish wallows heavily on the lake bottom like an undulating lead balloon and I move over to the far left hand side of the swim to get a better angle on what’s what.
As I do so I lift my other rod off its rests and lay it down low in the margins so that it is out of the way. The last thing I want is for the fish to get tangled in my other line. Then I grab my substantial landing net and similarly lay it low in the water so that it is ready and inconspicuous for when the time comes. The little lead Bull on the end of my line is still wallowing and I apply just a touch more pressure and manage to ease him back a few yards. He comes to the surface, turns over and dives back down slowly flashing his ample flank at me. I see that it is a Mirror carp and a good one too; I take a deep breath and exhale slowly.
Squatting down gives me a better angle, especially when turning the fish and I gradually make some headway. It seems painstakingly slow but eventually I draw the fish over to where the pre-submerged net lies concealed and nicely out of the way on the lake bed. In one smooth action I coax the fish the last couple of feet toward me and lift the net underneath him. It is done!
I peer into the net and am pleased with what I find; a broad backed mirror is waiting there.
I remove the hook while the fish is in the net, it seems small and insignificant in that cavernous, leathery mouth. Barbless, it comes out effortlessly. I secure the fish in the net allowing it to rest in the deepest margins while I prepare my gear to take some photos.
I do not always weigh my fish but this one is substantial and I’d like to know what it goes for my records. Fate, it seems, will not allow for it and I discover that I have left my scales at home. But it doesn’t matter, I know the fish is well over thirty pounds.
With the pictures over I cradle the fish in the water watching captivated as its gills slowly work, opening and closing as the creature steadies itself. Then, after a few moments and with the slightest motion of its fins, it pulls away from my gentle caress and out into the depths, a grey ghost ship once more. I watch after the fish for some time as it slowly dissolves into its watery surround. I rest there, sitting on bank, and simply enjoy the moment. With the sun starting to filter though the clouds, I breathe easy and reflect on how wonderful it is to be here now.