Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Enchanted Lake

The Enchanted Lake.

"There's a lot of water to cover so we best just walk and leave the rods behind" said my new friend Ian, offering to acquaint me with some of my new angling club's lakes and their stretch of the River Frome. "Of course, we'll have to park at the pub... and I could even show you my secret syndicate lake". Well, what's the point in having a secret if you can't tell anyone?! I appreciated the gesture enormously. I am not new to the area but have returned here to the West Country after just shy of twenty years away and am determined not to spend the next twenty reliving my childhood and so, whilst I am a sucker for a bit of nostalgia from time to time, I concede that treading new ground is the only way forward.

It wasn't until late spring that we finally managed to make it to the lake. It was as if all the obstacles to us visiting earlier in the year were placed in our path intentionally to delay my debut until the full glory of the season was upon us. As we emerged through the treelined track, scattered light from the low morning sun rendered an impressionistic picture of a microcosm of paradise, mist-draped water, laden in lilies and enshrouded in dense woodland.
We really were in the middle of nowhere. There was no noise from traffic or trains, just the antiphonal menagerie of birds and the distant gurgling of falling water from beyond the dam wall. Then Ian spoke the magic words "I've never seen another angler on the bank here", which constituted an even greater incentive than the prospect of giant uncaught crucians and wily scaly carp, the latter of which could be seen milling around in the upper layers, some frolicking in the weed.

So I set about joining the small syndicate which only has a handful of members, most of whom live far away and seldom visit. Fortunately my application was accepted and apparently assisted by my leaning towards a traditional approach which is favoured by the owners.
I came home from work one evening to find an envelope on the door mat, containing a key which formally represented my right of access to the lake. That night sleep was hard-earned. I awoke from one parallel piscatorial Utopia, thanks to the cursed cackling of crows, as the sun was little more than a suggestion of dawn on the horizon and decided there was time before work to begin making these dreams a reality.

Swallow feeding on insects over the water.
I arrived at the lake suited and booted, aesthetically and mentally braced for another day dealing with the stresses of teaching in a challenging Bristol school. Though it felt therapeutic to be in a natural setting at a time when I would normally be beginning the tedious commute, my walk around the lake's surrounding woodland was disappointingly purposeful - a task to achieve within a deadline to avoid facing certain consequences. However, with this attitude I did the circuit in good time and when I came to a fishing platform on the final stretch of my mission I realised I had a full thirty minutes just to sit, be still, breath and watch the swallows and house martins swooping over the water. Finally the therapy commenced.
An array of traditional tackle
I returned again as the sun rose on Saturday. Earlier in the week in an online conversation, another member had spoke of the unstoppable power of the carp and how they were almost impossible to land. Having caught a fair number of sizeable carp in my time I arrogantly dismissed this quandary and proceeded to cast a free-lined crust into one of the larger clearings between sets of lilies. The carp were mostly said to be doubles with the potential for some upper twenties but I was sure I could tame a fish of this size on my fairly sturdy fibreglass Bruce and Walker rod and ever-reliable Mitchell reel sporting a full spool of 10lb fluorocarbon line. It wasn't long before a broad-shouldered mirror sucked in my hook bait and unleashed all hell. For a fish which appeared merely to be an upper double at best, its power was imperceivable. I could not turn it, stop it or even encourage it to kite around. It tore line from the spool in spite of the clutch being set quite tight and my thumb pressing against it hard. There was no stopping it from reaching the sanctuary of the lilies where when reached, the line pinged and the fish got away.

It was some time before I stopped shaking. Perhaps I had been too quick to disregard the warning I had been given. Perhaps too there would be a place for my stout carbon carp rods here after all. On my next visit I packed a stronger rod just in case carp caught my attention again but decided to focus for the time being on trying to catch a crucian. To this end in the past, my best results have fallen to bread flake as a hook bait, however here this brought me roach after roach with the occasional Rudd catching it on the drop. A change of tact was in order if a change of species was to occur. I put a little krill paste around the hook and cast to the same spot. Almost immediately, tiny pin-prick bubbles materialised around the tip of my homemade crow-quill lifter float. The following thirty seconds played out according to the text book and as I struck on the lift I connected unequivocally with a crucian. As it spiralled towards the surface, a deep golden brown high-backed beauty revealed itself, possibly pushing towards a pound at a generous guess. As I gleefully reached for the net one last bid for freedom was made resulting in another sudden ping, the cause of which remains a mystery as the line was checked for blemishes before fishing commenced. I watched helplessly as my fish and float disappeared into the depths.
Hurriedly I put on a prized float made by my good friend Graeme Pinkerton. This slider float, designed by another friend, Colin, specifically for crucian fishing in weedy waters was given to me by Graeme when we first met at the magical moat in Hampshire. After checking the line once more and repeating the rigmarole of plumbing perfectly, I cast out again to the same spot. More fizzing appeared and a confident bite ensued. Without further thought I lifted the rod tip and expected a commendable yet inadequate scrap typical of my gentle quarry. Imagine my horror then as an enormous carp rose to the surface and sent my centre-pin spinning. My 4lb line stood no chance and needless to say I have not seen that float since.

The view from my bed-chair! 
I decided to fish through the night in the hope that carp and crucians would face less competition from the roach and rudd once darkness fell. As I would not be able to watch a float throughout the whole night, even with a glow stick attached due to the need to sleep, I decided to put my purist ideals aside and fish one rod on 'the method' for the crucians and the other with a 'wafter rig' on a helicopter setup to overcome the problem of silt, targeting the carp.
By 10pm all remnants of the sun's memory were fading from the horizon and a serene stillness descended upon the water. I settled in my bed chair, which I had set up beneath the stars with no canvas masking my view, and started to submit to inescapable slumber until incongruous shrieking followed by a tawny owl's distinctive hooting alerted me to its silhouette swooping over the lake and up to the branches above where I lay.

Each valiant attempt to return to the land of nod was thwarted by some quite reasonable sized roach with very unreasonable manners! At 1:30am when I was reluctantly recasting the feeder rod in the vain hope that my devotion to the crucian cause would come good, I heard a hellish chattering coming from the other side of the lake. The ungodly cacophony continued, edging ever closer through the undergrowth and as it approached I realised there were two creatures coming towards me at great speed and they sounded angry! Petrified, I hid in my bed as a crescendo of thudding hooves and malicious snarls reached its climax, charging straight past where I lay and diminuendoed into the distance. Relieved it had past I sat up only to find the second creature careering straight for me, stopping less than 2 yards from my face. A magnificent badger stared straight at me, not breaking eye contact though clearly holding the same expression of surprise to see me as I undoubtedly reflected back to him. After an uncomfortable Mexican stand-off my opponent relented, turned about and caught up with his mate by an alternate route. My heart proceeded to palpitate.
By sunrise several more roach had graced my net and a sporadic series of single bleeps on my carp road had been and gone. I reeled in to find the whole hair on my knotless knot had been munched off by some clawed culprit.

A more modern approach.
My next night at the lake followed a similar pattern in terms of the fishing and lack of sleep, though this time due to not to nature but nightmares! As I started to drift off, I am sure I heard an etherial voice singing some kind of atonal operatic aria which was joined by a chorus of the undead formed from the mists which rose from the water. My recollection of the rest is hazy to say the least but needless to say the little rest I received between roach was troubled and tormented. As I wound in my bait-less rigs at first light, I decided to try something a little different as clearly my quarry was not playing ball. I walked to the car and returned with a dropshot rod and made a few speculative casts in hope of an early season sergeant. My first few efforts returned without a touch but before despondence had a chance to set in an unexpected hit came and juddered my rod tip into an impressive arc. I caught sight of a large flash of fish and suspected, at that size and with this amount of force, I might have hooked one of the resident wild trout but as the fish began to tire and approached the net, I realised I had caught quite an impressive perch!

A stripy sergeant!
My next opportunity to fish came the following week. It is worth a mention at this point that, due to being a teacher on summer break, the frequency of my trips is greater than I could ever usually hope for. However, being a committed husband and father with my wife and daughter at home, my trips are considerably shorter than more care-free days gone by, as I desire more greatly than catching all the fish in my dreams, to spend quality time with my family. Therefore, all the tales I tell take place whilst they are sleeping or at times they will miss me the least i.e. overnight or very, very early in the morning so that I can be back in time to spend the best part of each day with them. I hope this serves to demonstrate though, how one can make it work and seize the day if a little sleep can be sacrificed.
I had given considerable thought to the issues I had been facing - namely the presence of unwanted crayfish and the absence of desired crucians. Crayfish, I understand like cover and so I decided, when fishing for carp by night to cast into open water and scatter bait across the general area to encourage them to search and compete for food. With regards the crayfish, this plan worked perfectly as I slept through the night without a single bleep, unfortunately not even from a hungry carp.
Crucians also like cover and although I had been fishing tight to lilies I had had very few indications of their presence. The swims I had favoured had been on the side of the lake that gets the first of the morning sun's rays whilst the other side is enshrouded in shadows until well into the afternoon due to a wooded hill that adjoins its banks. Could it be, I thought, that the crucians feel exposed in the light and that the shaded stretch on the other side provides some additional security? There was only one way to find out! Just before reeling in my carp rods at dawn I sat quietly for a moment and, whilst enjoying my habitual seven strength ground coffee a kingfisher came and perched on my left rod as it sat dormant in its rest. She, I think it was a 'she', just stared at me, occasionally bobbing her head and I stared back enjoying the moment not wanting to ruin it by reaching for my camera. After some time had passed I felt the bird was sufficiently confident in my presence for me to risk it but alas, as I did she inevitably flew away. I took the last sips of my coffee then went over to the dark side! 
The seance commenced as my planchette, a swan quill slider float I fashioned as a replica replacement for the float of Graeme's I lost, cocked slowly into position. Motionless at first, as the world beyond ignored my offering but then, sure enough, faint ripples came to manifest on the surface. Contact had been established. Several times the float lifted slightly and I attempted to connect prematurely. In my zeal I put a larger piece of paste upon the hook and reached out to the hidden world once more. My call was answered but not by my intended recipient. Another roach came to hand, then another and then another. My float danced a merry dance and the koi, cautious bites synonymous with my quarry seemed to have disappeared. I noted the cause and prepared a tiny ball of paste, barely enough to cover the size 14 hook and the careful crucians crept back onto the scene. Unfortunately this meant more missed bites and frustration as the clock ticked past home-time, past 'I can make it if I rush' and into 'go now if you value your life'!

Yet another roach!
Later that week I decided to exchange a nights fishing for a night of photography at Stonehenge. The  climax of the perseid meteor shower was a non-starter due to a completely overcast sky but the following night was perfectly clear and, once on Salisbury Plain, so dark that I could see the entire arc of the Milky Way with my naked eyes. I parked up on the A303 in front of a gate to a farmer's field that I anticipated would not need to be accessed circa midnight and walked up the permissive path which used to be the A344 towards the stones. I was met by a couple of other photographers who were already in position. They greeted me warmly and exchanged tips and anecdotes whilst I busied myself with test shots and fussing with settings. Once I finally began shooting, after taking a few collections of images to be pieced together into panoramas, I was so delighted with the results on the review screen that I didn't dally but rushed home to edit them. I tinkered until two with my cat, Muesli, at my feet enjoying occasional strokes in exchange for top-up trips to his food-bowl. In an attempt to squeeze as much out of life as possible, fully aware that I was burning the candle at both ends of the stick, I set an early alarm and napped until I came to regret my carpe diem moment as it rung out at five then tinkered some more whilst drinking my wake-up coffee. Muesli joined me for a while and then took up his usual spot on the windowsill in our front room from which he 'waved me off' as I then headed back out to fish, arriving at the lake just after six. 

The Milky Way, Mars and Saturn over Stone Henge.
The next few hours were filled once more with continuous catches of roach. I decided not to string it out and headed home with time to spare. I arrived home to be told by my wife that our cat Muesli had suddenly died, just after 8am for no apparent reason. He was only 5 years old and seemingly in good health. The impact of the grief that came over our family at that moment cannot be reduced to words and is still resonating now.
Our cat, Muesli -  R.I.P
I didn't go back to the lake for some time after that. I felt an enormous guilt for not being contactable when my wife had needed me and needed some space just to be sad. I did however venture out for a couple of days to another magical venue - the moat, which restored my confidence in my ability to successfully target crucians!


A crucian from the moat.
I have since returned to the enchanted lake though, as the seasons begin to change, so too do my piscatorial attentions. This place has captured my imagination and, though I have remained spellbound, driven me through obsession and quite close to insanity! Whether it be large, old-stock crucians, brilliant bristling perch, wily carp with the strength of behemoths or even those pesky and persistent yet fin-perfect roach, I'm certain these waters will throw up a number of surprises as I spiral deeper into its depths. 

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