Darjeeling & the thing about chub

A glorious chavender

move your Rod as softly as a Snail moves, to that Chub you intend to catch’

The Compleat Angler. Izaak Walton, 1653.


It reminds me of the psychotic Jack Russell terrier that roamed the street where I grew up. Feigning complete disinterest as it trotted by, it would spin around in an instant to lunge at some victim or other.  My chub this morning, the boss of the shoal, has practically touched its own tail to strike at my floating plug, having first finned nonchalantly past. I’m so taken off guard that I set too early and the plug pops almost audibly from its great mouth, like some oversize dummy petulantly spat. Now the whole shoal is spooked, fading phantom like into the shadows.

That’s the thing about chub, they never cease to surprise. They can at turns display an almost naive enthusiasm, or more commonly, a preternatural instinct for self preservation.

I have never dedicated myself solely to their pursuit and I’m certainly no authority on the chevinesque, but I’ve had my moments. If I were to sit down now and write my angling memoirs it would be chub providing a good deal of the colour and drama.

A surprise awaits

I think the most wildly beautiful chub yet to grace my net I caught  last year with a fly rod at fourteen hundred feet above sea level. A surprise bycatch from a Welsh mountain llyn on an expedition to find wild carp, it is possibly the highest altitude chevin in these isles, although I stand to be corrected.  My eyes have never beheld such a perfect specimen. It fair bent my cane and leapt and ran before eventually coming to hand, with the late sun sinking below a mountainous horizon only served to add to the sense of the surreal. It felt strange to be sliding a net under a chub in that landscape, almost as if it were the last chavender in the world. Or at least the last before one falls off the edge.

Attitude at altitude

But looking back over my angling journals surely my strangest experience with chub came a couple of years ago fishing in the footsteps of old Izaak, on the Upper Lea.

One of my favourite spots - the ‘picnic pool’ hosts a mass banquet for dace and chub in summer. The fish are packed in, almost gill to gill, feeding on a superabundance of invertebrate life blooming on the rich gravels. But severe drought this year had left the river on its bones - the glides now only ankle deep. The deep pools still looked healthy enough but were now all but isolated from one another by long stretches of barely wet gravel:

As I prepare to make a first cast I hear that noise again. A sploshing sound and it's getting closer. I glance behind me,  and I can see the source of the commotion now, about thirty yards downstream. I looks like someone is pulling a giant bass popper up the river towards me. At first I think it may be  a water bird struggling to escape some predator, but the water is too shallow and I've never seen a pike here. Or perhaps it's some kind of small mammal in trouble, tangled in discarded line. I turn away from the pool and make towards it, perhaps I can help. But as I get closer I see that the creature is a fish - a large chub, perhaps a five or six pounder, determinedly making its way over the gravels where the water is only a few inches deep.

It's broad brassy back is completely out of the water as it travels forward against the flow in short surges, pushing the water before it. As it pauses to rest I catch up, the water so shallow here that even the chub's eyes are above the surface. We regard each other for a few seconds and I'm just deciding whether I should intervene when the fish sets off again, wriggling and squirming past my boots to find purchase in the deepening water. A few good tail flicks and it scoots away, swimming properly towards the deeper pool. Its efforts I realise now, were in order to join in with the festivities upstream. News travels fast in this little river!’

I caught a few good chub that year from picnic pool, tempting them from under the dogwood thicket of the far bank with a delicately placed fly, but somehow I never had the heart to try for my erstwhile acquaintance, whom I often saw in one of the best lies. It seemed impolite somehow, although I followed with interest its continued success over the season until proper rains came and the river was fully restored.

One from Picnic Pool

There is no fish so strongly enarmed wt scales on the bodye'

A treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle. Dame Juliana Berners, 1496.

Chub captured my imagination early on in my angling journey. As teenager, a  water local to me had a reputation for its specimen roach, although it was the gargantuan chub patrolling the gin clear margins that most fired my interest. Three fish in particular were eye-poppingly huge, but a few years earlier another chub, the largest of all, had swam with them. The Queen of all Chub - a stately and immense gun-metal-and-brass torpedo, I had spent hours upon hours of my young life trying in vain to tempt her as she toured the margins, ever accompanied by her close group of courtiers.

Early one summer morning in the late 1970's we found her in the shallows, gasping her last breaths of this world. Our attempts to revive her were to no avail. She was, we were sure, a very old and venerable fish and this year's spawning was to be her last triumph of a long and glorious life. We watched with sadness and wonder as she passed, then gently netted and weighed her before returning her reverentially to a quiet place beneath the weed. This was her place and ours, so we told no one what my Little Samsons had said. She would have beaten the UK record by two ounces.

I neither saw nor heard of her or any of her shoal mates ever being caught, but it didn't stop the trying, so here I was again at day break on June 16th, bunking off from sixth form, armed with bread flake and optimism. The plan, to suspend my bait at chub-cruising-eye-level, my rod laid on a gnarled mass of overhanging beech tree roots. The pool beneath was deep but clear and even in the canopy's shade my young eyes were sharp enough then to discern the shapes of patrolling fish. It was a simple matter to set the trap and wait, and it was but a short time before my float dipped, but in a strange kind of way - more of sideways displacement than the classic bite of a bait sucked in.

Perched on the raft of roots I peered cautiously over and could see the culprit - a large chub-shaped shadow hovering near my bait. As I watched, my fingers tightening around the rod's cork handle, I expected to see the white flash of an opening mouth and readied myself to strike. But instead, the fish nudged the bread flake with its snout, mouth tightly closed, once, twice, and the bait was knocked free from the hook to sink slowly deeper. Only now, that white flash of a mouth, and with the bait consumed, a languorous tail flick away that said "dream on!" I knew then that I had been comprehensively beaten. Much later I read with interest how underwater filming has revealed the reason behind some of those un-hittable  bites river anglers experience when fishing the swim feeder: large chub have learned to pick up the freshly cast feeder in their mouths to shake out the bait. Chub are smart.

But even then, on these bitterest of days , the chub may be found.’

Angling Times. Bernard Venables, 1956.

If I drift further downstream, I encounter again the memory of my proto-chub, the fish that got it all started, and if I could step back across those years I would find my eleven year old self sitting hunched against the cold on an angler's wicker creel, wishing for a roach and for a thicker cushion for my seat.  

Holy Trinity Church, Cookham, sits behind me. Gothic frets of winter mist creep from the lawns of the graveyard towards the river and slither down her banks to hug the water, so that I cannot see the waterfowl I hear and I cannot tell if the sun is yet risen. It is grey and it is cold and there will be no Swan Upping today Sir Stanley. Even old man Turk, Keeper of the Queen's Swans, to whom we pay our fishing rent, is still in bed.  But the whispered promise of roach keep me fixed to the Avon float I am laying on against the flow.

Perhaps even a chub will grace my net so I wish for one of those too. I’ve seen them in the nets of the Thames match anglers at weigh-in time, big brassy bulldog-headed fish that make my eyes pop and my heart race. They seem a grown up’s fish and not one I’m likely to encounter amongst my little Sunday haul of tiny bleak, gudgeon and perch. But be careful what you wish for or at least be sure to wish hard enough, for the only bite of the morning becomes a heavy weight on my line in the ice cold water.

I play the fish under my father’s expert tutelage as he readies with the landing net. The fight is slow paced but the river is winter-heavy and the fish is big and strong. ‘It’s a chub, a big one’ Dad proclaims, and I experience for the first time that strange intensity - exhilaration tempered with trepidation, the sense of daring to hope while not daring to hope. In the deep cold it feels as if my great fish is not yet properly awake, and in the clear water one could count the scales on its broad flank as I draw it towards the net. Time has slowed, unfolded, unzipped, and those final seconds stretch out so that I can still touch them today as I type this at a lit screen in the snug of my kitchen. The loss was at first a bewilderment: at one moment the fish was poised motionless in the water, a mere foot from the landing net, the next moment it begins to sink slowly from view, just out of reach of my father’s heroic stretch across the water. We watch, disbelieving, as its image fades into the depths, a snapped hook shank later proving to be my undoing. When I get home I empty all of that brand from my wallet, and to this day, from me that maker has enjoyed not a further penny.      

In ‘Blood Knots’ Luke Jennings talks of ghost fish - our close-but-no-cigar encounters with life changing fish which, against all probability and natural order somehow evade capture at the very last instant, thus engendering a deep sense of cosmic injustice and inconsolable loss. They haunt us still and will forever swim through our imaginations. Lord knows I have my share - don't we all? But the first cut is the deepest and mine was that Thames chub.

All Writing & images Darjeeling Summer 2021