The Night is Dark and Full of Treasures
‘What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?’ This sinister question from No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurh flashed through my mind as I grasped the two pence piece that would make the most important decision of the day for me. I’d walked back through the fields after a few hours’ pollacking, trying to make some sense of my thoughts on where to go for high tide but being pulled in two different directions. Arriving back at the car, I’d cracked open the box of cold pasta salad that was going to be my fuel for the evening and rooted around for a suitable coin to help me resolve my dilemma.
I had two spots in mind: the first was the place I’d been planning to fish for days. The second was a familiar haunt nearby that the afternoon’s omens suggested to me could fish well: there were plenty of pollack around, I’d seen tuna very close in through the day and the wind was good for it. Last time I’d fished the place we’d caught nice pollack on big fish baits after dark and I suspected that, with the tuna chasing the proper ones off the reefs and tight to shore, there was the potential for a real bruiser. But I couldn’t put my original choice out of my mind. I hadn’t fished there for a couple of years but I just knew in my blood that it would be holding a tidy eel and that prospect thrilled me.
I can’t remember which venue I decided was heads and which was tails but I flipped three times and was relieved when my original choice won two out of three. I put a lot of trust in instinct and try to follow where it leads me but occasionally, when it seems like the case for rival options is equally strong, I’ll get stuck. Sometimes I’ll just weigh it up and decide on somewhere but it’s difficult not to feel annoyed at myself when I make the wrong choice. It’s only recently that I’ve found that flipping a coin and letting fate decide takes away this burden of blame and makes it much easier for me to accept whatever may come.
Like many anglers, I am superstitious and I believe in taking signs and omens seriously when I recognise them. The day’s fishing had started in an odd way. I was absolutely certain that I had put my little pouch of leads in my bag to go pollack spinning but once I’d wandered out to to the mark and begun tackling up, the leads were nowhere to be found. I tore my rucksack apart looking for a lead of any description to use, all the while giving myself a proper talking to. Finally, I found a little 2oz bomb – a good ounce shy of what I’d be using ideally but in the circumstances I’d settle for it any day of the week.
The fishing had gone well, the pollack were feeding nicely and I caught a good few to 4lbs or so. Just before low tide I had a close encounter with a pack of bluefins that appeared from nowhere. The surface suddenly exploded and a fish the size of a Harley Davidson flew clear of the water before crashing back down. Seconds later the tip of a tail appeared and crazily slashed the surface apart. There was one more tail show and then they were gone as suddenly as they had arrived. This was the first time I’d seen them so close to the shore and it was a truly spellbinding experience. It never even occurred to me to try casting to one.
I managed to fish a little of the flood before I finally lost my only lead. The pollack had gone quiet by then so I wasn’t too bothered, but the oddness of the day made me feel like fortune was trying to point me in a certain direction, I just couldn’t figure out which. I was still in a good place mentally and not too anxious about the situation but I spent the entire walk back through the fields turning it over and I’d decided on the coin toss strategy long before I reached the car.
With the location decided, I spent the drive planning the next leg of my day’s fishing. I’d anticipated fishing for eels after dark and I’d brought along some good quality frozen mackerel and a bag of cuttle. I’d picked up a mackerel whilst I was pollacking too, so I’d kept that fresh in the cool bag resolving to break it out when the time was right. Above all, I was eager to find out if my gut feeling about there being a good eel there for the taking was right.
I sometimes wonder what the first human ever to encounter a conger eel made of it. I’d like to think that it was a big eel and that it was long enough ago for that person to believe they’d encountered some sort of hellish emissary of the devil. Part of me secretly hopes that the eel tried to bite them and that they found it incredibly difficult to kill, just to reinforce their perception of its wickedness.
Nowadays you can go to an aquarium and see a big eel or look at footage of them feeding on YouTube from the comfort of your home. Although these facts dull the conger’s mystique, they have far from erased it completely. Eels occupy the deep dark spaces of the world: the twisted remains of shipwrecks, the dark recesses of reefs that no sane diver would ever dream of sticking their hands in. Of course, you also find them happily living in shallow harbours growing fat on a diet of fish offal but that’s by the by.
If you let them, eels can slither into your psyche and take up residence there too. In the murkiest depths of your consciousness the sinister beasts gather in the darkness and begin to form a writhing snake pit of ichthyoid menace. These aren’t the tame eels that divers hand feed in aquariums or the lazy ones that live in harbours. These are the monsters that flat rod you and snap you up, the ones that come to the surface hissing in rage and twist your line into riddles before breaking it in contempt.
I arrived at the mark with the sun just disappearing over the horizon and leaving behind a pale orange afterglow. I walked out and made the climb down carefully. The surface of the rocks here are often slick with algae so I set up well back from the splash zone and went straight for the big bait approach with 8/0 hooks. This mark features a tackle hungry bottom with what seem like irregular pinnacles out to the right that you sometimes end up fishing over the back of. Immediately in front and pointing straight out to sea is a finger of well-submerged reef that runs out at least 50 yards. On previous sessions I’ve found that the fish seem to concentrate heavily around the reef, with bites drying up as you stray away from the reef’s structure and start fishing around the pinnacles.
Darkness set in as my first two baits leached oils and blood into the water, calling out for the attention of any devilish denizens of the deeps. My first bite was a frantic rattle and a scorching run against the clutch – a pollack take for sure. I got to the rod as quickly as I could but the fish had run through the kelp and snagged me solid and I had to pull for a break. I’d cast this rod almost slap bang on top of the reef and after tackling up again I put the next cast back on the same spot. I missed a couple more pollack takes before finally nailing one, a fine fat fish of 5lb 10oz that would make a delicious fish curry two nights later.
The pollack takes continued but I struggled to connect with them. I could only reason that they came from smaller fish that weren’t quite up to gulping down the 8/0 and a mackerel head. Opting for a slightly different presentation, I carefully loaded up a fresh mackerel fillet elasticated into a sausage and cast it out to the hotspot. After a while a few subtle knocks told me that something was interested and I left the bite to develop for a second while I finished tying another rig. I heard the clutch tick and I looked up in time to see the C Curve hoofing over as something heavy moved off with my bait. I lifted the rod into heavy resistance with powerful thumps surging up the braid.
The fight was a physical one as the fish continued to try to find snags and needed a lot of strong encouragement to make its way shorewards. I carefully moved down the slippery rocks and into a position where I could reach the water with the extended gaff. I’d not seen the fish but I knew exactly what it was, the only question was – how big? The fish hugged the side of the sheer rock as it came in close, resisting my attempts to draw it towards the surface and the torch beam. A good heave brought a big dark head into view followed by an equally dark body. I took my time with the landing as the gentle swells made it tricky to properly align gaff and fish and I didn’t want to inflict any unnecessary injury on it.
After finally gaffing my prize I hoisted it up to my position: a long, slim eel with a large head, a common shape for a fish living along the open coast. Luckily it seemed to have spent most of its energy on the fight and was pretty compliant, allowing me to weigh and photograph it before slipping it back to haunt the reef once more. At 22lb 10oz it wasn’t a massive fish but it was certainly a good one – particularly nowadays when larger eels seem to be getting increasingly difficult to come by around the Cornish coast.
After another couple of hours fishing with nothing but a small pollack coming to the rods, I packed down and began to make my leisurely way back up the cliff. I was delighted that my instinct about there being a decent eel waiting to be caught was spot on – things could so easily have turned out differently. Fortunately, trusting my fate to the chance flip of a coin had put me in the right place at the right time to add another great memory to my collection.
I love this time of year – the abundance of bigger fish and their willingness to feed, the shorter hours of daylight. It passes all too quickly, this fleeting season. There are glittering jewels to be plucked from the inky blackness once the sun descends on an autumn day. For the night is dark and full of treasures.