Deliver Us To Evil

This story first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Black Tide magazine.

I’ve seen big rats before. When I was 17, my dad (a photographer and publisher by trade) and I went to cover a series of surfing contests starting in France and finishing at a famous break called Mundaka in northern Spain. Having had a pretty good run through France, we’d made it to Mundaka and the first day of the contest was blessed with a strong swell and wind-caressed tubular waves spiraling perfectly down the sandbanks. My dad had chosen a little rocky spit to shoot from. We were some way off from the action but with his monstrous white Minolta lens, he could seemingly take a picture of someone surfing on the other side of the Atlantic and you would still be able to read every logo on their wetsuit. 

My dad was hunkered down behind his tripod, glued to his viewfinder, when I noticed a movement just behind him. As I watched, an enormous rat emerged from a crack in the rocks and casually sauntered along the rocks just behind my dad’s legs. The action didn’t stop there either. Over the next couple of hours, there was near-constant rat activity as the brazen vermin carried on about their business in broad daylight with scant regard for the presence of humans. To be fair, some of these rats were so big that they would have little to fear from most natural enemies. I’m sure that any cat or small dog trying to take them on would have been rapidly subdued and eaten.

Eighteen years on and I’m staring at a drainage hole in the bottom corner of a stone wall. I can’t see it yet but I can tell from the shocked tones of my friends’ voices that the occupant of the hole is of prodigious proportions. I train my headlamp on the gloomy recesses of the fetid hole for several seconds before I see it – the slick brown fur and beady eyes of an absolute unit of a rat. It’s considerably more wary than its Hispanic brethren of my past experience, but its intentions are clear: as soon as our backs are turned it’s going to be straight in amongst our kit and bait. Understandably, none of us are keen on this prospect and we begin discussing anti-rat strategies and keeping a vigilant eye on our property.

It soon becomes apparent that this rat is far from the only one plaguing us. They’re everywhere – scurrying around, trying to raid our bait and taunting us with their squeaks. The prevalence of rats is no surprise though, considering the urban setting we’re in and our proximity to a major port. Ships and rats go together like cheese and crackers. If anything, the rats enhance the vibe of the fishing here, giving it a down and dirty feel that suits the nature of the beasts that we are hunting.

To me, the conger eel is not so much a fish as an embodiment of the sinister forces of the universe. Although I find that most are not especially malevolent, there is an otherworldly wickedness to some individuals that makes me believe that there is such a thing as evil and it never sleeps. Nonetheless, it is in mankind’s nature to flirt with the darkness, the kind of curiosity that leads people to say ‘Candyman’ in the mirror five times. The conger’s unpredictability, its size and power and the fun of fishing for them may be the main layers of flavour, but it’s the species’ apparent oneness with the diabolical that is the most tantalising taste in its enigmatic brew.

For this session, I’d left my home county of Cornwall in the company of my longtime fishing companions Mark Reed and Roy Moore; although we hadn’t strayed too far. There had been talk of a trip to the banks of the Bristol Channel as well as a few suggestions of missions elsewhere on the shores of Devon, but Mark had ultimately come up with the plan that we carried through: an assault on the mighty Tamar estuary. Although Mark and Roy had both tackled the Tamar on previous occasions, this was my first taste of it and I was finding its urban flavour an interesting departure from my regular diet of rugged shore marks.

The muddy brown water powered past us; a surge of liquid intensity so swift and powerful that the spot we’d chosen was virtually unfishable for the time being. A short cast with a 7oz grip lead straight uptide seemed like it was dragged almost 45 degrees before it even touched the bottom. The sinker tripped over the seabed sending spasms up the braid before finally settling maybe 40 yards downriver of where it first hit the water. Although I could just about hold bottom, I had little belief that I was going to catch anything out of such a torrent. Still, I would have more chance than my two friends, who were both sat sensibly waiting for the tide to drop further before casting out.

None of us had ever fished this mark before but our first sight of the deep gloomy waters and complex current formations had given us all a rush of confidence. This was the sort of place that big sinister fish would surely feel right at home. The subsurface terrain immediately in front of us shelved steeply into very deep water at close range, a feature seemingly carved by the savage tidal current. Mark had asked around before the session and come through with some snippets of information relating to the topography and what features and depths lay at certain ranges. As it turned out, for the first few hours these nuggets of intel were of little practical use as the power of the tide made anything other than the shortest uptide casts fruitless. It wasn’t until at least halfway down the ebb that we were able to start holding bottom more easily and feeling like we were properly fishing.

Roy was the first to catch a fish. He’d knocked a cast a little further out and his crab bait was succulent enough to convince a small codling to impale itself on his sharps. The three of us gathered round for a gander at this small but perfectly formed example of a species that has been in short supply for a few winters on our home turf. Roy returned his prize and the rats were briefly forgotten as we refreshed our baits and pitched them into the depths with new purpose. Soon it was my turn for a bite – a stuttering take soon leading to an angry strap conger thrashing on the tiny dock. Not long after, Roy struck into a fish that resisted strongly and he was obliged to lay some heat on the feisty combatant. I carefully moved into position with the gaff, fully believing from the intensity of the battle that we were about to see an eel of decent proportions. The fish really got its head down as it came alongside the wall, the shockleader knot bobbing below the surface for brief moments before reappearing. I wondered if the eel knew about an ugly snag or bolthole that it could use to thwart us, but our adversary hadn’t banked on the hauling power of a Carbon Metal and Roy soon broke its resolve and heaved it into view. I carefully gaffed the fish but as I lifted it from the water I realised I needn’t have bothered: the eel was whip thin and had little weight to it. Still, Roy was elated after what he said was the best scrap he’d had with an eel in a long time, and at 13lbs 7oz, it would turn out to be our only double figure fish of the evening.

The straps kept coming for Roy and I but fishing to our left, Mark was having less joy as his rigs failed to settle uptide and were instead being bumped downriver on a collision course with snags. After the third time of this happening, Mark’s feathers understandably began to get more than a little ruffled. After snapping out of his snag, Mark turned around to see the giant rat from the hole in the wall poised to plunge its filthy snout into his bait bag. Mark’s bellow of ‘F**k off Roland!’ had the terrified beast scampering back to its stinking lair and all of us snorting with laughter. 

Aside from a plump codling for me and a couple of eels that were likely low doubles lost close in by Roy, the rest of the fishing consisted of small straps in the 6-8lbs class. There was a long quiet spell after the turn of the tide, and as the flood gathered pace we all sat there wondering if this fresh influx might bring one of the bigger denizens of the deep out to play. Every tap and subtle movement of my rod tip had me riveted, just in case it was the first sign of a monster mouthing my slab of cuttlefish. The leviathan, however, never materialised although Mark’s bad patch did come to an end and he accounted for the last three fish of the session. We had enjoyed our first encounter with this moody new mark and we all agreed that we’d definitely be visiting it again in the hope of encountering something large and malevolent.