Dark Night of the Sole
According to Wikipedia, nearly two thousand Americans have arranged for their remains to be cryogenically frozen in the hope that future scientific breakthroughs will enable them to be brought back to life. At least 250 of these individuals are already human ice lollies. The storage costs are steep but, at least from the storers’ perspective, there seems very little to worry about. Presumably, their clients pay in advance and there’s little chance of any of them demanding a refund.
I’m sure all of us will have seen at least one movie that features characters restored to life from a cryogenic state (the 1993 Sylvester Stallone film ‘Demolition Man’ sticks out for me). These ordeals are always shown as being deeply unpleasant for the characters undergoing them. Every time I wake up from a night’s sleep on the shingle of Chesil Beach, I reckon I come about as close as any living person can to knowing what this kind of resurrection would actually feel like.
Whatever the time of year, Chesil is, at best, a cold and uncomfortable place to wake up on in the morning. At worst, it’s perishing. Even with all the clothing I can fit on my body, a rollup mat and a thick sleeping bag, I tend to regain consciousness feeling like someone has booted me repeatedly in the back then injected ice into my veins. I don’t think I’ve ever woken from a Chesil sleep in a fit state to just bait up and cast out straight away. I need to have a bit of a wander up and down the bank first, maybe a light jog or something just to get my stagnant blood trickling around my body again. Only when I’m starting to feel something like myself again is there any point in seriously getting back to fishing.
On this brisk and breezy morning, having completed my warm up routine and cast out some fresh ragworm, I took the time to sit on my box and reflect on the previous day and evening. It had been a headache just getting to the beach, the traffic had been ridiculous all the way from Cornwall, adding about an hour and a half onto our journey. Eventually, however, after purchasing some wormy delicacies from West Bay Angling Centre, Roy Moore and I finally rolled into the carpark at West Bexington. We’d arranged to meet Bude angler Andrew Proudfoot at a mark he’d selected and, after a fair walk, we eventually spotted his red shelter and found him fishing with his mate Ben Mckeown.
The fishing had started promisingly. We’d set out to target plaice and sole and Roy bagged a plaice on his first chuck, but this appeared to be a bit of a false dawn as the plaice were not at all quick in coming to our rods afterwards and what ones we did catch were small. Nonetheless, Andrew managed a small sole in daylight and Ben reeled in a beautifully bright red mullet to add a splash of colour to the evening. Sitting in my shelter between the always-prolific Roy on my left and the combined roddage of Andrew and Ben on my right, I wondered if I’d set myself up to be piggy in the middle.
With my offerings coming back untouched and with the strong tide nearly topping out, I’d yet to see a bite on the tips of my Graphex Sports but I concentrated on keeping fresh baits out there. With the light starting to fade, I felt a bit of weight as I went to reel in my left hand rod and I suspected I’d tempted a plaice during their classic dusk feeding spell. As the fish neared the shore dump, it began to put on a bit of a show, resisting robustly and sending wriggling motions up the line. I had little time to think about what this meant as, in classic Chesil fashion, first my sinker appeared and then my prize was revealed as the wave containing it sucked back into the trough. A decent sized Dover sole flapped muscularly on the glistening shingle and I quickly pounced on it before it could be snatched away by the next surge.
I must admit, sole have never been a regular part of my fishing diet. Although the waters around Cornwall contain plenty of them, they are a very rare shore capture and are generally on the small side even when tempted. All of my experiences of successful sole fishing have been on the shingle of Chesil, where I’ve been fortunate to have had a few good sessions and landed some decent examples. My biggest Chesil sole to date was a fish of 2lbs 2oz, part of a four fish bag I caught on an autumn night in 2015. This fish was only an ounce shy of that weight: a fine thick specimen that had me marvelling at what a ‘big’ looking and feeling fish sole are when they are there in front of you.
As well as the size and condition of my catch, I was struck by the fact that this fish had come before full darkness and on a long trace (I was using a mono bar rig) and moving lead setup. We were also still at a point where the tide run was pretty strong. Most of the advice I’d been given about sole fishing in the past advised focusing on slacker points in the tide cycle and nailing rigs and baits to the seabed to give a snuffling sole time to track it down. I’ve always followed this guidance but this also wasn’t the first Chesil sole that I’ve caught on a plaice rig and a bait skidding across the bottom, dragged by the force of the tide on the line. I spent some time after that capture pondering whether sole are sometimes more sprightly hunters than we give them credit for. After all, they are capable of some pretty energetic swimming when hooked. Maybe it’s a case of the bait trundling right past the fish’s nose and instead of dopily pursuing at a sloth pace, the sole makes a quick dart and instantly claims it.
My next cast unfortunately managed to find some common ground with one of Andrew’s and we were forced to meet halfway between our pitches to get untangled. After Andrew had unravelled his rig from my mainline, I carried on retrieving, noting that I had a fish on the end. When another sole emerged at the water’s edge, I quickly carried it up and stowed it with my other one. No matter how the fishing went after that, my family was now going to enjoy a first class dining experience when I got home. This sole was slightly smaller at 1lbs 12oz, but still a good fish and I was hopeful that I’d find another before the session was over.
Darkness loomed over the line of twinkling lights stretching out for miles either side of us. The low clouds took on the orange hues of the light pollution from nearby civilisation and looked like plumes of exotic gasses hanging over our heads. This was the time I expected Roy to really come into his own. The man is relentless on a Chesil night session and will keep the baits going out long after the sleeping bag has tempted me into the murky depths of my shelter. The fishing had gone quiet for me, a small pout being my only fish for a little while. With the pout now lashed to a pair of 4/0s and tethered to the seabed in an unsuccessful bid to tempt an undulate ray, I trudged up to see how Roy was faring. In typical Roy Moore style, he’d not long landed a sole that he felt no need to make me aware of, preferring instead to laugh at my surprise when I saw it languishing on the shingle next to his shelter. This was another tidy fish that we weighed at 1lbs 7oz.
I’d always planned to turn in about midnight, as it would be me that was responsible for driving us home safely in the morning. With the fishing going from quiet to dead for me, the decision to stick to the plan was made much easier. Andrew and Ben both had work the next morning and had to leave about the same time, so after saying goodbye to them, I got as comfortable as I could, used a bundled up jumper for a pillow and drifted off to the racket of wind battering the walls of my shelter and waves rattling the shingle.
The alarm on my phone began playing its merry little tune at 6am. Just like Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man, I continued to lay on the ground in physical torment for some time after regaining consciousness. Fortunately for me, however, I had a head start on old Sly on account of not being butt naked. I choked down a makeshift breakfast before peeling myself off the shingle, giving myself a pep talk and starting out across the shingle to Roy’s pitch.
I wasn’t much surprised to find out that Roy had fished all through the night, adding a couple more species to his personal tally (taking him to 10 for the trip) and claiming the only ray of the trip: a small thornback. We had a couple of hours to fish before we would have to leave, so we got the rods back out and busied ourselves preparing for the off. My first cast found a dab and had me hoping that there would be a decent plaice in it yet. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t to be and aside from a few dogfish for Roy, that was to be our lot for this trip.
It’s always a bit of a struggle staying alert on the drive back home from a stint on Chesil but I wisely invested in the power of energy drinks before hitting the serious roads. I’m a Red Bull man through and through but I do believe in keeping the body guessing at times so I mixed it up by sampling my first ever can of Monster. Whether it made any difference or not, I couldn’t say, but halfway through Devon we had to pull over for a toilet break and I bought a Red Bull without even thinking.
The magical elixir of sugar and caffeine saw us breeze back into Cornwall with time to spare and I quickly stowed my brace of sole in the fridge as soon as I got home. Some of the best advice I’ve been given about sole is not to eat them straight away but let them chill in the fridge for a day or two. I don’t know the exact nature of the effect this has – all I know is that when I come to cook them they’re really easy to clean and they’re absolutely beautiful eating. Dipped in seasoned flour and lightly fried in oil, I’d rate Dover sole as definitely one of the UK’s top five table fish and as good a reason as any to visit somewhere like Chesil to bag a few of your own.