The day dawned grey. The very ground itself looked grey: the green of the grass being so muted by the time of year and the ambient light that colour would have been all but eliminated, were it not for a few brightly painted narrowboats in the foreground. The sky was that shade of grey which you know is going to precede a snowfall. The canal had a partial coating of cat ice, formed overnight, a very thin covering. With the reflections from the sky, even that looked grey. I caught a slight movement amongst the grey on the far bank, some couple of hundred yards away. It wasn't grey, but a brown colour, yet as near to grey as it could be. A herd of six deer. I don't know the species, and although they are rarely so be seen in this spot, there are nearby red deer, and probably fallow and roe as well. These six individuals did not stay in view for more than a couple of minutes, but one by one jumped a fence which was over their head height. They did it so easily, from a standing start, up onto the hind legs and then they just sort of folded themselves over the top wire, making it all look so very easy, immensely graceful with no need for any Fosbury Flop or Western Roll nonsense.
As the deer disappeared into the woods, the snow started. Initially just the occasional tiny flake. These first few fell onto frosty ground, and looking closely at some that landed on dead leaves, it was possible to see the hexagonal basis of their shape. Only a quarter inch or so across, yet on a molecular scale that is a hell of a long way. And for a snowflake to have the six-fold symmetry that was clearly and visibly defying that vast molecular distance between the separate arms is truly a wonder. How does one arm know what the next is doing? Why should it look identical? I have read that for such symmetry to occur and remain as the flake forms, requires very stable air, very uniform conditions at any moment, and right across the space the flake occupies. Every small variation in that uniformity as time passes, leads to a different pattern of crystal growth. So as the flake grows it actually records a mini history of the conditions, and the changes to those conditions as it formed. Few flakes will be totally perfect in all six arms of course ( although many come close), but equally you would find it impossible to find two the same. For each has grown in its own short spell of changing conditions, and each records its own past from birth until it is observed. No two flakes occupy exactly the same spot in the cloud, so no two will have the same history.
So it snowed, a couple of inches falling as I fished, layering the topside of everything: branches,
twigs, landing net, rods and me. Just one missed run from a pike, but until the wind started to strengthen it was quite a pleasant morning. A moorhen chugged past me, snow lying on its back. It must have been at least as well insulated as I was but without the inconvenience of heavy clothing , boots and gloves. Oddly I felt quite warm until I packed up just after lunch, when I realised that the typical English wet snow which lays so heavily on everything, does make me feel quite shivery, and I was quite glad to get back in the car.
The previous fortnight had been a little odd. A few frosts, but in general nothing too extreme. But something seems to have got under the scales of the perch, in that I have stopped catching them. Instead of three or four fish a trip, perch catches have dropped just to a couple over about five trips. One of them was a nice enough fish at 1-14. But it did surprise me somewhat by taking a pike bait. This perch took an eight inch bream: quite a deep bodied fish, the bream, even at that small size. I swear that the perch had a gob even bigger than some of my Liverpudlian friends, and knew equally well how to use it. How this specimen managed to take the bait and still have the strength to pull a fairly large float under, I just do not know. I also have little idea why, during the next four trips the perch all ignored a four inch little rudd, a bait designed specifically for perch, rather than pike.
Having become expert at ignoring the rudd, they then became rather good at ignoring my lobworms. The odd skimmer bream and roach still took the worms, but there might as well not have been a single striped fish in the entire canal system for all the signs I saw of perch.
Pike have proved a little easier to catch, or perhaps rather more difficult to avoid, with about 15 or 16 of them taking perch baits. I had my five a day on two consecutive trips, although there was nothing of a vegetarian nature involved and so my waistline has remained unaffected. Initially when perch were the target I had omitted a trace. I figured that, as I was on a small single hook, any pike biting through the monofilament would not unduly suffer, and would fairly soon shed the hook. But I was not expecting so many pike, maybe the odd one or two. And the pike were not confining themselves to the rudd either. Some of them took lobworms. Believe me, playing a pike of perhaps six and a half or seven pounds on 3 pound nylon, using a light rod fitted with a centrepin reel was quite exciting.
The fish fought more like a summer pike, and with a barge passing by me as I played it, the drama and heart rate rose considerably and in parallel with each other. I actually shouted at the pike to keep to the near bank, and fortunately it did. It honoured and obeyed me far more than the wife ever has. I would have been unable to stop the fish had it made a determined rush for the boat's propeller. On the other rod I had resorted to using a trace with the rudd. No point in being really silly.
Playing that fish came in very useful a couple of days later, when a rather good looking pike of a little over fifteen pounds also took a traceless lobworm bait. This fish fought for less time that the earlier fish, but stayed deep and slow, and I knew it was a fair old fish. Knowing that, and remembering the monofilament end tackle, really affects how one plays a fish. The image of one of those 700 teeth cutting through the line remains in the mind the whole time. There was one other double in my haul, a little smaller, and a fair mix of fish from as little as a couple of pounds up to just under the ten mark.
A wide size range, indicative of a good and healthy population. One fish of about eight pounds though, had a damaged left side jaw. An obvious fishing injury, one created by an angler who had no idea how to treat a pike, and who valued his lure or trace far more than he did the pike. The jaw had quite a flap of loose flesh, and as I looked at it in the landing net, the fish thrashed, and somehow managed to inflict half a dozen small cuts in my finger and thumb. The exposed side of the pike's jaw had also exposed a fair number of its teeth, which caught my hand. Usually it is not until the hook is to be taken out that those teeth need to be watched carefully. The next ten minutes were spent wiping the blood away. The fish, apart from its wound seemed quite healthy, could certainly feed itself, and swam off strongly when released. But I don't like to see pike injured like that. Those that do not know how to handle pike should get a demonstration from an experienced angler before going pike fishing alone. The pike is always in some danger, especially from those who still use anything similar to Mr. Jardine's old snap tackle. A couple of treble hooks deep in a pike are not easy to remove for the inexperienced, and are likely to have barbs ending up near to the delicate blood filled gill filaments. Barbless hooks help, but I do feel that multiple trebles are not a good idea on a deadbait.
I took a day off from the perch, as the rivers had fallen to an acceptable level. Two rods, one for pike which proved to be ineffective, and a grayling rod. Just the one grayling was to take the bait, but the trip was not wasted. Something landed in the willow tree, just to my left, maybe 6 feet away. My head automatically swivelled, and I saw, as it took flight, what I immediately thought to be a nuthatch. Another second of observation though, showed that the orange/brown chest was that of a kingfisher, one which, having been as startled as I was, headed speedily back upstream. Good to see one in February. Still no good photograph though.
Tales From the Riverbank (or Towpath)
I meet a fair few oddballs whilst fishing. Maybe likes attract. Yesterday a cyclist wheeled his bike onto the towpath near me, and settled down onto a memorial bench. I assumed, because of the time, he was going to have lunch. He was, although I had not expected it to be a 500cc can of Boddington's. Initially he was quiet, but then became noisy and rather over-friendly. It was obvious this was not his first lunch stop. A young lad fishing nearby was initially the target. Various phrases he used were as follows:
"I am one of life's victims."
"Watch out for the Chinese, they are out to wreck the UK"
" See him there ( pointing at me), he is above me". I took this to mean that he thought I was a rung or two higher up the social ladder than he was.
"I am a God" This seemed to go somewhat against his previous statement, unless I too have become a deity whilst I was not looking.
"I am on your side"
He also made reference to a life in which cocaine had played a big part.
The young lad was half amused, half scared and pleaded with me not to leave him alone. A friendly drunk, whom I dismissed as harmless, but I did worry whether he might fall into the water if he tried to get on his bike. Luckily he didn't, but walked along the canal pushing the cycle, and shouting other phrases at various passers by. It all helps to pass the blank days.
The other situation was rather odd too. Over a few trips there has been a dog, near to a boat on the far bank. The dog seems to incessantly watch me. It stands there, paws on the very edge, and stares at me. For hours at a time. Another boater mentioned to me that it was a fishing dog. Apparently the boat owner, some evenings, casts out a pike bung, which the dog watches, and on seeing a run, the dog barks so as to drag the guy away from his TV, to get him to come out of the cabin and strike the pike. The dog did seem at times to be watching my float! The second boater mentioned that the dog's owner was a serious angler, who fished all over the world, and even made fishing DVDs. He was called Pete Drabble, the eel man. I said I thought I recognised the name Drabble, but the eel man was surely Barry McConnell. (Barry is fairly local). Ah yes, said the second boater, those two are great mates. Coincidences all round: Barry fishes, or fished the Cheshire Meres for eels. I did fish for eels myself on the Meres some years before Barry, although with not quite such spectacular success. But the interesting part is that Pete has a fishing dog that gets him out of bed whenever a fish bites. Is that not cheating? I hope to see that in action one evening. Life at times just gets very weird. It will be nice if it continues to do so.