Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The God of Striped Fish (Part 1)

In a time to come he would begin to question if the day had been a dream.  Like a lot of dreams the details are vivid then blurred, easy to recall then more difficult to reach.  And, like a lot of dreams, moments actually forgotten suddenly re-emerge for seemingly no reason.
But maybe it was Rust Cohle who made the most pertinent of those observations;

         “And, like a lot of dreams..........there’s a monster at the end of it.” 


This had better be worth the effort.  He’s been on the move for only five minutes and he’s already torn up by the undergrowth.  He was told it was inaccessible and the landlord wasn’t joking.  The pond being barely visible on Google Earth was the first indication he’d had that this huge area of vegetation was going to be a natural barrier par excellence.  He’s stuffed his folding net down the front of his top to shield the mesh after being wrenched to and fro as it snagged left and right.  He’s ditched all luxuries at the car after seeing the fortress of brambles and blackthorn ahead of him...the bag with food and drink, the waders and waterproofs all deemed worth the risk of abandonment in the vehicle’s boot to travel as lightly as possible.  Even his mobile phone has been shut back in the glove box due to a zero signal, thus freeing up a pocket for his good camera.  He’s a walking jangling rattle of small tackle boxes, all contained about his person in every pocket his waistcoat sports. In the most spacious of these is his Shimano Citica reel and tight to his chest is the cloth-sleeved two piece Abu baitcast rod that he’s glad is no bigger.  He wishes he’d remembered a cap as his scalp is again raked by thorns but he’s grateful for the Polaroids that are keeping him from being blinded by grasping barbed limbs. 

No paths, the landlord had told him. His only instruction was he had to look for the least dense parts and press on regardless
So, at the risk of being the victim of a wind-up so cruel he would never forget it, he did indeed ‘press on’.  Regardless.

You’ll be the only one there.....the only one who’s been there for years, probably.
Needless to say that had inspired him.  A lack of competition is always welcome.  No pike, and an invasion of crayfish that could only have worsened in the span of time since the landlord had managed his last visit meant it drew little or no interest, even from those who had made the ragged journey in the past.  Hey, maybe it’s gone.  Maybe time and geology have slowly drained it into the earth.  He’s going to find out pretty soon though because, through the myriad of clawing vines ahead he can see clear daylight.  And now he sees water.  He realises he’s going to be able to put the landlord’s assertion to the test, the claim that has brought him here through a literal jungle of hurt, armed with rod, reel and packs of soft plastic crayfish patterned with a variety of colours they don’t even exist in;
There’s only perch.....but everywhere I looked, bloody hell, there were hundreds of them.


The water is clearer than he expected.  You wouldn’t drink it but neither is it the murky green he anticipated.  He can see the bottom of the pond even some way out, aided by what looks like sand as a bed.  Clay?  He’s creeping nearer with that as-yet-unknown new venue curiosity that no-one tires of.  At first, the world below the surface seems devoid of life but then the first flicker of movement catches his eye.  His brain registers a crayfish sidling across the pale base of the lake.  Slightly further out, another of similar size is static.  Then, reassuringly beyond words, three perch become visible as they pass in front of him with the seemingly clear intention of going somewhere, before merging with the darker water and being lost to his vision.   His enthusiasm soars.  He turns his attention to the surroundings. The whole pond is enclosed by an arena of trees that stretch out over the water like a circle of friends putting their arms forward to try and touch fingers in the centre.  Bank space is tight all round but he can see what almost passes for a beach further along from where he’s standing and, beyond that, somewhat quirkily, a small wooden jetty juts into the water.  Blimey, was there ever a boat?  The thought of this place being visited by others almost intrigues him.  Then his mind gets back to the moment and the Abu is drawn from it’s cover and connected.  The Citica is fastened to the reel seat and line is passed from guide to guide.  From a pocket he slides one of the crayfish tackle boxes then sits himself back against a gnarled tree trunk to decide on his weapon of choice.  It can’t be said there’s a shortage of options; he’s brought enough soft plastic to build Katie Price a spare bust.  In the compartments of the container are crayfish of all colours, some natural and some...well...unnatural and most are just a couple of inches in size to fit his favourite Ecogear jigheads. Only in the larger single section of the box does the ‘odd lure out’ reside.  It’s a hefty Castaic crayfish that dwarfs it’s comrades and has been brought out of curiosity rather than tactical intent.  And perhaps a touch of guilt..... 

Because the Castaic has languished unused in a drawer since it travelled home in his luggage from a Las Vegas holiday nearly ten years before. He’s only too aware that rather than it being him that put it into a BassPro cart that day a decade earlier it should really have been a purchaser who was going to actually use it.  Maybe some angler called Chad who would have taken the crayfish to Lake Tahoe and given it the time of it’s plastic life, belting along at high speed in the bass boat to the largemouth hotspots and hooking into some lunkers. Then gunning home across the water, back to Chad’s place and his tackle den, ready for the next adventure while Chad strolls to his fridge for an after-bass-trip cold one, pausing only to slap the bikini clad butt of Kaylee-Marie as she walks in from the pool.  But none of that.....just a journey in a suitcase to a cold country, then years of deprivation in a drawer.  So, it’s finally with him because up to now he hasn’t even seen it in the water and it’s a good a chance as any to at least get a look at this critter as nature (or the guys at the Castaic factory) intended.

But that’s for the end of the day; the last few casts when, traditionally, lures that are brought only to be assessed get a swim / crawl / twitch in some quiet snag-free corner before home. Right now, a small Strike King crayfish is being slid onto the jighead and clipped to the snap link.  Then looking at the watermelon green and orange cray dangling from the hook with plastic pincers swaying he remembers his dad’s standby line for any lure that looked like it could never fail; if the fish don’t want that I’ll eat it myself.

He’s popped the thumb bar on the Citica as he approaches the water and the first cast fizzes the spool with a punch of his wrist.  The crayfish makes splashdown about twenty yards away and he raises the rod tip slightly as the ‘V’ of the line cuts it’s way across the surface towards him.  When did a lure last land in this lake?  Before now, has one ever landed in it?  All is still and he flicks the rod gently upwards as he slowly turns the reel handle to bounce the little lure homeward bound. The next rod flick is met with an equal bump in the opposite direction and he strikes into immediate resistance.  About fifteen yards in front of him he sees the line jagging in several directions and feels the plunging fight of a hooked perch.   

The fish isn’t small and it takes a minor battle to draw it closer to shore where it heavily breaks surface in a swirl of black-barred gold and green, with amber pectorals catching his eye.  It veers away to his left as he snaps open his net with one hand while steering the fish back towards him with the other.  Then the frame and mesh are welcoming the scrapping predator and lift it clear of it’s natural environment.  He kneels down to view his trophy.  It glows in the net, pristine and uncaught until today.  He slides the barbless jighead from the side of it’s mouth and lays his rod on the ground.  Then, still kneeling and holding the netted fish with one hand he delves into one of his many pockets for the little Salter scale that will reveal all. 

This is the scale that, when purchased, the tackle store owner was at pains to point out would only weigh up to seven pounds.  He’d reassured the shopkeeper that the scale was only for perch and he needed nothing more.  And he recalls the store owner’s reply being along the lines of the scale being perfect for perch and if he ever catches one that bottoms it out he’ll be famous for life.  So with the little Salter adjusted to disregard the weight of the net he hooks it onto the frame and raises it slowly.  Two pounds and two ounces.  For him, that’s a belter.  He lifts the fish from the net and holds it carefully close to the ground for a photograph.  He’s delighted when the spiked dorsal holds fully upright for the picture then he lowers the fish slowly back into the lake and sways it back and forth.  The perch regains it’s bearings in moments and flows away from his hand, back to the deeper water.  Then he exhales and sits back for a moment.  That was a perfect fish.  If that is all he catches today he’ll be happy.  Two pounds two.  It looked huge.  The biggest from the UK is almost exactly three times as heavy and that fact as ever astounds him, given that the one he’s just returned has taken his breath away at only a third of the size.  

He looks around for a new casting point.  That jetty has been drawing his attention since he arrived.  He’s going to check it out.  He collects and pockets camera and scale, then clips his net back onto his waistcoat and quietly makes his way along the bramble-tangled shore to get to the little wooden feature.  It seems decades old and not entirely trustworthy.  Years of passing seasons have left the timber looking very much the worse for wear.  He takes his first step onto it and instantly sees, submerged to his left where the lake bed shelves, the upturned remains of a rowing boat, it’s broken boards protruding like the exposed ribs on the carcass of some decomposed sea creature.  Then, while he’s taking that in, the jetty suddenly creaks like the Addams Family’s front door and instinctively he hastily lowers himself to his knees.  Common sense tells him to shuffle back and get off it.  But the somehow-surviving boyhood drive that got him soaked to the skin on almost every stickleback expedition from thirty years before is telling him to wait.  Imagine how interesting the view off the end would be.  Surely crawling along will be safe as houses, what with the low centre of gravity and all?  Bollocks to it....he’s on his way.  The wood is bleached white with exposure. He’s halfway along it on his hands and knees with the rod crossways between his teeth like some carnival tightrope walker.  Twice the jetty moves slightly and twice he freezes before cautiously proceeding. This is a near-death experience waiting to happen; while it’s shallow nearer to shore he can see the bottom shelving deeper further out.  Finally he’s at the end of it.  He lowers himself flat onto his front and lays the rod next to himself.  The camera in his chest pocket is digging right into his ribs so he draws it free and places it next to his rod on the jetty beside him.  Then he slides slightly forward and peers down over the final plank into the water below. 


Crayville.  There’s almost a carpet of them around the base of the wooden legs that support the little pier.  Most are just shuffling slowly around directly underneath him.  None are particularly big and he watches as a pair spar on the pale lake bed. He drags himself further forward and bends his head down to look back under the jetty itself.  More crayfish but also several perch congregating in the shade of the boards.  He’s pleased to note none are bigger than his recent capture and he watches for longer than he realises as the striped brethren mill around calmly in the faintly sun-streaked water.  And as the light does indeed brighten for the first time that day he then switches his gaze to straight out beyond the jetty end and into the lake in front of and around his prone figure.  He can see far more now that the cloud has briefly broken up; the clay base of the pond seems almost backlit.  He adjusts his Polaroids on the bridge of his nose as he tries to establish what it is that he’s noticed scattered over the lake bed in all directions.  Crayfish debris.  Smashed crays litter the bottom for as far as his vision allows.  Broken claws and body casings make the area resemble a crash site.  That, he thinks, is bizarre.  He strains to see into the deeper shelving on both sides.  Nothing much to his right but on his left there’s a submerged tree trunk and next to that, just where the darker water starts to take objects from view, is the faint outline of a suspending carp.  That surprises him, despite it being perfectly feasible.  He’s suddenly tempted to flick the little Strike King there and see if it shows interest or not.  He won’t try to hook it but he’s keen to see if it goes for a look.  He’s carefully reaching to his side for the rod when he realises the fish is going to make life easier for him by coming nearer.  It’s not aware of his presence and is drifting forward into the clearer water.  And then his buttocks clench right up as if a doctor has suddenly appeared with an endoscope, and his mind flashes a nonsensical joke through his head as he watches the fish slowly cruise starkly before him in all it’s multi-pound glory....When is a carp not a carp?
When it’s a perch.  


When it’s a perch.  He can barely comprehend that fact, as the huge bristling frame fills the foreground.  The destroyer of crayfish is holding station several yards beyond him and looks like nothing reality could produce.  Years before, he’d been working at a fishery when a crowd gathered round a perch angler who had just landed a five pounder. That fish had looked like a physical impossibility and was the only chance many of the observers that day would ever get to view one of five pounds in the existence we call ‘real life’. So, as he plainly sees that the fish before him at this moment is bigger by some margin than the one celebrated at the fishery years earlier, he can do nothing more than say to no-one in particular
Oh. My. God.
while his heart beats in his throat and he subconsciously slides himself a short way back along the jetty.

His thoughts regroup. He’s pushing his chin down on the pier boarding while gazing at the almighty predator dominating the lake space in front of him and, to his mild  embarrassment, he realises he feels almost intimidated by it’s presence; the enormity of the thought of even casting a lure to this thing seems overwhelming. But cast a lure to it he’s going to.  Then, as he reaches to his side for his rod, he realises the pissy little two inch Strike King cray is barely going to be noticed by a fish that could swallow an eight inch trout swimbait without it touching the sides. So he wants the biggest bait he has with him and after a brief mental size calculation he’s lying on his side, unclipping the tiny jig and getting ready to swap it for the most patient lure he’s ever owned, the Castaic crayfish, formerly of the BassPro Store, Dean Martin Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.  What’s ten years between friends? If you wait in a drawer for long enough, your day will come.

He’s constantly watching the huge fish while he’s fastening the Castaic.  He briefly wraps the line round his forearm then pulls strongly on the lure to test it’s connection.  All holds firm with no slips or pings.  Still lying sideways and now in great discomfort he plots how to go about this.  He needs to cast the big cray well beyond the perch then bring it back slowly into the happy hunting ground.  Pitching directly to the fish would risk spooking it and losing the present advantage of the fish being at ease.  He needs to be up on his knees for this, though, so again slides on his stomach back along the jetty, reaching halfway, and now knowing he wouldn’t be plainly in view if he slowly knelt up.  So he slowly does.  His net is awkwardly clipped to the back of his waistcoat but he ignores the hindrance.  He lifts his head an inch at a time until he sees the top of the fish, now slightly over to the left again.  He raises the rod and the crayfish slowly rotates on the end of the line like a circus performer as he clicks down the Citica thumb bar and draws the rod round to his side.  Then he swings the tip to his front and sees the heavy Castaic sail into the middle distance and meet the water a safe yardage beyond the jetty end. He keeps the rod tip as high as is discreetly possible to lift the line clear from needlessly dragging on the surface of the lake. And now he just lets everything settle and nervously re-fixes his attention on the biggest perch he’s ever seen in fact or fiction.  The fish seems unperturbed by the distant impact of plastic on water and continues it’s almost sentry-like patrol of the immediate area.  Keeping the rod tip up he slowly turns the reel handle and, out on the lakebed, the Castaic cray, equally slowly, begins to waddle home. 


He’s got his breathing settled but the blood is pounding in his ears.  The urge to bring the crayfish back quicker is overwhelming but he’s determined to not stuff this up.  The Citica handle is turned gently and all the time his eyes are fixed on the fish.  The steeper angle of the line is telling him the lure is close now and as he makes more effort to see it he suddenly realises that he can; the dark plastic critter’s shape is just in view now.  And at that same moment the boss of all perch flicks it’s broad tail and faces the approaching crayfish.  This is nerve-shredding. The fish, too, has seen the American intruder and is visibly more alert.  He dares to creep the lure closer while locking his gaze on the fish’s reaction.  Another foot of crawl.  The fish looks wired now.  For Christ’s sake, please. He dares to put a slight twitch into the retrieve; the fish moves slowly towards the lure and he genuinely fears he’s going to puke.  The sight of the stand-off is too much to bear and, just when he thinks the vivid imagery is more than he can cope with, the huge fish raises it’s spiny dorsal like a sail and he almost feels light-headed as he sees that the spiked fin is as big as his open hand.  Then, almost in an involuntary reaction to that, he twitches the rod again and the crayfish does all he could dream of: it digs into the lakebed, puffs up a tiny cloud of silt and rears up with it’s pincers waving straight at the approaching thug as if daring it into a fight.  With that, the fish gives in to every predatory instinct it has been attempting to suppress and lunges forward in an attack as violent as it is breathtaking.  The Castaic cray is engulfed in a swirling montage of green, black and amber with the vast white interior of the open jaws as the centrepiece and the plastic lure being crunched within them. 

Up on the jetty he almost cries out in shock as he fires the rod tip skywards and the line zips up off the surface of the water and locks solidly into the fish.  He sees the head of the perch jolt round towards him then can barely watch when the fish hurls itself into the most mind-blowing flared-gills headshake he’s ever seen as it attempts to throw a crayfish that seems to be fighting back like no other has before.  He’s trying to get to his feet but a seeming eternity of lying flat then kneeling has made his legs, initially, unpredictable at best.  As he finally stands, holding the rod high and back, the huge perch bores away to the right, bow-waving parallel to the shore.  He hears the spool of the Citica hiss as the clutch gives line and his head spins with it.

He needs to stay in better contact with the fish than this and he needs to be off the jetty and onto the shore as quickly as he can travel.  He’s more than a touch disorientated but he’s keeping a tight line somehow as he sets off along the wooden boarding towards the bank.  Then at almost the moment he is set to depart the jetty for firm ground he feels the world move beneath him and the sound of rotted, breaking wood that goes with the realisation the ancient little pier is sliding away beneath him with a splintering farewell.  With a falling leap he feels the jetty go from under him and as he hits solid earth he stumbles, tripping forward then sideways then righting himself like Georgie Best getting hacked by defenders but somehow staying on his feet.  Behind him he hears the swirling of water as the pier is claimed by the lake for all time, but he can’t turn to look because he’s still fixed on the bend in the rod above his head, the line being kept thankfully tight by the still-travelling fish at god knows what range now.  He’s able to use the reel again and makes a few turns of the handle to re-establish full contact. 

How is it still on? Only the fact that he forgot to crush the barb on the Castaic’s hook has, thus far, prevented him losing the fish in the midst of his comedic routine. But now he’s better placed for a fight.  He can see the line entering the water some way out and travelling solidly to the left.  The fish is going back the way it came and suddenly he’s filled with dread because he realises there is now a sunken pier to go with the sunken boat and the sunken tree in the part of the lake that surely must now deserve the title Sunken Corner, a district of Snag City.  If the fish gets into any of those obstacles then all is lost.  As much as he dares he draws the rod firmly to the right to oppose the progress of the huge perch but makes almost no impression on it. He’s aware of himself begin to resign to fate but suddenly feels the fish turn towards shore and he cranks the Citica handle, gratefully gaining every unexpected foot of line that he can.  Then he sees the vast shape of the perch emerge from the darker water and veer right again, sees it clearly enough to glimpse the brown body of the Castaic crayfish sticking out from it’s jaws like a Cuban cigar in the mouth of a tycoon.  The spade-like tail pushes the fish past him and, again, the Citica hisses line as he loses all the yards he managed to recapture moments before.  Christ Almighty, he isn’t used to this.  He catches little perch.  The earlier two pounder was almost the biggest he’s ever hooked.  Until now. This doesn’t even feel like reality because he can’t equate the thousands of perch he’s ‘fought’ during thirty plus years to the immovable object that is currently cruising away from him towards the middle of the lake.

To be continued.....

Jake Hamilton

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