This One's for You Guy
This story first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Black Tide magazine.
It’s the fifth of November, but I’m not huddled with my family in a crowd watching fireworks. Perched on a remote ridge of rock, somewhere in the far west of Cornwall, stygian darkness surrounds me and only my headtorch is saving me from being swallowed by the night. Mist drifts off the ocean, forming strange shapes that appear in the torch beam and advance towards me like ghostly apparitions. Sitting in the darkness, I try to imagine how a man of my age felt four hundred and thirteen years ago to the day, hiding in an undercroft below the Houses of Parliament, guarding a cache of explosives. Like me, he would have sat alone and awake in the night, perhaps with only a small source of light for company. The difference between us, however, was that he fully intended to commit regicide, in the process taking many other lives and destroying some of London’s most important buildings, whereas I was just hoping that something reasonable would take a liking to one of my mackerel baits.
The night was typically autumnal: warm and vocal, the droning wind constant on my left shoulder whilst the swells swirled noisily around the jagged rocks below. I had ventured out here the previous week, spending most of the morning spinning a sandeel over the bottom in search of pollack, and so I knew the ground in front deepened considerably from my left to my right, forming a natural bowl. From where I was sitting looking out to sea, the bottom quickly dropped away into the bowl, with a good stripe of tide evident only a short distance out. A formation of emergent rocks some way off to my right formed the westerly face of the bowl, although I could only guess at how the seaward side of the feature was shaped.
It was obvious from the stutters on my rod tips that I was fishing over the back of rocks and I was having to think carefully about whether the out of kilter indications were false bites or actual interest. I was using braid for this mission, the yellow line tightening and slackening rhythmically with the swell. In my short experience so far, it’s a real breath of fresh air using this material over rough ground, taking a lot of the guesswork of fishing with thick mono out of the equation.
By this point I was some six hours into my session, having arrived at lunchtime and spent all afternoon spinning frozen sandeels on a different part of the mark hoping for a good sized pollack. The spot I’d been tackling had a diagonal gully going south west out to sea, with a reef to the left and rapidly shallowing ground to my right. There was also a shelf about ten yards out that had produced a lot of fish for me on my previous trip. My first couple of fish were mackerel – small joeys that were the perfect size for mounting whole on an 8/0. I kept these aside for bait, adding to them now and then through the afternoon. My first pollack was also tiny and I decided to give this a try as a bait later, reasoning that there were so many small pollack in residence that the local predators must be switched on to them as a food source.
I caught steadily through the afternoon, and although the pollack were plump, healthy and full of vigour, they were all small fish up to 2lbs or so. Nonetheless, I enjoyed feeling the signals up the braid as the little predators nipped at the eels, then the jerk as they hooked themselves and dived. It was apparent that nearly all the fish were taking very close in and I was kept interested trying to decide whether the pollack were following the eels in from further out before taking, or if I was bringing the bait past a critical feature at a certain point of the retrieve and they were dashing out to attack it.
With the light beginning to fade, I knew that now was my best chance to make contact with a bigger pollack and I concentrated on making every cast and retrieve count. On this occasion, however, all I could manage was a few more small fish and I accepted defeat, packing up my gear and moving to the front of the mark to fish the deeper water. The sea had dropped through the day but was still seething around the rocks, the odd swell pounding into the fissures and sending gouts of spume into the air. After a bit of scouting around I found myself a safe vantage point, setting up my two rods with whole joey baits and lobbing them out into the gloomy water.
‘He was sat still and silent in the night, the flickering of a single candle dimly illuminating the pages of his open Bible. One candle was all he dared risk, given that he was sharing the room with a large quantity of firewood concealing thirty six barrels of gunpowder. He was about to do something that, whilst horrifically violent, would free those who shared his faith to live and worship in England without fear of persecution. He had fought in foreign lands all his adult life. Now it was time to bring peace to his land. His people.’
As I sat there, trying to filter out any evidence of genuine curiosity from the many odd indications on my rod tips, I allowed my mind to drift back to the same time the previous year. It was around November that I had made the decision to forgo my mainly clean ground winter haunts to spend the season fishing rougher marks. This was a really good move for my fishing as, although I’d done bits of rough grounding here and there over the years, it was hardly a regular thing and often I’d been targeting smaller species. Focusing almost exclusively on spots with deep water and a rocky bottom, I had a really enjoyable winter (whilst those sticking to clean ground seemed to have a pretty dire one) learning plenty and catching a few nice fish along the way.
‘He awoke with a start, feeling a cold wave of alarm pass through his body. He must have drifted off but what had awoken him? Then he heard it, the sound of footsteps and men’s voices somewhere outside the entrance to the undercroft. His hand went to the hilt of his sword as the steps halted outside the heavy wooden door and he could sense the presence of men gathering themselves in readiness to enter. He suddenly understood his predicament. There weren’t just one or two men, there were many; too many for him to stand a chance of overcoming. He was caught. The plot had failed.’
The tide was dropping although the run only seemed to affect me sporadically, tightening up the lines on some casts and leaving them slack on others. I’d had a couple of bites but I suspected the culprits were small congers, a suspicion that was validated when the first capture proved to be an arm-length eel. By now, the fresh baits had run out and my experiment with a pollack head and guts hadn’t met with a sniff, so it was on to the frozen offerings that I had brought along. A head section of mackerel was lashed to the 8/0 and sent a little more to my left to explore a section of ground that sloped down into the deeper water. I settled down to scan the rod tips once more, gulping down a mouthful of lukewarm coffee and toying with the idea of eating the last morsel of food I’d brought for the session: a flapjack.
‘He raised his head at the sound of footsteps coming towards him down the corridor and licked his cracked lips. His whole body felt drained of all strength, although his spirit still held. He knew that his silence would buy his accomplices at least some time to flee the country and he resolved to hold out as long as he could. He knew what was coming though – the interrogation would get worse. Much worse. He had heard stories of the wicked machines of pain that were kept in the Tower. He was a brave man but he shrank inwardly at the thought of the horrors that were surely yet to come.’
The rod out to the left had shown a few unmistakable signs of interest, quick vicious bangs on the rod tip that had the feel of a different beast to the handful of small straps that I’d caught so far. After watching patiently for a few minutes or so, the fish finally mouthed the bait one too many times and panicked as it realised it was hooked. My reaction was swift and decisive, the big fixed spool and strong braid making it a simple task to get the fish’s head up and moving away from the perilous seabed. I kept the pressure on, resisting my opponent’s attempt to find sanctuary in a snag on the way in. As the contest drew to a close, I turned my headtorch to full beam and scanned the ruffled surface of the sea below me, looking to see what species I’d tempted and how big it was. What emerged looked like a large polo mint – the white underbelly of my first guess: a huss that had curled itself into a tight ball. The huss looked a respectable size and I guided it into a gully to my left, picking my way down as close to the sea as I dared and lifting the fish the rest of the way by the leader in one stroke.
‘His whole body was broken, stricken with unfathomable agony. He had endured as much as he could but ultimately his torturers had ground his resolve down into dust and he had begun to confess – anything to put an end to the cycle of suffering. He could still move but walking was now excruciatingly painful and he couldn’t even get to his feet without help. He now knew that there was only his execution left to look forward to and thereafter the judgement of his soul.’
The huss gazed at my hand malevolently. In the film Jaws, Quint says, ‘One thing about a shark is that he’s got… lifeless eyes’, but I’d argue that there are a lot of exceptions to that statement in the shark family, particularly among the smaller species. The unambiguously hostile stare which this huss was fixing on my digits every time they went anywhere near his mouth was far removed from the dead eyes of a great white or a tiger shark – more the sort of species that Quint was likely referring to. There was no way this fish was going to let me photograph him in such a foul temper, so I slipped him into a conveniently large rockpool to cool off and went back to my rods.
‘He struggled even to mount the ladder to the gallows but rough hands propelled him onwards and he began to ascend. Just as strong as his resolve had been to resist the torture, now it was focused on denying his enemies and the baying crowd the pleasure of watching him die in agony and humiliation. When he was sure he had judged it right, he used the last of the strength in his legs to jump, hurling himself from the ladder headfirst. He fell through time and space that seemed to draw out so it was like he was sinking slowly through thick oil. Vivid memories began to play in front of his eyes. Remembrances of his childhood in York, his adulthood as a soldier: words, faces, feelings. Then the memories suddenly stopped, his eyes beheld nothing more but the ground mere inches from his eyes. There was the sound of a crack from within him and all was blackness.’
In the excitement of landing and dealing with the huss, a small eel had deviously gulped down my remaining offering undetected and wedged itself back into its lair. Somehow I managed to wrench it free and bring it to shore, where I extracted the hook before sending it on its way. My next cast hadn’t long settled before the rod tip jerked over twice in rapid succession. A more serious yank followed but my strike was met with the disappointment of an instant cut off on the leader. So it goes. I had a bait and rig already prepared on the other rod so I lobbed that out, intending it to be my last cast, before I went back down to the rockpool to see if my toothy friend was in a better frame of mind. I found the huss lying quietly in the corner of the pool, his gills billowing rhythmically, and on picking him up he was much more compliant. I duly weighed and photographed him, getting a reading of an ounce under 11lbs, before carrying him down to the water’s edge and giving him back his freedom. I returned to my spot, reeling in the final bait of the session which appeared to be untouched.
After packing up, I began the lengthy climb back to the car and the return to everyday life. Stopping for a breather, I thought a little more about Guy Fawkes and his story. Although history remembers him as the ‘face’ of the Gunpowder Plot, he was actually a fairly minor player in its actual planning. Being an experienced military man, however, he was deemed the most suitable of the thirteen conspirators to guard the explosives and finally light the fuse. Although Fawkes was a terrorist by modern standards, he showed enough admirable qualities during his time as a prisoner to earn the respect of King James I – the very monarch he had been prepared to murder. Loyal to his friends and defiant in the face of torture, whether you agree with what he was attempting to do or not, Guy Fawkes was a ‘man’s man’ and the sort of figure that many could identify with. Sometimes it seems like the idea of right and wrong, good and bad, is simply a matter of perspective and whether people can justify things to themselves. Thankfully, as an angler, I don’t have to deal with these kind of weighty moral conundrums. I’ve chosen something else, something that exists outside of the conflicts of life, people, and their beliefs. I smile at the thought, pick up my kit and carry on up the cliff.
Sometimes it’s hard not to suspect that there is someone or something out there deciding what fish make it on to my hooks and when. It’s also very apparent that this entity, if it exists, has a sense of humour. Having just finished my article for this month, I went out on an evening session with my friend Mark Reed intending to target huss again in an area we knew to have good form for them. We arrived at our first choice spot to find a much chunkier swell than we’d anticipated and after watching the sea for a while, we decided that it was far too sketchy to risk and retreated to the car to consider an alternative venue. Mark suggested dropping back to a series of marks in a more sheltered bay nearby and having not fished there before, I was happy to agree. I was under no illusion that this would be anything other than a knockabout session with any kind of decent fish as a bonus. I was so prepared for thoroughly average fishing that I even left my camera in the car.
After an easy stomp, Mark led me to a fantastic little spot and it was soon obvious that there were plenty of fish there picking over the fingers of rock. After a few small huss and eels, Mark lost something better, then my left hand rod hammered over hard and I leapt up to haul into a meaty presence. It didn’t feel that spectacular until we got it in close and were attempting to land it, then the true weight of the fish became apparent. Mark did a flawless job of landing an absolute brute of a huss, taking his time and gradually easing it up into a gully and gently up the rock face to safety. We gathered the monster in my weigh sling, the needle settling at 17lbs 12oz on my scales – easily a new PB for me, and I was soon dashing back up the cliff to the car for my camera!
After the session, I was left pondering the nature of catching specimen fish. Often, the capture of a giant is the culmination of long periods of dedication. Sometimes, however, it’s more a case of just happening to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. The great oceanic tombola machine rolls, your number comes up and bada bing! It’s your lucky day. I’ve always been more of a ‘catch plenty of fish and there will be a few big ones in there’ angler than a calculated specimen hunter, but I can definitely appreciate what drives a certain breed to weather the tedious lows of this approach to achieve the soaring highs of bagging dreamworthy behemoths.
For me though, the capture of an unexpected monster just reinforces what I feel is one of the great things about sea angling, particularly from the shore. It’s a vast, wild environment and we can only have a vague idea of just what is swimming around in front of us. This is such a far cry from some other departments of angling: carp fishing on a lake where all the biggest fish are not only well-known, but have names and a forecasted weight based on the time of year; trout fishing on a small water where a brief chat with the owner will tell you the average size of the stock and perhaps how many doubles there are in the lake. You get none of this definite knowledge in shore fishing and that is surely one of the key spices in its unique, addictive flavour.