Had there been onlookers at such an early hour, they might have interpreted the sight of 3 rubber-suited men striding into the surf at dawn as some sort of ritualised suicide pact. As the water passed my midriff and the currents tried to wash me up the coast I wondered if such an interpretation might be close to the truth. As the distance between the beach and myself increased I checked my life jacket for the location of the inflation toggle – just in case. In my mind I drew up a list of TV news sound bites that might be used to describe our seemingly imminent disappearance: "utter madness", "accident waiting to happen", and "when will they ever learn" came quickly to mind.
My companions, Julian and Mike, were 30 yards ahead of me, yet as they progressed further away from the shoreline they began to rise again from the sea. Soon only their feet remained submerged as foamy waves broke over a submerged gravel bar. My doubts vanished. The offshore shingle bank Julian had described the evening before was not a myth. I was wrong to have doubted my companions. Neither are reckless risk takers, but to be able to stand on top of the ocean so far away from the beach seemed to defy logic.
Safe on the bank, we edged cautiously around, mapping its dimensions. Three sides of the feature shelved gently as the waves pushed the shingle towards the shore. The side bordering the mouth of a river however dropped steeply into 7 foot of water where the push of the costal currents collided with the flow of the river. The point where the energy in the freshwater flow exceeded that of the sea resulted in the sudden drop off. The area where the currents cancelled each other out pushed up the bank on which we stood. Well aware of my proven ability to fall into water, I took up position on the front of the feature, a safe distance from the drop off.
The glow of the imminent sunrise slowly climbed the sky behind the outline of the dark mountains to my rear. Mike, who had chosen to cast parallel to the shore from the side of the bank, was silhouetted against reflection of the glow in the sky. The image was already interesting, and seemed certain to become spectacular when sky and broken clouds fully ignited. Leaving my camera on the shore no longer seemed the good idea it had done 10 minutes ago. Without my old Nikon around my neck I reasoned I would be more mobile, and have nothing to worry about (apart from my own mortality) if swamped by a wave. And besides, given my low level of optimism for shore fishing and Julian’s plan, I doubted I would need the camera to witness any captures.
Pessimism about my chances of catching stemmed from the fact I was in the water, not on it. The sea, although hardly wild, was too rough to launch the boat on this treacherous coastline, and I considered fishing from the shore a poor second to getting the boat out over the reef. An appropriate motto for fishing this reef seems to be "if you can launch, you can catch." Having got up at 5am to discover a force 5 had scuppered our chances of launching, I was not going to strop off back to bed without having first vented my frustration by hurling a plug at the breeze and the waves for the hour around high tide
I stared longingly towards an area of sea 80 yards further out. My limited experience of fishing from the boat had already taught me this was where the bass were likely to be. I suspected the tried and trusted plugs stashed into the front pocket of my chest waders would cast no more than 30 yards into the onshore wind. Half a dozen casts with my 2 most successful bass catching patterns proved this assessment accurate.
Rummaging in the pocket again for inspiration, I found an unused 60-gram bass bullet still wired to its cardboard packaging. It lacked the attractiveness and subtlety of the works of art created by Scandinavian and American craftsman, and was even painted in a way that seemed illogical; giving it the appearance of swimming backwards when retrieved. Yet its weight and density provided my only hope of getting near the broken ground and the bass. There was no point in getting over concerned with aesthetics: without an audience the artistic values of the plugs was meaningless. I only hoped the critics on the reef were as appreciative of surrealism as they had in the past been of impressionism. I flung the lead filled lump of wood towards Ireland, in hope rather than expectation.
To my left Julian too seemed to be having problems with finding a suitable lure. Each time I glanced his way, his head was looking down into the small box into which he had thrown some choice lures before we had dashed to this beach to catch the high water. The wind and the noise of the sea swept our words away as we tried to communicate, yet he looked up and nodded approvingly when the bass bullet flew high and far out to sea, more than doubling my previous casting range.
Settling in to a rhythm of cast and retrieve I began to think this a most satisfying way to fish – then I have always found fishing with your body immersed in the water brings more pleasure than fishing with your feet on the land. Standing in the waves I was a step further away from the world I sought to escape, a step nearer the world I wished to connect with. When you combine wading with plug fishing - itself a cause for satisfaction, and undertake them in a mountain-bordered bay at sunrise in late summer, then catching seemed almost an irrelevance.
The ability to appreciate the subtle joys encountered when fishing for (as opposed to catching) bass, was something I had become something of an expert at over the past 25 years. Although my time pursuing bass had been limited to holidays by the sea, the total bass I had caught up to the beginning of this summer amounted to 2. I was either the unluckiest or the worst bass fisherman in the country. Bass fishing to me however is not about catching – if it were I’d have given up years ago. My vacation fishing forms an interlude from my regular freshwater angling and is as much a part of the rhythm of my fishing year as tench fishing in June or pike fishing in the depths of winter. Unlike my other fishing, bass fishing had generally been undertaken as an excuse to spend time staring at the ocean without the pressure that expectations of catching impose.
Only over the past year or two had my pursuit of a bass become more serious (though only a little more frequent). Fishing had become more planned and less opportune as I decided my trips might prove more enjoyable if now and again I caught. So I ganged up with Julian, who had track record in bass catching somewhat more impressive than mine, and we managed to negotiate a few flying weekend trips to the sea. No longer was I fishing on holiday, now I was holidaying to fish.
In the 20 days leading up to this particular trip, I finally caught my first bass for 15years – in fact I had caught about 10 of them. All of them on plugs cast from a boat. Yet despite this (relative) flood to follow the drought, I still felt a need to catch one from the shore. Almost all my bass fishing over the years had been from rocks and beaches, so somehow these recent fish, although joyously received, did not properly count. Whether standing on a submerged pile of stones 70 yards from the land could be classified as fishing from the shore I was not certain.
Retrieving the bass-bullet in fits and starts, I tried to give it the semblance of life its design failed to impart. "Think like a fish" were the words I recalled from old angling mentors, as I wondered whether a slow or a fast retrieve was best. Yet my limited knowledge of the anatomy of the relatively underdeveloped brain of the fish left me wondering whether some of the empty headed, open mouthed anglers encountered over the years had possibly taken this advice a bit too literally.
A jolt went through me. The shock shifted my perspective on the morning. My rod dipped towards the horizon and line began to give from the reel. The bass I had caught in the past month had been caught on this rod and weighed to over 5 pounds, but none had affected the rods form the way this fish was. After two runs out to sea my opponent kited to my right and pulled line steadily from the spool, despite a well-set drag mechanism. I applied more force; the pressure swung the fish around, but did not stop its run. The fish was soon nearer to the shore than me, heading into an area where the tops of rocks had stuck out of the water on our arrival at the beach. Conscious of the dangers the submerged boulder posed to my line and having spent much of the summer attempting to keep tench out of lily beds, I tried to stop the creature through the application of finger pressure on the spool. The bend in the rod increased further. The fish slowed. The rod sprang back. The lifelessness brought despair.
If fishing takes you out of the modern world, this angling incident seemed to remove all traces of civilization from me. I yelled a diabolical expletive I would normally be embarrassed to think…and at a volume even a storm force wind would not have blow away from my companions.
The last minute had changed the whole complexion of the fishing. Expectations were raised but the subtle joys of wading and sunrises suddenly seemed inconsequential in comparison to the pleasures found then lost. Julian offered his condolences. Unable to look up from my feet I said, "That was a big fish."
"I know," said Julian before retreating back to his fishing spot.
Having witnessed this encouraging site Julian and Mike began to cast with renewed vigour. I reeled in 50 yards of line to discover the plug was still attached and paused to examine the hooks. Even Izaac Walton’s affirmation for times such as these: no man can lose what he never had, seemed as hard to swallow as the fishing hardware I was staring at blankly.
All fishermen eventually work out that lost fish are both inevitable and part of the mystery of angling; amplifying the pleasure eventual success brings, yet I could see nothing but tragedy in this loss. John Gierach stated, "fishing is a test of character, but it’s a test you can take over as many times as you want." After so many retakes over so many years, my chance to pass had finally come, but I had failed big time; I had lost contact with more than a fish, I’d lost my philosophical outlook.
As the tide rose to knees level and the waves bounced us around, first Mike then Julian began to catch. They had discovered some Brindun Launces of Mike’s; small spoons made from solid metal that enabled a 50-yard cast cast. The bass were school fish of between 2 and 3 pounds. Even the dark cloud above my head could not hide their magnificence, as the rays of the recently risen sun exploded against their scales.
Our hopes peaked with the high water but no more fish were caught. Thirty minutes on and we were contemplating breakfast, but decided on a further fifteen minutes: more as a guarantee that the water had retreated far enough to prevent us getting swamped when wading back to shore, rather than the usual ‘one more cast’ syndrome.
Forty yards out a bull seal stuck its head out of the water, looked at me then snorted. Still suffering from an unusual (and shameful) loss of pragmatism about my loss. I flung my plug in the general direction of my mocker. Where there are seals there are fish I reasoned. I decided I preferred the idea of thinking like a fellow fish-hunting mammal, rather than a pea-brained fish (I had failed to consider where being outsmarted by ‘pea-brained’ fish left me). The seal ducked beneath the surface as the bass-bullet flew over his head and landed 15 yards beyond it. After perhaps 4 turns of the reel handle the rod was again pulled over. Julian, who seen my cast, gave me a look of incredulity, alarmed at the possibility that I might have just connected with a bass fisherman three times my weight and 3 million times my ability.
The creatures on each end of the fishing tackle pulled with equal force and stalemate ensued. The impasse only lasted but a couple of seconds, yet the fear I might have hooked something unintended was sufficient to slow time, in the way a football bound for a greenhouse does. Then relief, as the force exerted against me lessened and my adversary kited to the right in the way the fish before had done. I almost blew the waves flat as I exhaled with relief, safe in the knowledge I was neither about to be dragged out to sea, nor clubbed to death with Greenpeace placards. Yet relief was brief; as the realisation that my aspirations were again being played out in real time, rather than their usual form in dreamtime. After the earlier reminder that the gap between euphoria and despair was the thickness of a fishing line (or the firmness of a hook hold,) I treated this fish with excessive respect, even if it wasn’t fighting with as much power as the one hooked earlier.
Five minutes later, the battle was nearly over. I was ready to beach the fish on the bar, which now stood clear of all but the biggest waves. As the bass thrashed in the shallow water, Julian swooped like a bear. At the same instant the fish was raised clear of the water, I disappeared into it, slipping off the bar into the deep water, having taken one backward step too many. As I crawled out of the water on all fours, dripping water and weed, I smiled at the sight of the bass clutched safely to my friend’s chest, yet my joy at the capture seemed slight compared to my re-enactment of one of the key moments in evolutionary history had brought my friends.
Lacking either camera or scales I experienced a brief temptation to take the fish home with me – more as proof to my wife and children that I could actually catch a bass, than through a primitive desire to feed them. Recollections of the drafted but unsent letters at home to various politicians about the state of the European bass stocks however made me realise I had to be faithful to my principles. My letter writing campaign, whether or not it lead to those in power conserving bass stocks in any way, at least ensured one more mature fish remained in the sea.
Over the next two days and on a subsequent trip the following weekend I caught and saw many more bass. It was a feast to follow the famine. Or to put it another way, you wait 15 years for a bass then 30 come along at once. This fish however was unquestionably the finest looking one I saw. Unusually broad shouldered, with a deep full belly and the brightest of coats. Solid to the touch, it was as wild as the environment from which it had been extracted.
Measuring 26.5 inches in length and given its build it weighed an estimated 7 pounds. A fine fish, though no monster by most anglers reckoning. Yet pounds and inches as a measure of success in fishing might be convenient standardisation for comparison between anglers, yet I’ve always believed success is best measured subjectively; better evaluated through the size of the memories, than the size of the catch. This is the fish that will stand out in the memory long after the statistics of the trips last summer are forgotten.
After releasing the fish, I looked up to see Mike and Julian had decided to further postpone our rendezvous with the bacon and eggs but no more action came their way.
That evening, the sea was still rough and I returned to the beach to fish the high water, with high hopes and a camera. I met a dog walker who had seen us fishing on the bar in the morning. He said, "You looked like you were walking on water out there." Less than 12 hours after ending my shore bass fishing jinx I still believed I could. But the angling gods were observant that day. It took them just 1 cycle of the tide before they tripped me up and kicked me for good measure. As we sought to repeat our feat on the bar as the high tide approached, I received a dunking - brought about through increased swell and an increased tide, and our own complacency. The water washed away any grandiose ideas and flooded the camera.
The next day the wind dropped, and the swell lessened. We launched the boat and caught (and returned) many more bass than we had from the shore. Yet when I recall the fishing on the reef last summer, it is the dawn out on the gravel bar and my bass that dominates my memories.
The winter storms washed away the gravel bar and to date it has not reformed; yet this only adds to the worth of that day, as the most treasured experiences in life are unique.