Around the time of the Harvest moon toward the end of September a line is drawn under our Tench fishing for another season. Early mornings out on a mist shrouded marsh drain, fringed with lilies and warbler filled reed beds watching a delicate quill float will soon be replaced with another seasonal adventure as our thoughts turn “Pikewards.”
Early autumn out on the ‘Fifth Continent’ as the Romney Marsh was once called by Reverend Richard Harris Barham in his anthology of Kentish tales The “Ingoldsby Legends” (1837), is a place of quiet calm as slowly the reeds take on a golden hue, migrating birds feed before their long flight ahead and up on higher ground the chestnuts both sweet and horse hang heavy from their branches. Winter waits patiently in the wings before she draws her sword of cold steel and then this most exposed of landscapes will become inhospitable, frequented only by the brave and foolhardy. It is no coincidence that this wetland is so sparsely populated.
The marsh can be divided into several areas; Romney marsh proper, Walland Marsh, East Guldeford, Denge Marsh, Rother Levels and the Pett Levels. It is it criss-crossed with ditches and numerous waterways, land reclaimed over millennia by nature and with a helping hand from mankind. During the middle ages there was a tax levied upon the inhabitants of the marsh in order to pay for keeping the sea walls secure and the waterways free from siltation, this was called a “scot”. If you lived on the higher ground surrounding the marsh you were exempt and were deemed to be ”scot free”. Perhaps that’s where that old phrase originates?
There will be a few weeks of opportunity after the first frosts have lowered the water temperature sufficiently, where the annual “Hunt for Red October” will commence in our angling calendar. Let me explain….A decade or so ago we were fishing a large, deep marsh pond, a beautiful spot, miles from any road. We’d been told by our good friend the keeper and by the farm hands that there were no pike to be found within its depths. Well we’ve always doubted the doubters and we continued with our efforts unabated.
A cup of tea was being shared and at that very moment Kev’s float did a little dance and slid away…we looked at each other and smiled as he bent his lovely old cane into the moving fish. The fish was quite obviously a good one and during a protracted battle it never once showed itself to the waiting audience of two. Very, very slowly Kev began to gain the upper hand and eventually the battle was won and I was ready with the net, as the fish came up through the murky water our eyes said it all… disbelief! The only words I could utter were ‘the Red October’ the beast was immense.
And so it will begin, rod, net, small tackle bag with flask and bait and a stool to sit on are loaded into the Landrover along with my Spaniel, he loves coming fishing with his master. It is a cold but not unpleasant morning leading up to the Hunters moon. We head south from our Kentish vantage point high up on the Greensand Way, down through the lanes of the Weald with their hedges dripping with nature’s bounty. Sloes, hips and red berries of the Hawthorn are abundant, a larder full to the brim for the birds and small mammals. Orchards now dormant provide shelter for grazing sheep and it won’t be long before they are joined by Fieldfare and Redwing finishing off the remaining fruit. Nothing goes to waste in the countryside.
I meet with Kev at the gate to the farm. The milky sun is trying to break through the morning mist and the promise of a fine day is on the cards. We chat a while and share a hot sausage roll each, collected from the bakery on my way down. His tackle is decanted to join mine in the back of the Defender. At this time of year the rains have softened the ground further and there are few vehicles which could take us miles out into the hunting grounds without peril or failure. The journey up the drain to our suspected “honey pot” is deeply rutted and full of mud and water, the farm tractors have done a fine job of making our adventure more fun!
I place the kettle on the little stove whilst we tackle up. Both of us prefer a one rod and centrepin approach, a small pike float made by our old friend and fellow Kentish Cane, Sussex Micky. The minimum of weight to cock the float and a sardine for the pikes liking. It is a very simple and sensitive way of presenting a bait but it suits us perfectly, allowing us to be mobile and unrestricted by tackle clutter. Coffee poured into the flask, a quick whistle to the dog who is busying himself flushing pheasants from a standing crop and we’re off up the waterway. We’ll return as we usually do to the Landrover for lunch. We take lunch seriously, nothing like a good cheese roll and a bottle of ale on a piking day….and that’s just for the dog!….I jest!
A few hundred yards up river from where I sit, Kev latches into something reasonable. I watch the curve of his cane against the ever brightening skyline. I’ll only intervene if requested to do so, it’s an unwritten agreement which has spanned the years of our friendship. All too soon I watch his rod spring back from its battle curve, the rod is laid in the grass and something too rude to print is muttered.
My float sits near the reed bed downstream to my left, just off the marginal shelf, perfectly placed for an enquiring pike, or so I hope. An hour passes without a nod and slowly I reel in hoping to wake a sleeping leviathan…nothing. I pull off a few yards of line from the centrepin and gently swing the bait out again this time I’ll try the deeper middle channel. As soon as the float rights itself it’s gone. I bend the old cane into the running fish and it takes on a familiar curve. The runs the pike makes are incredible, surges of power travel down the rod and into my arm. I try to think one step ahead of the fish and then…it’s gone, the hook had pulled.
Mixed emotions of disappointment and encouragement flow through my head. I rest the swim and take a wander up to see Kev, he’s seen the battle and offers his condolences. Yates my Spaniel it would appear has been spending time with Kev rather than me. It’s certainly evident that there’s a bond between the two of them, which is rather lovely given that Kev and I have shared a close friendship since childhood. The chat perked up our spirits, a shared coffee and a laugh is always good medicine.
A shooting party bid us good sport from the opposite bank as they made their way along the network of ditches in search of wildfowl, Spaniels ahead, alert and doing their job. A Spaniel will work all day in the worst of weathers without respite and Yates was keen to swim across the drain and join the hunt but a firm “No” stopped him launching himself into action – thankfully.
Back to my swim I rebait and cast again. Yates sits and watches my float whilst I tie a spare trace with one eye on proceedings. Trace tied and put away in my old tobacco tin my attention refocuses in full to the float.
Another coffee from the thermos with a nip from the hip flask to warm the hands ‘you understand?’ I look round to watch Yates making his way up to see Kev again, I’ll leave him to it, better company I expect.
Did that float just move? It is difficult to see with the ripple. I stare harder, it is moving, very slowly but it’s moving. I pick up the rod, reel in the slack, cup the spool and bend into the fish. There was a surge of energy as the fish sped off down the drain, but I managed to stop it and turn it away from a weed bed sitting mid river. Getting the balance right when playing a big fish can only be learnt from experience. Sometimes you win others you lose and are left to contemplate where it all went wrong.
This time it appeared that I was in control, even throughout the lightning fast runs it made. I deliberately steered it towards a snag to make it run in the opposite direction and it worked. I had shouted out “fish on!” and Kev and Yates were by my side as the fish tired and surfaced mid river. We looked at each other wide eyed, nothing needed to be said. Gently I guided the fish into the waiting net. It took both of us to lift her out of the water, a heavy old warrior, flanks of mottled green, orange fins glinting in the sun and those teeth… oh my! Photographs were duly taken and a quick weigh for our own personal records and then she was returned to her watery home way downstream. Both of us were elated, a capture like that is a shared experience, one to reminisce over a pint for many years to come.
Kev asked me if I minded him fishing the far end of the reed bed. No need to ask really but our respect for each other runs deep and that’s just the way we do things, countryboys and countrymen. “Be my guest old mate, but leave some for me.”
Yates followed him down to the bottom end of the reeds and I chuckled and smiled. The sun was now on its downward trajectory, we’d missed lunch for once but it hardly mattered. Long shadows were now being cast by the floodbank and a golden tinge was glinting off the tips of the dying reeds. Within minutes of his arrival I was alerted by the howl of a reel and I watched him silhouetted bending into to a powerful fish, the cry “fish on!” went out – I reeled in my bait and ambled along the bank, it certainly looked like a big powerful pike. I stood back and watched with my fingers crossed behind my back and quietly prayed that this fish wouldn’t get the better of him. The fish rolled and sent huge ripples across the water. “Blimey!” we both exclaimed. Surely the fight came to a close and Kev netted her with the expertise of an old hand. Again it took both of us to lift the net from the margins. What a brace of pike, what a red letter day, what a day of Red Octobers.
I’m sure the old man looks down upon us, his words of which there were many still echo in my mind “Don’t follow the crowd and do your own thing keep an eye on nature because pike thrive on neglect.” God bless you Alf, and you’re never far from my thoughts…especially when it’s Pike time.
Writing & Images – RBT, deepest Kent November 2021