CHAPTER 5 – GOOD DAYS, BAD DAYS
Walking On Water
Two anglers marched purposefully down the beach towards the water. Arriving at the foamy boundary dividing land from the ocean, they did not break stride as they waded out towards a destination seemingly beyond the horizon. Floundering in their wake I struggled to keep pace, fighting waves with chest waders tailored to fit the ‘Michelin Man, with increasing doubts as to the wisdom of our actions. Had there been onlookers at such an early hour, they might have interpreted the sight of 3 rubber-suited men striding into the surf at dawn as some sort of ritualistic suicide pact. As the water passed my midriff and the currents tried to wash me up the coast I wondered if such an interpretation might be close to the truth. As my distance from the beach increased I checked my life jacket for the location of the inflation toggle — just in case. In my mind I drew up a list of TV news soundbites that might be used to describe our seemingly imminent disappearance: ‘utter madness; ‘accident waiting to happen’, and ‘when will they ever learn’ came quickly to mind.
My companions, Julian and Mike, were 30 yards ahead of me, yet as they progressed further away from the shoreline they began to rise from the sea. Soon, only their feet remained submerged as foamy waves broke over a submerged gravel bar. My doubts vanished. The offshore shingle bank Julian had described was not a myth. I was wrong to have doubted my companions. Neither is a risk taker, but to be able to stand on top of the ocean so far away from the beach seemed to defy logic.
Safe on the bank, we edged cautiously around, mapping its dimensions. Three sides of the feature shelved gently as the waves pushed the shingle towards the shore. The side bordering the mouth of a river however, dropped steeply into 7 feet of water where the push of the coastal currents collided with the flow of the river. The point where the energy in the freshwater flow exceeded that of the sea resulted in the sudden drop off. The area where the currents cancelled each other out pushed up the bank on which we stood. Well aware of my proven ability to fall into water, I took up position on the front of the feature, a safe distance from the drop off.
The glow of the imminent sunrise slowly climbed the sky behind the outline of the dark mountains to my rear. Mike, who had chosen to cast parallel to the shore from the side of the bank, was silhouetted against reflection of the glow in the sky. The image was already interesting, and seemed certain to become spectacular when sky and broken clouds fully ignited. Leaving my camera on the shore no longer seemed the good idea it had been 10 minutes ago. Without it I had reasoned I would be more mobile, and have nothing to worry about (apart from my own mortality) if swamped by a wave. Besides, given my low level of optimism for shore fishing and Julian’s plan, I doubted I would need the camera to witness any captures anyway.
Pessimism about my chances of catching stemmed from the fact that I was in the water, not on it. The sea, although hardly wild, was too rough to launch the boat on this treacherous coastline, and to me fishing from the shore a poor second to getting the boat out over the reef. An appropriate motto for fishing this reef seems to be, “if you can launch, you can catch.” Having got up at 5.00am to discover a force 5 had scuppered our chances of launching, I was not going to go back to bed without having first vented my frustration by hurling a plug at the breeze and the waves for the hour around high tide.
I stared longingly towards an area of sea 80 yards further out. My limited experience of fishing from the boat had already taught me this was where the bass were likely to be. The tried and trusted plugs in the front pocket of my chest waders would cast no more than 30 yards into the onshore wind. Half a dozen casts with my two most successful patterns proved this accurate.
Rummaging in the pocket for inspiration, I found an unused 60-gram Bass Bullet still wired to its cardboard packaging. It lacked the attractiveness and subtlety of the works of art created by Scandinavian and American craftsmen, yet its weight and density provided my only hope of getting near the broken ground and the bass. I flung the lead filled lump of wood towards Ireland, in hope rather than expectation.
To my left Julian too seemed to be having problems with finding a suitable lure. Each time I glanced his way, his head was looking down at the small box into which he had thrown his choice lures before we had dashed to this beach. The wind and the noise of the sea swept our words away as we tried to communicate, yet he looked up and nodded approvingly when the bass bullet flew high and far out to sea, more than doubling my previous casting range.
Settling into a rhythm of cast and retrieve I began to think that this is a most satisfying way to fish — then I have always found fishing with my body immersed in the water brings more pleasure than fishing with my feet on the land. Standing in the waves I was a step further away from the world I sought to escape from, and a step nearer the world I wished to connect with. When you combine wading with plug fishing, and undertake them in a mountain-bordered bay at sunrise in late summer, catching seems almost an irrelevant.
The ability to appreciate the subtle joys encountered when fishing for (as opposed to catching) bass, was something I had become something of an expert at over the past 25 years. Although my time fishing for bass had been limited to holidays by the sea, the total bass I had caught up to the beginning of this summer amounted to two. I was either the unluckiest or the worst bass fisherman in the country, but bass fishing to me however is not about catching — if it were Id have given up years ago. My saltwater holiday fishing forms an interlude from my regular freshwater angling, and is as much a part of my fishing year as tench fishing is in June, or pike fishing is in the depths of winter.
Only over the past year or two had my pursuit of a bass become more serious (and a little more frequent). Fishing had become more planned and less opportune as I decided my trips would be more enjoyable if now and again I caught. So I ganged up with Julian, who had track record in bass catching somewhat more impressive than mine, and we managed to negotiate a few weekend trips to the sea. No longer was I fishing on holiday, now I was holidaying to fish.
In the 20 days leading up to this particular trip, I had finally caught – my first bass for 15 years — in fact I had caught ten, all on plugs from a boat. Despite this, I still felt a need to catch one from the shore. Almost all of my bass fishing over the years had been from rocks and beaches, so somehow these recent fish, although joyously received, did not properly count.
Retrieving the bass Bullet in fits and starts, I tried to give it the semblance of life its design failed to impart. “Think like a fish” were the words I recalled from old angling mentors, as I wondered whether a slow or a fast retrieve was best. Yet my limited knowledge of the brain of the fish left me wondering whether some of the empty headed, open mouthed anglers encountered over the years had possibly taken this advice a bit too literally.
A jolt went through me. The shock shifted my perspective as the rod dipped towards the horizon and line began to give from the reel. The bass I had caught in the past month had been caught on this rod and weighed to over 5lb, but none had affected the rod’s form the way this fish was doing. After two runs out to sea my opponent kited to my right and pulled line steadily from the spool, despite a well set drag. I applied more force, which swung the fish round, but it did not stop its run. The fish was soon nearer to the shore than me, heading into an area where the tops of rocks had stuck out of the water on our arrival at the beach. Conscious of the dangers that submerged boulders posed to my line and having spent much of the summer attempting to keep tench out of lily beds, I tried to stop the run through the application of finger pressure on the spool. The bend in the rod increased further, then the rod sprang back. The lifelessness brought despair.
If fishing takes you out of the modern world, this angling incident can remove all traces of civilization from you. I yelled a diabolical expletive I would normally be embarrassed to think of, at a volume even a storm force wind could not blow away from my companions. The last minute had changed the whole complexion of the fishing; the subtle joys of wading and beauty of the sunrise suddenly seemed inconsequential in comparison to the pleasures found and then lost. Julian offered his condolences. Unable to look up I said, “That was a big fish.” “I know,” said Julian before retreating back to his fishing spot.
Having witnessed this encouraging site Julian and Mike began to cast with renewed vigour. I reeled in 50 yards of line to discover the plug was still attached and paused to examine the hooks. Even Izaac Walton’s affirmation for times such as these “No man can lose what he never had” seemed as hard to swallow as the fishing hardware I was staring at.
All fishermen eventually work out that lost fish are inevitable and are part of the mystery of angling. John Gierach stated, “Fishing is a test of character but it’s a test you can take as many times as you want.” After so many retakes over so many years, my chance to pass had finally come, but I had failed big time; I had lost contact with more than a fish, I’d lost my philosophical outlook.
As the tide rose to knee-level and the waves washed us around, Mike then Julian began to catch. They had discovered some Brindun Launces of Mike’s; small spoons made from solid metal that enabled a 50-yard cast. The bass were school fish of between 2 and 3lb. Even the dark cloud above my head could not hide their magnificence, as the rays of the recently risen sun exploded against their scales.
Our hopes peaked with the high water but no more fish were caught. Thirty minutes on and we were contemplating breakfast, but decided on a further fifteen minutes, more as a guarantee that the water had retreated far enough to prevent us getting swamped when wading back to shore, rather than the usual ‘one more cast’ syndrome.
Forty yards out a bull seal stuck its head out of the water, looked at me then snorted. Still smarting from my loss, I flung my plug in the general direction of my mocker. ‘Where there are seals there are fish’ I reasoned. The seal ducked beneath the surface as the bass Bullet flew over his head and landed 15 yards beyond. After 4 turns of the reel handle the rod was pulled over. Julian, who had seen my cast, gave me a look of incredulity, alarmed at the possibility that I might have just connected with a bass fisher three times my weight and 3 million times my ability.
The creatures on each end of the fishing tackle pulled with equal force and stalemate ensued. The impasse only lasted but a couple of seconds, yet the fear I might have hooked something unintended was sufficient to slow down time (in the way a football bound for a greenhouse does when you watch it). Then relief, as the force exerted against me lessened and my adversary kited to the right in the way that the fish before had done. After the earlier reminder that the gap between euphoria and despair is the thickness of a fishing line (or the firmness of a hook hold,) I treated this fish with excessive respect, even though it wasn’t fighting with as much power as the one hooked earlier.
Five minutes later the battle was nearly over. I was ready to beach the fish on the bar, which now stood clear of all but the biggest waves. As the bass thrashed in the shallow water, Julian swooped like a bear. At the same instant the fish was raised clear of the water, I disappeared into it, slipping off the bar into the deep water, having taken one backward step too many. As I crawled out of the water on all fours, dripping with water and weed, I smiled at the sight of the bass clutched safely to my friend’s chest.
Lacking both camera and scales I had a brief temptation to take the fish home — more as proof to my wife and children that I could actually catch a bass, than through a primitive desire to feed them. Recollections of my letters to various politicians about the state of the European bass stocks made me realize that I had to be faithful to my principles, and I ensured that this mature fish remained in the sea. Measuring 67cm and given its build, I estimated its weight as 7lb. A fine fish, though no monster by most anglers reckoning. Yet pounds and inches as a measure of success in fishing might be convenient units for comparison between anglers, but I’ve always believed success is best measured subjectively, through the size of the memories rather than the size of the catch.
That evening the sea was still rough and I returned to the beach to fish the high water, with high hopes and the camera. I met a dog walker who had seen us fishing on the bar in the morning. He said, “You looked like you were walking on water out there.” Less than 12 hours after ending my shore bass fishing jinx I believed I could improve on it, but the angling gods were observant that day. It took them just one cycle of the tide before they tripped me up and kicked me for good measure. As we sought to repeat our feat on the bar with the high tide approaching, I received a dunking — brought about through increased swell and an increased tide, and my own complacency. The water washed away any grandiose ideas and flooded the camera.
Over the next two days and the following weekend I caught and saw many more bass. It was a feast to follow the famine. Or to put it another way, you wait 15 years for a bass, then 30 come along at once.
The winter storms washed away the gravel bar and to date it has not reformed. This adds to the worth of that day, as the most treasured experiences in life are unique.
Author: Matthew Spence
Historical note: This article first appeared in BASS magazine no.100 Autumn 2001.
© Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society 2008