Fishing for sea trout (Peal to those of us in the 'West Country') remains something of a deliciously deviant activity. In a world that is depressingly sanitised, electrified and for far too many now experienced through a screen, fishing is a good tonic. Venturing into the dark to 'hunt' with the wild creatures of the night is restorative for the spirit of adventurous souls. It is soul food, and can be expressed no better than as already written by one venerable West Country Sea Trout fisherman; "Brown Trout give themselves up to those with skill, salmon to those with money, but the sea trout is a very different fish to catch as you need soul". It is to my mind the finest, most exhilarating pastime you can engage in within a fishing context.
Heading down through the village and up the old farm track lights with televisions beginning to flicker on as people settle down for their evenings "media" entertainment, my fishing companion for the night is already at the car park threading his rod, and as the light begins to seep away, we quickly head up the track and out into the familiar fields. As we begin the half-mile walk from the bottom of the beat the scent of dog roses and summer grass adds to the musk of the shirtsleeve order evening. Tonight we are fishing the river Lyd on the Arundell’s beat 3. This is the river on which I first learned about the thrill of sea trout, became enthralled by night, the water, and ultimately after a good old-fashioned impressment and being a guide for many years.
It is early July and the sea trout are at the beginning of their peak run. In spite of the low flows typical of high summer they have headed home. Scaling weirs, scrabbling across exposed gravel flats they are now here, just waiting. The river's low clear state at this time of year is why we must hunt in the darkness. Nightfall emboldens and transforms the spookiest of daytime fish, from a shy shadow into a bullish, marauding and sometimes-catchable beast.
We cross at the tail of the weir pool and walk the 300 yard length of the slow glide that forms upstream - some of the best sea trout real estate in the whole West-country. Setting up camp suitably distanced from the river as to not disturb our quarry we go through our last minute kit checks before settling into the grass to wait for darkness. For successful night fishing tackle should be simple, familiar and in good order.
Woe betide the angler who forget the army's 7 p's of preparation, those who do are most likely to be found wanting. The dark will amplify any weakness your equipment, or indeed you, so it is essential to have both in good order before you start - requiring remedial casting lessons by moonlight is unlikely to amuse your ghillie.
Our little West Country rivers do not require complex tackle and a simple heavy trout outfit should see you through most situations. A 9ft #6/7 rod with a matched floating line and short tapered leaders of similar length are ideal. Attach something big, black and bushy to the dangerous end and you're ready to do battle.
Bracing ourselves with coffee we discuss the usual topics of lives loves, losses and the exciting hope of the evening's sport to come. The light continues its perennial staged retreat through increasingly darker shades until colour abandons all but the corners of the sky. Green leaving the grass is our cue to be ready and by now there is not a light in sight along the length of the valley. Our everyday world seems gloriously distant indeed. "Kersploooosh", "Baadoosh", in unison two fish can be heard leaping in pools 30 yards apart. 'Now we're on’. 'tight lines dear boy' ...... 'and to you' and with that we're off to our respective pools at opposite ends of the field continuing our mission alone in the dark. As I reach my pool a good fish jumps in the blackness close by upstream. The wake rolls down through the flat pool in front of me momentarily animating the patches of reflected shadow and light. When all is calm again I take to my knees unhitch my flies and make the first cast.
Our rivers are intimate and we adapt our way of fishing accordingly. Casts are short and delicate, exhaustively exploring the water with focus and hopefully guile. Each offering should be placed to tantalise the next square foot or so of water in anticipation of what might lurk there, willing something to be there, in the deep suspense. You must imagine the whole scene in front of you, profoundly focused on the unseen, and then make your cast.
I can no longer see my flyline but keep in contact with my flies are as they swing in the slow current. The tactile draw of the water pulling my rod tip around until it is parallel with the bank and the cast is fished out. Lifting off I listen to the sound of my casting. You can hear problems, leaves on the fly, the occasional foul hooked object, tangled leaders in the infancy of their troublemaking, and all long before you feel them. With a gentle rhythm I return and put my next cast a foot below the last, the flies creating a momentary dimple in the mirror as they touch. The current is slower here and I begin to retrieve, ensuring contact with my flies as they swing. Long, slow, tender, strips, timed with each expectant breath.
A sudden rat-a-tat jagging down the line instantly spikes the senses. Undoubtedly a six-inch trout getting ideas above his station but not his well-travelled cousin; At least the flies must look good in the water. The next cast lands at the tip of a particular peninsular of light, a known spot where a fish might just lurk.
Taking up the slack the offering is immediately greeted by a solidly impetuous knock. "So you are there", I mutter to myself (talking to fancied fish in the dark is never a good sign). Pausing for a moment I cast again. Nothing. Again, repeatedly covering the same lie and giving that irascible nature time to build, to abandon any instinctual restraint. Wallop.
Striking into the tension of the take the line pulls taught. The rod bending further into the brawny, retreating headshake as the hook takes hold, nearly holds, before thrash, twang. The fly spat back in the direction of my face necessitates some evasive manoeuvres before fixing itself in the fence behind. The 'what could have been' lump has not yet reached my stomach before a peal of several pounds launches itself a few feet in front of me. An in-air lap of mocking silver celebration, joyous at its besting my cunning plan.
FFFFiddlesticks....how did you not hook yourself?! ... How? I'll get you. The tension of thwarted expectation boils echoes up the valley. After dissenting my leader from the barbed wire I sit back in the grass bank taking in some coffee and a cigarette whilst waiting for the pool and my heart rate to recompose themselves.
Upstream I can see the low red glow of DC's headlamp against the edge of the river hopefully a sign that he is having better luck. Telling myself that where there is one sea trout there are probably more I approach the edge again. I carefully put the next cast just upstream of the last encounter and begin my slow retrieve once more. Sometimes this game is unexpectedly simple. The senses are still bruised from my last unrequited overture and there is no time to register the take or think to strike I'm just attached; the fish bouncing, bucking and rebounding around the pool with frenzied thuds. Every time she jumps her tail reverberates as she fins the air looking for liberation at greater & greater heights. Sea Trout sell themselves dearly and this one is no exception requiring to be played more out of the water than in. Soon she is spent from her exertions and presenting her submissive white belly is slid over the rim of the net.
After these few energetic minutes the curtain is suddenly drawn. Water that was minutes ago alive now seems sterile and every cast seems more of an effort in vain as the flies track unmolested through the pool. A change up in the size of flies brings more of the same and my mind begins to wander. Even the night has stilled, the air empty.
The only sound a vixen's rending shrieks from across the river, it seems we are the only creatures left foolish enough to remain in the dark searching. A cheery whistle breaks my darkening mood. I had completely forgotten about DC further up the beat. Reeling in I whistle back and hear footsteps track in my direction from the dark, swiftly followed by a call of "Any Joy". We regroup comparing notes. He has fared much the same with a good fish landed and another lost before the river seemed to turn against him. Remembering our Falkus we agree to fish on for another hour with some second half, deep and slow tactics.
Switching to our no 2 rods equipped with slow sinking lines and flies the size of a small cat we both take up station on the weir pool 30 yards apart, and fishing as slowly as I dare whilst remaining in touch with my flies I begin to methodically cover the new water inch by inch. The hope is to put the fly on the nose of the fish challenging its space to provoke a response. Feeling the temperature drop I look up. The clouds that blanketed us are thinning and beginning to blow out to the east exposing the moon and by its light me. I move into a strengthening shadow taking shelter from the growing silvery light and continue to carefully cover the pool.
I can see the fly line now as it crosses the weir pool's laminar flow in the moonlight. On the next cast it stops dead mid-pool and I lift into the weight. The line is taught and for a calculating pause there is only weight on the end of the line, a second where both I and this unseen anchor measure the new situation in which we find ourselves.
A powerful head-shake follows as the fish begins to calmly lap the pool before returning to its original station. Once again the line pulses, this time with a growing indignance, and another faster lap follows testing the limits of its bondage. But now it does not return to the original lie but steadily bores towards the tail of the pool and the lip of the weir.
A fish exiting the pool on our tree lined intimate rivers is typically terminal so I apply ever more pressure to the spool trying to dissuade the inevitable. The unseen force relentlessly persists on its course so locking the spool I lean into the side strain with as much force as I dare. Momentarily we reach a stalemate. The pulsing swiftly recommences in response, escalating into a jagging thrashing outburst on the surface before the fish chooses to combine both fight and flight quickly pivoting and racing up stream. We're now in the equivalent of a piscatorial cage fight with charging leaping crashes and runs, each of us trying to take the other beyond their limits without reaching our own.
Steadily the energetic dance winds down until the heavy weight swims short, weary, circles in front of me. DC who has appeared next to me unnoticed in the maelstrom puts the net to the water as I steer the fish in. The peal of 5 or 6 pounds lies on her side mouthing angrily in the water. She is only lightly hooked in the side of her mouth and I wonder how such a thin hold could survive the bout we just went through. I hold her in the current for a couple of minutes until she starts to undulate before kicking herself back into her world.
Clouds have now all but abandoned us and looking out across the fields we can see ectoplasmic tendrils of mist rising from the ground. The temperature has plummeted and there is now smoke lying like a heavy curtain on the water, the end for peal fishing. We had been given the best of the night and it was time to head home. More had been stolen from today than we were entitled to and we would surely pay for it tomorrow but for the current moment, and the memory of the evening’s sport we'd had, it was worth it. It was time for tea, a bacon sandwich and bed.