The gear is stowed and I'm ready to go. The little two piece rod is lashed to the frame of my 5-speed racer and my backpack contains my reel, hooks (big ones, size 6), a couple of ounces of Morrisons cheddar and little else. The homework will wait; a long summer's evening fishing awaits at the end of a 4 mile bike ride which will be spent almost entirely thinking about Carole Earp and how, in another life, I might pluck up the courage to ask her out.
My destination is the lower River Brock - an uninspiring, artificially leveed, silty bottomed ditch of a river. But it is my bit of river, almost never fished by another angler, and I value that sense of ownership and the intimate knowledge of the small things of the place - a trait which unknown to me at the time, will follow me staidly into later life. Here is a stream which doesn't even register on the radar of most anglers; a minor tributary of a minor river, whose flood-prone past has resulted in the construction of heavily reinforced banks, and whose shallow, sluggish flow over light-coloured sand betrays a complete dearth of fish of any kind, save an odd miniature flounder and a few eels. Except I, as a fluff lipped, awkward, but arrogant 15 year old, reckon to know better. With little more productive to do with my copious spare time than walk the banks of my local rivers, I have seen how in the days following a big flood in the main river, groups of chub come up into the tributary seeking comparative shelter whilst the waters recede......and can then be found in the sandy shallows, hugging tight in to the banks below the lank, overhanging bankside grasses.
To a more experienced angler, this probably reeks of 'Mickey Mouse' fishing - a captive audience of schoolie chevin herded into an ugly channel barely five yards across. And fair enough - here is my quarry: conveniently visible and with no deep water in proximity to disappear into, thus sparing me the unfathomable puzzle of how to extract putative fish from black, bottomless depths. But these fish are far from easy and although I have no concept of it at the time, the lessons learned in effecting their capture will stay with me throughout my angling life.
Cycle dismounted and abandoned behind a hedge, I have crested the floodbank and descended into the balsam where, crouched amongst thistle and sheep turd, I watch. They are there sure enough, patrolling beneath the green canopy in an orderly line, melting periodically into the mess of overhanging willow branches upstream before reappearing like dark ghosts, nailed to the far bank in water which looks but inches deep. Their route is defined and repetitive, covering a distance of approximately five yards above and below my position. I could set my watch by them - the whole circuit takes just under two minutes, with a good quarter of that spent out of sight beneath the willow. Good fish - two pounders, maybe an odd one over three. I tiger-crawl up the bank and then, crouching, scuttle off downstream until sufficiently out of range, where I set up my rod and reel, thread the line through the rings, tie on a big hook.....and begin my search for slugs. OK, I've got my stinky cheese, but that's for emergencies. Slugs are what I need and luckily the damp conditions make it pretty easy to collar half a dozen big black ones within the space of a minute or two (the leg of my Wranglers is stiff with their slime, accumulated from wiped fingers on dozens of such occasions).
Back on station and with an impaled slug apparently trying to turn itself inside out upon the point of my Kamasan, I make a last mental run through my strategy, check my net is to hand and then lay my trap. The pod of fish has emerged from under the willow and is drifting in single file downstream, barely perceptible shadows amidst shadows, an occasional puff of silt or white of gulping mouth betraying their presence from time to time. With a flick of the rod tip, I lob the unfortunate gastropod into the shade of the willow branches, the spot just vacated, and rest the rod into the crook of a thick offshoot of cow parsley, tip protruding just far enough from the bank to keep the line from fouling amidst the vegetation. Then wait........the display on my casio telling me that 30 seconds has passed......one minute......a few more seconds.......here they come; the regiment returns, nosing into the darkness. My hand hovers over the rod butt, trembling; mouth dry; balsam pods exploding above my head..........
This moment of anticipation is what, more than 20 years later has made me return time and again to the waterside. Lily pond to windswept reservoir; mucky ditch to mighty salmon river; it's all the same to me. Stitched into the essence of my being is that desire to know the unknown, to experience the throb of life through the line and wonder every single time if the fish which has just taken hold, just might be the stuff of dreams; and at a more fundamental level, to experience the fleeting excitement of success followed by satisfied reflection upon a plan well executed . It didn't seem right to me at the time that once the bright orange tip of my little quiver rod had bucked round and I had snatched the rod from the ground to feel the weight of a stubborn chub ploughing a determined furrow for the submerged tree roots; it didn't seem right that the actual landing of the fish felt anti climactic. This magnificent lump of untamed bronze, with scales the size of my thumb nails, was treasure indeed; a nugget of precious metal from such a depressing little dyke. Yet it was the moment I craved, not so much the treasure. The electricity-charged moment of hope, expectation, anticipation.
I feel it still in the slow drift of the dry fly towards the steadily rising fish, in the wake of the bob fly on a wild upland stillwater, and in the travel of my sunken nymphs through the river's turbulent currents. In angling, anything is possible because so much is unknown. Maybe it's a sign that I'm no longer a young man, but where once I wanted to know all and everything, these days I'd rather remain at least partially ignorant.....as if in some subconscious fear that one day the sudden manifestation of life at the end of the line will finally cease to surprise, and its magic be lost as a result.