Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Moat


A Palmerston Fort on the south coast of England, built to guard against French invasion at the height of the Romantic era seems an unlikely fantasy even for the most intrepid angler but now derelict, overtaken by nature and forgotten by many, a new allurement has emerged. The focal point of fascination for the piscatorial practitioner is the mystery of the moat, as beneath its watery veil, magical creatures seen elsewhere only in dreams, live out their cloistered existence.
The aforementioned dreams began for me as a small child when visiting my grandparents who lived nearby, we would often pass the Fort in the car. With my nose pressed against the window and my eyes popping out of their sockets, I would stare intently to catch as much of a glimpse as I could, my imagination filling in gaps and then left to wonder…

The excitement was uncontainable when earlier this year, some 30 years after this reverie began, by some improbable alignment of the stars, I found out I would have the privilege of fishing there. What I had not accounted for was that, aside from the fulfilling of childhood dreams, I would forge new friendships with others who share my passion for angling.

Having been granted a whole weekend to explore and to fish, I was intent on making the most of every available moment. Many months before the sacrifice of an early alarm to herald the pilgrimage was even considered, plans were meticulously constructed. Whilst it was dark I would fish for carp using modern methods allowing me to sleep and fish simultaneously. However, every available hour whilst the sun was shining would be spent with a cane rod in hand, eyes fixated on a quill float, waiting for a crucian carp to lift my bait from the bottom and grace me with its presence for a moment on the bank... or at least, that was my hope!

Firm handshakes and anecdotes of anticipation were exchanged between strangers, soon to be comrades, in the pub before setting out in convoy, guided by Mark who manages the water, to the military base which encompasses the Fort. Once passed the armed guards and intimidating naval air craft which adorn the grounds we were given a guided tour of the fishery. Over the weekend I made it my business to listen intently to everything Mark said, and later Dean who is also integral to the Moat's team, to glean any information which may assist me in my quest. 

Having chosen my swim and prepared a bed of bait in two likely spots in a deep channel, I nestled down for the night in front of the keep.


I awoke with the sun and birdsong. A mild disappointment began to take hold as what I thought may have been my prime opportunity to meet with Cyprinus Carpio had passed. As if intentionally to remind me that perpetual optimism is an angler's best friend, my rod tip pulled downwards and my buzzer sounded, causing me to leap up from my sulk, suddenly energised and engaged. Although I was utilising modern methods, by no means does that imply my tackle was excessively stout. On the contrary, my rod played well and cushioned each of the many violent lunges made by the angry carp with which I had connected though perhaps a little more persuading power would have made my job a bit easier...


Having moved to the stretch between the left and central caponiers to fish with my new-found friends and some more long-standing who joined us for the day, I settled in a spot which to my mind looked like it could hold my quarry. Rain came and went alternating with strong sunshine, all the while my float remained stationary giving me time to reflect on the joys of the morning's capture and making of me a prisoner of hope.


Jake was one of the fortunate few who managed to tempt a crucian from its lily-shrouded lair. He has his own story to tell about his grandfather's rod which this catch completes. It was clear that for Jake this was a monumental and magical moment which I felt honoured to share with him as I took care to provide him with photographs with which to remember the occasion. Crucian Carp are commonly described as 'bars of gold' but these moat fish have a quality which is truly unique, dressed in a hue more akin to caramelised butter and an archaic, yet pristine coat of armour. What's more, considering its type, this was a huge token. Jake could have weighed it and earned enormous bragging rights but this was clearly not important to him. The experience was enough and although I could not at that moment comprehend how he might truly be feeling, I know that this is one he will never forget.

Many of us however, returned to our beds for the night without such success. It was a pleasure hearing tales of copius quantities of whiskey consumed beneath the arches of the gun casements, now commandeered  as a club house for those fortunate enough to fish here often but for me the night meant another opportunity to entice a carp to my net, though not before storm-proofing my temporary abode!
I lay awake, listening to the rain as it lashed against my canvas shelter, conflicted in my now contrasting endeavours of catching fish and staying dry. However, a large, hungry, dark mirror carp made the decision for me in the early hours of the morning forcing me to face the last push of precipitation. This was bigger than the common and far chunkier and although not quite as zealous in the water, this was made up for in spades on the bank! Unfortunately I appreciate the effect of a wide aperture, which controls depth of field, in a fishing photo but as a result of pursuing my intended visual effect whilst in a sleepy haze I did not execute it correctly and returning the fish quickly was more important to me than having a good photograph. As ever, the experience itself counts for far more than the preservation of its memory.


Trying to sleep after this was no mean feat! So far I had accomplished one of my goals and was over-the-moon about it but pressure was mounting to find the holy grail and capture a crucian...

My last day had arrived, the clouds cleared and strong coffee was consumed. I walked over to the stretch we had fished the day before and found Lee, Graeme and Tony were already there. I had lovely chats with them each in turn as developing friendships is at least equally commendable an objective as catching a prize fish so did not hurry to get my bait in the water. I say with a degree of sarcasm that unfortunately Jake had had to leave early to attend a Christening, not that I didn't miss his company but I was able now to occupy his swim of the previous days success!

I pinched a small piece of bread around the hook, carefully forming it into the perfect bell shape with nice fluffy bits disguising the point. Every aspect of my fishing was executed in an uncharacteristically calm fashion allowing a perfect cast placing my bait between a bed of lilies and surface weed. Anyone who has ever watched me fishing knows I don't do many perfect casts, not least first time! I sat back in my chair an intently gazed at my homemade porcupine quill float, a little heavy for the job and even though Graeme who is a master float-maker had very kindly given me two of his creations, I persisted to use my own as I knew exactly how to set it without experimentation and craved that sense of satisfaction should I be successful with it attached.


My eyes glazed over and I began to dream of the bright orange tip lifting, pulling the surface film of the water up slightly before revealing the cotton whipping below. The float kept rising and rising and then started to cock to one side before I realised this was not dream but reality! Time slowed and I recalled Mark's advice to lift into the bite at this moment gently and acted accordingly. The rod tip pulled down and a warm rush of blood swept up from my feet to my head causing me to shake with excitement laced with anxiety. I am a recent cane convert thanks to Matthew and Colin who had fished with us the day before and whilst I don't believe it is appropriate for all situations and unashamedly use carbon for the majority of my fishing, I appreciated the sensation, more than ever at this moment, of being able to feel the fish so sensitively through this organic extension of an angler's arm. I am therefore delighted that this encounter, hair raising at times thanks to the many adjacent hazards, was the result of using traditional methods and tackle.


It would seem I must have let out some sort of primal scream to express my utter joy as the most beautiful fish I had ever laid eyes on (yes it does sound like love doesn't it?!) swam into my net, as suddenly I was surrounded by friends. Tony and Graeme rejoiced genuinely in my joy and compounded the feeling enormously. There are no words to describe the emotion. Although so much smaller than the fish I had caught over the previous two nights, this was a rather large example of its species and having tried so hard on previous occasions to no avail, now reaping the rewards of my efforts seemed all the sweeter. 


I did weigh it and was highly satisfied with where the needle came to rest on the dial of my scales but I don't want to reduce this fish to a number. Much like Jake's fish I'm sure, this capture was the completion of my story about the magical moat.

Lee joined the assembly bringing us homemade rock cakes, Tony brought many amusing tales and we shared one last moment together, confirming that our shared experiences had brought us together and deepened our friendships.  My solitary drive home was conducted in silence as my head noisy enough with flashbacks of the last few days. As I approached my village I stopped the car to admire two buzzards hunting together. I had missed my wife and my cats whilst I had been away but now I would be reunited with them, until my next adventure at least. Sometimes, life is very very good.