The Lure of the Lost Monster
Story and Photography by Bob Salisbury
One of my favourite places to fish when I started angling was a disused canal which threaded through the local countryside near where I lived. Most people imagine canals as trenches of water, with tow paths, dug in straight lines to move heavy loads of coal or iron by barge and many are indeed like that. This one wasn’t. It was narrower than normal, followed the contours of the hillside in a series of curves and wider bends and was divided every half mile or so, by locks which enabled the craft to negotiate the changes in levels. Its usefulness declined with the coming of the railways and eventually it was left to nature and became a series of linked open ponds, overgrown with water lilies and reed beds. It became totally silted up in places.
As part of a transport system the canal was useless but as a place to fish it was priceless and largely undisturbed. The roach, bream, perch and pike flourished. Though these species made great fishing, the star performers were the tench, which thrived in the ideal habitat of dense vegetation, muddy bottoms and ample feeding. On summer evenings legions of them could be seen bumbling about under the lily pads, their meanderings traced across the surface by the occasional glimpse of a dark dorsal fin. Some were very big fish, specimens almost certainly and though most of these giants lived in parts of the canal which were totally ‘unfishable’ because of surface vegetation, occasionally one of the monsters was landed and admired.
As a boy, catching one of these big tench became somewhat of an obsession and towards the end of one closed season I devised a plan to make this ambition a reality. With an improvised grappling hook and length of rope I cleared a stretch of the overgrown canal, hauling out mountains of rushes, water lilies and tangled roots to create a twenty yard area which I felt would be wide enough to fish. Initially the cleared patch looked dreadful, like an industrial scar, with heaps of rotting vegetation on the bank, slimy alluvial mud everywhere and water the colour of ox- tail soup. Happily things soon settled down and phase two of my plan could then get underway. Mounds of butcher’s rusks, red worms from the muck heap and surplus maggots and chrysalis from the fishing shop were dumped into the cleared patch each day and soon, when the sun hit the water, sizeable dark shapes could be seen cruising across the newly created pool.
‘The fish surged across the front of the pool. . .’
Things looked good and on the first day of the season I was there at daybreak setting up the float and tackle with growing excitement. It was a glorious June morning the sun was already lighting up the water and I could see fish moving. The porcupine quill float, which until that point had been motionless on this windless morning, suddenly twitched, bobbed across the surface and finally shot away into the depths. The light rod almost bent double, great muscular jolts jarred the split cane and line ratcheted out from the head of the fixed spool reel. The fish surged across the front of the pool and its huge body was twice the size of any I had previously seen. I knew instantly that this was a very special tench. Two more uncontrollable runs, a great boil as the fish rolled on the surface and then the awful realisation, as the line went limp and the rod straightened, that this much anticipated battle was over prematurely.
I caught several good tench that day and many more from the same spot over the next few years, but never again encountered the ‘grandaddy’ which I now knew lived somewhere down there amongst the water lilies. At the start of each new season I would be there, hopes high, memories of the ‘big fish’ still fresh in the mind and dreams of a further encounter somewhere along the line. Alas on that favourite canal the golden chance never came again.
Over time, however, what did dawn on me was that in angling it is not the one you catch which keeps you coming back, but the one that got away. The fleeting glimpse you get of that dream fish, the knowledge, through experience, that something exceptional has taken the bait or the fly, is the real motivation which keeps you coming back to try again. Fishermen are eternal optimists, believing that although one fight has been lost the opportunity for success with the fish of a lifetime will, at some time in the future, surely come again.
For three seasons now, the fishing calendar of my angling companion Peter and I has been dominated by our pursuit of estuary sea trout. We have largely forsaken the local brown trout and salmon rivers, extensive loughs and excellent inland fisheries which had previously been our favourite venues, in order to exclusively target these mysterious, migratory fish. Why this transformation has happened is once again primarily down to ‘the one that got away’.
Undoubtedly estuary fishing has many peripheral pleasures such as the scenery and abundant wildlife, but the knowledge that there are runs of very big fish (and we have on several occasions come very close to taking one) is the thing which keeps drawing us back. There is also something incredibly relaxing about gently moving along in a boat, chatting about anything which comes to mind and observing the comings and goings of the birds and animals which frequent these tidal inlets. Mud flats, exposed kelp beds and the edges of the sand bars provide rich feeding areas and shell duck, teal and oyster catchers. The birds are always there in large numbers and seem totally undisturbed by the presence of a passing boat. At times, terns chase the shoals of sprats and for an avid bird watcher, their spectacular, near vertical, dive bombing technique is always something to savour. Seals are frequently seen relaxing on the sandbars and though the scenery and the variety of wildlife do compensate somewhat if the fish are being uncooperative, it is the lure of catching the ‘the special ones which got away’ which makes us return.
‘Big net this time . . .’
On several occasions this season we have caught fish – and have come frustratingly close to catching the big one. Fishing a blue and silver medicine fly in June a fish took the offering in a gentle manner and immediately headed towards the boat. I hauled in the line to keep in contact.
“Small fish,” I said to Peter just before the sea trout realized it was hooked, turned and took off at speed. It suddenly felt like I was attached to the front man of a tug of war team as mighty heaves pounded the rod and the reel sang.
“Big net this time,” I said, changing my mind as the line sliced through the water. A spectacular leap came next, well clear of the water, showing without doubt that we had indeed encountered a very big fish.
“Has to go close to double figures that one,” said Peter unhooking the salmon net from the rail.
Angling books have acres of advice about how to play big, lively fish on light tackle, but the truth is most of the time the eventual outcome is in the lap of the gods. We saw the huge square tail of this one, as big as a man’s hand as he twisted and dived but never really managed to get him under control. He finally made it to a kelp bed, burrowed in, tangled the cast and threw the hook.
We both stood looking at the slack line saying nothing. Sometimes you wish life had a re-wind button but the chance had gone and we set about repairing the cast and fixing on a new fly.
“Some good fish moving over there,” said Peter after a moment or two, pointing at the sizeable arrowhead waves which were scything through the shallow water over the sandbars as the trout hunted the sand eels or sprats.
“We’ll fish down to them with the tide,” he added with the optimism of a true fisherman. “That big boy’s cousin may be about!”