Monday, 5 February 2018

Carnival of Death

'It's bleak. The fish I mean - they're bleak.' 
Dom Garnett's right in both senses. The cold sucking mud hasn't been improved by a marinade of spattering rain, but this is the Somerset Levels and wet by definition. Anyway we're not here for pastoral charm, though this landscape does have a certain quality of atmosphere that's perversely appealing. We've been drawn here by the sometimes hectic pike action, hoping for a few nice fish this morning on the fly. Perch are in our minds too.   

We arrive at dawn with high expectations which seem rightly justified as the surface erupts here and boils there, silver baitfish scattering like ball bearings across the surface. Thousands upon thousands of them - tiny bleak - their biomass we can only guess at, but it must be prodigious. And the predators know it - this feeding frenzy is positively Jurassic, a pike Carnival of Death says Dom. I feel like I'm inside a BBC nature documentary.

We are trying to work out which hits are from pike and which might be from perch. Right under the near bank in front of me, a bait ball of bleak explodes as a yard long pike scythes through the shoal, turning this way and that to swallow as many tiny victims as possible. I wonder what it must be like to end up with your mates, all intact but waiting to be slowly digested within a pike's belly. And like Jonah and the whale, I wonder if any get lucky enough to make the return journey.

A pattern begins to emerge from the chaos of the shattered surface. The attacks come in waves - brief, intense and across multiple locations - some in mid channel, some closer to the banks, followed by several minutes of calm before the next predatory raid. I imagine the baitfish beneath the surface being given time to recover and regroup before a new attack is launched. Sometimes the surface erupts with tiny bodies in several patches at once. I visualise a shoal of perch hunting co-operatively to herd the bleak into ever tighter bait balls before lunging in. Sure enough, I glimpse the back of a perch as it rolls to take fish from the surface - corralled under the far bank. 

We are flinging our smallest and most realistic streamers into the fray but between us we just can't win a take. It's a strange experience - confidence inspiring to be on feeding fish, but at the same time the failure to connect is demoralising. I take some heart from the knowledge that even Dom is having an equally tough time, but to be honest I would much rather see him catch.

We fish on but remain fish-less. But as blanks go this one is of the highest quality. Driving home through driving rain I replay the day's thought-movie and reflect: good memories are often made with good friends and so it is. To have caught a fish today would have changed the meaning of the day. I like this day just as it is, with mysteries unsolved, and I feel privileged and inspired to have been so close for a while to nature's wild, beating and yet untouchable heart.