I was down on the river yesterday afternoon and wandered further down than I have ever gone before, through a field of "setaside", which means that the EU pays farmers to leave it wholly wild. The result is mostly nettles, brambles, thistles and birds of every sort who spring up when I push my way through the waist-high greenery.
Eventually, like stout Cortez, I trampled through to an elbow bend shaded by an alder tree, with sheer banks four feet high. Something whitish and pinky-red unfurled in the water at my feet and I realised I was looking at the tail fin of the biggest wild carp I have ever seen close up. I’d estimate between five or six pounds, though more knowledgeable people might have thought the fish a chub. They would not have disagreed about the size. I was mesmerised, watching as this great square fin worked unhurriedly and other portions of the fish’s body flickered in and out of visibility, golden and bronze in the bronze sunlit water. The fish – it must have been a chub — moved slowly forwards and way from the current, until it was poised in fairly open water, and then past it, unhurriedly downstream, swam a trout that was skinny by comparison, but twice the size of any other I have seen caught from here. There are parts of the river where that trout’s back would stick out of the water as it swam. I watched for about ten minutes – I had no rod with me – just marvelling as it patrolled the bend, occasionally opening white lips to swallow something in the water.
This afternoon I returned with a rod and waders, and tried to stalk up to the pool from below. The bottom was level chalk, at first knee deep, getting deeper and softer as I moved upstream cautiously, with pauses between each step. During one of these pauses I saw what I took to be a dead bullrush a little ahead of my left foot. Then I realised it was a pike about two feet long, russet brown in the tea-coloured water, lying sunk into the muck. I thought that it must be dead, it was so still. Not a fin moved, nor even a gill cover. But when I was close enough to poke it with my rod, and wondering whether to do so, it roused itself and swirled off the bottom and upstream, leaving a puffy cloud of silt where it had been lying.
About three yards further up, and rather closer to the shore, I found it lying dead still again, behind a weedbed. Again, it looked completely inert. Fragments of vegetable matter would drift down in the current and rub against it without provoking any reaction. I put on a little weighted nymph that looked like a tiny fish, and swung this into the current above the fish. It came past at eye level. Nothing. I did this three or four times, with no response at all, and finally the nymph came down right in front of the fish’s nose. When it touched the pike, I lifted, very gently, and the whole fish rose in the water, fins flaring, a faint weight on my rod. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to catch it: they’re not good eating at this time of year, and removing a hook from an angry, live pike is no fun at all. They have six rows of teeth across the top of their mouths, and the whole of the top of their tongues are covered in teeth as well.
Stalemate. The fish hung in the water, doing as little as possible, with its jaw just resting on my hook. Once upon a time, the presence of all that concentrated malice would have run up my arm and made me set the hook without hesitation, killing him as surely as he would have killed me if he had had the chance. It’s the only truly mindless violence that I know. It’ swhat small boys go fishing for. But this afternoon I just tugged the pike sideways a little, so that he twitched and shot away from the hook into a weed bed.
I never did see the big trout again, either.